Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Dragon of Development

“I have to go home because my house will be destroyed,” answered my closest Chinese friend after I asked about her weekend plans. Effie, as she is known to her American friends, grew up in the rural area surrounding the provincial capital city of Zhengzhou. Effie is the eldest of two daughters. Her mother washes dishes three times a day for a nearby high school. Her father is a farmer during the planting and harvesting seasons and a construction worker during the off-season. Effie is the first of her family to ever attend university, a source of pride and joy to her parents but also a tremendous financial burden.

And now on top of the stress that burden, the Chinese Communist Party has decided that Effie’s village (and several more neighboring villages) would be an ideal location for a new housing and business development and have given all the families their one-month notice. Because Effie’s family and neighbors are being forced out of their lease before the expiration date (no one in China actually owns any private property but leases from the government in 50-70 year contracts), the government has graciously provided a moving stipend—covering about 25% of the actual costs of moving, not considering any emotional damages. When I heard about this unfair compensation, my first question to Effie was if the village people could band together and petition or protest such treatment. Effie said they could and in the beginning had tried a little, but the local officials had put a catch in the compensation deal: families had only two days to decide to accept the compensation as is or it would be reduced. Two days is very little time to organize any cohesive protest, especially when individual families had to weigh the possibility a little money versus no money. And so, guaranteed money won out and unjust practices triumphed.

Effie went on to tell me a story even more surprising that I believe but cannot confirm. A law student from the highly rated Zhengzhou University heard about the eviction edict and decided to put his education into practice. He visited the families and talked about what legal measures could be taken in such a situation. Effie mentioned how hope blossomed in the hearts of her family members. Being forced to move would not only be financially taxing, but Effie’s parents had built their house by hand and had lived in this village for many years. It was their home and life. The thought that they might be able to stay, or even that they might have a right to increased compensation, was beyond belief. And beyond belief is exactly what such hope is as a citizen of China. After not hearing anything for a few weeks, Effie’s family saw a small article in the newspaper about this student’s tragically fatal traffic accident—common enough in Zhengzhou but maybe, in this case, not so accidental. Who can truly say, but recent and historical incidents do cast a negative light.

So what is the ending to our story? Effie phoned a friend who she knew leased a couple of rooms, and while a man had called the day before to claim them, he had not yet put down a deposit. Thus, some lucky timing landed Effie’s family with a place to live and that at a “friend’s price.” I can only assume many other families were not so fortunate. And the moral of our story? The all-consuming dragon of Chinese development and progress will not hesitate to squash the little people of China on its journey to modernity. But in its headlong rush towards development, it might very well destroy the foundation of China’s strength and the spirit of its people.

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