2018-02-01 08:27:04

China’s supreme court has ruled that local governments who seize people’s land and demolish their houses before coming to an agreement are liable for the damages.

Compulsory land acquisition is one of China’s most contentious issues, and the verdict suggests a shift in how such cases are handled.

On Jan. 25, the third circuit court of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) ruled that a district government in eastern China’s Zhejiang province owed damages to a resident for demolishing his properties without prior agreement on compensation. The verdict, made public on Tuesday, overturned previous rulings saying the resident was only entitled to his due compensation for land acquisition, even though the demolition had been deemed illegal.

According to national regulations, governments must settle compensation issues before asking residents to relocate. It is illegal to evict residents through force — yet in most such cases, governments still only pay compensation for the value of the real estate itself. With the SPC ruling, the district will now also have to pay damages for loss of business and personal items destroyed in the illegal demolition.

Claimant Xu Shuiyun, 63, is a resident of Wucheng District in Jinhua, a city in Zhejiang. In September 2014, his two houses were bulldozed as part of a district government redevelopment project. A government notice about the project in August had included Xu’s properties, but the district government did not officially announce the land acquisition decision until October.

Xu had not reached any agreement with the government regarding compensation or relocation before his houses were torn down.

In December 2016, the Jinhua Intermediate People’s Court ruled that the district government had violated the law, but ordered it only to compensate Xu according to the government’s standards for compulsory land acquisitions, set in its October 2014 notice. Dissatisfied, Xu appealed to the Zhejiang High People’s Court, which in May 2017 upheld the original verdict. Xu appealed again and won last week.

According to court records from the May 2017 trial, Xu requested 60,000 yuan ($9,500) for loss of personal items; 20,000 yuan per month from the date of demolition to the date of payment for business losses; and compensation for his houses reflecting their market value at the time of the trial rather than the date of the illegal demolition.

The compensation standards that had been set out in the government’s October 2014 announcement said residents would receive between 5,149 and 11,417 yuan per square meter, depending on the property location.

“The court’s stance on this case is very clear: The government should pay the damages instead of going the old way [with just] compensation,” Geng Baojian, the judge at the SPC’s third circuit court who handled the case, told state broadcaster China Central Television on Tuesday.

“This case gives a strong signal that [the government] should strictly follow legal procedure,” said Geng. “If you violate the law, you should bear the consequences.”

Though the Jan. 25 verdict did not set an amount, it ordered the district government to negotiate with Xu on paying him administrative compensation — the class of damages that government bodies pay for abusing their power or infringing upon citizens’ rights.

The SPC website published the case as an example for judges. “I think the ruling will be a guide to China’s courts,” He Xuelian, a lawyer at Beijing Kainuo Law Firm, told Sixth Tone. Though China does not have case law, she said, the verdict represents a shift in the direction of the country’s highest court.

As a lawyer specializing in such cases, He said it is very common for residents in forced demolition disputes not to receive administrative compensation. “After a court rules that a government has executed an illegal demolition, we usually pursue extrajudicial settlements,” she said, adding that unfair compensation and lack of procedural justice are major problems with land acquisition cases in China.

Wang Xuguang, deputy chief judge at the third circuit court of the SPC, told a press conference that the verdict would push governments to follow regulations by the book when it comes to land acquisitions, given that the issue has become a hot topic as urbanization speeds up.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: A demolition site in Jinhua, Zhejiang province, July 9, 2017. Yuan Shan/VCG)