Saturday, September 5, 2009

Joining a Chinese Protest Over Land Rights, Pt. 1

Cheese sales went smoothly over the week we were in Kunming, and Zhou Ma, who was initially so timid that she didn't want to come to Kunming, was taking over when we talked to potential clients. It was an exciting change to see. One morning I lumbered out of Zhou Ma's apartment for my normal 5 mile run. Just a few minutes in I was stopped. One lady, pulling a bench with another lady, was arguing with a truck driver hauling TVs. More people were joining her with other benches. In a matter of minutes they had a solid blockade formed, complete with tents, signs, and any available locals of the Jin He (Gold River) Village.

I stopped my run (an action which, if you know me, I never would have before done) and started asking bystanders what was going on. Most of them didn't know or weren't locals. I got enough to know they were protesting land rights. I ran back to the apartment, sprinted up to get my camera and a t-shirt so I didn't look crazy, and ran back to the blockade. I joined them at their blockade, and they eagerly encouraged me to join them on the bench. Old and young alike were out with their books, breakfast, and knitting materials. For over an hour and a half I learned about the situation, from their point of view, at least.

Basically, the government had decided in mid-August that it wanted their land for a community development, and the day after the decision was made (allegedly) the people were told to move out. The local government was prepared to pay, but the villagers weren't happy with the offer. In protest they had decided to block the major shipping road until the local government leader came to meet with them to discuss the situation. The way the system works is that the Chinese government can take any land if acting in "public interest", which is a vague term open to some interpretation. The land must first be purchased by the local government and then converted to state-owned land before it can be sold to developers. Thus, the government and developers have incentives to acquire the land as cheaply as possible so that it might be sold to the developers cheaply and provide a nice thank you kickback to the local government official from the developer. This is, at least, the alleged underhanded way that things sometimes get done.

They brought out several documents for me, written by villagers, local leaders, and the government. For steel frame buildings, the government was offering just over $500 per square meter for the first three floors, and any floors over that would get only $150/square meter. The locals accepted the cheaper higher floors, but said the $500 should be more like $650, which is what they said any statistics on Kunming real estate would show.

I took the documents, went home, arranged a translator, and told Zhou Ma and Zhang what I was doing. They somewhat laughed, saying that I was "wasting my time" and that I shouldn't listen to what they were telling me. A few nights before I ever saw the protest, Zhou Ma and I were walking home from the bus stop. I saw a bunch of people (who I realized later were the protesters) and asked a shop owner what was going on, only to find out that it concerned the land rights. Zhou Ma said disdainfully that they were all "very rich" villagers, and wondered why they had any problem at all with the government's development program.

At any rate, I headed into the city to get the documents translated. I stopped by the protest on my way out, with warm hello's and greetings meeting me, as well as offers of food. They thought that I would be able to help them; maybe the government would listen to me or maybe I could post something on a Chinese website. I didn't think I could do anything, but regardless I first needed to see what these documents said in detail.

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