Chinese Land Expropriation: Kung Fu, Rockets and Evictions

One could say that the dust has only just settled from the Chinese Communist Party's 18th National Congress, which ended on November 14th, but it might be more accurate to say that the leadership transition went so smoothly that barely any dust was kicked up in the first place. Yet, despite the placid appearance of this smooth transition, the new leaders face the same problem that has been the greatest threat to stability in China for over a decade: land expropriation.

All over China, local governments expropriate farm land from peasants and homes from urban residents, and in many cases, the land is then sold on to developers. And as Andrew W. MacDonald and I argue in a forthcoming paper, the expropriation and sale of land has become an important revenue source for cash-strapped local governments in China. Not surprisingly, this raises the hackles of many of those losing their land or homes (often for insufficient compensation) and has resulted in some extreme, and extremely awesome, efforts to resist expropriation.

Shen Jianzhong, an avid Kung Fu practitioner, had been resisting the expropriation of his Hebei home, holding out for a better deal. So, on October 29, a mob of 30 to 50 thugs, probably hired by a development company, tried to push their way into his house. While intimidation and even violence are a fairly common tactic for dealing with holdouts, the problem was that Shen is an avid Kung Fu practitioners, as is his 18-year-old son. The father-son duo let the thugs have it, "rendering seven of them near unconscious in the hallway ... The rest were scared and stayed outside. Some of them ran away." Shen's case attracted significant attention when he posted a video of the aftermath -- i.e., a hallway full of unconscious thugs.

Yet these types of incidents are not restricted to Hebei, or Kung Fu masters. On the 6th of February 2010, a gang of 30 men came to Yang Deyou's home and farm, intent on demolishing them to make way for a new development on the outskirts of Wuhan. Yang, who was demanding higher compensation for the land, was ready for them, rolling out at a multiple launch rocket system he had constructed from fireworks, pipes and a wheelbarrow. While his first salvo sent the thugs running for cover, Yang was badly beaten when he stopped to reload.

Four months later, however, dozens of demolition workers armed with hardhats, shields and bulldozers arrived at Yang's home, only to find him standing vigil in a homemade guard tower. From this post, he repeatedly fired warning shots to keep the crowd at bay until the police were compelled to put an end to the standoff. Soon after, Yang received nearly a 75 percent increase in compensation for his land, although he still believed this to be a fraction of the amount to which he was entitled.

It is tempting to apply a simple narrative of an oppressive government allying with "powerful developers" to repress its own citizens, and I am certainly sympathetic to Chinese Kung Fu masters and MacGyvers who resist illegal force both effectively and with style. Yet this overlooks the excruciatingly complex reality of the marketization of land and housing. The basic problem is that essentially all of this land is state-owned and those being pushed off it have only been given the right to use it for a set period. The compensation, therefore, does not reflect the market price, because they do not actually own the land. But the anger of peasants losing their farms or residents losing homes they have lived in for decades in return for a pittance seems completely justified. In terms of raising the standards of living for poorer Chinese, there is still a long way to go. Moving peasants away from farming small plots and getting urban residents out of shoddy communist-era buildings is probably an important part of that. But, many local governments simply do not have the resources to offer sufficient compensation to make these changes go smoothly. Beijing is understandably reluctant to get itself on the hook for the tremendous amount of money that would be needed to placate millions of disgruntled evictees, but if they want the next transition to be as smooth as this one, they need to find a way to share more of China's growing prosperity with poorer Chinese, whether or not they practice Kung Fu or build rocket launchers.