Saturday, May 12, 2007

Land Grab

The number of incidents of mass protest in China in the last few years is often quoted as being in the hundreds of thousands. (So much for the image of the docile and subservient Confucian horde.) One of the main reasons for protests is land seizures, in which local government simply announces villagers have to move, as the new knitting factory goes up. Locals are often compensated, but remuneration often falls short of the true value of the property.

Here in Guangdong province the problem seems to be acute. The economy is booming, and development is everywhere. Driving from the university into downtown yesterday evening revealed an enormous factory complex being built on what I last remember as fishponds and stilt houses.

What must be China's most hard-working blog, EastSouthWestNorth, picks up on a recent story originally reported by Ming Pao newspaper in Hong Kong about a protest in the city of Gurao, near Shantou. (Read the story here.)

Scrolling down to the bottom of the page reveals some striking images of scenes more reminiscent of French inner cities than of suburban Guangdong.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dissent Within the Ranks

A recent Reuters story that I read in the SCMP (South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's premier English-language daily) provided a fascinating peek behind the Wizard-of-Oz curtain that the G maintains here in the Middle Kingdom. Xie Tao, 85, a veteran party official wrote an essay criticizing the current political system and advocating a kind of middle path democratic socialism as practiced by Scandinavian countries, the article said. It also said that an internal crackdown was occuring to put down the official's ideas.

The same story also taken up by the Guardian, here.

What's fascinating to me about this is the degree of secrecy that permeates everything. At the highest levels of government, it's perhaps to be taken as a matter of course; all governments and businesses, I think, strive for a certain kind of opacity, an obfuscation to cast themselves in the best possible light. Easy to do when things are murky and the folks want to believe.

But even here at a what is supposed to be a progressive university, events that are perceived as "bad news" or disruptive to social harmony disappear from the public eye and public discussion almost immediately. What follows is the best possible hearsay as I can gather it, as there is no official information: Over the May day holiday, a freshmen physics student apparently drowned when he slipped off a rock and into the reservoir. He couldn't swim and called for help, but by the time someone got there, it was over.

Usually topics of interest appear on BBS, the school's online discussion forum. But there was only one comment related to this student's death -- about how tragic was. And much speculation among the students that other comments had been deleted.

As long as nobody talks about the bad stuff, I guess the theory goes, it doesn't really exist.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Protests, a Gunshot, and Love in Macau

What the world sees from afar through the eyes of the media is fascinating, especially when you are in a place at a time when something happens. A ferry goes down in Thailand, and everyone from all over the world starts frantically sms-ing you whether you are alright; even though you are on the island where the ferry went down, a few miles from the accident, you are getting the news via satellite and a fellow traveller...the news source being Sweden.

On Labor Day, May 1st, a rare protest in Macau turned violent when a policeman fired warning shots to dispel a crowd demonstrating against illegal and cheaply-paid mainland labor. This in turn enraged and drew more protestors to the demonstration, while a nearby motorcyclist was hit in the neck with a "metal object," as it was described in a local paper. While the metal object has now been declared to be a bullet, no one has said with absolute certainty that it came from the policeman's gun. It's good to be careful, I guess, but I think it's fair to say that in all likelihood it was a stray warning shot. (Many of the original stories that day do not pick up the wounded driver. Read an IHT story here.)

Even though you could probably spit from one end of Macau to the other, I couldn't have been less aware of this event; I was much more focused on my friend's wedding ceremony, at which I had to give a keynote speech.

It turned out to be a great day. The wedding was on Hac Sa, the black sand beach on Coloane, the far island of Macau, and by far the least populated part of the former colony. My friend and his wife looked resplendent and very much in love, he in a kilt and she barefoot in a cream-colored dress. A bag-piper backed up a long procession to the beach. The local people were stunned and enthralled by the bag-piper. I got through my speech without to many gaffs. The couple drank champagne there, with their friends and family, and we all took photos on the beach.

Somewhere a few miles away, the protest was occuring. Later on, when I joked with my girlfriend about how the Macanese were going to come after her, she seemed at least half-afraid for her safety.

"I'm just kidding -- they want mainlanders like you here. Here to spend your money, a tourist. It's the da gong ren (migrant workers) they don't want, " I said.

There seemed genuine confusion there: Macau was getting rich, why were they protesting?

Perhaps for many young, university-educated people from mainland China, capitalism is new enough that they they are not comprehensively aware of how divisive it can be.

But my Labor Day was what it should have been: a rest from work, and an appreciation of greater things.