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The Real Danger in China’s Mines

Mr. Hao is going back to work. The mines have opened again, and his family needs the money. He tells us this, but he also asks us not to tell his son that after what proved to be a very short retirement, he’s headed back down into a coal mine.

Hao, who asked that he be identified only by his surname, is a coal miner in Hegang, a mining town in northeastern Heilongjiang province. Like many of the miners in Hegang, Hao is employed at small bituminous coal mine by one of the dozens of private mining companies that operate the area’s hundred or so mines. His mine employs a few hundred people, most of whom — like Mr. Hao — work below the surface.

As an older man, Hao makes 2,000 RMB (about $320) a month doing lighter, logistical tasks like drilling and lighting explosives, but he tells us that young workers capable of withstanding long hours of heavy labor can make more than double that. What nearly all workers at his mine have in common is that they spend their days — or in some cases, nights — in pitch-dark coal mines far below the earth’s surface. Even meals are eaten down there, together, in the black.


Miners in Hegang emerge from the depths.

Coal mining is a dangerous profession, and China’s coal mines are notoriously perilous. In the ten year span between 2001 and 2011, more than 47,670 Chinese coal miners were killed in mining accidents (for reference, that death toll is approximately equivalent to 11 Chernobyl accidents, or 32 Hurricane Katrinas). Over that same time period, the Chinese government took significant steps to make coal mining safer, and by 2010, China was clocking just under 2,433 coal mining deaths per year, down from nearly 6,000 deaths in 2003.

Even so, Chinese mines are still incredibly dangerous; China accounts for 40 percent of the world’s coal production but nearly 80 percent of its coal mining deaths. When we asked Mr. Hao about his own mine, he told us that it was “relatively safe.” Collapses have happened, but there weren’t many in the mines that he had worked in. “At our mine, there haven’t been many,” he told us, “but other mines have collapsed.”

Hao may have been slightly underselling the point. In fact, Hegang — the town Mr. Hao has lived and mined in for more than thirty years — was the site of one of the worst mining accidents in recent memory. In November of 2009, a Hegang mine exploded, killing 108 miners and injuring 133 more. A subsequent investigation found that the executives in charge of the mine, which was administered by a subsidiary of the Heilongjiang Mining Group, had repeatedly refused orders to cease production in order to implement safety procedures. In early 2012, after a lengthy court process, the mine’s two chief executives were both sentenced to seven years in prison.

Privately-owned coal mines must technically be certified for safety by government inspectors before being legally allowed to operate, but the process is vulnerable to corruption, or even outright circumvention. Mr. Hao tells us that the mine he works in is properly certified. “But there are also mines without these certifications,” he admits. Often, those uncertified mines are the most dangerous.

Even with the recent advances made in safety procedures, it’s clear that China’s government is still concerned about the issue. Coal mines nationwide were shut down for this November’s leadership transition, in part because a major mining disaster during the festivities would have been disruptive and embarassing. In Hegang, Hao says, all the mines were shut down, and when we spoke with his family the first time, the mines hadn’t reopened and he was considering not going back.

His son, who works in Beijing, was overjoyed at the news of his father’s retirement from the coal mining profession, which he knows can be extremely dangerous. When we spoke to Mr. Hao again in a subsequent interview and he told us he planned to begin mining again, he also asked that we not tell his son, who — if he ever finds out — is likely to be equal parts worried and livid.

Both father and son are intimately aware of the immediate dangers presented by coal mining; Hao himself was once seriously injured on the job when a cart fell onto his leg at the end of a shift. But when we ask about other health risks, both men talk about the food (which apparently is quite disgusting, and often covered in soot). Neither of them mention cancer.


Rescued coal miners are treated after the 2009 explosion in Hegang.

According to data released by the Chinese Ministry of Health in 2011, cancer is China’s leading cause of death. Among cancers, lung cancer is now the most common, and lung cancer rates have been growing with alarming speed. The five-fold growth in rates since the 1970s might be partially attributable to smoking, but lung cancer rates in Beijing have climbed by 60 percent over the past decade despite a lack of change in smoking rates.

