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Why Chinese protesters have resorted to self-immolation over urban construction

October 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
To keep up with the huge boom in urban development, China has knocked down villages to make way for new cities, sometimes without consent. When one farmer's demands for compensation were not met, he resorted to setting himself on fire, and he's not the only one to do so. Hari Sreenivasan gets details from Frank Langfitt of NPR.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the dramatic fight over land in China.

The country’s urban population has swelled in recent decades, bringing hundreds of millions of people out of rural areas and into cities. That migration has led to a surge in construction and the demolition of millions of homes to make way for developments, sometimes without the consent of residents. Protesters attempting to stop the destruction have blocked heavy machinery, fought with officials, and even set themselves on fire.

Hari Sreenivasan takes a closer look at that practice. He spoke with Frank Langfitt from NPR’s Shanghai bureau earlier today via Skype.

And a warning: Some viewers may find the report disturbing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Frank, thanks for joining us.

So, tell us what happened in this most recent incident in the Hunan province.

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FRANK LANGFITT, NPR: What happened was, there had been a battle over development.

Basically, they’re building a park as part of a $1.6 development project to boost the local economy. You see this all over China. And in order to do this, they had to knock down a village. And one of the farmers was asking for a fair bit of money. There’s some dispute over that, but the government was only willing to give about $33,000.

And the farmer, like other farmers that I think we have talked to and others have talked to, when they’re going lose their land, they’re in their 40s, they don’t have much else going for them, and it appears that he kind of snapped and lit himself on fire.

He’s still alive. He’s in a coma. But what’s really striking about it is that he’s not the only guy. Since 2009, there are over 50 cases of this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Why are they doing this?

FRANK LANGFITT: I think, when we have talked to people, family members and certainly speaking to one person I talked to who doused himself with gasoline, but officials stopped him from lighting himself on fire, a sense of tremendous frustration, a sense of hopelessness, a sense that local officials don’t care, and certainly a sense of a very dramatic protest.

That’s kind of the sense that we get from people as to what’s driving it, though it’s hard to know. Many of these people die, so there’s no chance to actually interview them afterwards to ask them, why do you do it?

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s the government’s position on these incidents?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, they don’t talk about it at any sort of central government level.

But an interesting thing in this case in Hunan province is, the local government — it took many, many phone calls, but we finally got an answer from them. And they said that this family was asking for a lot of money, and that they saw this as a way actually to make a tremendous amount of money off the government.

They had been holding out by not taking the compensation that was offered. And they basically blamed the family themselves, saying that this was kind of almost a scam. Now, when I ran this by the family, they said no. Most of them said they had no idea that this man was going to do it and they denied those things.

One thing that is the case, though, we found in some of the interviews that we did later in some other immolation cases, the government will pay quite a bit of money in the end, sometimes — in one case $130,000, in one case over $500,000 for someone who died from self-immolation.

And, in many cases, that’s in part to shut the family up, so that these stories don’t get out around the country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what do we see this video that you have tent?

FRANK LANGFITT: The video you are going to see is actually the man inside. You won’t see his body, fortunately, but he is on fire.

He’s inside his room. And his family members are outside, along with police, plainclothes police, local officials, and chengguan, which are local — which are basically city management officials who are kind of seen as official — officially sanctioned thugs.

And you — I think in the early part of the video, what you will probably see is actually one of the excavators is right there up against the window beginning — about to tear into the house. And you can see that he’s lit himself on fire.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are Chinese people hearing reports of these immolations? Are they seeing them? Have these incidents become symbolic?

FRANK LANGFITT: No.

What is fascinating about it is, the government has really, really kept a lid on this. There was almost zero coverage of this last case in China. There was a TV crew that went out, a local TV crew that did a story on it. Apparently, the story ran once and then was never put on the Web site or deleted from the Web site.

The family members actually uploaded the video that I’m sending to you. And it was immediately or very quickly deleted from the Chinese Internet. It’s not — basically, most people have no idea this is going on.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And since you have got this video, has the family said anything?

FRANK LANGFITT: The family just wanted this out.

They said they really — they have been waiting for the story. They want people to know what happened. And when they tried to get the story out, it didn’t succeed, because it was deleted. So, we have actually posted the story on Chinese Internet, on Weibo, and so far, as of later this after — late this afternoon, it was still on the Internet. But we will see.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Frank Langfitt of NPR, thanks so much.

FRANK LANGFITT: Sure.