A 68-year-old farm owner in east China's Jiangsu Province and his 92-year-old father set themselves on fire over the weekend in protest at a forced demolition to make way for a national highway.
The incident came as the government is set to amend controversial regulations amid growing conflicts after governments or realty developers failed to reach agreement with property owners in terms of compensation.
In defiance of local officials' attempts to raze his pig farm and his house to make way for Na-tional Highway 310, Tao Huixi, along with his father Tao Xingyao, set themselves on fire Satur-day morning in Huangchuan township, Lianyungang, the Beijing News reported Sunday.
The men reportedly were in disagreement with the government over compensation.
The younger Tao died on the spot, and his father was listed in stable condition at a local hospital, according to the local government.
"We were told half a year ago that our pig farm would be demolished by the township government, who said it was to make way for a highway, and there was no compensation at all," Tao Huixi's son, Tao Qiuyu, told the paper.
The government said it sent the Taos a notice in March of 2009 saying the demolition was eminent, but it didn't proceed six months ago because Tao Huixi threatened to kill himself.
After the Taos petitioned to higher level governments, the government offered to pay 75,000 yuan for the 0.13 hectares of land. But the Taos believed it was too little and claimed that the building itself was worth 150,000 yuan.
Tao Qiuyu said his father and grandfather locked themselves in the house and lit the gasoline-soaked floor when demolition crews started moving in around 7:40 am. About 100 law-enforcement officials, led by township chief Zhu Wenjun, were at the site supervising the process, the report said.
Witnesses told the newspaper that the pig farm was demolished anyway and no one attempted to save the Taos' lives after they set themselves on fire.
Zhou Hengxiang, a spokesman for the local government, denied the reports by the Beijing News about inaction by the local government, adding that the report contained several inaccuracies, including the wrong names of local leaders.
"The local government sent people to rescue the two men immediately when the incident surfaced," Zhou said. "But the two men locked themselves inside a room and rescuers couldn't get in."
The local government said in a statement Sunday that the pig farm had hampered construction work for three months. "The other five families involved were relocated early this year," the statement said.
The statement also noted that the propery was valued at 75,004 yuan by a government-hired real estate evaluation company, but the family initially asked for 1 million yuan ($146,457) before lowering its request to 500,000 yuan.
China is known for its efficient infrastructure and urbanization projects, but violent and sometimes deadly conflicts have been reported as negotiations over land acquisitions go awry, usually due to compensation disagreements.
According to media reports, there have been at least 10 extreme cases in recent years. They have involved people setting themselves on fire, committing suicide or even getting killed by thugs hired by developers to forcibly remove people from the contested property.
Chengdu resident Tang Fuzhen set herself on fire on her rooftop in protest of a forced demolition in November. Tang died at the hospital and the local government called her behavior a "violent resistance to law." A storm of criticism involving the alleged cruel treatment of house owners ensued.
In December, Beijing resident Xi Xinzhu was reportedly hospitalized with severe burns after a similar protest to protect his house in Haidian.
Regardless of deaths and injuries, all the properties were eventually razed.
According to the State Bureau for Letters and Calls, 40 percent of the total petitioners from 2003-2006 called for the protection of property rights. And estimates by the Department of Hous-ing and Urban-Rural Development put the number at 70 to 80 percent during the same period.
Under the current regulation, released in 2001, developers are responsible for paying relocation compensation to property owners.
The State Council, the cabinet, began soliciting opinions about a new draft regulation at the end of January. The law would allow house owners to choose a real estate evaluation company and file a lawsuit against the government if they are not satisfied with the compensation.
No date for the new regulation's possible implementation has been given.
Wang Xixin, a law professor with Beijing University, as well as one of the professors who helped initiate the draft regulation, told the Global Times that a recent wave of demolitions may be a frenzied attempt to get in as many demolitions as possible before the new laws take effect.
He added that local governments are too focused on returns from land transfers, and they pay too little attention to public interests.
"The key to stopping similar tragedies from happening is to change the rules of the game and forbid local governments from profiteering by selling land," he said.
Local government officials have said they face dilemmas when homeowners refuse to relocate or hold out for more compensation. Some who have relocated also request more compensation after the land prices go up.
Construction of the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, which opened to traffic in 2008, was delayed half a year due to households' reluctance to move.
Ding Yifan, a researcher at the Development Research Center of the State Council, told the Global Times that a tragedy such as that of the Taos is the last thing that the local governments want to see, but if the local governments are more careful in handling such cases, such incidents could be effectively prevented.