Last week someone remarked to me that one research area that we really haven’t dug into – excuse my pun – is on land and security. And this person is right. That’s probably why I was drawn to this report in The New York Times on Saturday: “Farmers in China’s South Riot Over Seizure of Land.”
“Rioters in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have besieged government buildings, attacked police officers and overturned SWAT team vehicles during protests this week against the seizure of farmland, said officials in Shanwei, a city that skirts the South China Sea not far from Hong Kong,” The New York Times reported. “The violence was the latest outbreak of civil unrest in China fueled by popular discontent over industrial pollution, police misconduct or illegal land grabs that leave peasants with little or no compensation.”
I think it’s safe to say that we have a pretty good idea of how land grabs (and a range of other land issues, including deforestation and degradation) can produce instability in a country, and what the potential implications may be for security. But there are other interesting questions that often go unanswered when our analysis is focused too pointedly on the potential consequences of land issues. For example, what is behind land grabbing and other environmental land degradation in a country? Is it part of a larger trend we need to be attuned to? In China, these questions offer some interesting answers and observations.
In China, it is difficult to divorce the increasing spats over land with the country’s continual shift from an agrarian-based to industrial-based economy. Indeed, in recent years China has been seizing land once used for farming to turn into industrial parks and other manufacturing centers. The report on Saturday captured the grievances associated with these kinds of land transformation schemes: “In Lufeng, the protests were just the most dramatic manifestation of a long-running battle over land that residents say their ancestors reclaimed from the sea. According to a local Web site, the Lufeng city government has already sold off more than 800 acres of the property for industrial parks and high-priced housing. The proffered compensation per acre, villagers said, has been barely enough to buy a new bed.”
Of course, land grabbing for industrial use is just one example of China’s recent efforts to seize indigenous natural resources – often at the expense of its own people – to sustain its economic growth. The damming of intrastate rivers that displaces local communities is another important trend that we are seeing as part of China’s thirst for natural resources to develop its economy. What is more interesting, too, is that many of these seizures are happening in western China, where Beijing’s influence is weaker, in part because many of those living in the region are ethnic minorities with longstanding grievances with the central government.
This may all just be a snapshot in time, but the report offers some interesting observations about long-term stability in China. According to the Times, Guangdong province is “China’s most populous and a manufacturing powerhouse that produces roughly one third of the country’s exports.” So naturally the question that comes to my mind is what does China’s development plan mean for its ability to maintain long-term stability? Indeed, the model of sustaining economic growth at the expense of some of its people suggests to me that China will have to seriously rethink its development scheme (e.g., changing how it provides compensation). Otherwise it will have to suffer the consequences of transforming into an industrial economy too quickly. We’ll keep watching and promise to dig into this issue more as we move forward with our research.
This Week’s Events
Today at 9 AM, head to the Wilson Center for Scrambling for Hydropower in the Himalayas.
Tuesday at 8:30 AM, the Washington Energy Summit kicks off with Powering Cities of the Future . At 7 PM, go over to George Mason University for a discussion on Safe & Green: Clean Energy Initiatives & National Security.
On Wednesday at 2 PM, the U.S. Institute of Peace will host Saving Lives, Securing Interests: Reflections on Humanitarian Response and U.S. Foreign Policy. At 5:30 PM, the Washing Energy Summit continues with part 2 of Powering Cities of the Future .
On Thursday at noon, the Wilson Center will host Health and Harmony: Population, Health, and Environment in Indonesia.
Finally, on Friday at 9 AM, the George Washington University’s Elliot School will discuss Food Price Increases: Causes, Impacts and Responses.