China’s urban villages – an interview with David Bandurski

My nose is well and truly to the grindstone with book writing at the moment, so unfortunately I’m not finding much time for blogging. But here as promised is the interview I did with David Bandurski, author of Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance from Urbanizing China (Melville House, 2016) on which my previous post was based. I reproduce the interview below without further comment – it raises some interesting issues and further questions, I think, which hopefully I can develop in the future. Meanwhile, I’d thoroughly recommend David’s book. My thanks to David for finding the time to respond to my questions.

Next up will be the post I promised on migration and property rights – but I fear it’ll be a while a-coming while the book-writing is burning my fingers. Adios.

oOo

CS: There’s a standard historical narrative of economic development with which we’re familiar in the west, essentially of peasant farmers quitting agriculture for industrial wage labour in the city and thereby building all-round prosperity. The same narrative is often applied to contemporary China – depeasantisation, urbanisation, rising prosperity – but your book suggests the underlying reality is more complex. Could you say a little about how much you think events in China conform to or belie the standard urbanisation narrative?

DB: In the standard urbanization narrative as you’ve just described it, the role of the human being is central. But one of the distinguishing features of what has been called “urbanization” in a Chinese context is that the role of the human being is minimized against the backdrop of a larger-than-life vision of the urban. A kind of urban mythology of the city as a place of dynamism and ultimately prosperity. You can see this readily in the propaganda around the city, which emphasizes the modern fabric of the city—the skyscrapers, the monuments, the high-speed rail.

At one point in the book, I talk about how on one trip to countryside in Henan I saw how the mosaic scenes outside rural homes had been changed from scenes of nature to scenes of the megacity dominated by an expressway in diminishing perspective running through the center, luxury cars whishing past montages of architecture from Shanghai and Beijing. The caption was always: “Road to Prosperity.” But there were never people in those scenes, any more than in the government’s urban propaganda.

Even this urbanization has brought prosperity for much of China’s urban population. Yes, they have found industrial jobs in the city, and they have grown wealthier. But in an important sense, tens of millions of these rural migrants have never actually entered and settled in the city. This is because their political identity is as “rural” people, a product of a household registration system that still, to this day, categorizes them on the basis of their home towns, and denies them benefits like education and healthcare in the cities that are their new homes. The people themselves have not urbanized. And this is not just by choice.

CS: Historical studies of rural China have often emphasised the resilience of peasant smallholding in the face of dynastic turmoil – and more recently in the face of the Maoist experiment with collectivism. In your book you describe rural land and people as “the blazing fire in the furnace” of China’s recent ascent – do you see ongoing possibilities for small-scale farming in China’s future, or will it be consumed in that furnace?

DB: The energy unleashed by the rural population is not at all about small-scale farming, in fact. One of the most basic things to understand about China’s so-called rural population is its clear and increasing remoteness from agricultural life. The vast majority are not farmers at all. Even one, two and now even three generations back they are not farmers. They have little or probably in most cases no agricultural knowledge.

But their political status, by virtue of a registration system that ties them to a rural hometown, perpetuates their ruralness. This has real implications in terms of the cost of their industrial labor. Consider that when a labor force is constantly mobile, uprooted, unmoored, it is cheapened. Cities benefit from the labor force, but they don’t need to provide affordable housing for families, or schooling for children. The rural migrants themselves bear these costs, economic and social. Consider, for example, the phenomenon of “left-behind children,” those who stay back in the village to attend school while their parents are off in the city working. The families are broken apart because no way is offered for the children to attend school in the city, at least affordably. There are schools that have opened for migrant children, but these are often unofficial schools in semi-urban areas, very often in urban villages. They are substandard and the parents still must pay.

So when I talk about the “blazing fire in the furnace,” I’m really talking about the way that rural people, and rural land too, have been consumed to advance China’s development.

As for small-scale farming, this is certainly not envisioned as the way forward in China. President Xi recently made a visit to China’s northeast and was pictured in propaganda photos walking through the wheat fields—propaganda very reminiscent of China’s Maoist past. But behind him was a fleet of modern harvesters. So technology and large-scale farming are where China is undoubtedly heading.

CS: Following on from that question, a strong commitment to place, ancestral land and perhaps to farm livelihoods among ordinary people in China emerges from your book, but also the ‘cultural iconography of the home town’ as a convenient fiction supporting the unjust status quo of the household registration system and the ‘Chinese dream’ of party-led economic development. If land rights activism were to successfully wrest more political power and wealth from the state and its clients to the benefit of ordinary people, how do you think things would play out in terms of those various attachments to place and development?

DB: I mentioned earlier that there is very little identification with farming anymore. And when you consider that “rural” people have no such identification going back now two and even three generations, you can see the nature of the problem as fundamentally a political one. I remember one mother in an urban village outside Beijing showing me photos of a trip the family had made to their hometown in Henan. He was a few years old at the time, born in Beijing, and this had been his first trip back. But she said to me: “Just like city kids, he doesn’t know about the countryside.” Something like that. So this idea was deeply engrained in the mother, who herself had been a left-behind child, that her son was somehow not of the city despite the fact that he had known nothing else. They live on the margins, in fact, and even the center of Beijing was a strange and alien place.

I think it is inevitable that the identification with place will fade for children like this. I’m not sure his children will have any deep connection to rural Henan. And many people who have managed to put down roots in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, who have urban registration because they’ve gotten college degrees or bought property, still have connections to rural hometowns, usually more than one. These identities are fluid, in fact. But it is still in the interest of the state to perpetuate the idea of connection to the rural place—primarily because it hasn’t resolved the thorny issue of the registration system.

In my book, though, I am writing a great deal about the sense of identity that the local residents of urban villages in the city have about these places. Their situation is actually very different from that of a lot of rural migrant workers. Unlike the villages in the countryside that have been emptied for much of the year of their populations, these villages have maintained their local populations, and they have in many cases safeguarded their traditions, like the dragon boat races. These are a source of community. And when the very divisive issue of their collective rural land comes into the picture—when, for example, the city government wants to requisition it for commercial development—this sense of community can be a real rallying point for activism.

CS: There are many moving stories in your book of courageous rights activists from different backgrounds coming together and supporting each other. How unified do you consider this movement to be in China across urban/rural, regional and any other relevant dimensions?

DB: I must say I am not very optimistic about the prospects for land rights activism becoming a real political force in China. The situation has even changed dramatically since around 2013. Under Xi Jinping, there is very little space at all for activists to come together. This is exactly what the leadership fear, and it has a lot of tools at its disposal to ensure that isolated movements—within one village, for example—do not achieve scale. It was quite incredible to note around 2011 and 2012 how village land movements across Guangzhou and south China, and even beyond, were linking in various ways, including through social media. You don’t see this in the same way anymore. And this is part of the larger story about the direction China is heading politically.

CS: I found your analysis of the urban villages absolutely fascinating. Two questions on this:

(a) You talk about “a second, deeply rural city” within the urban villages of Guangzhou. Could you say a little more about what you mean by this, and how it manifests?

DB: Yes. I’m talking about the urban villages themselves, which are pockets of rural land—meaning land designated as collective and held by village collectives—in and around China’s cities. In China, while all land technically belongs to the state, there are two types of land ownership: state and collective. State land can be development for urban infrastructure, while collective land is subject to more restrictions. In any case, that’s the simple version.

In many cases, the arable collective land around villages on the outskirts of the city is first expropriated by the city for development, meaning that it is re-zoned, parcel by parcel, as state land and then built up. The original residential area of the village, however, is left alone. And then something fascinating happens. As the village becomes part of this more vibrant urban ecosystem, the local villagers recognize the economic benefit of their position, and they build up their own tenement housing atop their family allotments of collective residential land. So instead of one or two-story family homes, they have four to five-story buildings that they can then rent out to newcomers entering the city. These are generally rural migrant workers. So then the urban village becomes a dynamic space with a kind of double-identity rural population—those local villagers “farming property,” as the above process is called, and very attached to the village community; and those outsiders who find in the city a familiar and affordable rural foothold in the city.

(b) Many of the stories in your book concern the plight of local urban villagers in the face of regeneration, but a casual reader might think that it’s a lesser plight than that of impermanent rural migrants. Do you have any thoughts on this, and more generally on how urban/rural class relations are changing in contemporary China?

