This is the first part of a six-part essay, Meizhou: The Violence of Rural (Re)construction. Rural construction (乡建) is currently one of the most important debates in Shenzhen specifically and China more generally. As China’s “first city without villages”, Shenzhen has an important place in this debate. In fact, Shenzhen is held up by social progressives, real estate developers, and Party officials alike as a model of what rural construction should be. More locally, civic groups are beginning to organize around this issue in order to promote more just visions of the city.
Friday, September 19, 2014, we made the five-hour bus trip from Shenzhen to Meizhou. We were an assorted group of scholars, architects, and journalists, but we had joined documentary film maker Deng Shijie in common cause–to visit the Meizhou suburbs in order to bear witness to the human suffering that has resulted from current development policies. Shijie and his allies are central to a small, but meaningful citizenship movement in Shenzhen. Many of Shenzhen’s second-generation have become active in what we in the United States would call social justice issues, but which in Shenzhen operate under the glosses of philanthropy (公益) or social renewal (社会创新).
We arrived well past midnight, but were greeted warmly by villagers who are trying to voice their demands. Some want to maintain their current homes, others want more equitable compensation, and all want the government to bring out a viable and legal relocation and compensation plan. And that, of course, is the crux of the matter. The government’s plan to construct a new city notwithstanding there has been no release of a relocation plan. Instead, villagers are being bought and when that fails forced out of their residences. Two of the nastier strategies of displacement are (1) using the police and/or local thugs to harass and beat villagers until they sign off and (2) razing homes and then transferring money to villager escrow accounts. If the villagers use the money, the action is interpreted as acceptance of the government’s terms. If however the villagers do not use the money, after a five-year period the money will be returned to the Ministry of Land. There are also reports of villagers having been detained at local police stations in order to compel village heads of household to sign property transfer agreements. (For an introduction to China’s duel system of land ownership by way of Shenzhen, please see “Laying Siege to the Villages“).
The crude background to this travesty is the Chinese state’s commitment to making urbanization central to economic development and (more importantly) a criteria for promotion within the Party and government. In 2011, Meizhou began planning a new city on the rural land that was traditionally held by villages. However, urbanization directives accelerated in March this year when China released its National New Type Urbanization Plan. Subsequently, in September 2013, the Meizhou government released the Meizhou Jiangnan New City Detailed Plan (梅州江南新城详细规划) for public debate. The official discussion period was from September 24 to October 20, 2013. The plan was made available in three sites: the Meizhou Government Building, the plaza of the Jianying Park, and the municipal urban planning. However, according to villagers, the City continued to raze homesteads during this time. Additionally, the City also targeted traditional Hakka compounds and ancestral Halls. Architect Ye Yikun (叶益坤) has been the leading voice of opposition to demolishing historic architecture.
Below are images from our trip to several villages in the Meizhou suburbs.
The other five entries in this series are:
Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government
Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies
Part IV/ Meizhou: What Gets Preserved
Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen
Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations