In Depth: The Violence Behind ‘Shantytown’ Redevelopment
Wang Enzhong and Li Cuiling, a retired couple in their 60s, were woken up in the early hours of July 3 by noises coming from upstairs.
When Li headed upstairs from the first floor, she found a dozen strangers in her home, a three-story building in Xiaolizhuang, an “urban village” in Henan province’s Luohe city.
Eyewitnesses later said that people wearing black uniforms and helmets had climbed up a ladder around 2:30 a.m. and entered the house after smashing a second-floor window.
Li immediately rushed downstairs and grabbed her phone to call her son, Wang Zheng, who was out that morning. At the same time, Wang Enzhong jumped out of bed and ran to the roof, where he set off firecrackers in an attempt to scare off the intruders.
Wang Zheng arrived shortly after, running up to the house from the main road some 300 meters (985 feet) away.
By then, the house was surrounded by a wall of uniformed men holding shields. Two excavators were driving toward the house, the couple’s elderly neighbor Yang Xiulan, who had been awoken by the popping firecrackers, later recounted. Wang Zheng shouted at the uniformed men that there were still people inside the house.
Flustered and unable to break through the wall of people surrounding the house, Wang Zheng ran back toward his car, which he had parked by the local labor bureau office on the main road.
Meanwhile, the intruders quickly restrained the elderly couple, who were dragged out of their home. Images provided by Wang Enzhong’s niece Xu Qian show that his face was seriously scratched in the struggle, while Li’s left cheek was swollen. Husband and wife were put into separate vehicles and whisked away, while the excavators began demolishing the house.
Wang Zheng later told his lawyer that he had no memory of what happened next. Multiple eyewitnesses describe his white Toyota driving toward the group of people surrounding his parents’ home before crashing into the ruins of a recently demolished house next door. Most of the crowd dodged the car — but Hu Huadong, the local official overseeing government expropriation of residential land in Xiaolizhuang — had not.
Doctors who arrived soon after the crash declared that Hu was killed on the spot. Wang was extracted unconscious from his wrecked car and put in an ambulance. Hu was the third person to die in connection to forced demolitions in the province since 2016.
The ruins of Xiaolizhuang village have been fenced off from the surrounding construction sites. Photo: Ding Gang/Caixin
Lucrative ‘shantytown’ renovations
Henan’s violent demolitions are occurring against the backdrop of China’s loosely defined national “shantytown” redevelopment campaign — which is ostensibly aimed at clearing slums.
When the campaign began in the mid-2000s, most local governments compensated displaced households with new homes rather than cash. But a 2015 policy change that allowed authorities to hand out monetary compensation turned shantytown redevelopment into a major driver of rising property prices in smaller third- and fourth-tier cities, thanks to displaced households looking to buy new homes with the cash they were offered and sometimes making down payments on several properties.
In recent years, concerns have grown that shantytown redevelopment is being used as a pretext for local governments to amass debt while heating up housing markets, as well as a fig leaf to disguise regular infrastructure projects as shantytown projects in order to get around restrictions on other types of local government lending.
By the time the Wang family was forcibly removed from their home, Xiaolizhuang’s water supply had already been cut off for nearly three years.
By July, the house was one of only a dozen that remained standing in the area, which had been home to more than 400 buildings before the start of a major renewal project that transformed many of Luohe’s “urban villages.”
Hong Kong-listed Central China Real Estate Ltd. has built Jianye New City, a development in which homes are currently selling for 13,000 yuan ($1,825) per square meter, on the land that the homes of Xiaolizhuang used to occupy.
Villagers walk past a pile of rubble in Luohe city’s Yancheng district on July 11. Photo: Ding Gang/Caixin
In 2012, Xiaolizhuang’s village committee submitted an application to demolish and reconstruct the village to the Luohe government, as well as the Yancheng district government that oversees Xiaolizhuang. The village committee attached a letter describing the opinions and bearing the signatures of representatives from 323 households, in which nearly all of the representatives said they agreed with the reconstruction plan.
Multiple villagers told Caixin that their signatures and fingerprints had been forged by the authors of that document. The document was never verified by an external authority. A village representative told Caixin that it would have been too expensive to do so.
By 2012, Yancheng had begun its attempts to expropriate the land in Xiaolizhuang. But many villagers, including Wang Enzhong, initially refused to sign compensation agreements and proceed with the demolition of their homes.
Xiaolizhuang was located near Luohe’s best elementary school, and Wang Zheng had been hoping to use the house to qualify his two young daughters for enrollment in the school. Local officials had verbally offered Wang Enzhong 2.3 million yuan in compensation for the house, but Wang felt he shouldn’t accept anything under 3 million.