Coal-burning power plants and coal stoves are among the contributors to the thick clouds of smog that cloak many of China’s cities, and are almost certainly affecting cancer rates there. But as grim as the pollution situation is in cities, miners in towns like Hegang are actually much worse off, even if they don’t smoke or cook with coal at home.

There are three kinds of coal that are commonly mined; bituminous coal (also known as “black coal”), lignite (“brown coal”), and anthracite (sometimes called “clean coal”). China’s production of anthracite and lignite has increased in recent years, but both still account for a relatively minor percentage of the country’s coal production (18.5 and 13.5 percent, respectively). The vast majority (69.2 percent) of China’s coal mining operations, including those in Hegang, are mining bituminous coal.

Unfortunately, studies have shown bituminous coal dust to be remarkably carcinogenic. A 2012 study of homes in Xuanwei, China, found that people whose households cooked with bituminous coal are far more likely to develop lung cancer (18-20% likely) than those who did not (0.5% likely). Men are 36 times more likely to die of lung cancer if they lived in homes that cooked with bituminous coal; women are 99 times more likely. Unsurprisingly, these results are also apparent in miners; a 2011 study of coal miners in Xuanwei found that coal miners also are at increased risk of lung cancer, and that the younger a miner starts and the longer he stays in the mines, the more likely he is to develop cancer. Specific rates varied based on subjects’ family histories and exposure to carcinogens outside of work, but in general, coal miners were found to be at least twice as likely to develop lung cancer as regular citizens, and in some instances the increase in risk for miners was even higher.

Cancer isn’t the only disease coal miners are at serious risk of contracting, either. Pneumoconiosis, better known as Black Lung Disease, kills thousands of Chinese coal miners each year. Other potentially-deadly lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, also seem to kill coal miners at a higher-than-average rate.

All of the miners we spoke to, including Mr. Hao, were aware that breathing in coal dust wasn’t great for your lungs, but none of them were aware that their work seriously elevated their risk of developing lung cancer. Some told us that they had noticed a lot of coworkers came down with respiratory illnesses sooner or later, but some said they hadn’t noticed any particular patterns of illness.

Small coal mines in China are often poorly-ventilated, and there’s only so much you can ventilate a deep coal mine, anyway. Mr. Hao’s son told us that his father and other miners do sometimes wear masks, but that isn’t much consolation:

[The masks] are completely useless. Coal dust is everywhere, you can’t prevent yourself from breathing it [...] When my father comes home at the end of the day he is completely covered in black dust. Coal soot gets on his face, in his nostrils, in his ears, in his eyes…sometimes you can’t even wash all of it off.

The soot also gets in his lungs, of course, and with thirty years of mining already under his belt, Mr. Hao — who has not been screened — has a high risk of developing lung cancer even if he never sets foot in a coal mine again. He knows coal mining is a deadly profession, and is grateful to have made it this far without any major accidents. But though the number of deadly accidents is dropping, cancer risk rates climb with each successive year a miner works. Many miners who escape being buried alive or killed in explosions will ultimately still fall victim to coal mining’s slowest and quietest danger: lung cancer.

When a miner gets cancer, or even gets injured on the job, results can vary. Mr. Hao tells us smaller mining companies don’t provide mine workers with insurance, or even regular contracts, so if you get sick, whether or not you’ll get financial help with your medical bills from the company is very much up for grabs. In his experience, Hao tells us, the people who get larger compensation settlements tend to be the people capable of making a fuss and causing trouble for the company if their demands aren’t met. If you and your family members can’t raise a stink, he says, you’ll get less money.

In his own case, Hao was able to get some compensation for his leg injury, but not enough to cover his bills. The company said that by riding a cart out of the mine at the end of the day when another cart crushed his leg, he was violating company policy. Hao contends that requiring miners to walk out of the mine at the end of a shift is unsafe, as the climb is dark and perilous and the workers are generally exhausted, but he still wound up paying some of the cost for his treatment out of pocket. If Hao does develop lung cancer or another mining-related illness, he will likely face the same problem all over again.

