September 22, 2023

Leaving the Land: As Chinese Farmers Fight for Homes, Suicide Is Ultimate Protest

As she drove down a busy four-lane road near her old home, Tang Huiqing pointed to the property where her dead sister’s workshop once stood. The lot was desolate, but for Ms. Tang it lives.

Four years ago, government officials told her sister that Chengdu was expanding into the countryside and that her village had to make way. A farmer who had made the transition to manufacturer, she had built the small workspace with her husband. Now, officials said, it would be torn down.

“So my sister went up to the roof and said, ‘If you want to, tear it down,’ ” Ms. Tang said.

Her voice trailed off as she recalled how her sister poured diesel fuel on herself and after pleading with the demolition crew to leave, set herself alight. She died 16 days later.

Over the past five years, at least 39 farmers have resorted to this drastic form of protest. The figures, pieced together from Chinese news reports and human rights organizations, are a stark reminder of how China’s new wave of urbanization is at times a violent struggle between a powerful state and stubborn farmers — a top-down project that is different from the largely voluntary migration of farmers to cities during the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s.

Besides the self-immolations, farmers have killed themselves by other means to protest land expropriation. One Chinese nongovernmental organization, the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, reported that in addition to 6 self-immolations last year, 15 other farmers killed themselves. Others die when they refuse to leave their property: last year, a farmer in the southern city of Changsha who would not yield was run over by a steamroller, and last month, a 4-year-old girl in Fujian Province was struck and killed by a bulldozer while her family tried to stop an attempt to take their land.

Amid the turmoil, the government is debating new policies to promote urbanization. A plan to speed up urbanization was supposed to have been unveiled earlier this year, but it has been delayed over concerns that the move to cities is already stoking social tensions. New measures are also being contemplated to increase rural residents’ property rights.

In the past, many farmers chose to leave their land for better-paying jobs in the city. Many still do, but farmers are increasingly thrown off their land by officials eager to find new sources of economic growth. The tensions are especially acute on the edge of big Chinese cities. After having torn down the historic centers of most Chinese cities and sold the land to developers, officials now target the rural areas on the outskirts of cities like Chengdu.

But such plans are opposed by local farmers. Many do not want to leave the land, believing they can earn more in agriculture than in factory work. Farmers on the outskirts of Chengdu, near the workshop where Tang Fuzhen committed suicide, say they can easily earn several hundred dollars a month, pay that dwarfs government compensation offers. Others, like Ms. Tang, have already made the leap from agriculture to industry.

A Village vs. Demolition Crews

A mile north of Ms. Tang’s demolished workshop is the village of Zhuguosi, whose residents have been involved in tense standoffs with the police since 2010. The village is to be torn down for Chengdu’s New Financial City. The district abuts the city’s extravagant new government complex, which has buildings modeled on Hong Kong’s waterfront exhibition center and the Beijing Olympic stadium known as the Bird’s Nest.

Every night now for the past eight months, residents have formed a ring around their village to prevent demolition crews from destroying it. Some of the houses have been torn down, but others remain, and cows still graze the fertile land — a surreal sight with the new city government buildings in the background.

“If we don’t oppose this, then we don’t have anything,” said Han Liang, a 31-year-old who is one of 80 to 90 villagers who keep watch each night. “We have lost our land.”

As in other land expropriation cases around Chengdu, government officials declined to comment. But according to deeds and correspondence provided by the villagers, most were offered compensation of roughly $1,500 per mu (one-sixth of an acre) — inadequate, in their view, because the payments amount to only what they earn in a couple of years.

While none of the residents of Zhuguosi have committed suicide, they have faced off with the authorities. The police have encircled villagers and carried them off, and photographs indicate that some have been beaten.

According to the Tianwang Web site, which monitors grass-roots protests, Chengdu routinely has several violent confrontations on its outskirts each day. Nationally, China has tens of thousands of similar conflicts a year, according to government estimates.

An Ancient Form of Dissent

The suicides, while not numerous relative to the overall population, represent the outrage that many farmers feel when their land is taken away. Suicide has been used as a form of political protest in China since at least the third century B.C., when the poet and statesman Qu Yuan drowned himself. Self-immolations have historically been practiced more by Buddhist and Daoist clergy members, and imitated by other people as a form of protest.

“It fits in with the historical pattern,” said Dr. Michael R. Phillips, director of the Shanghai Suicide Research and Prevention Center and professor of psychiatry at Emory University. “It’s a lever to change the behavior of powerful people who you don’t have influence over.”