DB: This is a really complicated issue, in fact, and is subject to its own mythologies and misunderstandings. Reporting on Xian Village, right in the center of Guangzhou, I would often hear sort of average office workers or taxi drivers disparage the villagers for their selfishness and greediness. The village stood as a near ruin, and eyesore, even though it was home to still to tens of thousands of rural migrants. And people would say: “You know, those villagers are all millionaires.” What they meant was that the land was worth a great deal of money, and much of its land had been requisitioned by the state for what everyone assumed were enormous sums. On top of this, the local urban villagers could draw income from their rental properties. So what were they complaining about? Why were they marching? Why were they causing trouble?

The reality in many cases is that these villages were constantly subjected to predatory actions by the city government, and in many cases city officials and police were working closely with corrupt village leaders. Even if they fared better than the rural migrant workers who were their tenants, these villagers could be cheated out of their shares of land appropriation fees, and if these raised questions about this could be terrorized by local police, officials and hired thugs. In Xian Village, when it came time to demolish the rental properties, the villagers’ primary source of livelihood, there was no transparency whatsoever about this. The villagers were asked to sign contracts that no one in their right mind would sign, subjugating their personal interests to the greater good to the city (which really meant the corrupt village leader and his allies at the city level).

I never understood the need to minimize the suffering of urban villagers by pretending they were sultans in comparison to struggling migrants. But you often heard this. And I think this arises in part from the political stigmatization of self-interest, which is confused with greed. You can see this stigmatization, again, in the very contract the villagers of Xian Village were asked to sign. I talk about that contract in the book.

CS: You mention in your book the importance of rural smallholdings as a hedge against the uncertainty of urban wage labour for rural migrant labourers. I’ve also read of opposition to reform of the household registration system among such labourers for fear that it will break that important link. Do you have any thoughts (1) on the relative quantitative importance of smallholder farming in the contemporary economy, and (2) on sensible reform measures for the household registration system?

DB: Yes, I think many migrant workers do think of hometown land, including housing plots, as a hedge against uncertainty. But this is because their position in the industrialized economy, and in the city, is so precarious by design. This land isn’t a hedge in the real sense that any sustainable income could probably be derived from it, but only in the sense that it might enable subsistence as the most basic level. In the absence of real and substantive reform that can be explained to rural migrants, I think the fear of change will persist. They see a real risk that they could be deprived of their land without being given commensurate protections, like access to healthcare, pensions and such regardless of geography.

As I said earlier, I don’t think smallholder farming is regarded by anyone as having a viable place in the contemporary economy—though I’m certainly not the expert in this area. In 2013, a reform program promised to promote commercially viable larger-scale agriculture, which would mean consolidation of small plots into bigger farms. Reforms would also make the land in the countryside not being used for agriculture more marketable, like land in the city. So it would be easier to develop. There was also talk of ending the registration, or hukou, system. But these things are easier said than done. Implementation will be a long and testy process.

CS: Finally, I found your book a real page-turner despite its potentially dry subject matter, partly because of the stories of individual people that you capture so beautifully. I was wondering if you have any more recent news about any of them – what became of Lu Suigeng, and of rights defenders like Huang Minpeng and He Jieling?

I’m sorry to say that Lu Suigeng, the former village chief of Xian Village, is still whereabouts unknown, and probably enjoying life under an alias of some sort in a sumptuous residence on Australia’s Gold Coast.

Huang Minpeng is still finding meaning and purpose in a kind of buzzing fly existence as a conscientious protester. The last time I saw him, he showed me a small journal he kept of his complaint calls to the city help hotline. It was filled with entry after entry, all roughly the same, chronicling the phone calls he made on a daily basis to lodge official complaints over his own land case, and over other cases in which he came involved. He told me he understood that the process was fruitless, but that he could drive the authorities to distraction, forcing them constantly to log his complaints, and to issue responses. With all the obsessiveness of a field researcher, he saw it as a kind of documentation of the futility and callousness of the system.

15 thoughts on “China’s urban villages – an interview with David Bandurski

  1. Thanks for this. An eye opener of sorts. Very complex. I struggle to relate the world I know to what I imagine David is attempting to describe.