China has made great progress in reducing the number of accidents in coal mines, but it will also need to address the environmental and health risks the mining of coal, especially bituminous coal, produces. In addition to higher risks of lung diseases and cancer both among miners and anyone who breathes in coal soot on a regular basis, and in addition to the clouds of soot shrouding most of China’s major cities, coal mining can have a devastating affect on the environment in other ways.

For example, coal mining is extremely water-intensive, and coal mining operations can exacerbate droughts and disrupt local ecosystems. This can lead to desertification, especially in China’s far West, where coal is easy to find but water is in short supply. Already, wetlands and grasslands in Inner Mongolia and elsewhere have been dried up and destroyed to support coal mining.

Deadly and destructive though it may be, China will not — cannot — kick its reliance on coal anytime soon. Coal still generates 80 percent of China’s electricity, and though the country has invested heavily in green technologies like wind and solar power, its rapidly-growing energy needs have offset the gains from those fields, meaning that green energy development has not really affected the power industry’s demand for coal.

If China must rely on coal, it should continue to address the plague of deadly explosions and collapses that remains prevalent, especially in illegal mines, but it must also push to improve health standards for coal miners. There are ways to do this, like mandating better ventilation, high-quality respirators, and even dust monitors that warn miners when they’re breathing too much coal dust.

The government could also move beyond prevention and attempt to do something for the miners who have already contracted lung diseases related to their contact with coal. Mandating that all companies — even the small private mines — provide real medical insurance that shields workers from heavy financial burdens in the event of work-related accidents and illnesses would be a good start. Lower medical bills will likely be little consolation to the thousands and thousands of miners who will be killed by lung cancer, black lung, and other respiratory illnesses over the coming decades, but it would, Mr. Hao agrees, be better than nothing.

By C. Custer and L. Li, with additional reporting by Jonathan Silin.

2Non is a nonprofit media organization run by humans who enjoy activities like eating and living under roofs. If you think articles like this one, or films like this one, are worthwhile, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

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Why Rural Chinese Kids Don’t Go to College

Ma’eryang village lies in China’s far west, tucked into a corner called Tashkurgan county that borders Tajikistan, Pakistan, and a thin sliver of Afghanistan. There, at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, more children than ever are attending primary school thanks to a government policy that eliminated tuition fees. But their classroom facilities are limited, and teachers are so scarce that the students there study only two subjects: language and mathematics. Their parents, on the whole, don’t care much about education, and many students in Ma’eryang drop out before high school. Almost none of them make it college.

Ma’eryang: a beautiful place for a school, but a difficult place to find an education.

While the students in Ma’eryang are ethnic minorities, they are in the majority when it comes to their experiences with rural education. According to the Rural Education Action Project, a joint initiative to improve schooling in rural areas supported by Stanford University and Tsinghua University, as few as 1.3% of poor rural students make it beyond high school (compare that to the national average of 30%, or the nearly 50% rate of college enrollment in developed eastern cities like Beijing and Shanghai).

What is it that keeps poor rural students out of college? This is a complex question the Chinese government has been struggling to answer for years, and recent reforms like the removal of tuition fees have been aimed squarely at closing this urban-rural gap. But while the barriers that poor and rural students often face during secondary schooling and the college entrance examination process are well-documented, the ways in which poor rural students are set behind their peers before they reach high school may be less well understood.

One major and obvious barrier is that high school, unlike the compulsory education that runs up to grade 9, is not free. Most of the children in Ma’eryang come from families of Tajik herders who don’t speak much Chinese and thus have trouble doing business or moving beyond the extremely limited income generated by their livestock. For many parents, sending a child to high school would mean borrowing large amounts of money without any real means of paying it back. And since so few rural children make it from high school to college anyway (only 1 in 5 poor rural students who attend high school will win entrance to a three- or four-year college), this can seem like a pointless expense.

