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 flash point 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. 

Gao Shuhuan, 42, points to the house she has lived in for nearly half her life.

Gao says, within half an hour, authorities will tear it down by force.  She says she did not receive any compensation.

A line of hired security guards stands along a fence that keeps local residents away from the house.  On the other side of the fence, crowds gather to watch what will soon become a demolition site.

Almost without warning, 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.

Demolitions have become commonplace

In a rapidly modernizing China, events like these have become commonplace.  Catching a complete demolition on videotape, which VOA did earlier this year, is a rarity.  Foreign cameramen are routinely prevented from filming, because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue.  Just recently, two Chinese photojournalists were beaten when they tried to take 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 say the area that includes Gao's house was "legally turned into state-owned land" and will be used for "housing and development." 

Loss of homes causes social unrest

Lawyer Mo Shaoping says ordinary people losing their homes is a significant source of social unrest in China.

Mo says, if a government cannot respect and protect a citizen's private ownership, society will not be stable or harmonious.

The Chinese government does not maintain hard figures on how many houses are torn down or how much land is seized. 

But 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.  At the same time, more than half of the people who call the VOA office in Beijing tell of similar problems.

Most residents unsuccessful in attempts to get more compensation for seized land

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."

Beijing says it never resorts to violence in seizing homes or land.  But Mo says local authorities do not always respect central government laws and are only concerned about their own profit.

Meanwhile, Gao still cannot believe she has lost her house.

With tears in her eyes, she says she cannot believe it is true.  She says she wishes it were all a dream.

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