The deaths come even as suicides in China are declining. After being among the highest in the world, rates have dropped 50 percent over the past 20 years, according to epidemiological studies.

Most of these rural self-immolations take place outside the public eye. Ms. Tang’s suicide was initially covered in the local news media and on the Web, but reporters were later barred from talking to the Tang family, journalists and family members say. Other families say that even local Chinese news media were often blocked by plainclothes police officers from entering their homes to conduct interviews.

That contrasts sharply with the government’s efforts to publicize self-immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule of their region and to prosecute people accused of helping the protesters.

“It is striking how differently the two are treated,” said Corinna-Barbara Francis, a China researcher for Amnesty International. “They are trying to cover up the issue in the countryside.”

That may be because the government cannot claim, as it does with the Tibetans, that foreign forces are behind the suicides. Instead, government policies seem to be the cause of the tens of thousands of episodes of unrest recorded by the government each year. Exact statistics are not available, but Chinese researchers estimated that in 2010 the country had 180,000 protests, with the majority related to land disputes.

An analysis of the suicides shows that many of those who took their lives, like Ms. Tang, tasted prosperity and were incensed that it was being taken from them. According to relatives and neighbors, the Chengdu city government had offered Ms. Tang 800,000 renminbi, or about $131,000 at current exchange rates, for her workshop. Given that commercial property in the same district sells for 20 to 30 times that amount, Ms. Tang was unwilling to sell.

The exact financial details of her garment business are unclear. Ms. Tang and her husband ran the business together, and after her death he left Chengdu. But her sister estimates that Ms. Tang spent more than the government’s offer on fixed assets alone, like equipment and lighting.

“The government said it needed the land to widen the road, but we didn’t think they’d tear down the building,” said Ms. Tang’s sister, Tang Huiqing.

A Workshop Under Siege

After months of negotiations, Tang Huiqing said she was feeding her 8-month-old grandchild at 5 a.m. on Nov. 13, 2009, when men dressed in camouflage and carrying metal rods surrounded her sister’s workshop. Family members quickly arrived to defend it. The men and the family members began quarreling, and one of Ms. Tang’s brothers was beaten and suffered a broken rib, according to family members and a report on the compensation that he later received from the city.

Ms. Tang retreated to the roof and shouted down at the men, according to her sister, who watched the events unfold.

“When she was on the roof she heard us being beaten,” Tang Huiqing said. “She called out, ‘Brother, sister, are you being beaten to death?’ She didn’t get an answer. She said for everyone to stop, for everyone to sit down and consult and negotiate. But no one listened to her.”

Then she doused herself and set herself on fire, an event captured by onlookers’ cellphones. A few days later the workshop was torn down and family members received compensation for injuries.

The impact of these suicides is impossible to measure, and there is scant evidence that the officials responsible for the land expropriations in these cases have been punished.

One of China’s leading newspapers, Southern Weekend, analyzed eight cases from 2008 to 2010 and found that in all instances the officials responsible were still in their posts. Certainly, the deaths continue today. The most recent self-immolation was of Hu Tengping of Zhoukeng, a village in Jiangxi Province.

Mr. Hu, who worked as a migrant laborer in Changsha, returned home for the Chinese New Year this year to find that his home had been torn down for an undisclosed development. Later that same day he went to the Communist Party offices and set himself on fire. According to relatives, the family was never able to recover Mr. Hu’s corpse.

“There is no one helping us,” said Mr. Hu’s sister, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation. “There’s no justice in the world. There’s no law.”

After Suicides, Some Changes

A national activist who tracks unrest, Huang Qi, said cases like Mr. Hu’s and Ms. Tang’s have spurred the government’s recent crackdown on corruption and forced it to rethink the idea that fast urbanization is the best way to stimulate economic growth. In Chengdu, at least, the party secretary behind the city’s ambitious urbanization drive, Li Chuncheng, was toppled last year, a move that Mr. Huang said was partly caused by unease over the methods used to take land.

Political analysts in Beijing also say that economic reforms that could be unveiled in November would increase compensation for expropriated rural land, while other measures could give farmers more rights to determine how their land is used. Currently, all land is owned by the government, and farmers have only usage rights.

“Li Chuncheng’s problem is mainly due to the efforts of the Chengdu people,” Mr. Huang said. “There have been more protests against land expropriation in this one city than in many provinces. The cases were terrible, but I think they had an effect.”

Tang Huiqing thinks so, too.

