Cablegate: China/Land/Abuse of Power: Self-Immolation

DE RUEHBJ #3399/01 3521057
P 181057Z DEC 09




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: China/Land/Abuse of Power: Self-Immolation
Protests Spark Social Stability and Property Rights

REF: A) Chengdu 313 07 BEIJING 2060; B) 08 BEIJING 2818;


1. (SBU) Summary: A tragic self-immolation death in
Sichuan Province resulting from an urban house demolition
dispute, followed by another similar protest in Beijing,
has stimulated unusually broad public discussions of
local-level abuse of power in land seizures. Some
commentators have suggested that conflicts caused by
sharply rising property prices, local governments' large
financial stakes in real estate, and the awareness of
individual rights could be a source of urban social
instability, and noted a popular soap opera dealing with
these land issues was pulled off the air. The persistent
and numerous press and blog discussions since the
incidents have triggered a public debate on the "forced
demolitions" that are common in urban areas across the
country, prompting the State Council to announce plans to
revise demolition laws. While the official press has
publicized regularly-occurring housing and land protests
-- including a few self-immolations -- in the past, the
extent of debate around this particular case may both
influence and reflect discussions on legitimizing
urbanization and land ownership that are expected to be
part of the Communist Party's 12th 5-year economic plan.
End Summary.

Shocking Self-Immolation Protests
2. (SBU) On November 13, Chinese were shocked to see
hand-held eyewitness video and photographs in many media
outlets of a woman engulfed in flames on the roof of a
house in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, surrounded by
demolition equipment and public officials. District
authorities had ordered the house forcibly demolished
after failed negotiations with the owner regarding
compensation. When the demolition crew arrived they were
met by the owner's ex-wife who poured a flammable liquid
over herself and was subsequently engulfed in flames.
The house was demolished after she was taken to the
hospital, where she later died. (See reftel A from CG
Chengdu for further details on the case).

3. (SBU) On December 14, another widely-publicized self-
immolation to protest a forced eviction occurred in
Beijing. Not satisfied with the apartment offered as
compensation, Xi Xinzhu burned himself, but survived, in
a vain attempt to stop the forced demolition of his
family's house in Beijing's Haidian district. His 81
year-old mother and wife were injured during the
confrontation with workers carrying out the demolition
order. The Beijing Times, a People's Daily controlled,
but unofficial commercial metropolitan paper, reported
that the head of the district where the demolition
happened also had an interest in the real estate
development company responsible for development of the

State-Run Media Coverage
4. (SBU) Heavy media coverage of local heroes standing up
to authorities in "demolition" cases is not a new
phenomenon. The famous 2007 "nailhouse" incident in
Chongqing (Reftel B) received massive publicity in
Chinese media, including front page color photos in such
news weeklies as China Newsweek. But, following an
initial burst of media coverage, the propaganda
authorities ordered a blackout fearing the protest would
inspire copy cats (a notable difference from the
extensive coverage currently allowed for these incidents).
Since then, such protests have surfaced from time to time,
including in a neighborhood in Beijing a couple of years
ago (Reftel C). Self-immolation has also been used
sporadically across China in the last several years for
many differing types of protests. However, possibly due
to the graphic nature of the publicly circulated video
clip, combined with people's rising awareness of the
value of their land, the Chengdu story has made it into
the national spotlight and sparked a debate over the
actions of the authorities.

BEIJING 00003399 002 OF 003

5. (SBU) China's official and quasi-official press has
reported extensively on the case, including serious
critiques of the local handling of the incident. For
example, Xinhua, China's official press agency, ran an
article December 4 that not only probed the facts of the
incident but also discussed the general issue of property
rights, official power, and home demolitions. Popular
and influential party-owned commercial dailies such as
Beijing's Xinjing Bao (Beijing News) and Guangdong's
Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolitan Daily) ran
editorials, and the China Daily published an article
December 11 by media commentator Bi Shicheng that stated
"now that clashes over demolitions are becoming common,
the central government has to overhaul the regulation as
the first step toward honoring public sentiment, simply
because it should not have been used as a violent tool by
the strong against the weak."

China's Netizens Also React
6. (SBU) Beyond the official press, influential bloggers
across the political spectrum, from liberals to hard-line
nationalists, commented on the immolation case. For
example, the liberal blogger Bei Feng noted the incident
in his weekly summary of important items from the
Internet for the week of Dec 4, writing that it resulted
in an outpouring of "public anger" on the Internet.
Opinion ran against forced demolitions and commentators
have said this should prompt law makers and decision
makers to contemplate whether the current system of
demolition regulations should be replaced by those based
on the constitution and property law. Strong Nation
Forum, a BBS hosted by the website of the CCP's flagship
newspaper People's Daily, allowed extensive discussion of
the issue of the property law and demolition.