But actually, poor rural students are at a disadvantage starting from a much younger age. Preschools in China are private and generally for-profit, making them a difficult proposition for many poor families. But even if parents had the money, places like Ma’eryang village don’t have preschools anyway. There aren’t even enough teachers in Ma’eryang to staff the government-mandated primary school, let alone any preschools, so Ma’eryang students are a couple years behind their urban counterparts before their formal schooling has even begun.

In fact, a Ma’eryang teacher who spoke with 2Non told us that including himself, there are only three teachers at the primary school. This means that while students can learn language and mathematics, there’s no one to teach them mandatory subjects like English until they reach fourth grade, at which point they can attend the larger and better-staffed Tashkurgan county school. At the county school, they can study English and other important subjects like science, but at at that point they are already years behind their classmates.

So why can’t Ma’eryang attract an English teacher or a science teacher? Teachers in Tashkurgan county that we spoke to all told us that the pay was simply too low and the place simply too remote; even the new county schools, which were been generously built and funded by private companies from Shenzhen and Hainan, have serious trouble attracting teachers. Being a primary school teacher is not a particularly lucrative profession in any geographical region of China, but working in poor areas generally pays even less than working in developed cities, and of course, living in a developed city is also far more comfortable than living in Tashkurgan county. Jobs are not in short supply at the moment, so teachers often have some degree of choice in where they go, and their choice, overwhelmingly, is the cities.

Moreover, since very few rural students ever even make it to college, there aren’t many qualified teachers coming home to places like Ma’eryang. Kids from Ma’eryang never make it to college, and kids from Shanghai have never even heard of Ma’eryang, so there is little to attract them to teach there. As a result, rural schools like Ma’eryang’s are often run by kind-hearted outsiders who put the education of underprivileged kids ahead of their own comfort. But there aren’t enough people like that to fully staff all of China’s rural primary and secondary schools.

Although the government has helped rural students by making school free, it could certainly be doing much more to attract teachers, like offering compelling incentives to those who are willing to teach in remote or poor areas. It could also be addressing other systemic problems from testing biases to facilities issues — the Ma’eryang village school gets very cold in the winter — to more fundamental problems like malnutrition. State-run preschools that are free would be another positive step, but with even primary schools understaffed, the chances of seeing free preschools in rural villages anytime soon are quite slim.

The primary school in Ma’eryang

But systemic issues are not the only thing holding back rural Chinese students. Although traditionally people say that Chinese parents hold education in very high esteem, there can be significant differences between the way people see things in the countryside and in the city, and attitudes toward education are no exception. While urbanites fret over grades and put immense amounts of pressure on their children to excel in school, rural parents often don’t. Most of the teachers we spoke with told us that parental attitudes played a big role in how far children made it in school, and that many rural parents didn’t feel education was particularly important.

“Most of the parents here have a very cold attitude [towards education],” the Ma’eryang village teacher told us. “Many of them are only willing to send their kids to school because the school provides [the children] with clothing, shoes, and things to write with. If the school here didn’t give out those things, some people just wouldn’t come.”

Another teacher at a village school in Heilongjiang told us the same thing. Her school better-equipped than Ma’eryang’s because it is less remote — students have classes in math, language, English, science, ethics and morals, music, computers, and gym — and the parents there are mostly ethnic Han Chinese, but their attitudes towards education are very similar to the Tajik herders in Ma’eryang. “Most of the parents don’t care about their child’s studies at all,” she told us. “It’s an ideological problem. Most students here never make it to high school, because they think it’s too hard or they want to go home and start working. If their grades aren’t good or the conditions at home aren’t good, there’s basically no way they’ll get to college. They kids think if they don’t get it at first it’s not worth studying again, so they just drop out.” Often these ideas come from the parents, many of whom are eager to get their children home to help with the burden of farming, or get them out into the workforce so that they can start sending money home.

