Collective Violence in Rural China is not a Dinner Party 农村集体暴力事件不是请客吃饭 by Karl YAN

Chinese protests over land grabs have increased in relation to the pace of reported illegal seizures

Chairman Mao’s famous quote can be paraphrased to apply to collective violence in China: it is not a dinner party or writing an essay because violence is not refined, temperate, refrained, and gentle. Peasants resort to violence when they feel this is the only way to protect their rights. But does it have to be this way?

 

On October 14th, 2014, villagers and workers of the Pan-Asian Logistics Center (泛亚工业商务物流中心) again violently clashed in Fuyou village, Yunnan province (云南省,富有村), resulting in eight deaths and 18 injured. Because of government ties to the firm, this clash illustrates the uneasy nature of already tense peasant-state relations. State media portrayed these incidents as “a portion of villagers instigated by a handful of illegal thugs, unlawfully collectivized” who then “blockaded public roads, which resulted in serious criminal offences”. Though it is accurate to denote villagers’ unlawful criminal activities, the state media’s portrayal failed to give a holistic view of the violent clashes. The cause of such “criminal offences” needs to be properly addressed in depth, as the causal link of this event can be understood in terms of unaccountable officials, rent-seeking firms, and reactive villagers.

 

Background to the Clashes

The major clash on October 14th, 2014 can be traced back three years ago to 2011, as villagers were unsatisfied with the meager compensation from land expropriation for the Pan-Asian project. Thus, villagers have continuously sought fairer compensation and land-use rights protection from higher level governments – collectively “visiting” (上访) provincial-level government and bureaus as well as municipal-level ones, and letter-writing. Villagers have wanted to see all the required documents of this project before agreeing to release their land. Despite governmental claims that the project was lawful, and had all the required documents, the government has failed to provide such proofs to the villagers.

However, government officials was able to present actual land expropriation contracts, which the villagers signed, agreeing to give up their land at the price of 43,000 RMB per mu (approximately 7,200 USD per 667 m2). Many villagers later claimed that they never signed the contracts for the simple reason that it made no economic sense: their production per mu was around 70,000 RMB annually (approximately 12,000 USD). While collective visits were happening, villagers at home made every effort to ensure that Pan-Asian could not finish the project, as Pan-Asian had tried to expropriate the land with force.

Two years of cyclical petitioning, letter-writing and collective visits to higher levels of government did not yield any results in resolving the issue. Every time, Fuyou villagers were turned down and asked to visit government and bureaus at the next-level-down. As their hope in resolving the issue through proper state channels dimmed, villagers became more agitated. In 2013, Pan-Asian decided to temporarily suspend its operations in Fuyou due to mounting pressure from the villagers. However, Pan-Asian restarted the project in May 2014. This time, they were greeted with a round of violence from the villagers. Both sides took the issue to the Kunming (昆明) municipal government, yet nothing has been done from May 2014 to October 2014. Kunming’s ineffective handling of the Fuyou villagers’ request finally sparked the violent clashes that took place in October 2014.

 

Who can We Really Fault?

In order to determine the causal link, there is a need to identify a triad of actors in play — the local government, Pan-Asian Logistics, and villagers of Fuyou. In terms of the local government, they failed to act as the non-partisan arbitrator between Pan-Asian and the villagers. Government officials in Jinning county (晋宁县) and Fuyou village are themselves personally involved with land expropriation—perhaps giving added leeway and opening a few back doors for Pan-Asian to attract the firm to invest in Jinning. Media reports showed that Pan-Asian workers used police equipment against the villagers — equipment that would have been impossible to obtain without government collusion. Moreover, local governments in China, in general, have the incentive to cooperate with businesses because they often have both personal interests in the projects as well as interests in extracting more revenue from outside-of-budget sources to balance their budgets. To be specific, in terms of personal interests, local officials may have the economic incentive to comply with higher authorities in expropriating more land as their political careers are closely tied with the liking of the higher-level authorities, linked to the Party nomenklatura system.

For Pan-Asian, rather than formally requesting the government to handle the problem, the firm seems to have assumed favorable treatment from the local government. As the October clash resulted in 17 officials being either suspended or dismissed from their government and Party positions, one must wonder about the behind-the-scene abuses that took place. Further, the firm’s shortsightedness drove them to get on the bad side of the villagers, which resulted in violent clashes between them. Instead of entering negotiations, Pan-Asian, over the course of three years, made many attempts to forcefully expropriate villagers’ land. Further, as part of a broader problem in China, negotiations on land expropriation between firms and local leaders often take place in an opaque setting, not publicly known to many of the villagers, who will nevertheless be affected by such negotiations. The villagers, perhaps out of desperation and lack of choice, forcefully assert their land use rights, which may be counterproductive in shaping the final outcome.

Reflecting back on the issue, there could be many different ways which Fuyou villagers—and villagers in general—could approach issues like land expropriation. Villagers could filed a petition to the county legal system, or ask the court and the county-level procuratorate (县级人民检察院) to settle the issue on their behalf, before signing any contract. Alternatively, they could enter collective negotiation with the land expropriator or ask an arbitrator to negotiate on the villagers’ behalf, before signing any contract. All the aforementioned show a lack of understanding of the market economy in the countryside, as well as a “thin consciousness of the law” (法律意识淡薄) on the part of all three parties.

 

Aftermath

On October 19th, the violent incident compelled the Party Secretary of Kunming, Gao Jinsong (高劲松), to visit Fuyou. During his visit, Gao showed a determination to a speedy resolution of the issue. Further, there is also a cue to strengthen and promote law education in Fuyou village as he reiterated the importance of “rule by law” (依法治村). Now only time will tell whether this is another tactic used by the Party Secretary to relax the tension or something more. The aftermath of these incidents is a large “suspension and dismissal” of county and township level officials in Jinning county, as well as the arrest of villagers who engaged in the so-called “criminal offences”. This is a typical act of “beating both sides” (各打五十大板) exercised by higher level officials in dealing with social movements that get out-of-control or become highly publicized.[1]

The final outcome of the incident and whether Fuyou villagers will truly become “fuyou” (prosperous) from land compensation is yet to be seen. However, lessons should be learned that peasants can take “arms” against their local government, if they feel this is the only way to receive attention from the benign central authorities in Beijing. [2] In Fuyou’s case, the villagers got the attention of the entire country, as well as promises made by Kunming’s Party Secretary.


KarlYan

 

 

Karl YAN is a PhD student in political science at the University of Toronto.
He can be reached at karl.yan [at] mail.utoronto.ca

 


 

 

[1]Lucian Bianco, Peasants without the Party: Grassroots movements in Twentieth-Century China, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.

[2] Thomas Berstein and Xiaobo Lv, Taxation without representation in contemporary rural China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


This commentary reflects only the author’s personal opinion. 

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