¡¡CHENGDU, Dec. 4 (Xinhua) -- The death of a woman who set herself on fire to protest the demolition of her home, which local authorities said an illegal structure, in southwest China has aroused public concern over the action of law enforcement authorities.
Tang Fuzhen, 47, died on Nov. 29 in a hospital in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, 16 days after she doused herself in petrol and set herself alight on the roof of her three-story housein the city's Jinniu District.
Her relatives and neighbors who witnessed the event said Tang intended to scare away those people who broke into to her home at 5 a.m. on Nov. 13.
"There were dozens of them, some were dressed in camouflage utility shirts and others were holding clubs or shields, striking everyone who was in the way," said Tang's niece, Wei Jiao, who wasstaying with her aunt.
Wei said she was carrying her baby in her arms when a man struck her on the left leg.
The house, built in 1996 by Tang and her husband, Hu Changming,a private business owner, was an "illegal building," according to the Chengguan, the security and urban administration arm of the local government, in Jinniu District.
"Tang mobilized more than 10 relatives to violently resist the demolition work, which was being done in accordance with law," Ma Xu, a top official of Jinniu District, told a press conference late Thursday.
"They threw Molotov cocktails, bricks and stones at the law enforcement officers and poured petrol in their way," he said.
Ma said the Chengguan officers had tried to stop Tang from setting herself on fire, but were stopped from approaching her.
In a midnight interview with Xinhua, Tang's relatives refuted Ma's claims. "The confrontation lasted almost three hours before she set herself alight. Fire-fighters were at the site and they had the equipment to prevent her from starting the fire in the first place," said Wei Jiao.
Wei described her aunt as "elegant, graceful and not prepared to die".
By dousing petrol on herself time and again, Wei said her aunt was trying to scare away the "intruders" and stop them from tearing down her house. "But they refused to stop and simply forced her to self-immolation."
Photos and a video clip of Tang in flames atop the house, shot by an eyewitness at site, have been spread on major Chinese websites over the past week, arousing public debate over the action of Chengguan authorities involved in the case.
Ma Xu insisted the demolition was legal, but said the district government had put Zhong Changlin, chief of the Chengguan, under investigation.
Meanwhile, eight of Tang's relatives, including her husband Hu Changming, were detained for disrupting government work, and four others were under house arrest, said Ma.
PROPERTY RIGHTS INFRINGEMENT?
Ma Xu said Tang's house in Jinhua Village was illegal because Tang and her husband never obtained a deed or a permit for land use.
Hu Changming and his wife allegedly built the house as the base of their family's garment factory at the request of the village committee. The factory reports an annual output of 3 million yuan and creates dozens of jobs in the underdeveloped village.
In an agreement with the couple in 1996, the village committee promised to obtain a title deed for the couple within six months, but never did.
The local government decided to dismantle the house to make way for a new road in 2005, and offered 900,000 yuan in compensation, which the couple refused.
Last year, authorities increased the offer to 2.17 million yuan, but still no agreement was reached.
Tang scared away a group of Chengguan officers by dousing herself in petrol in April, when they made their first attempt to tear down her house.
When Tang ended up in flames on Nov. 13, her husband was in Beijing to appeal for adequate protection for their property. He was detained on Nov. 17, shortly after he came back.
Prof. Zhou Wei, of Sichuan University law school, said the tragedy revealed a lack of respect for life. "In such cases, authorities must respect lives and consider the consequences, instead of testing other people's limits."
Beijing-based lawyer Liu Yajun said the local government had broken the law with the forced demolition. "If the government thinks the house is illegal and its owners refuse to move out, it should take legal action and let the court decide who is right.
"It's against law and human nature for so many officers to witness the woman kill herself without intervention. What damage would be done if they just stop demolishing the house at that moment?" said Liu.
China passed a property law in 2007 with a new emphasis on the protection of private property. But disputes over home demolition for development projects are still common in many cities. Some even escalate into massive sit-ins and conflict.