Incidentally, 2Non co-director Leia Li grew up in a rural northeastern village and is one of the few children from her area to have finished high school and college. While it’s not generally our policy to interview ourselves, her perspective seems worth sharing here as she can speak to the attitudes of the people around her while she was attending the one-room schoolhouse in her village in the early 1990s.

When I was in school [there], most parents didn’t place much importance on education, and there were kids who dropped out before they had even finished primary school. Some did that because they themselves didn’t want to study, and some did it because their parents told them to. For example, I have four uncles and two aunts, and none of their kids went to college. Some of them dropped out in primary school, and others dropped out before high school. The way they thought about it, education was not the only way out [of poverty], and in fact studying hard wasn’t necessarily useful. Dropping out earlier and helping your parents farm reduced the overall burden on the family.

Studying is a long process; without patience, you’re never going to be able to see it through. Especially when you get to middle school and kids have to go to the town or county school, students would have to ride bicycles for a long time to get to school and take classes that were very dry, or they’d get to the county school and realize they didn’t understand what was going on. Their class rankings would be low, and under that kind of pressure some just gave up.

In fact, she said, she herself tried to drop out more than once, but her parents always stopped her. That was unusual for the area. Ultimately, Mrs. Li and her two siblings were among the only children of their generation from that village to finish high school and attend college. “Including the three of us, I can count the number of kids from our village who went to college on one hand,” she said. And while that was a couple decades ago now, attitudes in her village haven’t changed much in the intervening years.

It may seem unbelievable that rural parents wouldn’t have much interest in their children being properly educated, regardless of the systemic obstructions that exist. But for many parents, it is a kind of calculation: the wages and time that could be gained from the child beginning work a few years early are concrete, while the chances of the child finishing high school and attending college are remote. For many, the cost of taking such a gamble is too high.

To some extent, rural attitudes about education may also be a reflection of historical memory. For hundreds of years, Chinese students lived and died by the Imperial examination system, which is often cited today as an example of China’s egalitarian, meritocratic system. In actuality, though, China’s underclass had virtually no shot at advancement, as Harvard historian Mark Elliot wrote in a recent piece for the New York Times:

In other words, to have any kind of reasonable shot at passing the exams, you needed to come from a family with an established tradition of classical literacy, meaning a family with money to buy books or close connections to another such family. Only 10 percent of the population made that cut.

This is not to say that today’s situation is exactly the same; overall, rural Chinese students today are far better off than their forebears were, of course. But the fact that education hasn’t really been a reliable path out of poverty in China for thousands of years may be one reason why poor rural parents are willing to see — and often even encourage — their children to drop out well before they earn a high school diploma.

Despite recent advancements, education is still a risk that, to many parents, simply isn’t worth it. If China wants to educate its rural students properly, it will not only need to eliminate the systemic obstructions; it will also have to convince parents that the math has changed, and that keeping children in school is now a worthwhile proposition.

2Non is a nonprofit media organization run by humans who enjoy activities like eating and living under roofs. If you think articles like this one, or films like this one, are worthwhile, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

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After Forced Evictions, a Nightmare of Red Tape

Click to download an audio recording of this story. (This is a demo feature; future articles will feature more fully produced audio versions).

Liu Yunge in front of a part of his demolished house. The sign reads: “Freedom, truth: these are our only future.”

On June 30, 2003, the deputy chair of the Wuxi New District Court burst through the door of Wu Xingyuan’s family home. Following the court official were police officers, demolition workers and other men Wu couldn’t identify. They began carrying Wu’s possessions out of the house. Within just three hours, the building had been razed to the ground, and most of the Wu family’s possessions had disappeared. But that was just the beginning. Nearly a decade later, Wu’s case remains unresolved. His family, which had been operating a highly profitable business out of Wu’s sizable home, is now significantly poorer. And Wu himself has grown tired and more than a little paranoid after waging a decade-long battle for justice with authorities.