The impasse dragged on until June 22, when Hu Huadong and a few other village officials came to Wang Enzhong’s house to offer him a new price of 2.6 million yuan, Wang’s niece Xu Qian told Caixin.
Insulted by the offer, Li asked the officials to leave, although they promised they would return in a few days to continue negotiations. By the end of June, the Wang family was on the verge of accepting the offer, said Li’s older sister, who declined to be named. But the officials never made another offer.
Wang Zheng, who had recently retired from the military and was working at Luohe’s public housing management company at the time of the demolition, was detained after Hu’s death on suspicion of endangering public safety. His family said they “hope he gets sentenced to less than 10 years.”
In February 2013, Luohe issued a three-year plan that marked out parts of Yancheng that were to be claimed by the government — including Xiaolizhuang and the Wulimiao subdistrict — with each household being compensated with a new 200-square-meter home and between 300,000 yuan to 400,000 yuan in cash.
One-third of the households in Li village, one of the four villages under the administration of Wulimiao, had signed agreements to relocate by 2016. Many villagers said that in the initial stages of expropriation, the authorities first negotiated a compensation deal with villagers before carrying out demolition. Later, as more and more villagers began to feel that they were being offered a bad deal and refused to sign, demolitions began happening before compensation deals were reached.
Li village experienced its first forced demolition on Sept. 18, 2015. There was still more than a month left before the official deadline of November 2015, and more than half of the homes in Li village were still standing.
That morning, a yellow truck and an excavator arrived in the village. Videos provided by residents show people wearing camouflage walking alongside the vehicles, as well as security guards and police in black uniforms and number of middle-aged men in black suits. The villagers said these were government officials overseeing the operation.
The excavator moved northward through one of the village’s major streets, bringing down telephone poles and signs advertising the Jiangong Hotel, a breakfast stand, the Century Bird Electric Scooter store, and a convenience store. Public toilets were also demolished.
Once the excavator was done with this street, it turned and moved westward before stopping at sanitation worker Gao Tongxi’s door.
Gao was waiting for the demolition crew, shirtless, with his orange uniform draped across his shoulders and a white cap on his head. Gao, in his 60s, lived with his wife in a two-story house. A group of police officers inspected the interior of his house, and the furniture was carried out.
Suddenly, Gao’s wife laid down under the bucket of the excavator, while Gao laid in front of the wheels, blocking the vehicle. Five or six people attempted to lift Gao away from the excavator. He held onto the bottom of the vehicle with his hands, but eventually lost the struggle and was taken away. Within minutes, his house was reduced to a pile of rubble.
After the first day of demolition, confrontations between residents and demolition crews more violent, Caixin learned from villagers. In one video taken on Oct. 1, 2015, a woman was being escorted from her home by a group of security company staff when she suddenly bent down to pick up a brick off the ground, which she threw at one of the guards. The brick didn’t hit its target, but the guards responded by repeatedly punching the woman.
Zhao Manliang, a hairdresser, used to live with his wife and his extended family in a spacious house in Li village.
By April 2016, 450 of the 615 households in the village had been relocated and their homes demolished. Two notices bearing the name of village chief Zhao Xueyi were put up early in the month warning of and justifying the upcoming “concentrated” demolitions.
“A minority of households are determined not to move, destroying the village majority’s dream of relocation. In order to protect the interests of the majority of the masses, you tell me, what kind of measures should I take?” read the first notice.
The second notice, posted two days later, was harsher: “450 households have already been relocated from Li village, and the government has already invested over 100 million yuan. If the resettlement area cannot be built, resulting in the loss of state-owned assets, this will be a crime against the state and a crime against the people of Li village,” the notice said. “Since you disregard the interests of all, and push me into a dead end, I can only resolve to do one thing — demolish and relocate every last home!”
A final letter from Zhao, dated April 12, warned that three to five households would be forcibly removed from the area each day before the final deadline of May 1 for clearing the area. “If construction doesn’t resume at the resettlement area on May 1, the bank will take back the loan it extended. If the loan is taken back and there’s no money, how will we build a resettlement area for everyone? How do you pay for more than 450 households?” the letter asked.
The demolition and reconstruction projects in Wulimiao and Xiaolizhuang were financed with large loans from banks including China Development Bank, Agricultural Bank of China Ltd., and Zhongyuan Bank Co. Ltd., as part of the nationwide shantytown reconstruction campaign, Caixin learned.
On April 27, 2016, the excavators came for Zhao Manliang’s home, which was one of the remaining houses in the village.
