BEIJING -- Cases of people being forcibly evicted from their homes and land have risen significantly in China, becoming the single greatest source of public discontent and a serious threat to the country's social and political stability, Amnesty International said Thursday.
Forced demolitions have long been a way of life in China. Decades of economic growth have been driven by real estate development, much of it on the backs of millions of residents forced to relocate to make way for factories and business ventures.
But evictions have escalated over the past three years during a nationwide construction boom spurred by massive stimulus spending after the global financial crisis, Amnesty International said in its report, which cited Chinese housing rights activists, lawyers and academics but did not provide estimates for the total number of evictions.
The Chinese government dismissed the report as biased and lacking in any credibility.
The human rights group said that local authorities seize and then sell off land in deals of questionable legitimacy, relying on the income to pay off huge debts incurred to finance stimulus projects.
Developers are known to often hire thugs to threaten residents, sometimes with violence.
Of 40 forced evictions that Amnesty said it examined in detail, nine culminated in the deaths of people protesting or resisting eviction. In one case, a 70-year-old woman was buried alive by an excavator as she tried to stop workers demolishing her house in Wuhan city in central Hubei province, the report said. Calls to Wuhan's government rang unanswered Thursday and a man from the propaganda department of Wuhan police said he hadn't heard about the case.
In another case, police in Wenchang town in southern Sichuan province were reported to have taken custody of a baby and refused to return him until his mother signed an eviction order.
Wenchang police told The Associated Press that the report was untrue and that the woman had abandoned her child at the police station. "The kid was taken away by its grandmother the next day," said a man surnamed He at Wenchang's police station. "Now everything has been settled and the family received subsidies from the government."
Some people who resist forced evictions end up in prison or in labor camps. Amnesty said a woman in Hexia township in southeastern Jiangxi province who petitioned authorities about her eviction was beaten and forced to undergo sterilization. Hexia's authority confirmed the sterilization but said it was because the woman had three children against the country's one-child policy. "The woman first refused to be sterilized, but reluctantly agreed after our strong persuasion. If she didn't agree at all, it would be impossible for her to have surgery," said a woman surnamed Xiao.
Some despairing residents have set themselves on fire. Amnesty said it documented 41 cases of self-immolations that occurred between January 2009 and January 2012.
The group called on authorities to immediately halt all forced evictions and punish and prosecute those who use violence during the eviction process.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily briefing that Amnesty International "has consistently been biased against China," adding that "The report has no credibility whatsoever."
The central government has spoken out against forced evictions, but those directives are often ignored at the local level. Last year it enacted a regulation making it more difficult for developers to demolish housing and force out landholders.
Hong referred to the regulation, saying that "the legal rights of owners whose homes are seized are protected according to the law."
Amnesty's report says that regulation covers only urban land, leaving out those living in suburbs and rural areas who make up the vast majority of people affected by forced evictions.
The government technically owns most land in China 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.
Amnesty said there were no reliable estimates of the number of people who had been forced from their homes or farms, "but there is little doubt the figure has risen significantly."
"The problem of forced evictions represents the single most significant source of popular discontent in China and a serious threat to social and political stability," the report said.
China's authoritarian government is highly sensitive to the notion of instability, signaled by its control over the media and Internet, and military crackdowns in regions such as Tibet, fearing protests there against Chinese rule could inspire people in other parts of the country with grievances against the government.
Amnesty said one problem is that the ruling Communist Party continues to promote local officials who deliver economic growth, however it is achieved, and land redevelopment _ for roads, factories or housing _ is seen as the most direct path to visible results.
"The Chinese authorities must immediately halt all forced evictions. There needs to be an end to the political incentives, tax gains and career advancements that encourage local officials to continue with such illegal practices," said Nicola Duckworth, Amnesty senior director of research.
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.