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Date Posted: 10:34 12/01/2004

Growing pains

Progress hurts, especially when the government wants to build a golf course on your farm

WHEN YOU are trying to develop the economy of a predominantly rural country with the biggest population in the world, people are bound to get in the way at some point. Much of course has been written about the hardships and abuse suffered by the hundreds of thousands shifted from the banks of the Yangtze in order to make way for the gargantuan Three Gorges Reservoir, but there have been countless other forced migrations throughout China over the course of the last few decades. People have been pushed aside for less illustrious hydropower projects along the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers since the Mao years, and once the 'opening up and reform' policies of Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, got underway, millions more have been moved to provide the space for petrochemical complexes, airports, and a multitude of industrial parks.

Long-term city dwellers have also been forced to join the suburban sprawl in the interests of some urban renewal project or other, or to allow well-connected property developers to convert tenement slums into spanking new luxury villas for the burgeoning nouveaux riches.

The government, of course, can be ruthless when dealing with any property disputes that may arise: the lawyer, Zheng Enchong, was investigating a number of such cases in Shanghai, and the role of the filthy-rich real estate magnate, Zhou Zhengyi. Zheng Enchong was subsequently imprisoned for 'revealing state secrets' in October 2003.

The authorities always insist that the level of compensation is commensurate to the losses suffered by the displaced people, but corruption frequently gets in the way, and relocation funds are commonly siphoned away by officials into private bank accounts or private businesses. There has been a number of cases in recent years of cack-handed, corrupt officialdom, making life even harder for the peasants than it already is.

Last week, the Beijing Star Daily published the photographs of two people arrested and convicted of 'fomenting disorder' on Tian'anmen Square and at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where visiting foreign dignitaries are usually expected to reside. A group of protestors had gathered at the most politically sensitive spot in China to register their anger, and some of them were reported to have been the victims of forced relocation. This was nothing new: throughout the year, a number of relocated people had immolated themselves on Tian'anmen Square after all their conventional protests had been thoroughly ignored by the authorities.

The problem is that local villagers displaced by some massive state project like the Three Gorges are not given any sort of stake in the project. Even the paltry sums of compensation awarded to them are reduced or stolen, or used to pay government-approved contractors at inflated prices.

Meanwhile, in another case reported by Southern Weekend, a Guangzhou-based newspaper, farmers in Shandong Province have been fighting back against efforts by the Ministry of Land and Resources to move them away and replace their cornfield with – of all things – a villa complex and a golf course. The Ministry had, naturally, declared the farms to be illegal, thus allowing the construction of hundreds of luxury villas, not to mention an 'entertainment centre'.

But there was an encouraging case reported in Zhejiang last week, where years of sabotage and vandalism by irate local villagers had led to the suspension of a small countryside hydropower project. The authorities, sensibly, decided to try to involve the villagers in the project, offering them shares in the station as compensation.

Most of the time, however, the masses are expendable, pushed off their land in the name of economic growth. And golf.

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