So what am I learning about Shenzhen through my engagement with Meizhou forced evictions and the young people who are trying to figure out how to articulate new relations to their Hakka past and rural injustice?
First, I see more clearly the ideological work that Shenzhen performs within the national landscape.
On the one hand, although the transfer of land use rights from peasant collectives to the municiple government has been fraught and inconsistent (we are after all talking about alienating peasants from their traditional livelihoods and identities), nevertheless, the majority of compensation packages have enabled former peasants to find new lives for themselves within the city. These lives are not all happily ever after, but most have achieved solidly upper middle class lives. If there is grumbling it is over not being rich enough. Notable successes include old folk activity centers and scholarships for young villagers to study abroad. In Meizhou this model of rural urbanization is what villagers aspire to, although clearly they will accept much less.
On the other hand, the problems that have come with instant peasant wealth have shown up how little is available to help former villagers to transition for debased agricultural labor to having the option of choosing not to work. The failures of Shenzhen’s transition from village to city include drug addiction, mah jahng gambling bankruptcies, ennui, and a sense of arrogant entitlement that leads to grey accusations of rape and abuse that are and are not acknowledged. In Meizhou these negative examples are used by developers and some government officials to justify outrageously under compensating villagers for their land use rights.
Second, the can’t return, don’t belong syndrome of young Hakka migrants in particular, but also first generation Shenzhen migrants in general seems central to their involvement in preservation projects. They are looking for a homeland and it is not Shenzhen. How this orientation to the city will shape future decisions, I don’t know. However, it seems clear that to integrate young first generation migrants into the urban fabric, Shenzhen will have to do more than announce that “You are a Shenzhener when you arrive”.
Third, I sensed both outrage and resignation in the face of forced migrations and the scale of injustice currently informing rural urbanization in neidi. Moreover, this tension is linked to the difficulties of actually stopping the urban juggernaut. At times it seems that at every front — political, economic and cultural — there are no toeholds, no possible interventions that can be glossed as hopeful rather than quixotic. Thus, I find poignant nobility in their efforts to rethink class inequalities and possible social interventions.
All in all, Meizhou is reminding me how diverse the Chinese social landscape is. These differences have been created over the past thirty plus years by redeploying tha Maoist apparatus to capitalist ends. In the present, this diversity has been deployed by different levels of government to achieve dissimilar and sometimes antagonistic goals. Thus, village corporations in Shenzhen operate in a political terrain that recognizes their right to represent and work for the prosperity of former villagers. In contrast, the Meizhou government has chosen to unmake rural society through naked alienation of traditional rights, without providing any means to integrate these villagers into urban society.
The protest banner reads, “Land is expropriated one time, but being stuck [in the peasant class] is forever. The key cultural reference in the banner is 翻身, which William Hinton left untranslated in the classic account or China’s revolution, Fanshen. Character by character the expression means “turn over / body” and referred to the revolutionary transformation of peasant life under the communists.
The other five entries in this series are:
Part I/ Meizhou: The Violence of Rural Reconstruction
Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government
Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies
Part IV: Meizhou: What Gets Preserved
Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations
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