Reporting on China's Disenfranchised: The Great Land Grab

First thing this morning, the phone rang.

"Are your bags packed?" It was my editors in Los Angeles. There are reports of village protests in Southern China over confiscated land. The protesters blocked a highway, and then the protests turned violent. A teenager was reportedly beaten to death. A newspaper said her parents were paid to keep silent.

Inevitably, your editor thinks it must be easy to get there. "Just a skip and jump from Hong Kong."

Well, sort of. But the closest airport is a three-hour flight away. And then it's a three-hour bus ride to a nearby city, and the village is about 30 kilometers beyond. Another detail: The village has reportedly been cordoned off by police.

My immediate thoughts: Are all my electronic gadgets charged? Do I have back up equipment? Should I bring my resourceful assistant? Or, as a Chinese national, will she be in danger?

I called a colleague who knew people on the ground: A few Hong Kong reporters had been detained, but only briefly. No reports this time of journalists being beaten.

In the past months there have been two other protests in Southern China that turned violent. Or rather, I should say two other protests that made the Western media.

Chinese media is not allowed to write about unrest. Or, is only allowed to publish the government-authorized version, usually to counter reports in the foreign media.

The government is fearful the news will inspire protests elsewhere.

Farmers I've spoken to suggest the government is right to be concerned. Few peasants or working poor I have had contact with expect "fairness" from the system. They assume people with connections and power will abuse it. And some have told me they would do the same, if they had the opportunity. That's the way China works.

Their conclusion: The only way to get what they feel is their fair portion of the economic pie is to draw attention to their plight with unruliness.

As I rush out the door hoping to catch a noon plane, I grab two books: "Resistance, Chaos and Control in China," and "Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China 1845-1945." I find history a wonderful tutor for today's happenings.

I suspect after I get off the plane I won't have much time to update you blog readers for a news cycle or two.

May I leave you with some homework? Have you ever considered whether democracy can be effective in an environment that lacks expectations of "fairness" and respect for basic human dignity?

Jocelyn Ford
Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province

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In regards to your question, I would say that yes, democracy can take root in a nation where people lack expectations of fairness and human dignity only because when our nation was founded there was a seed of these ideals in our nation's founding fathers but what the U.S. has become is not where it was when it started.
In actuality our government was formed as a response to corruption, inequality, and lack of respect for the rights of human beings.
Remember that at the founding of the U.S. most of the country was still "owned" by Native Americans and on top of that slavery had already become an institution. It was after the founding of our nation that we wiped out the Indians and got into the bloodiest war this country has known over the issue of slavery. So yes, our country was founded in a place that to us nowadays looks as contradictory and unfair as modern China does.
Secondly, our government was formed in recognition that corruption is always the disease accompanying power, and so our government was formed to protect, as best as humanly possible, against abuses of power by those in control. It does this in three ways that I can think of:
1. Giving citizens representation and requiring government officials to be elected by us limits the power officials can use.

2. By dividing the government into three branches they check one another and create an environment that stimulates competetion so as to limit their ability to obtain unchecked, unctontrolled power over the citizenry.

3. By dividing the government further at the State and Federal level the power of the central government is further weakened and also the State's ability to abuse its citizens is always checked by the federal government.

The crucial difference in terms of governance between China and the U.S. is that the U.S., despite all of its imperfections and shortcomings, is a nation of rule by law (in the end the law has the final say on what is right and wrong, legal and illegal, acceptable and unacceptable. Whereas China is a rule by tyranny in which might establishes right and whatever the person in power says or does is the practicing order of the day. This makes for and environment of unpredictability and fear in which greed and selfishness are the only "safe" motivations for governing the people.

Of course both sides have reason, a judge here in the US told me once that even something as simple as a pancake has 2 sides....

but I haven't heard that the farmers were trying to beat any government officials' kids to death because they weren't happy with the amount of money they were getting. Comon', get real Steven. If this is true, a TEENAGER was beaten to death for protesting, and if it is true, a human was denied their most basic right (as I and the US constitution see it). And for that, there isn't any excuse. Period.

As a naturalized American citizen born in Taiwan, with both parents from mainland China, and fluent in the three main Chinese dialects,I am steeped in both the Chinese and American cultures. In all honesty I have to say that the social manifestations that this reporter has observed are rooted in the Chinese personality that came out of traditional feudalism where 'might makes right'. It would be just as hard to implement democracy in China as in Iraq, which is also rooted in an ancient culture. However, once a subsdtantial number of the population becomes middle class, as in Taiwan, and with the inevitable globalization that makes learning from the west ever easier, democracy will take place. The problem in China today is how to make this happen for the vast majority of the rural poor.

I am intent on hearing the cause of these protests. Are they related to relocation, lack of compensation, coruption, and need of thousands because of the Three Gorges Dam? Is Marketplace going to cover the economic impact of the dam; the good and the bad? It's so huge; all levels of this change! Thanks for the variety of story in your live coverage in China. They cover well the diversity that makes China whole. I like this way of saying what I think you are creating: from Robert Graves, "The Devil's Advice to Story Tellers"---Assemble, first, all casual bits and scraps that may shake down into a world perhaps; nice contradiction between fact and fact will make the whole read human and exact. ( I read this in Yangtze-Nature, History and the River by Lyman P. VanSlyke. I hope NPR and Marketplace continue to do more and more China coverage.

Most of the protests in China come out for relocation or something.

Before you get into this topic, you should know, In China, gov owns the land, similar to Hongkong. People buy or are given the rights to use the land. For example, when you buy a house in China, that only means you have a contract with gov so that you can use the land for 50 or 70 years according to the contract.

For farmers, the rights for using the land were given by gov for free. When gov think: Ok, I need put a project here. China gov would give some compensation to the land users, farmers which gov thinks is reasonable.

The big questions is: How much the compensation should be? For a conflict happened in Hebei province. The gov paid 15,000 RMB per MU (A Chinese area unit, equal to 666 square meters, or around 6,000 square feets) of farming land. This equals to max income of 10 years the farmers can get from the framing. So the gov think it is reasonable. But Farmers think they need more.

See both sides have reasons.

It took the about 200 years to truly realize the "most basic right" for every citizen in this country. Judging with simple philosophy is easy. I guess with exposive economic growth, people's standard on China's political change is also on a compressed schedule.

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