A rapid construction boom has led to a rise in people being forcibly removed from their homes and land, according to a rights group.
A report released by Amnesty International on Thursday says the escalation of evictions in the past three years has been driven by massive stimulus spending after the global financial crisis.
“The problem of forced evictions represents the single most significant source of popular discontent in China and a serious threat to social and political stability,” the report said.
Of 40 forced evictions the London-based group said it examined in detail, nine culminated in the deaths of people protesting or resisting eviction.
In one case, a 70-year-old woman was reportedly buried alive by an excavator as she tried to stop workers demolishing her house in Wuhan city in central Hubei province.
In another, police in Wenchang city in southern Sichuan province took custody of a baby and refused to return him until his mother signed an eviction order, reported Amnesty.
The group also said that some people who resist forced evictions end up in prison or in labour camps.
Amnesty said a woman in Hexia township in southeastern Jiangxi province who petitioned authorities about her eviction was beaten and forced to undergo sterilisation.
Some despairing residents have set themselves on fire. Amnesty said it documented 41 cases of self-immolations that occurred between January 2009 and January 2012.
Amnesty International called on authorities to immediately halt all forced evictions, ensure no one is made homeless as a result of forced eviction and punish and prosecute those who use violence during the eviction process.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Hong Kong, Nicola Duckworth, senior director of research at Amnesty International, said there has been “a pattern of almost concerted pressure on communities to leave their homes”.
Among the tactics used to forcibly evict residents, Duckworth said some developers have cut residents off from essential services such as water and electricity.
In other cases, Duckworth said “developers would hire thugs” to beat residents.
In 2011, Beijing approved a regulation making it more difficult for developers to demolish housing and force out landholders, but Amnesty said problems remain at the local level.
The rights group accused the ruling Communist Party of promoting local officials who are determined to deliver economic growth through any means.
Often, land redevelopment – for roads, factories or housing – is seen as the most direct path to visible results.
Referring to the Chinese court system as “flawed. not independent [and] not impartial”, Duckworth said residents have little recourse against developers.
The court system, said Duckworth, is “not stepping up to the plate” to provide people the rights they deserve.
Technically, the government owns most land in China and can seize property for projects deemed in the public interest.
Compensation is supposed to be given to those who are evicted, but that does not always happen or is not
Amnesty said there are no reliable estimates of the number of people who have been forced from their homes or farms, “but there is little doubt the figure has risen significantly”.