Family threatens suicide in Beijing property row

Wang Shibo's stricken grandparents sit drenched in petrol next to a coffin in her Beijing shop, poised to light a match in a final, desperate protest against the forced demolition of the store.

Outside, Wang and other relatives wear long, green coats also soaked in the flammable liquid and face off with police, pledging to self-immolate if Wang is not compensated -- in a stark example of the problem of land grabs in China.

"We can't go on living, we invested all our money in this shop, a lifetime of savings, my grandparents' pension -- a total of 1.6 million yuan," or $243,000, the 27-year-old Wang told AFP, tears welling in her eyes.

"We've been battling this for two years now and there's still no result," she said Tuesday about her struggle to get compensation, wrapping her coat around her nearly five-month baby bump.

Her story is a common one in China, where a property boom and fast-paced urbanisation have seen countless buildings torn down to make way for new developments, sometimes without giving residents proper redress.

Wang, who was born in northeastern China, opened her small designer shop at the end of 2008 at the entrance to Nanluoguxiang, a street in Beijing popular with tourists for its old-style courtyard houses and trendy stores.

She signed a four-year lease, handed over a year's rent and spent the rest of her investment on starting the clothing business, only to be told four months later that the store would be demolished to make way for a subway.

Under Chinese law, the homeowner -- in this case, her landlord -- receives compensation. Wang has received nothing, after two years trying to get her investment back, and claims the owner knew all along about the subway plans.

In desperation, her relatives decided to travel down from her home province of Liaoning to take part in her last-ditch, potentially suicidal protest to recoup their life savings.

"My auntie's husband recently died and we don't even have enough money to pay for his funeral," Wang said. "We're from outside Beijing, but they just can't look down on us like this."

Last week, the Chinese government adopted new rules aimed at easing land disputes, amid concern that stories like Wang's are fuelling more and more unrest across the country.

The official China News Service has quoted the land and resources ministry as saying that 53,000 plots of land were illegally requisitioned or occupied in 2010 for real estate or mining projects.

The issue has become the nation's biggest source of unrest, triggering countless violent protests and a handful of self-immolations as residents take matters in their own hands.

According to figures released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), a top government think tank, fights over land account for 65 percent of rural "mass conflicts", and the problem is highly prevalent in cities as well.

Yu Jianrong, a CASS researcher, said last month that since 1990, the disparity between money paid to residents and the land's market value amounted to about two trillion yuan, state media reported.

The new rules state that if authorities cannot reach an agreement with residents over expropriations or compensation for their property, demolitions can be carried out only after the local court has reviewed and approved them.

Wang says she went through court procedures, but the final ruling stated she should be paid 30,000 yuan -- less than two percent of her initial investment.

Officials have promised her they will take action. The local government was not immediately available for comment when contacted by AFP on Wednesday.

But Wang has nevertheless pledged to go ahead with self-immolation if the outcome is not satisfactory.

"We will commit suicide before the Lunar New Year (February 3), because we have no money to go home anyway," she said, standing behind a police cordon, as firemen and a crowd of passers-by looked on.

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