Cancer victim with jailed family faces China land battle

CHANGZHOU, China (AFP) - His frail body is ravaged by cancer and age, his wife and son are in a Chinese prison and Mr Yao Baohua is awaiting trial himself, but he is still determined to fight for his house and land.

The Yao home is the last one standing in the rubble of a vast development site in Changzhou, a Chinese "nail house", the moniker earned for both their physical appearance and their owners' stubborn resistance.

The former mathematics teacher is one of the few to make a stand against the devastating side effects of China's breakneck urbanisation, which can see entire villages uprooted to make way for industry and housing developments - often with the help of corrupt officials and police.

"Everyone else has gone, fight by fight, tear by tear," said the 75-year-old, breathing heavily in a bed at Changzhou People's Number Two hospital, recovering from an operation on a stomach tumour.

"But I will never give up. It is an illegal development," he added, raising his fists defiantly as aggressive security staff forced out his visitors.

Mr Yao's plight is typical of disputes over land expropriation that China's then premier Wen Jiabao said last year "are still very serious and the people are still very concerned about them".

China has passed a series of regulations in recent years to protect land rights, including outlawing the use of violence during evictions and stipulating market rate compensation must be paid to relocated residents.

But local officials often ignore the rules, say researchers and campaigners.

China's newly appointed President Xi Jinping pledged last December to implement the rule of law, in comments that appeared aimed at rising social discontent over government corruption and police brutality.

"We must firmly establish throughout society the authority of the constitution and the law and allow the overwhelming masses to fully believe in the law," Mr Xi said in comments carried by state broadcaster China Central Television.

Mr Yao is the only one of 89 homeowners on a 12-hectare plot to refuse the 4,000 yuan (S$801) per square metre compensation offered under a relocation scheme arranged by local officials.

But Mr Yao insists property in Zhonglou - a few km from the centre of Changzhou, one of the richest cities in the affluent eastern province of Jiangsu - commonly fetches almost twice as much.

His family resisted efforts by hired thugs to forcibly evict them last September, he says.

But officials say most of his neighbours left willingly, and that Mr Yao's opposition delayed many moving into their new homes for years.

An official from Zhonglou legal department added the works were "being carried out in accordance with the relevant policies and standards".

Mr Yao first took up the land issue 10 years ago, when he began campaigning for villagers, and in 2006 was sentenced to 15 months in a "re-education" labour camp after petitioning for nearby farmers, a struggle which also saw his wife and son detained.

The family joined in another campaign in Zhonglou, which saw angry clashes between construction workers and residents in November 2011.

His daughter Yao Qin said the residents were originally offered nothing but officials eventually paid them a total of 700,000 RMB.

When the family resisted plans to develop their own community, they were subjected to a campaign of terror, she added. Windows were smashed, doors kicked in, and fireworks set off by thugs, while the police refused to help, she said.

In December the entire family were arrested for public order offences relating to the 2011 protests. Ms Yao Qin, 49, has since been granted bail, but her mother and brother remain in custody.

"This is political persecution. It is not just about forced evictions. The second Cultural Revolution is coming," she told AFP.

Mr Yao's lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan questioned the authorities' motives for the detentions.

"When Yao's family were the only ones that refused to sign the contract, they were arrested because of revenge by the local government," he told AFP.

Zhonglou district police spokeswoman, Fei Xingwei, told AFP that Mr Yao had been charged with extortion over the 2011 protests, involving "huge amounts of money." His lawyer said he was not aware of any such accusations.

Jinyan Real Estate Development Company, who are developing that site, told AFP Mr Yao's opposition had caused huge delays to the project.

Social unrest is anathema to China's ruling Communist Party, but protests have risen steadily since the 1990s and there were an estimated 180,000 in 2010, according to research by professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Land rights are a common cause, he said in a report last year, with reforms "held hostage" by opponents including government bureaucrats and the property industry.

"Officials can obtain land at a cheap price through administrative means and then turn around and sell it for a high price on the market," the report said.

"Is there anything more valuable than this to powerful vested interests in the amassing of wealth?"

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