A growing source of social unrest in China is working its way from the ground up - literally. All land in China is owned by the state. This is causing conflicts with residents when the government wants to build a new project or developers determine that a specific location is ideal for construction. Land seizures intended to build a modern society might be tearing down the foundation of Chinese society.
The seizure of land is being described by some analysts as perhaps the biggest threat to the Beijing government. Residents in many cases are forced out and paid only a fraction of what their home was worth.
A rapidly developing economy coupled with easy access to land has enabled widespread government seizures. Land is an easy way for the government to leverage China's wealth, but corruption by officials and developers can hasten the process.
"The Chinese governments on all levels-- they are competing against Chinese people to try to get as much in profit as possible for themselves," said Ming Xia, a professor of political science, economy and philosophy at The City University of New York. He says Chinese property ownership is very complicated. Essentially, the state owns the land, and individuals own the physical property on it, usually for decades. "The Chinese people do not have the [land] ownership. So they do not get fair compensation. And second, for the government, and since they have such strong incentive to get money, they can sometimes be very militant and brutal to shoo the people off their land or out of their buildings," he said.
A recent case of forced evictions has received publicity ahead of this year's World Exposition in Shanghai, which is open through October.
Hu Yan has struggled against the Chinese bureaucracy for five years, after learning her home would be demolished to make way for the expo. She says city authorities offered no compensation or relocation assistance to her or thousands of other affected residents.
Professor Xia says even when citizens receive a payment, it is very little. He notes that on average the money runs out after about two years. "Eventually, they are going to become a burden. They do not have money any more. They do not have a business anymore. So they become jobless urban poor. So that is really a burden on the Chinese economy. Also it is a threat to Chinese social security," he said.
And he says that threat to the Chinese government is increasing. "Just recently, the Chinese social riots nationwide has already surpassed the number of 100,000. Some Chinese sociologists believe that the Chinese government is sitting on top of a volcano," he said.
China's government continues to spend a high rate. And Professor Xia warns that it will be difficult for the government to stop, even if the global economy worsens. "They have spent so much money on the military, on the big projects like the Olympic Games and also military parades and World Expo. And then, of course, the government is very wasteful because of corruption. And so at this moment, the 'good old days' for the Chinese government are gone because before, they could count on the booming stock market, housing market and also the big volume of foreign direct investment and exports to Western countries," he said.
China is not the only country where the government steps in to take land.
"This eminent domain business is nothing to laugh about. I lost my own river house. I had a beautiful place on the river that was taken away by a highway," said Frank Clemente, a sociologist at The Pennsylvania State University here in the United States. He says the U.S. government acquired huge tracts of land in the 1940s in Pennsylvania, for example. "All their property was confiscated by the Defense Department in central Pennsylvania to develop and test weapons right in the middle of Pennsylvania. They lost thousands and thousands of acres."
But compensation to land owners there was much higher compared to China. And Ming Xia of The City University of New York says the land seizures in China are tearing nation's the social fabric and threatening thousands of years of tradition. "I do not think they have ever thought about it. How they are going to maintain the traditional fabric of Chinese communities. And for Hu Yan's case of course, they are brutal," he said.
Hu Yan is homeless. She is in New York staging a protest across the street from the United Nations to bring attention to the issue of property rights in China.