Eminent domain in China: Olympic hurdles dim property rights

By Priya Prakash Royal

The much-anticipated lighting of the next Olympic flame was dimmed when a Beijing resident burned himself to death last September. When Baoquan Wang was forcibly evicted from his home to make way for the city’s construction project for the 2008 Olympic Games in China, he became a human torch.

People all over the world are looking forward to the Beijing Games – except that is, the citizens of Beijing who are losing their homes through eminent domain to make way for the games. By the time China hosts the games, 1.5 million residents of Beijing will be displaced by eminent domain:

The Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions said residents were often forced from their homes with little notice and little compensation, as the government embarks on a massive city redevelopment to accommodate the Games. "In Beijing, and in China more generally, the process of demolition and eviction is characterised by arbitrariness and lack of due process," the group said in a report.

The statement prompted a sharp denial by China.  A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Jiang Yu, said that “the citizens have had their compensation properly settled.” However, after demolition, the former inhabitants are forced to relocate from their communities. Once again, poor rural citizens are forced to make way for massive income and popularity generating events.

At the Fifth Session of the Tenth National People’s Congress on March 8, 2007, Zhaoguo Wang, Vice-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, provided an explanation of the purpose and goals of China’s new property law:

“Enacting the property law is necessitated by the need to uphold the basic socialist economic system. Keeping public ownership dominant and having the economic sectors of diverse forms of ownership develop side by side constitute the basic socialist economic system of the State in the primary stage of socialism.”

Certainly, the property takings for the Olympics sends a clear message that public ownership is primary. But, Wang also noted that the property law “will serve to define the scope of private property and protect private property in accordance with the law, which will be conducive to encouraging, supporting and guiding the development of the economic sector of non-public ownership.” (emphasis added). Protecting private property seems to have taken a back seat to the government’s emphasis on economic growth. Even for a socialist society, as Wang notes, ignoring private property rights would be misplaced. Specifically, Wang stated:

“Enacting the property law is necessitated by the need to safeguard the immediate interests of the people. As the reform and opening-up and the economy develop, people's living standards have improved in general, and they urgently require effective protection of their own lawful property accumulated through hard work, of the right to land contractual management they enjoy in accordance with law, and of their other lawful rights and interests. Enactment of the property law will serve to define and protect private ownership, condominium right, right to land contractual management and house-site-use right, for the purpose of protecting the immediate interests of the people, stimulating their vigor to create wealth and promoting social harmony.”

Forced eviction doesn’t resonate well with the concept of “protecting private ownership” and “promoting social harmony.” Although the new property law in China is a step toward the recognition and protection of private ownership rights, it is still only a theory.

The good news is that the International Olympic Committee is studying the impact of displacement by mega-events like the Olympics through a meeting with the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Adequate Housing. Perhaps, the result will force non-eviction without due process. Further information on the impact of mega-events is also available IPS. A recent report by a U.N.-funded agency based in Geneva, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) states that "gentrification and soaring real estate prices linked to the Games have displaced more than two million people in the last 20 years."   

The report, "Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights", indicates that forced evictions took place in Seoul, South Korea and in Beijing. The following remedies are suggested and can be found on pages 274-275 of the report:

59. All persons threatened with or subject to forced evictions have the right of access to timely remedy. Appropriate remedies include a fair hearing, access to legal counsel, legal aid, return, restitution, resettlement, rehabilitation and compensation, and should comply, as applicable, with the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.

A. Compensation
60. When eviction is unavoidable, and necessary for the promotion of the general welfare, the State must provide or ensure fair and just compensation for any losses of personal, real or other property or goods, including rights or interests in property. Compensation should be provided for any economically assessable damage, as appropriate and proportional to the gravity of the violation and the circumstances of each case, such as: loss of life or limb; physical or mental harm; lost opportunities, including employment, education and social benefits; material damages and loss of earnings, including loss of earning potential; moral damage; and costs required for legal or expert assistance, medicine and medical services, and psychological and social services. Cash compensation should under no circumstances replace real compensation in the form of land and common property resources. Where land has been taken, the evicted should be compensated with land commensurate in quality, size and value, or better.

61. All those evicted, irrespective of whether they hold title to their property, should be entitled to compensation for the loss, salvage and transport of their properties affected, including the original dwelling and land lost or damaged in the process. Consideration of the circumstances of each case shall allow for the provision of compensation for losses related to informal property, such as slum dwellings.

62. Women and men must be co-beneficiaries of all compensation packages. Single women and widows should be entitled to their own compensation.

63. To the extent not covered by assistance for relocation, the assessment of economic damage should take into consideration losses and costs, for example, of land plots and house structures; contents; infrastructure; mortgage or other debt penalties; interim housing; bureaucratic and legal fees; alternative housing; lost wages and incomes; lost educational opportunities; health and medical care; resettlement and transportation costs (especially in the case of relocation far from the source of livelihood). Where the home and land also provide a source of livelihood for the evicted inhabitants, impact and loss assessment must account for the value of business losses, equipment/inventory, livestock, land, trees/crops, and lost/decreased wages/income.