7. (SBU) A cursory review of blog coverage shows many
comments that portray the Chengdu self-immolation as a
symbol of the deep frustration Chinese citizens feel with
not only high real estate prices but also with powerful
officials working hand-in-hand with property developers
who often ignore the rights and interests of urban
residents. There are many examples of blog comments in
the form of eulogies and memorial speeches lamenting the
victim's death and praising her courage and persistence
in fighting authorities.

"Dwelling Narrowness" and Housing Discontent
8. (SBU) Concern about the public's discontent with
housing and land issues was evident recently when
"Dwelling Narrowness," a popular television drama that
dealt with the frustration and unhappiness among urban
residents trying to buy a house, was abruptly cancelled.
The show directly addressed soaring property prices that
have given rise to other social problems, including the
gap between the rich and the poor, corruption, and
falling moral standards (one of the series' characters
has an affair with a rich, corrupt official in order to
buy an apartment). A local business publication
attributed the cancellation to pressure from real estate
developers, who were also portrayed negatively in the
popular show.

9. (SBU) A prominent academic in a meeting with
Undersecretary Burns (Reftel C) confirmed that land and
real estate seizures as a potential social stability
problem had become a hot topic of discussion in China.
He explained that local governments have an increasingly
large financial stake in real estate, and as property
prices in urban areas continue to climb the risk of
conflicts with what he termed "quasi-legal land
occupants" also rose.

10. (SBU) The above-referenced December 11 China Daily
article echoed this view, explaining that local
governments are often dependent on money generated by
land supplies to boost local GDP (and thus secure local
leaders' political futures). The article argued for
giving common property owners more legal rights to fight
off rich and powerful developers and local governments,
writing that "in the long run, efforts should be made to
reform local governments' finance and tax systems so that

BEIJING 00003399 003 OF 003

they stop playing the role of stakeholders in the
demolition game."

--------------------------------------------- --
State Council Responds to Call for Legal Reform
--------------------------------------------- --
11. (SBU) Reports of the self-immolation prompted a
discussion of the need to reform land-seizure procedures
often abused at the local-government level. In a letter
to the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing
Committee made public in December 17 China Daily article,
law professors Shen Kui, Jiang Ming'an, Wang Xixin, Qian
Mingxing, and Chen Duanhong of Peking University
suggested that the State Council Legislative Affairs
Office revise or abolish the "Housing Demolition and
Relocation Management Regulation." Since then, other
reports of lawyers, academics, and PRC media articles
have been published advocating reform of demolition
regulations. (Note: The existing regulation provides
that residents have to vacate a property once the
government issues a relocation permit, and a maximum
period of a year and a half is allowed to negotiate
compensation. If no agreement is reached, demolition may
proceed. This regulation often leads to corruption in
which local business interests collude with officials to
pay minimal value for demolished homes to make way for
profitable developments. End note.)

12. (SBU) The Peking University scholars wrote that the
PRC constitution and property law provided that the
government can only confiscate housing for public welfare
construction, and that compensation must be paid before
relocation is forced. The professors claimed the current
regulation favors demolishers and infringes upon the
rights of residents. One of the professors explained
that they do not oppose urban development, but wanted
simply to ask the question "if the price [of urban
development] is people's basic rights and sense of
security, can we afford that?"

13. (SBU) After a December 16 meeting with the law
professors, the State Council Legislative Affairs Office
said it is working on reforming the demolition regulation.
"We'll speed up revising and issuing a new regulation to
improve the current urban housing management system and
better safeguard citizens' rights," said Gao Fengtao,
deputy director of the Legislative Affairs Office. He
added that the State Council has been working on a new
regulation since the implementation of the 2007 Property
Law, but still needs more time to resolve the many issues
related to demolition.

14. (SBU) China recently concluded the Central Economic
Work Conference which endorsed increasing urbanization as
a means to boost domestic consumption, and is currently
working towards the 2010 drafting of the 12th 5-year
economic plan which reportedly will include urbanization
as a key theme. The extent of debate around this
particular case, and the debate surrounding maintaining
social stability while promoting urbanization, will
influence the government's discussions on urban and
suburban land ownership in drafting the 12th 5-year plan.
Currently urban land is held on long-term leases which
are expected to be renewed. If China attempts to
accelerate urbanization to rebalance the economy and
boost consumption without addressing the legal and
institutional weaknesses in the current land management
system, more protest incidents will likely result. These
incidents could spur needed legal reforms and stronger
property rights, but will likely not themselves become a
source of broader social instability. End Comment.


© Scoop Media

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