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China: Only More Democracy Can End Abuse Of Power, 'Demolition' Of Rights

Op-Ed: Chinese want to know how to combat the abuse of power by top officials who force demolition of people’s homes to make way for new development projects. But rather than focusing on cracking down after the fact, citizens must simply demand a say in w

A Beijing apartment building being torn down (stan)
A Beijing apartment building being torn down (stan)
Yang Tao

BEIJING - Responding to the frequent clashes between the public and local authorities, the Chinese government has finally decided to punish the officials involved in controversial demolition projects. Last week, four ministries - Supervision, Land & Resources, Housing and the State Council -- together decided to prosecute 31 civil servants involved in 11 forced eviction and demolition incidents that have caused deaths and injuries in the first half of 2011.

Another 26 officials have been disciplined by the Chinese Communist Party and held accountable by the administration. According to the Jinan Daily report, in the particularly violent demolition case in Changchun City, not only were many officials punished, but the mayor was ordered by the Ministry of Supervision to make a public apology.

This is the first time the disciplinary departments of the Chinese government have made efforts to deal with brutal and callous governmental officials who sidestep legal regulations in the demolition of standing edifices to make way for new construction projects. The number of officials punished is unprecedented.

People have placed great hope in the new Housing Levy and Compensation Ordinance on State-owned Land since it went into effect in January. Still, the number of deaths and injuries of people being forced out of their homes has not yet been reduced.

On the face of it, the only responsible solution would be to penalize unscrupulous officials. However, one is not even sure if such severe punishment is really going to curb the local authorities' bloody wrecking ball. I'm only cautiously optimistic.

In fact, since last year, the relevant departments of the State Council have already issued 10 times more executive orders prohibiting forceful removal. But it hasn't slowed the demolition momentum – and residents continue to resort to desperate acts. Even faced with a ban from their superiors, these bureaucrats would rather take risks to reach their aim of pushing forward development projects.

The truth is that no matter how harsh the punishment, it cannot adequately protect citizens' legitimate rights and interests. Accountability is usually an afterthought -- after the citizen's home has already been destroyed, his loss irreparable.

Before it's too late

The better way to effectively safeguard one's rights and interests is by combating the abuse of power and demanding civil rights beforehand.

Through elections, for example, people can select representatives who truly represent the local public opinion and who will represent the people in enforcing the responsibility of callous officials.

Accountability that comes from above not only arrives too late, but usually addresses only particular cases, whereas good elected representatives will defend citizens' rights, in advance and across the board.

In other words, the key to reviving dormant civil rights is by giving back to the people the right to vote for their local representatives, as well as allowing them to formulate the necessary administrative measures that offer checks and balances on official power.

Currently, according to the relevant laws and regulations, a localy authority need only apply for a court order to implement a compulsory demolition. There is no corresponding measure whatsoever to which people can resort for help from the authorities or from the judiciary when encountering illegal demolition.

Today, it's always the wrecking party that seems to be in the right, while the person whose home has been razed is regarded as the unreasonable one.

The just position is that a citizen's house, as long as it has the legal deeds, is his private property -- and should be protected by the law. When facing illegal damage to one's private property, one is justified in using self-defense to protect it.

When a court reviews cases that involve injuries, the distinction should be very clear between justified self-defense and deliberate harm so as to support people safeguarding their legitimate rights and to deter the barbaric wrecking.

Only if civil rights move to the center of the debate can the bloodshed caused by demolition finally disappear.

Read the original article in Chinese

photo - stan
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