China 2006

Reporting on China’s Disenfranchised: The Great Land Grab

Jocelyn Ford Jan 18, 2006

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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