the violence of rural (re)construction (5): lessons from shenzhen

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? Continue reading

the violence of rural (re)construction (4): what gets preserved

Monday I joined the Meizhou preservationists in Enning Neighborhood Guangzhou, where we met to talk about how we could intervene in what was happening in Meizhou. There were two issues at stake. The first was straight-forward lay human rights–how do we help people keep their homes or guarrante a replacement home? The second was more abstract–what kind of buildings and spaces “ought” to be preserved for their historic value? Continue reading

the violence of rural (re)construction (3): living genealogies

If you google “Hakka” all sorts of information comes up, ranging from Wikipedia’s Hakka People brief through the overwhelming comprehensive blog 客家风情 to more academic takes such as “The Secret History of The Hakkas: the Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise“.

These articles emphasize that the Hakka left the central plains for Southern China in a series of migrations. Hakka literally means “Guest People” and in the anthology, Down to Earth: The Territorial Bond in South China, for example, David Faure, Helen Siu and their colleagues nicely track the differentiation of Han Chinese into various ethnic groups, including the Dan (boat people not allowed on land), the Hakka, and dominant Cantonese.

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Over time, the Hakka developed a distinct culture and history, including unique roles in the Taiping Rebellion (Hong Xiuquan was a Hakka) and subsequent Chinese Revolution; Sun Yat-Sen, the Soong sisters, and Deng Xiaoping, for example, were all Hakkas. Distinguishing features of Hakka identity include language, food, architecture, and a commitment to tradition and education that is said to exceed that of neighboring groups. Importantly, however, given the geographic range of Hakka settlements both within and outside the Chinese mainland, there is much diversity within the group. The Hakka standard is set in Meizhou, the county seat of Meixian, which brings us back to what’s at stake with the forced evictions in Meizhou.

The Hakka have lived in large compounds, where extended patrilineal families resided in organized proximity. These complexes have functioned as material genealogies with hierarchy emphasized through one’s room(s) within and location relative to the ancestral shrine, which has pride of place in any Hakka homestead. Indeed, even after compounds have been abandoned for newer buildings, often the ancestral shrine continues to host rituals and family matters, such as death memorials.

Many of the large homes that have been or are threatened with forced demolition in the Meizhou suburbs are low-income realizations of the larger ideal of bringing one family line together in one place. Overseas family members have contributed funds to build the homesteads, where several generations do live together. Importantly, those at home hold it for family members who are working either overseas or in cities like Shenzhen. Indeed, memories of and anticipated arrivals of absent family members characterize these homes. As does the cherished expectation of reunion, when the homestead will be filled and the family complete.

Also of note, many of the people standing guard over a family’s living history are women, who have married into the line and are therefore not considered part of the genealogy. So when the householder is female, she holds it for her sons, rather than explicitly for her husband. It became clear in conversation, that many of the women wanted a house for their families–children and maternal relatives, rather than explicitly to continue a particular line. Moreover, while the women told stories of their lives in these homes, the men would emphasize how these homes held a larger family together. Thus, the 5 or 6 women I spoke with were spoke of the need to keep a place for memories and future visits, while the men were more likely to demand compensation that would allow them to reproduce the building itself.

The unmaking of the multi-generational family has been one of the most obvious consequences of rural urbanization. After these homes are razed, they are replaced by smaller homes for China’s version of the nuclear family–an elder or two who take care of the only child of two working parents. In terms of traditional history, this breakdown clearly causes suffering and disorientation as family members try to make sense of a life without a shared root, even as it is also clearly that another uprooting has already taken place; the young people spoke Mandarin while their elders spoke Hakka. The results of centralized education and migrating populations contextualize the violence of rural reconstruction with respect to an ongoing state project to remake the countryside in Beijing’s image.

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Part I/ Meizhou: The Violence of Rural (re)Construction

Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government

Part IV/ Meizhou: What Gets Preserved

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

the violence of rural (re)construction (2): hoodlum government

In everyday conversation, forced evictions and demolitions are thought to be widespread.
However, except through site visits and conversations with local people it is difficult to ascertain which cities are most widely affected because there is a moratorium on reporting about actual cases. The Chinese media “reports happy things and not things that cause worry (报喜不报忧)”. In a situation like Meizhou this means that it is easy to find building plans and economic projections, but nearly impossible (except through more privatized forms of communication such as blogs and we chat) to find any reportage on actual events in real time.