“My sister’s sacrifice brought a change,” she said. “Right now they don’t dare tear down so many homes. There’s more consultation. At least here, they don’t tear down as much. Maybe in this village it’s better.”

The effect on her family, however, was grim. The sisters’ mother joined the Communist Party shortly after it took power in 1949, elated at its promise to take land from landlords and redistribute it to poor peasants like the Tang family. Her daughter’s death broke her will to live, and she died a few months later.

“She was heartbroken,” Ms. Tang said. “She couldn’t understand how they could act like this to unarmed, ordinary people.”

Mia Li and Amy Qin contributed research from Beijing. Sim Chi Yin contributed reporting from Chengdu.

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Recession Study Finds Hispanics Hit the Hardest

The study, which used data collected by the Census Bureau, found that the median wealth of Hispanic households fell by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009. By contrast, the median wealth of whites fell by just 16 percent over the same period. African Americans saw their wealth drop by 53 percent. Asians also saw a big decline, with household wealth dropping 54 percent.

The declines have led to the largest wealth disparities in the 25 years that the bureau has been collecting the data, according to the report.

Median wealth of whites is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, double the already marked disparities that had prevailed in the decades before the recent recession, the study found.

“It’s a very stark reminder of the high share of minorities who live at the economic margins of this country,” said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and an author of the report. “These data really show their economic vulnerability.”

Household wealth, also referred to in the report as net worth, is made up of assets, like a house, a car, savings and stocks, minus debts, like mortgages, car loans and credit cards. It is tracked by the Census Bureau in the Survey of Income and Program Participation, a broad sampling of household wealth by race and ethnicity.

Nearly two-thirds of Hispanics’ median net worth in 2005 came from home equity, according to the report, and when the housing market collapsed, so did their wealth. Median home equity for Hispanics fell by 51 percent in the period of the survey. The drop was compounded by the fact that Hispanics tended to live in the places that were hit hardest in the recession, like Florida and California, the report said.

Armando Moya, a Mexican immigrant from Woodbridge, outside Washington, experienced these swings of fortune first-hand. For a few happy years, he believed he had avoided his father’s fate of scraping by. He bought a house with a backyard and opened a taco restaurant with his brothers. His bank account was growing, and he took his family on vacations several times a year.

Mr. Moya lives in Prince William County, where the Hispanic population more than tripled from 2000 to 2010, according to the Migration Policy Institute, with many newcomers working in construction trades that were flourishing in the rapidly growing suburbs of Washington.

To capitalize on the influx, Mr. Moya, who is now 38 and had been working in restaurants since he came to the United States in the early 1990s, decided to start his own, and together with his brother opened Ricos Tacos Moya in 2005.

In the same year, he bought a house valued at $350,000. His monthly payments were more than $2,300, and with hungry workers filling his restaurant, he managed.

But when the collapse of the housing market swept like a wave through this Northern Virginia county, taking his house, and his bank account, and many of his customers along with it, he lost his middle-class lifestyle.

“Everything was going down,” he said.

Now he is back where he started, living with his family in a rented apartment, and working seven days a week in the taco restaurant. His house sold for $135,000 to a couple from Morocco, he said.

“My money changed,” he said. “I lost my house.”

The share of Americans with no wealth at all rose sharply during the recession. A third of Hispanics had zero or negative net worth in 2009, up from 23 percent in 2005. For blacks, the portion rose to 35 percent from 29 percent, and for whites, it rose to 15 percent from 11 percent.

About a quarter of all black and Hispanic households owned nothing but a car in 2009. Just 6 percent of whites and 8 percent of Asians were in that situation.

Whites were less affected by the crisis, largely because their wealth flowed from assets other than housing, like stocks. A third of whites owned stocks and mutual funds in 2005, compared with 8 percent of Hispanics and 9 percent of blacks.

The median value of stocks and mutual funds owned by whites dropped by 9 percent from 2005 to 2009. In comparison, the median value of holdings for those blacks who held stocks dropped by 71 percent, most likely because they had to sell when prices were low, Mr. Taylor said.

The median wealth of Hispanic and black households is at its lowest point since 1984, when the Census Bureau first conducted the study, the report said.

Mr. Moya counts himself lucky to still have his restaurant. He has to work weekends at a nightclub in Washington to keep up with his rent. His life is increasingly resembling his father’s — subsisting, without saving — but he has pinned his hopes for a better life on his sons, and he has discarded the idea of returning to Mexico.

“I want my house back,” he said. “I’m working for my house right now.”

