Li Jie climbed to the top of the vacant five-storey building, looking down on a sea of rubble.

Anxious family members, impatient demolition crews and a group of policemen beckoned the 40-year-old woman to come down. But she jumped.

The death of Ms. Li, a resident of Yangji, a 700-year-old cluster of old homes and alleyways that is one of several distinct urban villages that sit out of place among the skyscrapers of downtown Guangzhou, a southern port that is one of China's wealthiest cities, has brought grief to her neighbours.

Few of them were, however, surprised. The desperation that drove Ms. Li to end her life is something that most of Yangji's residents have become all too familiar with in recent months.

Only down the road from where Ms. Li fell to her death lies the ruins of a three-storey home where Yao Rong Zhen and her husband once lived.

One morning last September, Ms. Yao and her husband were sitting in the living room when the walls of their home came crashing in. Ms. Yao was negotiating for higher compensation when the bulldozers converged on her home, without warning.

“Our home collapsed,” Ms. Yao told The Hindu in an interview last year, pointing to a hole in the wall of her living room. “That day, so did our life,” she said.

Ms. Li's death this week has brought attention to a long-running battle between residents and real estate developers that has been raging in Yangji since at least 2010, when the government announced plans to raze Guangzhou's more than hundred urban villages that sit on 540 square kilometres of prime real estate as part of an urban renewal project to coincide with the Asian Games that were held two years ago.

Residents have filed petitions to stop the plans, arguing that the compensation paid out by the Hong Kong developer was far too low.

Local media reports said Ms. Li's house was demolished in March after a local court approved the decision.

Residents said in interviews last year that the plans flouted many laws that the government has recently put in place to stop forced demolitions, which have become a rising source of unrest in China over the past decade. Men hired by the developer, residents alleged, have threatened and assaulted Yangji's residents to sign contracts, also cutting of water and electricity supply.

Many residents have since signed contracts and left the village, leaving only a few “nail houses” – as the Chinese media term homes that resist development – that still stubbornly stick out amid an ocean of debris.

Residents said in interviews the government viewed the village as a safety hazard. Four-storey houses stand close together, side by side, casting a shadow over narrow alleyways that are today filled with mud and garbage. As residents moved out, migrant workers who could not afford housing elsewhere in Guangzhou and small businesses moved in.

Ms. Yao, whose family has lived and worked in Yangji for more than 500 years, said the government also saw the village's older ways of life as an anachronism that had no place in a modern Guangzhou. “But where do we go?” she asked. “We have been living here for generations, and with the money they are giving us we cannot find a home in this city.”

Zhang Jianhao, the village head, told local media the development project has been pushed back to 2014 with 29 pending disputes over relocation. While residents are being pressured to move, some officials and legal scholars have called for putting in stronger laws to prevent forced seizures.

Wang Liming, a member of the Law Committee of the National People's Congress or parliament, put forward a proposal in March to make clearer the conditions for land acquisition.

“Public interest,” he said, was too general a requirement.

A day after Ms. Li died, the State-run Xinhua news agency reported that a woman from Baogunao village in southwestern Yunnan province went to the county demolition office and ignited explosives that she had strapped to herself, taking her own life and those of two others who worked in the office.

On Saturday, Xinhua corrected its report, saying the “bomber” was a 26-year-old man, named Zhao Dengyong, who came from the same village, where residents and officials have been locked in a similar stand-off over land acquisition.

The desperation that prompted both suicides this past week “has sent a strong signal,” wrote Yu Jianrong, a leading Chinese scholar on social instability, on the Chinese Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo. “When the public loses confidences in the law and the government,” he said, “they will resort to extreme violence out of desperation.”

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