All in the Family
How a Chinese local government forced a teacher to help evict her parents.
In what will surely make for years of awkward dinner table conversation, the government of a suburban area of Fuzhou, the capital of coastal Fujian province, tried to force local schoolteacher Lin Xin to assist authorities in demolishing her parents’ home, according to an Oct. 28 report in the popular local paper Beijing News. Lin refused, but the consequences were disastrous. Authorities cancelled her classes for 50 days, Lin (briefly) lost her job, and her marriage ended in divorce.
The news first went national on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. On Oct. 27, Weibo user and social commentator named Ding Laifeng posted a notice dated Aug. 13 that Lin claimed she had received from the local government. It required that Lin and her husband, also a teacher, report to a nearby town to "assist in the demolition." It’s unclear exactly why authorities were so eager to have Lin’s parents out of their home. According to China News Service, a Chinese state-owned news agency, the home was 4,000 square feet and illegally built, but no information about the development plans, revenues, or compensation for the residents was available. (A person who answered the phone at the local government office hung up after being told a reporter was on the line.)
Perhaps unbelievably, the coercive tactic does not appear unique. Some Weibo users reported in online debates about this story that authorities had approached them or their families in similar ways. Mainstream Chinese media also reported that a teacher in the inland city of Changsha received a notice on Oct. 25 from local authorities telling her to convince her grandmother to move. Like Lin’s notice, this one described the order as a professional "transfer" to a division of the government in charge of evictions and demolition, making compliance a job requirement. (Local governments, which oversee both local education bureaus and divisions in charge of evictions and demolition, have the authority to approve such transfers.)
The story resonated on Weibo because the forced demolition of homes to make way for private developments is a sensitive issue in China. According to official figures, local governments in China depend on land sales for the majority of their income; income from such sales totaled $438 billion in 2012. Local authorities often profit from private development by appropriating residents’ land and selling it to real estate developers. The authorities then assist developers in evicting uncooperative residents from old buildings. Residents who hold out against developers are known as "nail households" for their tenacity.
Lin tried to fight the good fight. The Beijing News says that she refused to help with the demolition, claiming she lacked authority to tell her parents what to do with their home. But pressure mounted as she continued to resist. On Sept. 9, the principal at Lin’s school told her that she should no longer come to work. By Sept. 18, Lin’s marriage was over: In order to ensure that Lin’s husband, a schoolteacher named Zhang Xingfa, would not also lose his job, the two divorced. In an interview with the Beijing News, Lin said that she and her husband were doing their best not to let the situation affect their two-year-old child.
The news that a forced demolition had split up a married couple with a young child went viral on Weibo, as users shared Ding’s Oct. 27 post over 5,000 times. Many remarked that the government’s tactic resembled a throwback to a darker period in China’s history. One user wrote that "it is a little reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution," the period from 1966 to 1976 when Chinese authorities encouraged people to report their family members for ideological crimes. Others called the move "inhumane."
While some raged, others expressed resignation. "This happens all over China. It’s very common," wrote one Weibo user. At least it’s not hordes of scorpions, which one Chinese developer allegedly used to scare uncooperative tenants out of their homes in Jul. 2011. It’s also not a kidnapping: On Sept. 24 in Shanghai, a group of men abducted an elderly couple and held them in a courtyard while developers demolished their home, with all of their belongings still inside. "This is the smallest of losses," another Weibo user wrote of Lin’s experience. "The alternative is that people might be hurt or killed."
The China Youth Daily, a major Communist Party paper, reported that after her story went viral online, Lin’s school informed her that she could return to work on Oct. 30. That’s good news — but the paper also noted that on Oct. 15, Lin’s parents’ home was torn down.
Liz Carter was an assistant editor at Foreign Policy in 2014. Twitter: @withoutdoing
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