China's top court wants to make it harder for local governments to knock down private homes

BEIJING (AP) -- China's top court wants to make it harder for local governments to knock down private homes to make way for new development following a series of cases in which people set themselves on fire to protest such seizures.

Real estate has been one of the big drivers of China's runaway growth in recent decades, with land sales shooting up 70 percent last year alone. But much of that growth has come on the backs of the millions of residents forced to relocate to make way for factories and other business ventures.

Forced demolitions have become a way of life in China, with some people even coming home to find their homes in rubble.

The China News website reported Friday that the Supreme People's Court said in a statement that local governments should approach demolition projects with caution and ensure the safety of residents.

"Force must be applied with caution and absolute certainty that there will not be unexpected outcome," it quoted the statement as saying.

It said that when people behave in "extreme ways" and injuries or death could be caused, then the demolition "should, in normal circumstances, be called off immediately."

The move may be aimed more at political stability and is unlikely to have any impact on economic expansion. It follows a rash of suicides and incidents of social unrest in the last year over the demolitions and that may be pressuring China's leadership to act.

The government technically owns most land in the country and can seize property for projects deemed in the public interest. Compensation is supposed to be given to residents who are evicted, but that does not always happen or is not always fair.

Developers sometimes hire thugs to threaten residents, sometimes with violence. Developers and demolition companies have also used tactics such as shutting off water and electricity to force residents from their homes.

The report said abuses of police power in forced evictions was also a problem, and that responsible officers would be held liable.

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