Wu’s troubles began in the spring of 2003, when local authorities decided to demolish his house. Wu claims that the decision to demolish his home was an act of revenge because he had previously reported a local Party official for corruption. This claim proved impossible to confirm — we were unable to get in touch with the specific officials Wu named and the Wuxi police declined to comment — but whatever the reason for the demolition, it’s clear Wu was offered very unfavorable terms. In compensation for his 537 square meter house, he was told he could have one 120 square meter apartment. “Even Hu Jintao wouldn’t make that deal,” Wu told us. “No one would agree to that.”

During the actual demolition, Wu and his family were physically restrained, but as soon as they got free they went to court. The first case opened in July, and even though the demolition had been illegal (officials had failed to obtain the proper permits) and Wu had proof that many of his possessions had mysteriously gone missing the day of the family’s forced relocation, the court found against him.

A document from one of Wu Xingyuan’s many petitioning attempts.

Wu, however, is not a man who takes no for an answer. He filed for an appeal to a higher court, but lost. He asked for a retrial and was denied. Over the past decade, Wu has filed more than a hundred requests for retrials and appeals. He was granted just a few appeals, and lost them all, in a process he describes as rife with corruption. One judge asked him for a bribe, he says. In another case, Wu claims he heard the government lawyer conspiring with a “cackling” judge prior to the ruling — another rejection — being handed down.

Having exhausted his options inside the courtroom, Wu began petitioning at the local middle and high courts to have his case re-opened. When he finally got a chance to submit documents to the Supreme Court, he was detained by local officials who attempted to convince him not to go. Wu refused to back down and was released, but then the Supreme Court judge refused to accept his evidence.

Two sympathetic guards at the Supreme Court overheard Wu’s plight, and advised him to try appealing to the Communist Party’s Disciplinary Committee or to the National People’s Congress (NPC). The Party Disciplinary Committee told Wu that it was a problem for the courts, not for them, but an NPC rep Wu spoke with was more understanding, taking Wu’s evidence and promising to submit it to the court for him. When Wu returned to the Supreme Court the next day, though, he was told that the NPC couldn’t force the courts to do anything, and that he could come back in two months to see whether the court would accept the evidence. Two months later, a judge told Wu that the court still wouldn’t accept his evidence, but that that didn’t matter, because the local courts didn’t have the money to give him another house anyway. Years of legal wrangling had all been for nothing.

Now, Wu says, he and his family are being watched. “This phone line is being monitored,” he told us at the beginning of our interview. “I have no human rights, and I don’t have freedom of movement, they know everything I do.”

In speaking with Wu, it is clear that he has become convinced local powers have been conspiring against him from the get-go. It’s paranoid, and some of the more spectacular details of Wu’s story — like his description of the cackling judge conspiring with the government lawyer — could well be embellished. But reports by local media and Wu’s own collection of court documents indicate that his basic story is true. And while it might sound unbelievable, it’s actually not even that uncommon.

Remnants of Liu Yunge’s house burn in the twilight.

Wu’s story would sound very familiar to Liu Yunge, a Beijing resident whose family once owned three sprawling housing complexes across the capitol. The Lius traced their ownership of the homes back to the Republican era, with deeds dating from the 1930s. But over the past decade, they have watched these historical artifacts slowly torn to pieces by gangsters while police turn a blind eye.

In 2002, Liu says, strangers came and began to demolish one of the family’s homes. “Today they destroyed a little, tomorrow they destroyed a little; little by little until it was all torn down,” Liu said, stressing that while this was not a government demolition, it happened “under the protection of police.”

Ostensibly, the demolition occurred because the Beijing housing authority believed that it owned the property, and wanted to grant the rights to developers. The Lius appealed to the housing authority, but it declined to rule on who actually owned the house, instead ruling that the Lius would have to leave but also that the government would have to pay them a flat compensation fee. The Lius didn’t agree to this, and filed suit in court. When the court date came, they brought deeds and proof of ownership dating back to the 1930s. The government brought nothing. The court ruled in favor of the Lius and ordered the housing authority to reexamine its verdict, but according to Liu, it never did.

(When contacted for comment about this story, the Beijing Housing Authority bureau responsible for forced demolition cases declined to comment and advised 2Non to call a different phone number. Repeated calls to this number went unanswered).