    While I don’t think it would be very difficult to follow the urbanization of the central U.S. since the second World War and find many parallels to the Chinese experience described here… there are also features that feel quite strange and foreign (and foreign seems so appropriate a term here). It causes me to wonder if the melting pot nature of the U.S. is somehow a significant feature in the contrast. Uprooting the First Nations peoples as Europeans took possession of the land might be a closer parallel to what David is describing – but this was primarily accomplished before our Civil War (at least East of the Mississippi). The European agricultural conquest of the North American continent, having long since ‘matured’ into a high stakes industrialized business, might serve as a roadmap for today’s political classes in China if I correctly follow David’s thesis… but I’m scratching my head a lot over causes and effects. For example – where is the line between self interest and greed? Is there a continuum onto which one can parse comfort at one end and happiness at the other [or is comfort better positioned along a continuum from depravity to excessive opulence and happiness relegated to some other metric]? How does the affect of propaganda play onto dreams and aspirations for a better life? How far must one travel from their place of birth before they become or foreigner (or an ‘outsider’)?

    The answers to these questions probably change significantly between the geographies considered here. But they could also be at the root of some current social issues like Brexit, Trump, social strife in Germany, France, Greece, and the Middle East. So while China might have its own flavor for the conflict – I don’t see it as an overwhelmingly different phenomenon.

    • For example – where is the line between self interest and greed?

      Self interest is the family growing food , greed is the banker who owns the loan
      against the land .

  2. I read a long time ago that 90%+ of the USSR food was grown on small plots outside the cities , they even paid security guards to keep the thieves out , central planning USSR style certainly did not work that became a disaster , there is nothing in the piece to explain how China runs its mega farms yet in my experience someone who is paid to do a job never has the commitment of those who work for themselves , especially if there is rampant corruption and cronyism , Venezuela is a case in mind .

    • There is some discussion of the modern Chinese approach to massive scale food production in the National Geographic article linked in the comments section of the previous post here at SFF.

      Time will tell whether the Chinese system will have any better result than the former Russian approach. But I don’t imagine the whole issue comes down to whether a worker is paid for her time or she has an ownership stake. Right now in the U.S. the number of farm workers on mega farms who work for wages outnumbers those working as owners. By making this observation I’m not predicting that U.S. mega farms will always be the answer – but for the moment they do make your assertion about wage labor a bit more difficult to defend.

      • The major difference between the old USSR and the USA iz that in the USA they are paid peacework rates or have someone who knows how things should be done , in the USSR no one gave a damn they got paid wether they worked or not , plus the apparatchiks were appointed to run farms on political correctness , few knew what they were doing , I know a few farmers that went over there to sort things out after the collapse , perfect records on the dairies , no hi protein feed no cleaning chemicals , no parts for machines and no one gave a damn .

        • Not only that, Daz… it destroys the spirit of agrarianism. Back where I am from, many families got their land/farms back after communism fell, but the skills and connection to the land had been lost, and the younger generation wanted the ease of a paycheck, regular hours, and not having to care…. compared to all the uncertainties and heartbreaks of the real farm life.

          In Czechia, most of the land is now leased out, often to grow rape for fuel, which is a chapter all its own. The soil is in horrible shape.

  3. I wonder if there is any net-positive for Chinese wildlife in this urbanization trend? Or at least a net-neutral? If there are less people in the country maybe thereʻs a little more lebens-raum for whatever creatures have survived in the interstices of three thousand years of intensive cultivation?
    Chris, I really liked your last post On Cages and Hedges and have been chewing on it, so the lack of comment does not reflect a lack of intellectual impact. It might be fair to say that the cattle ranching business is a fairly deliberate hedge (not that I do anything deliberately in the classic sense of the term), as well as something I enjoy in and of itself. And cages i.e. fences, lassos, corrals, etc. is a core competence. I find Elizabeth Warrenʻs ideas on putting up some fences for the raging bull of Wall Street very, very interesting. The bellowing that has ensued is also interesting. I am reading Adam Toozeʻs Crashed which is taking up a lot of my bandwidth but I canʻt recommend it highly enough. I have threatened my teen-age daughter with the re-institution of bedtime story time, but this time to get her literate in geo-economic-political-ongoing-disaster.

  4. Thanks for the comments – any substantive reply I’ll regrettably have to defer to another day, but interesting issues raised here for sure. Thanks also for the Tooze recommendation, Michelle…yet another of the many books currently sitting in my in-tray, its 600+ pages embarrassing my capacities for sufficient reading. Would you care to post a brief summary for the perplexed, harassed or otherwise over-extended? A guest blog post, maybe?

  5. Large-scale industrial farming destroys the ecosystem that has evolved over millenia with small scale family farms. All the edges and patches of trees and bush are the best wildlife habitat left. The Chinese may learn the hard way that their economic progress brings with it an acceleration of animal and insect extinctions.

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