New York Times Misses the Mark on Chinese Evictions

When I started this blog, it was not my aim to use it as a forum to criticize Anglophone reporting on China. Yet I find myself becoming increasingly incensed by China coverage and rarely does a week go by that I do not see something worth taking to task. This past week the prize went to Michael Wines and Jonathan Ansfield's May 26th article: "Trampled in a Land Rush, Chinese Resist" in The New York Times. In the article, Wines and Ansfield suggest that "[w]hen China's land boom excited a frenzy of popular resistance late last year -- including headline-grabbing suicides by people routed from their homes -- Chinese policy makers finally proposed a solution: rules to protect citizens from unchecked development and to fairly compensate the evicted."

The Times article has three main faults. First, it makes too much of the new draft law, suggesting that it will offer protection to Chinese whose homes are under threat of demolition. Many of the practices that the new law is supposed to eliminate are already prohibited by a variety of laws, regulations and procedures. It is probable that the new law would be an improvement; however, the biggest problem is not a lack of laws on paper, but a system in which officials are all too willing to violate procedure, break laws and bend rules, and seldom face any consequences. There is no particular reason to believe that an imperfect new law will change this. The current laws have their loopholes, but it isn't as though hiring "gangs of thugs to terrorize homeowners", for example, is perfectly legal. The Times' coverage accords with an overly simplistic worldview in which developing countries lack Western institutions like law and democracy and so all that needs to be done is to install these institutions and everything will be wonderful.

In fact, Chinese law has been developing, slowly though not always surely, for the past thirty years. It is glib and misleading to suggest that those whose homes are due for the sledgehammer (more common than the wrecking ball in China) have "scant legal recourse" when it is possible for them to take both the government and private developers to court under existing laws. In 2008, for example, Chinese courts settled over 45,000 first instance Land and City Construction suits against various local governments and their departments. While this is still a small number in a country of 1.3 billion, Chinese do sue the government and win. Besides, even if the new law were perfect, one would still need a legal system capable of enforcement and government officials willing to abide by it. Indeed, U.S. law and the recent decision in Kelo v. City of New London also grant local governments in the United States broad powers of eminent domain. It is a difference in legal systems and state-society relations more than any particular law that separates American and Chinese practice. This blogger would be the first to admit the myriad problems that plague the demolition and relocation system, but journalists should present the existing Chinese legal system in its inadequate entirety rather than dismissing it in the same breath with which they lionize an untested draft law.

The second problem is that, like so much reporting on China, the article lacks historical perspective and consequently makes a long-standing trend sound like breaking news. The phenomenon of demolition and relocation is not merely the product of a real estate boom "late last year" but has had the media's attention for well over a decade. This lack of historical perspective occurs in part because many of the journalists working in Beijing have been posted there relatively recently and, therefore, have little basis on which to separate new news from decade old common knowledge. Case in point is New York Times Beijing bureau chief and co-author of the article, Michael Wines, who was only posted to Beijing around 2008 and was previously bureau chief in Johannesburg and Moscow.

The third and most serious problem is that the article uncritically highlights the cynical narrative of a government allying with "powerful developers" to repress its own citizens, but fails to address the underlying causes. The situation is excruciatingly complex, and much of the problem has to do with the tremendously difficult task of marketizing a system of state-owned land and in the relationship between local and central governments. Land slotted for redevelopment is generally government-owned and it is worth remembering that many of those with land use rights in cities were the winners in the communist system who were given the use of prime real estate for nominal prices while most Chinese were barely surviving in the countryside. As it becomes possible to sell urban land in China it is not necessarily clear that the present residents' claims on the land should completely trump those of other parties, for example local governments, communist-era work units, or even pre-communist owners.

Nothing could possibly excuse corrupt officials who use development to finance unnecessarily gaudy government offices or for personal enrichment [It is important to keep in mind that China is not particularly corrupt for a country with its level of development], or those who hire thugs to clear out stubborn residents. Nevertheless, the position of many local government officials in China is hardly enviable. Unlike some US neighborhoods that are declared "blighted" simply in order to facilitate redevelopment, much of the housing marked for demolition in China is truly substandard, unsafe and/or insanitary, often lacking sewage facilities. The Times cites the fact that "[l]and sales provide up to 60 percent of local government revenues, by one semiofficial estimate -- and much more by some private ones." While acknowledging the existence of officials who are simply padding their budgets, one ought also consider that many poorer local governments are desperate to secure the funding to run basic services and are forced to incur debts that make Greece and California look prudent. If an American state had to rely on land development for the majority of its budget, the media would recognize the situation as a funding crisis, but when reporting on China the assumption seems to be that local governments are greedy.

The plight of local governments is aggravated by a Chinese central government that severely cut rural governments' income when it abolished agricultural tax earlier in this decade. Instead of compensating by giving extra help to poor local governments, Beijing tends to commit the most money to more developed areas, especially for costly prestige projects like the Olympics and the World Expo. Additionally, local officials are evaluated primarily based on the economic growth of their jurisdictions, a system that encourages development at any cost. Yet Wines and Ansfield happily cast "enriching local governments and well-connected developers" as the villains, and praise Beijing's new draft law while ignoring the fact that said law will do nothing to fix the gaping holes in local government budgets or change the incentives of local officials.

The media largely shapes Westerners' perceptions of China and I believe we should expect better from the Gray Lady, especially when it comes to a once and future superpower. Balanced reporting about China that challenges instead of reinforcing preconceived notions and embraces complexity is vital if the West is ever to understand China and help it take its place as a responsible world power.