Liu’s mother stands in front of protest signs condemning Hong Kong developer New World for the destruction of their family homes.

So Liu went looking for a more decisive ruling. “We went to the Chongwen District Court, the Dongcheng District Court, and the court the developers were subject to, the Xicheng District Court, but none of them accepted the case,” Liu said. And while courts are supposed to provide a written ruling when they reject a case, Liu was told that in his case, no ruling would be given. Abandoning the courts, Liu’s mother attempted to petition at the State Council and other government offices, bringing evidence to submit to higher officials, but she never succeeded. Each time she was intercepted before entering the building by local police and forcibly returned to the Liu’s ever-shrinking home.

While this was happening, Liu’s houses were being torn down brick by brick. Men Liu describes as gangsters came from time to time and tore down more of the house. These “gangsters,” presumably, are employees of a Hong Kong based company called New World that wants to develop the Liu family’s land. 2Non registered with the company and requested an interview for this story on October 12, but never recieved a reply. However, a 2004 report in the China Economic Times found that the company was demolishing Liu’s houses without land permits or the permits required to conduct demolitions.

While the Liu family was dealing with demolition workers and the court system, they were also struggling with the local police. Liu was carefully documenting the demolition process and calling the police after each incident, but his calls were met with little sympathy. “Once [the developers] finish demolishing the house, finish beating you, you call the police. When they come they’re not even wearing hats. They smoke their cigarettes, they take a look around, and then they leave,” said Liu.

As the family’s cries of protest grew louder over the years, police also stepped up their interference. Bizarrely, this interference has included preventing Mr. Liu from cremating his father, whose body is still apparently in the morgue despite the fact that he died in 2007. Liu says that the officer responsible for this has since been arrested on corruption charges, but that things haven’t changed much. “We’re still facing these same cops, these same developers; it’s still the same situation,” he told us. And in June of this year, when workers showed up again to tear down yet another part of Liu’s home, the police responded to the call, but months later they haven’t even officially accepted the incident as a case.

(2Non contacted the Beijing Public Security Bureau for comment on this story but we have yet to receive a reply. We will update the piece if we hear back).

A family member of Liu’s who was beaten during one demolition incident that turned contentious.

In the overall scheme of things, Liu may be one of the lucky ones. He still has a fraction of his home, after all, and his family is still free. Not everyone is can say the same. In a brief interview by phone, Shen Guodong of Wuxi told us that after his house was demolished, his wife Ding Hongfen went to Beijing to petition the government for redress of grievances. She never made it. Instead, on June 29 of this year she was intercepted by agents of the local government and thrown into what is known as a “black jail” — an illegal prison maintained by local governments to prevent petitioners from filing complaints about them with central authorities in Beijing. (The Wuxi police declined to comment for this story).

Shen has had no official notification about his wife’s whereabouts; officials and police seem to be unable to tell him where she is. But according to other petitioners who were released from a Wuxi-run black jail in Beijing after signing forms promising they would give up their right to petition, Shen’s wife has been beaten and underfed, and was still being held. She refuses to sign the form. Shen has also been asked to sign the form by local police, but he has thus far also refused to do so. “From now on all we can do is petition, all we can do is fight for our rights,” he said. “I will continue to fight for our rights.”

Shen’s complaint is very similar to thousands of others: the government demolished his home but failed to provide fair compensation for it. In his case, a 300 square meter home was torn down, and he was offered a new home just half that size in return. Shen also reported that during the demolition many of his family’s possessions went missing, another common complaint.

Li Yunge’s mother talks with a police officer while protesting the illegal demolition of their homes in Beijing.

China’s Property Rights Law and other laws governing land use in China do not expressly forbid forced demolitions and evictions, but they do dictate that “appropriate compensation” for land, fixtures, and resettlement expenses must be provided by the government, and that these compensatory funds cannot be divided, misappropriated, or embezzled. But these laws have thus far utterly failed to prevent local officials and developers from abusing the system for profit, in part because they are vague and in part because they are enforced only selectively, if at all, in many locations.