Zhao Manliang’s front door was pried open while the family was still inside the house, neighbor Li Qiqi told Caixin. Zhao’s sister-in-law opened a second-floor window and yelled, “Don’t you move, or I’ll fight you with a knife,” and demanded to see documents authorizing the demolition.
But the demolition workers ignored her and rushed into the house once the door had been pried open.
Li said that the demolition workers had been hired by a security company. “There were 30 or 40 people. They were all wearing masks, but actually many of them are from our village.”
Zhao Manliang’s wife, who only gave her given name Xiaona, was pregnant at the time of the demolition. She said she was lifted up and thrown out of the house by the workers and injured her arms and legs.
Li said the neighbors immediately dialed the emergency number 120 when they saw what had happened to Xiaona.
“The 120 (ambulance) arrived less than five minutes after I called. I asked, how did you arrive so soon? Which hospital are you from?” Li told Caixin. “They said (the ambulance) had been arranged for by the city. They were from the Yancheng District People’s Hospital, and they were specially tasked with immediately showing up whenever something like this happens.”
Xiaona later had a miscarriage, Caixin learned.
Zhao Manliang was the last person left in the house. He said the demolition workers barely spoke to him before spraying pepper spray in his eyes. Then, he was carried out of the house.
Li Shuguang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Water Sciences and the son of one of the affected villagers, said the villagers had never been shown any public notice issued by the Luohe or Yancheng governments regarding the expropriation of land in Wulimiao. “We have not seen any written documents bearing the seal of an authority above village committee-level,” Li said.
To expropriate land and demolish the homes on it, national regulations require a land expropriation document to be approved by either the State Council or a province-level government, in addition to a host of other permits. But of the 204 acres of land expropriated by the local government in Wulimiao, fewer than 61 acres were accounted for by province-level land acquisition documents published on the official website of the Henan Provincial Department of Land and Resources, Li said.
“To go through the entire (official) process of expropriation would take more than a year, or even a few years,” Yin Qingli, a lawyer at Beijing Fuli Law Firm, told Caixin.
Local governments unwilling to wait for such a long time would go straight to village-level authorities and directly receive approval from village representatives and party branch officials, in a process referred to in Chinese as “4+2” after the four official procedures and two committees it involves.
The second letter issued by Zhao Xueyi in April 2016 mentioned that the village committee had voted 81% in favor of completing the demolition and resettlement.
But this justification didn’t convince all the villagers involved — after the intensive demolitions at the end of April 2016, eight households led by Zhao Manliang and Li Hailiu took Yancheng district to court. During the legal process, four of the families settled for an additional compensation of 30,000 yuan, but Zhao Manliang, Li Haisi, Li Hailiu and Li Deqiang refused to accept the settlement.
In court, the Yancheng government argued that that the village-level “4+2” procedure made the demolition and relocation project legitimate, pointing to records of Li village resident committee meetings and resolutions by the committee representatives as evidence.
But there was no legal basis for the “4+2” practice, Chen Haifeng, Zhao Manliang’s lawyer told Caixin, pointing to the requirements laid out in China’s Land Administration Law. Eventually, on Sept. 20, 2016, the court ruled in Zhao Manliang’s favor.
The court ruled that, because the Yancheng government had demolished Zhao’s house before signing a compensation agreement, the demolition of Zhao’s house contravened national regulations. However, the court dismissed Zhao’s request for the house to be restored to its original state.
On April 4, 2018, Zhao filed an application for compensation with the Yancheng government. When the district failed to reach a decision on the compensation amount, Zhao then turned to the Luohe Intermediate People’s Court. He requested that the court order Yancheng to pay for the loss of his home and expenses related to the demolition including medical expenses, food and accommodation, transport, and “psychological damages” — a list totaling 5.14 million yuan.
However, on Jan. 22, 2019, the court ruled that Yancheng owed Zhao only 1.55 million yuan. Zhao appealed the judgment. If he had signed the compensation agreement offered to his neighbors early on in the reconstruction process, he would have received 200 square meters of housing and an additional 200,000 yuan in cash, Zhao argued. Based on current housing prices in the area, a 200-square-meter home would cost at least 1.6 million yuan, meaning Zhao was being offered less compensation for the forced demolition of his home than what his neighbors who had voluntarily moved away were promised.
“It’s a crime to abuse power to carry out forced demolitions,” Yin said, “But when regular people go straight to the supervisory authorities to sue the people responsible in the local government for abuse of power, there is usually no effect.”
Contact reporter Teng Jing Xuan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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