CHENGDU, CHINA — Tang Huiqin got between China and its ferocious development push and still bears the scars. I found her, traumatized and trembling, in the northern outskirts of this vast city, where it’s common to see old houses with a single Chinese character scrawled in red on the facade: “Demolish.”
The thugs from the city demolition squad rolled into her neighborhood, a village called Jinhua now engulfed by urban sprawl, early on Nov. 13. A road was to be built and nothing — not women, nor children, nor years of painstaking homebuilding — was to stand in its way.
“They were beating me, beating me, and I could hear my younger sister, on the highest part of the roof, screaming ‘Older sister, older brother, have you been beaten to death?’” Tang, 53, told me. “I could hear her voice but I had blacked out from the beating and could not speak.”
We were seated in the courtyard of Tang’s simple home, adjacent to her sister’s house, now reduced to rubble. Chickens strutted about. Tang had just emerged from the hospital. A large reddish scar cut across her forehead. She was nervous. It can be dangerous in China to speak out, to speak truth to power. Tang stood up and raised her shirt to reveal severe bruising all down her left flank.
Tears filled her eyes. She averted them. Her younger sister was called Tang Fuzhen. She’s dead now.
On that day, Nov. 13, as Tang Fuzhen yelled at the demolition brutes to stop the violence against her siblings, as she pleaded with them to leave her house intact, she doused herself three times in gasoline, saying she would set herself on fire, right there on the roof, if the beating of her family continued.
The blows continued to rain down and the self-immolation of Tang Fuzhen, 47, was added to the long list of victims of explosive Chinese development.
The nexus of that growth often comes down to real estate: Who owns it, who gets the sweet deals on it, who gets ousted, and who among Communist Party officials and their developer cronies pockets the big bucks from the infrastructure, business and residential projects that have turned China into a monumental construction site.
The equation of the Chinese growth story that is changing the world (and keeping U.S. Wal-Mart customers happy) is unforgiving: Ten percent annual expansion is the guarantor of the Communist Party’s hold on power and so everything will be done to sustain it. Agonized debate (think U.S. health care reform or Afghan deployment) is not for China. Bulldozers are more its thing.
The thrill of living in China is this very short distance between words and action. Few Western executives are immune to the frisson. Forget Indian democratic dithering! Nowhere else are projects so intimate with their execution.
That’s fundamental to the forced quick-march of 1.3 billion people to modernity. It can be very seductive, this fast train to the future, because you live on the cusp of a great and stirring transformation. You are part of history, an actor in an essential drama, not sitting on the weary European sidelines! But its underside is often trampled lives.
Tang Huiqin’s life is in shreds after her sister’s death. Her daughter, Wei Jiao, 25, paced about. How long until the police would come and interrupt our conversation? Wei recalled what happened that day, two months ago, when her aunt became a ball of flames.
“I was holding my daughter, who’s less than one year old, and they were beating us with lead pipes,” she told me. “My daughter fell on me and they were spraying this stinging substance in our eyes. Then they grabbed my child and they were kicking me in the legs and back. I wanted to cry out, but I couldn’t, I was lying on the ground shaking, and I heard them say, ‘Take their cellphones!’”
Wei began to cry. “My aunt was a really good person. Everyone got help from her. She liked to make herself pretty and she was very industrious. I never thought she would go to such lengths, that she would want to die. I can hear her still saying ‘I’ll come down if everyone leaves. I just want everyone to leave!’ They pushed her to this.”
Tang Fuzhen was a successful woman. She and her husband had been in Jinhua for more than a decade, building a clothing wholesale business called Aoshiwei. They had been courted by local party officials to install their company in the area and, according to local press reports, had invested close to $450,000 in a three-story building with a factory on the first two floors and their home on the third. They had a son studying in Britain and a teenage adopted daughter.
Although once touted as model entrepreneurs — profiled in newspapers and on local TV — they had, since 2007, run into a familiar conflict in China stemming from the confluence of murky property rights, soaring real estate prices, land-hungry businessmen and rampant corruption linking party officials with developers.
“Land use is a huge issue because, in the absence of property taxes, local city authorities have to keep selling land and developing land to stay afloat financially,” one Western official told me. “Chengdu gets about 30 percent of its city budget from sales of land owned by the state or the military. The government has to keep monetizing the land through long-term leases, and of course corrupt officials want to make money by getting bribes and other gifts from the buyers.”
Arthur Kroeber, an economist, told me that as much as 50 percent of local government revenues came from land sales throughout China in 2009. “The financial interests of a lot of powerful people hinge on the real estate boom. That’s where the big capital gains are.” The real-estate bicycle is the get-rich-quick bicycle: Everyone in the game has to keep pedaling!
For Tang Fuzhen, who was estranged from her husband, the building local authorities coveted was at once her home and her factory. She derided the offers of compensation, a mere fraction of the market value. Official and market prices often bear no relation to each other in China. But the city, determined to build a road to a new water treatment plant, would hear none of her protests.
The conflict came to a head on that roof. Tang Fuzhen burned for a long time. Wei Jiao, her niece, was in the ambulance with her.
“There was no skin on her arms and face, just exposed flesh,” she told me. “Her teeth were completely black. She had no eyelashes or hair. And she said, ‘Jiao, Jiao, I just want to die, I just want to die.’ And I knew it was not the physical pain. It was the feeling in her heart of watching her family being beaten and the house she built with her labor destroyed. And I told her to try to hold on until we got to the hospital.”
Tang Fuzhen did hold on for a while. But on Nov. 29, 16 days after her self-immolation, she succumbed to the burns.
Her suicide was caught on video by a neighbor and spread across the Internet. An outcry ensued. A local inquiry found the demolition process legal, but deemed the eviction “mismanaged” and a city official was fired. Professors at Beijing University Law School wrote to the People’s Congress, in theory the highest legislative body, suggesting changes to the law to ensure compensation is adequate, that it’s paid before demolition, that violence is never used, and that owners can sue to contest eviction rulings.
These reforms are urgently needed. They would bring development and individual rights into some balance and slow the fast-money corruption machine. But the entrenched interests behind brutal expropriation are enormous.
Across China, I sensed great anger at the raging real estate game in which the party plays such a central role. On a vast half-built development in Chongqing, a dozen banners had been draped from windows: “Try to support our peasant brothers in getting the blood, sweat and tears money owed to them by the developers.”
Here in Chengdu, on entire city blocks marked for demolition, there were banners urging China’s leaders to “reflect the wishes of the people” by reforming the way land is acquired.
Meanwhile, property seizures continue apace. The road between Jinhua and downtown Chengdu is buried in dust and rubble. Posters and banners beside the road show images of verdant fields, flowering shrubs, trees, superhighways, high-speed trains, gleaming office blocks, elegant executives — an almost comical imagined paradise of affluent 21st-century development in the midst of construction mayhem. I saw a man, seated beside a dead bush overwhelmed by the dust, cleaving a just-killed chicken beneath a photograph of white doves and a white horse bearing a beautiful woman off to her dream home.
“Today’s irritation is for tomorrow’s convenience,” said one sign. Another said, “Create a green culture!” A third tried this: “Be cultural citizens. Construct a cultural city!” And everywhere I looked there was demolition, disarray, destitution.
I asked Tang how she felt now. “Helpless,” she said. And when at last I stepped outside, the police were of course waiting. “Your papers,” they demanded. A few yards away workers labored on a road where a home once stood and a woman burned.