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Loss of Homes Threatens Social Stability in China

China's rapid economic growth has benefited millions of people, but it also increasingly has become the source for much domestic unrest as the widening wealth gap helps solidify a growing sense of social inequality. One flashpoint for Chinese people who are not wealthy is the loss of their homes, often by local authorities who seize the land and then sell it for big profits.

Forty-two-year-old Gao Shuhuan has lived in this home for nearly half her life. "This is my house. Within half an hour, it will be torn down by force," she cried. "They are tearing it down without paying us a cent in compensation."

Crowds gather on both sides of a line of security guards who were hired to keep ordinary people away.

The bulldozer springs to life. The house that had sheltered Gao and her family for two decades was no match for the machine's relentless power. It took less than 20 minutes to reduce her home to a pile of rubble.

In a rapidly modernizing China, events like these have become commonplace. Catching a complete demolition on videotape, though, is a rarity. Foreign cameramen are routinely prevented from filming, due to the extreme sensitivity of the issue. Just recently, two Chinese photojournalists were beaten when they tried to snap pictures of a house demolition in Beijing.

Gao's house was in Beijing's Fengtai District. Fengtai officials refused requests for an interview. But in a faxed statement, they said the area that includes Gao's house was "legally turned into state-owned land" and will be used for "housing and development."

Lawyer Mo Shaoping says ordinary people losing their homes is a significant source of social unrest in China. "If as a citizen, your private ownership is not respected and protected," Mo said. "Society will not be stable or harmonious."

Mo says more than half of the people who come to Beijing to petition the central government have complaints about housing issues or land seizures.

Recent regulations gave residents the right to sue if they think their compensation is not fair. However, Mo says the courts usually do not rule in favor of the plaintiffs and so their success rate is, in his words, "really small."

The legal process is a further nightmare facing Gao. "I can't believe it's true, but it is," she said. "I wish it were a dream."

And as she waits for the court to accept her case, she knows that even a legal decision in her favor won't bring her house back.