Avatar hits home in China
By Stephen Wong

SHANGHAI - The Hollywood blockbuster Avatar is popular across the world, with US$2.21 billion in worldwide ticket sales. In China it has been a smash hit despite its 2-D version being pulled from some cinemas as it was drawing audiences away from the officially approved film Confucius.

Some Western media reports have claimed that the 2-D version was banned by the authorities as they saw parallels between the movie's depiction of the Na'vi people being forcibly relocated on their planet, Pandora, and government land-grabs in China. One blogger said the science-fiction epic was an allegory for "nail houses" - households that refuse to be relocated under pressure from developers. The term derives from a famous case in which a solitary family held up the development of a shopping mall in Chongqing, southwest China.

Avatar has a happy ending: the Na'vi people successfully drive off the invaders. There is also a ray of hope for China's land-grab victims: the government is finally revising relocation rules that at present virtually allow authorized developers to take away private homes with little or no compensation and without the consent of the residents. These rules, effective since 1991, have led to numerous protests, riots and deaths during forced relocations.

The State Council, the cabinet, promises that the proposed changes include increased compensation for property owners and a ban on violence in the relocation process. The revised rules decree that local authorities hold public hearings before relocations. They also ban relocation teams from cutting off water, heat, gas or power supplies to residents who refuse to leave - tactics frequently used by relocation workers.

The new rules also give residents the right to challenge evictions in the courts and developers will be banned from forcing residents out while such a lawsuit is ongoing. This is a major change from the current rules that allow developers to demolish an area while a case is pending.

The changes came after years of protests by urban dwellers who have lost their homes to massive urban redevelopment projects. In December last year, five Chinese academics wrote to the central government saying that confiscating private homes was in breach of the constitution and property laws, which stipulate that private property is inviolable.

In China, the government legally controls all land. The current relocation rules allow it to demolish urban homes and claim the land in the name of "public interest". Because the state legally owns the land, often residents are only compensated with the construction costs of their apartments.

In the name of so-called "public interest", old neighborhoods are razed to make way for office towers and seemingly endless rows of the high-rise apartment buildings that are favored by the nouveau riche. The onslaught of development has caused hardship for countless families and individuals pushed aside to make way for this "progress". The interests of the rising middle class have also been affected, with the government at times pulling down shops, factories or brand-new apartment buildings and giving only symbolic compensation.

In one extreme case, on November 13 last year 47-year-old Tang Fuzhen from Chengdu, capital of southwestern Sichuan province, set herself on fire to protest the forced demolition of her factory building. Tang died in hospital 16 days later. The incident was filmed and shown on the Internet, leading to a national scandal.

The Chengdu municipal government later insisted that the demolition was lawful.

On January 28, one day before the new rules were publicized, a 60-year-old man in east China's Jiangsu province set himself on fire to protest the government's decision to build a road at the site of his home. The man is currently receiving treatment in hospital, along with his daughter who was injured trying to put out the fire.

In some cases, government officials collude with developers to make big profits from high-rise apartment blocks, with local thugs hired to evict residents. Demolishing private homes is a profitable business: a former head of a demolishing team recently told the media that he had earned 9 million yuan (US$1.31 million) from the business over 12 years.

China's urban population was 607 million in 2008, more than triple the figure in 1978 when the country began its reform and opening-up, according to official figures. The rapid expansion of cities has led to endless urban redevelopment projects. In the first eight years, after the State Council released the Rules on Urban Housing Demolition in 1991, in Shanghai more than 580,000 homes were demolished with more than two million people evicted.

Sometimes even new buildings are demolished. In Fuzhou, provincial capital of Fujian, a brand-new primary school completed in September 2009 at a cost of 15 million yuan faces demolition because the government wants to turn the area into a business district. Not far away, a four-year-old housing estate also faces demolition, with its residents startled to find that their homes had been defined by the government as "aging buildings that need improvements".

In the past, the plight of the evicted was often covered up by local governments, but since the infamous case of the "nail house", the Internet has emerged as a means for whistleblowers to turn forced relocations into national scandals.

The government's new rules on evictions have been given a mixed welcome by China's Internet community, with 42% of respondents to an online survey conducted by the popular website Sohu.com saying that the draft regulations wouldn't solve anything.

It is also unclear how local government will interpret the new rules when it comes to their implementation.

The proposed rules still allow the government to take away people's homes in the name of "public interest", though they narrow down the scope of "public interest" and include promises to compensate homeowners according to market values.

Seven categories are listed that constitute "public interest", including national defense projects, important public projects, the rebuilding of old and dangerous buildings, the construction of government offices and other projects deemed necessary by law or the State Council.

Although the proposed regulations require the government to hold public hearings before seizing homes for "public interest", some fear that public hearings, like most in China, would become little more than a sham.

Even as the new proposed regulation is under consultation, local governments and real estate developers have sped up demolitions to avoid paying higher levels of compensation should the law be adopted.

In Beijing, an area that is traditionally home to artists called "Chuang Yi Zheng Yang" faces demolition. The artists have refused to move even though their water and heating supplies have been cut off for more than a month. After a rare public protest from the artists attracted media attention, the Beijing municipal government - which initially refused to give any compensation - has agreed to pay the artists 5 million yuan.

Behind the changes in the relocation rules is an increasing awareness of private ownership rights. The proposed changes, if approved, will probably help residents get higher levels of compensation. In richer cities, some urban redevelopment projects have turned private owners into billionaires overnight.

In the boom town of Shenzhen, where original land and property owners receive the market value or even higher prices for demolished homes, the recent demolition of a community in the city center created 10 billionaires, with the residents compensated over 10,000 yuan for each square meter of their demolished property.

Stephen Wong is a freelance journalist from Shanghai.

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