The silence about the actual situation not only isolates vulnerable communities from larger social help, but also obfuscates the government’s role in the process. In a word, because there is no independent source of news, there is also no way of confidently reading a situation. Rumors fly, fear spreads, and the expression “hoodlum government (流氓政府)” is used when people know that they are being threatened in the name of a government program, but do not know if those threatening them are members of the police force, a particular government bureau, or actual thugs-for-hire.

Unfortunately, with respect to rural construction (乡建), hoodlum government is supposed to be the norm rather than the exception because we’ve stopped giving the government the benefit of the doubt.

Reported detained are: Gu Zhengqi (古正q奇) and Gu Wenchang (古文昌). Villagers barricaded the road into their village to prevent bulldozers from entering. The barricade stretched between Gu Zhengqi and Ge Wenchang’s neighboring houses.

Reports of hoodlum government in Meizhou include:

1. Threatening to have a student’s college acceptance revoked if the head of house doesn’t sign over property rights;

2. Allowing for the destruction or decay of houses because there is no compensation for unusable buildings;

3. At the same time, preventing villagers from repairing their homes;

4. Refusing to give fair compensation for property when villagers do negotiate;

5. Filling in waterways to create roads. This gives government officials and their proxies access to villages and makes it impossible to maintain rice paddies, which require regulated inundation and drainage;

6. Disrupting village elections and appointing grassroots level leaders who support government policy;

And 7. Destroying villagers’ cellphones, cameras and recorders to prevent documentation of the process, which in turn also makes reporting on the situation a “he said, she said situation”.

Below are images from our trip to Meizhou. Villagers hold pictures of detained family members and receipts for hospital care after a beating. They are standing in front of there houses or where their houses used to stand. The documents show a villager appraisal of his home and government response. The standard rebuttal, “too expensive”.

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The other five entries in this series are:

Part I/ Meizhou: The Violence of Rural (re)Construction

Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies

Part IV/ Meizhou: What Gets Preserved

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

meizhou: the violence of rural (re)construction

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.

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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

razing homelands (in meizhou), claiming history (in shenzhen)

We hear stories of forced evictions and demolitions from Meizhou. These simple and brutal stories of State violence in order to dispossess peasants of their traditional landholdings sound all too familiar. The enemy is fast, omnipresent, and faceless, found in whispered rumors and chronic anxiety. The peasants’ furious screams and disjointed protests do not clarify the situation, but instead seem to work against them, further alienating them from urbane cool and ironic discourse.

Consider, for example, the tale of a 70+ grandma who had refused to sign over her land rights and sell her home. She occupied her home to protect her home. However, one day she needed to go shopping for a few everyday necessities because there was no one at home to help her. Less than an hour later when she returned home, “they” had already demolished her house. She had nowhere to go and nothing to bring with her. One can only imagine what she feels watching bulldozers raze the material conditions of her life. Suddenly, she is stripped to existential despair and helplessness in the face of relentless progress.

Yesterday I attended a screening of ongoing documentation of the situation in Meizhou. The salon was hosted by Shi Jie (in photo), a young documentary filmmaker currently based in Shenzhen. He has been documenting naratives of ongoing dispossession, bearing witness to the injustice of rural urbanization and concomitant suffering. First story online (in Hakka with Chinese subtitles). Shi Jie held the salon to discuss strategies to create solidarity between Shenzhen youth–especially young Hakka migrants–and the Meizhou peasants.

The conversation brought up three issues: (1) the need for peasants to articulate their demands in a more “urban” language, such as historic preservation or environmental conservation because the story of forced evictions and land dispossession was too common to become a media focus; (2) the need for the film makers to map the competing interests, including government dependence on land sales to meet their budget, the leading developers and the scale of investment;and (3) the need for the film makers to state their aims clearly, who was their intended audience and to what end?

Shijie’s savvy use of social media notwithstanding it is apparent that the heart of his effort is small, local and face-to-face interactions where he raises a fourth issue: how might those of us in Shenzhen is how to ameliorate an untenable situation?