Chinese farmer burns to death in dispute over 'nail house'

Story highlights

  • Father of two burnt alive after refusing to be evicted from his home
  • Local government says man set his home on fire; family disagrees
  • Another villager says his home was demolished without his consent

(CNN)Chinese call them dingzihu or "nail houses."

Their owners are holding out for better compensation or are unwilling to let a home filled with memories be flattened -- like a nail that refuses to be hammered down.
    In desperation, frustrated road and property developers sometimes build around them -- the most striking examples make for a wry photo essay.
    But Zhang Jimin's stand against the bulldozers ended in his death.
    The 46-year-old farmer and father of two in Donggu village, northern Shandong province, refused to leave his home when dozens of men arrived at his doorstep to demolish his home on September 14.
    What happened next is in dispute. His family say he was burnt alive by "thugs" hired by the local government. Local authorities say he set his home on fire.
    Images of his charred, curled body were shared widely on Chinese social media. The family say they believe that the demolition crew brought gasoline-filled bottles, put an iron bar across his front door and set his home alight.
    "You can see that his clothes are still relatively complete. If my uncle really poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire, wouldn't all the clothes be burned off?" his nephew told CNN. He didn't want to give his name because he says officials told him not to speak to the media.
    On September 16, the Pingyi county government said in a statement posted on an official social media account that a preliminary investigation had ruled out arson and said that Zhang had bought nine liters of gasoline on September 11 and 13 and he caused the fire himself.
    In a more detailed statement four days later, on the same social media account, the county government said that the incident was triggered by "forced demolition" but "the fire was not set by others but ignited by his own behavior," with Zhang's DNA found on fragments of two glass bottles that were filled with gasoline.
    The county government and local police didn't respond to repeated CNN calls for comment.
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    Forced evictions on the rise?

    Land seizures, driven by soaring prices and a push for urban expansion, have been a major source of popular discontent in China, often resulting in violent stand-offs between officials and the public.
    Farmers like Wang have little legal recourse when their land is earmarked for requisition, and compensation is typically slight.
    All land in China is effectively controlled by the state, and local governments are allowed to claim land for development projects --urbanization is a key priority for China's leaders.
    An Amnesty International 2012 report detailed 40 forced evictions by local governments, nine of which resulted in deaths.
    Amnesty China Researcher William Nee says there are no official figures but indications are that cases are happening with increasing frequency.
    A slowing economy and an anti-corruption drive led by President Xi Jinping have made little difference, he says. And while there are laws in place to protect farmers and villagers, activists say some local officials often skirt them.
    And local governments, which have borrowed huge sums from state banks to finance stimulus projects, continue to rely on land sales to make good on payments.
    "If anything, local governments are more starved for cash as the economy declines. There's a need to fill the coffers," said Nee.
    Of course, not all relocated families are unhappy with their situation -- many prefer new apartments with indoor plumbing to their old homes.
    "We can't universally say that it's bad but there's many instances where it doesn't go according to the law -- hired thugs are used and when people try to petition or seek address through legal means they're blocked," said Nee.
    CNN contacted China's Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development but didn't receive any response.

    Compensation

    According to his nephew, Zhang had turned down compensation for his home and land. He'd been offered 58,000 yuan ($9,122) -- 60 yuan per square meter of land and 300 yuan to 600 yuan per square meter of building.
    "Of course he was unwilling. The terms they offered were too low and unacceptable."
    The younger Zhang said his family's own home was razed. His father signed the agreement and was given around 25,000 yuan ($3,919) in compensation.
    They have bought an apartment in the new building being built on the plot they surrendered but it's not yet finished.
    According to residents, about 50 houses in the village -- of about 6,000 people -- have been demolished.
    Pan Jinguo, another villager, told CNN that last year he was offered 70,120 yuan ($11,040) in compensation for the demolition of the home he shared with his family of six, however he refused to sign the agreement.
    As part of the deal, he was obliged to buy a new apartment in a complex being built on the site for around 210,000 yuan ($33,000.)
    The agreement that farmer Pan Jinguo refused to sign
    The agreement, which CNN has seen a copy of, says the goal is to improve the living standards of village residents.
    On November 18, 2014, he says he received a phone call telling him that his house had been razed to the ground while nobody was home. His parents were being treated in hospital, his children were at school and his wife was at work.
    "A villager called and told me. I said that was impossible because I didn't get any written notice."
    "All our worldly goods, including furniture, home appliances, cash, farming tools were all buried under the rubble."
    After his home was knocked down, he was offered 5,000 yuan ($787) in compensation but says he is yet to receive it.
    Since the demolition, he says he and his family have had no choice but to live in buildings communally owned by the village.
    "There is no official response or explanation. We're are just the disadvantaged and it's impossible for us to make trouble."
    The county government and local police didn't respond to repeated CNN calls for comment on Pan's case.

    Lingering questions

    At the end of September, Zhang's family received 1.5 million yuan ($236,000) in compensation from the local government for "their financial and emotional loss" -- a huge amount for rural China. The local government has also offered the family 115 square meter apartment in the new complex being built at no cost.
    "The kids are still young and still at school. The compensation will be used to put them through college," said Zhang Dezhi, another nephew of the late Zhang.
    No more demolitions have taken place although local officials are still trying to persuade villagers to move out. Some 15 people had been detained for their role in the eviction and they are still under police investigation, according to Zhang.
    The family held a simple funeral and are happy with the amount of compensation offered but say they still have many questions about the events of that day.
    "We are still skeptical about the investigation results... but we have no evidence to support that someone else set the fire," said Zhang.