Over the past decade, the situation has become so extreme that the dissatisfaction and frustration caused by forced evictions and demolitions is now a serious threat to China’s social stability. Protests about forced evictions and demolitions account for a huge proportion of China’s mass incidents; there may be more than a hundred thousand protests sparked by forced evictions and demolitions each year*. It is not uncommon for these protests and confrontations to end in injuries or even deaths. In a recent report, Amnesty International found numerous cases of forced demolitions and evictions leading to injures and deaths, including 41 cases of self-immolation between 2009 and 2011 (compared to fewer than ten cases in the ten years before 2009).

How an illegal demolition takes place: security camera footage from the demolition of one of the Liu family houses.

Within the past year, the central government has begun to recognize the threat. Last year, China’s Supreme Court weighed in with a short release naming forced demolitions as a major threat to national stability and recommending improvements. In May of this year, the State Council ordered a nationwide investigation into illegal demolitions and evictions. Meanwhile, State-run media outlets have been publishing op-eds promoting fair play, condemning illegal demolitions, and encouraging developers to think about things from the people’s perspective. But the structural issues that have made forced demolitions a virtual necessity for local officials in many parts of China have yet to be addressed. Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explained:

One thing that doesn’t often get acknowledged in discussions about forced eviction is that, in addition to purely selfish motives, there are structural reasons why local government officials engage in these types of behaviors. In a nutshell, they are forced to rely on land sales and property transactions to generate revenue, and their performance is evaluated on the success of economic development projects in their jurisdiction. The fact that they can skim off the top and use control over property to build up patron-client relationships is an added “bonus.”

A 2010 study on forced demolitions in China published by the China Construction Authority, the Real Estate Law Research Center, and the Beijing Cailiang Law Firm confirms that many local governments are, in essence, addicted to forced demolitions because they are the only way to meet the demand for new land to sell to developers:

[Many] local governments cannot keep up with rising expenditures using only taxation, so more and more rely on profits from land [...] the four major cities all relied on land sales for at least 50% of their funding this year; before this, land sales income was only 25% of Beijing’s budget. According to statistics, in China’s ten largest cities, income from land sales hit 875 billion RMB [in 2010], an increase of over 54% from 2009.

Because of this, local governments everywhere have pushed through “transform the city” and “transform the village” programs with overwhelming force, for the purposes of tearing down housing and selling the land, which makes the demolition of housing even more prevalent.

So, while the central government is working to increase the degree to which forced evictions are governed by law, that may not solve the problem. As Joshua Rosenzweig put it:

The central government would like all of this to be rationalized under law, but unless it removes these structural pressures, the problem of forced evictions will not go away and it’s not clear to me that evictions carried out strictly “in accordance with the law” will satisfy those who are being directly affected.

And indeed, the demolitions themselves are only a small part of the problem. As the years go by and the fruitless court visits and police reports pile up, frustrations about a lost home or an unfair deal are often replaced with frustrations about the system as a whole and the ability of anyone without powerful connections to get fair treatment. China does not lack for houses, and Wu, Liu, and Shen all still have roofs of one sort of another over their heads. But their trust in a government and a court system that looks after their interests has been shattered by their experiences over the past decade. This is not uncommon. Joshua Rosenzweig told 2Non:

The current failure of the courts to occupy a neutral position in adjudicating citizens’ rights claims is seriously corrosive [to government] legitimacy because it reinforces the perception that the system is rigged against the rights of ordinary people.

For the moment, many Chinese local governments appear content to continue seizing the land of their citizens so that it can be resold to developers for profit. But for the central government, the people’s trust in China’s justice system may prove to be an even more crucial — and scarce — resource than land over the long-term.

*This is an estimation based on data from a 2006 Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study via the Beijing News in combination with the estimated number of mass incidents that occurred in 2010 according to Qinghua professor Sun Liping in an interview with the Economic Observer.

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