September 26, 2011

This Weekend’s News: Land Grabs Spark Protests in China

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