Home breakers

Home breakers As the start of the Beijing Olympics moves ever closer, international attention has in recent months focused critically on China’s human rights record. Tibet has been top of the agenda following the ill-fated (and perhaps ill-conceived) worldwide torch-bearing procession. But to some extent this has diverted attention from some of the equally pressing domestic issues that flow from these Olympics. One such issue is compulsory land reclamation and the compensation of the individual.

It is not unusual for the state to reclaim land compulsorily in the build-up to an Olympic Games. The Athens authorities did so before the 2004 Olympics and London is doing likewise in preparation for 2012, with a reported 425 residents from the Clays Lane Housing Estate being rehoused and an estimated 200 local businesses being moved on to make way for the new Olympic structures. But the number of people who have been displaced in Beijing (which has a population of 15 million) far exceeds the numbers in Athens or London, whether we believe the official Chinese figure of around 300,000 people or the figure of 1.5 million people put forward by the Geneva-based housing pressure group the Centre of Housing Rights and Evictions.

Given the enormous scale of the Beijing evictions, it is not surprising to find instances of controversy. Reports of forced evictions are legion, with claims that on some occasions residents have returned home to find the character ‘chai’ (meaning ‘to demolish’) painted on their front doors.

Levels of compensation have also been an issue, with numerous claims of under-compensation by affected residents. Public dissatisfaction with the way eviction and compensation procedures have been handled by the Beijing authorities has in some cases led to spontaneous street protests, violent unrest and even suicide.

So what are the Chinese procedures for eviction and compensation? At the risk of oversimplification, they can be summarised as follows: given that all property in China remains under the ownership of the state, developers wishing to build on a site are obliged to get permission from the relevant demolition and eviction management departments in the Beijing administration. Once permission is granted, developers are required to notify those residents who are to lose their homes, explaining the purpose of the new development and informing them of their right to compensation and relocation.

Compensation negotiationFollowing negotiation, an agreement is drawn up that sets out the amount of compensation due and deals with issues to do with relocation. If a potential evictee is not satisfied with the terms of the agreement and refuses to sign it, they can apply for a local arbitration board to hear their case. If the evictee does sign the agreement but then refuses to leave, the developer can apply to the local courts for permission to forcibly remove them from their home.

Notwithstanding the promulgation of, and the national fanfare surrounding, China’s new property law last October, a number of problems have arisen from the eviction and compensation procedures that impinge directly on the rights of those affected. For example, there is no requirement for developers to consult with residents prior to obtaining permission to demolish their homes. In effect, therefore, the demolition notification is presented as a fait accompli, rather than as a negotiated process. Eviction notice periods have also been problematic in the absence of any clear or consistent legislation on this point, although admittedly instances of ‘chai’ postings are few and far between.

Market value guidelinesThere are guidelines on compensation levels in the form of the Guiding Opinions on the Appraisal of Urban Housing Demolition, which were implemented in 2004. The guidelines require compensation amounts to be based on the “market value” of the property to be demolished, rather than the replacement value at the time the property was built. But, if anything, compensation has been the most divisive and disputed aspect of the whole reclamation procedure. This is partly because the concept of ‘market value’ is not clearly defined in the legislation.

Confusingly, the Guiding Opinions has two benchmarks by which an assessment for compensation is measured: (i) prices announced by the administration, and (ii) prices indicated by the Beijing property market. However, the guidelines are silent in cases where there is a discrepancy between the two; and in many cases the lower government figure, often based on outdated price listings, has been applied.

There is also a feeling that the arbitration system has not protected those Beijing residents seeking to oppose their evictions or obtain a fair level of compensation. Human rights watchdog organisations have cited several instances in which demolitions have gone ahead before the arbitration process had been completed.

The Beijing Olympics, with its 31 venues, promises to be the most spectacular Games of all time. But it is coming at a high cost to some local residents.

Dr Robert Weatherley is a senior solicitor at Mills & Reeve