The central government suggested major changes on Friday in the way land is seized for redevelopment as it tries to ease persistent public anger over forced relocations.
With China's feverish real estate market stoking developer appetite for land, existing guidelines allowing local governments to confiscate homes and claim land have sparked growing violence and even prompted some protesters to set themselves on fire.
According to a set of State Council Legislative Affairs Office rules pending review through Feb 12, no violence, threat or illegal means can be used to force relocation of property owners, like cutting off electricity, water, heating and gas.
The draft revision to the Regulations on Demolishing Urban Housing, which had long been criticized for neglecting the owners' rights, was published on Friday for public opinion on the website of Legal Affairs Office of the State Council.
The new draft version stipulates that the government can only confiscate houses for public interests and property owners should be paid the market value of the land and home as compensation.
The proposed law lists the seven items that constitute "public interests", which the original regulations did not. The law allows the taking of land for national defense projects and important public projects, the reconstruction or improvement of old and dangerous buildings, the construction of necessary government offices, and other projects deemed necessary by law or the State Council.
"Confiscation and compensation should be based on democratic decision, legal procedures, fair compensation and openness," the revision reads.
Confiscations should be announced to the public at least 30 days in advance, during which public hearings should be held. If there are protests of the decision, the government must appeal to the higher level of government for ruling.
The confiscation of old and dangerous buildings to make improvements to their conditions will be permitted only if more than 90 percent of the residents agree to relocate.
Another important change is that those who disagree with confiscation can sue, and the government cannot force demolition or ask residents to move while the lawsuit is ongoing. The current regulation allows the government, or real estate developers with the permission of the government, to force demolition even if a lawsuit is going on.
The revision stipulates that house owners should be paid market value, and not a price decided by the government. They can draw by lot to pick an agent to determine the property value, based on the day the confiscation is announced. Also, a compensation plan will be carried out only when more than two-thirds of the impacted residents agree to it.
"The original regulation has no such items like how many residents should agree before the relocation," said Wang Xixin, a professor from Peking University.
The new revision is major progress compared to the original one, especially in the two key processes - confiscation and compensation, Wang said.
"The progress shows the change of the legislation's philosophy," Wang said. "The original regulations are more about what the government can do to manage relocation, while this one is much more balanced between the government's power and residents' rights."
Many disputes about relocations happen because local governments give developers permission to begin work and later negotiate with residents. If residents refuse to move, they are usually forced out.
In that way, a lot of serious conflicts, even tragedies, happened, like the death of Tang Fuzhen, from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, who shocked the nation by setting herself on fire on Nov 13 to protest the forced demolition of her former husband's garment-processing business and living compound.
Five law professors from Peking University then took a rare public stand, asking the National People's Congress Standing Committee to change a regulation they said encouraged abusive tactics by developers and led to "mass incidents" and "extreme events."
They claimed in an open letter on Dec 26 last year that the regulation should be abolished or revised because "it is against the Constitution and property law, which protects people's property".
Meetings with legislative officials from the State Council followed.
Shen Kui, the professor who organized the request to the National People's Congress, praised the government's speed in dealing with the issue Friday, but said the government can still forcibly demolish a property if it thinks its decision is fair and people have been fairly compensated.
"At least the new revision makes it less possible for the local governments to help developers to force relocation," Wang said.