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DealBook: Goldman’s Sluggish Growth Raises Concern on Wall Street

Goldman Sachs paid off a lifeline from Berkshire Hathaway, Warren E. Buffett's company.Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg News Goldman Sachs paid off a lifeline from Warren E. Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Goldman Sachs gave investors a peek at the new normal on Wall Street — and many are worried.

In some ways, Goldman’s latest results looked good.

On Tuesday, the bank reported first-quarter earnings of $1.56 a share, nearly double analysts’ expectations. Some divisions like investment banking and investment management showed improvement. And Goldman repaid the pricey lifeline from Warren E. Buffett’s holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, the bank’s last major shackle from the financial crisis.

But investors instead focused on Goldman’s sluggish growth, which offered a stark reminder of the difficulties for an investment bank in this postcrisis world.

In trading and the rest of institutional client services, once the hallmark of the firm’s operations, revenue dropped by 22 percent, to $6.7 billion. Over all, first-quarter earnings slumped 21 percent, to $2.74 billion from $3.5 billion, including the one-time hit from the Berkshire repayment. Revenue fell to $11.9 billion from $12.8 billion. And its return on equity, an important measure of profitability, is down sharply from just a few years ago.

“Everyone is saying this sector is dead money,” said Roger Freeman, an analyst with Barclays Capital. “I hear it over and over, and Goldman is part of that.”

Investors took notice. Shares of Goldman fell sharply on Tuesday, dropping by as much as 3 percent before settling at $151.86, down 1.3 percent. The stock is off almost 10 percent for the year.

At issue is how Goldman Sachs and the rest of Wall Street will reverse the profit situation, given the new mandate to temper leverage and hang on to more capital. The looming threat of new financial regulation only makes the outlook more uncertain. Investment banks, and their shareholders, do not have a clear sense how the rules will affect business at a time when economic growth is already slow.

Goldman, which emerged from the crisis stronger than most companies, is not saddled with many of the same problems as its rivals. Bank of America continues to struggle under the weight of bad loans and mounting legal liabilities. Morgan Stanley is paying for a 2008 investment from the Japanese bank Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, a deal that costs the company roughly $900 million a year.

The firm also struck a note of optimism about the quarter despite lackluster results. On a conference call with analysts, executives said that client activity had increased, even amid continued economic concerns.

“We are pleased with our first-quarter results,” Lloyd C. Blankfein, chief executive, said in a statement. “Generally improving market and economic conditions, coupled with our strong client franchise, produced solid results. Looking ahead, we continue to see encouraging indications for economic activity globally.”

Even so, investors are nervous about Goldman’s prospects. Many big names have been actively reducing their exposure, including Wellington Management, based in Boston. It sold more than one million shares in Goldman in late 2010, according to regulatory filings. Wellington declined to comment.

One concern is Goldman’s deteriorating return on equity. In the first quarter, Goldman’s return on equity was 12.2 percent. It was 20.1 percent a year ago and 38 percent at the beginning of 2009.

“Most investors have just one question: ‘How is the return on equity going to go up?’ ” said Mr. Freeman of Barclays. “The answer isn’t clear, given the uncertain regulatory environment.”

The current return on equity is also well below Goldman’s stated goal of 20 percent — a level that tracks closely to the firm’s average since its initial public offering in 1999. But the company is unwilling to revise its objective downward until there are fewer “unknown variables” surrounding its operating model, according to a person close to the company who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Although analysts are confident that Goldman will eventually be able to raise returns over time, it will be a tough slog in the near term.

Return on equity is the amount of money that a company delivers on each share. So if the total investor base grows, Goldman must produce even higher earnings to keep returns the same. Currently, Goldman is sitting on $64 billion of shareholder equity, up from $46.6 billion at the end of 2008, meaning that it has to work harder to generate the same return on equity.

To help increase returns, the company could issue a series of one-time dividends or share repurchases to reduce its capital. But that would be a tricky move right now. Regulators have been loath to let companies like Goldman buy back significant amounts of stock because they want them to have ample capital in the event of another economic shock. Also, Goldman is reluctant to let go of capital until it knows what regulatory changes are coming.

Meanwhile, the firm does not have the same ways to increase profits. Before, Goldman could ratchet up its leverage, relying on borrowed money to help amplify gains. With pressure from regulators to damp risk, the company’s gross leverage ratio fell to 12.9 percent at the end of the quarter, from 27.9 percent at the beginning of 2008.

“Until now, they were operating with two hands tied behind their back,” said Mr. Freeman. “Now they have just one hand, and it is still isn’t easy.”

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