Posts tagged: Wukan

Book Review: Patriot Number One – American Dreams in Chinatown

When Zhuang Liehong arrived in America he anticipated a country that would open its arms to him and celebrate his arrival.  Only years before – in 2011 – Zhuang, then 28 years old, had been the darling of many a Western newspaper as he led the mass protests in his village of Wukan.  It was Zhuang who started the Wukan revolt, waking up fellow villagers to the illegal appropriation of local land with little to no compensation.  And it was these protests that would necessitate Zhuang’s exodus from China to the United States.

But as Lauren Hilgers portrays in her powerful, thought-provoking new book, Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, America was anything but welcoming.  Instead, Zhuang, and his wife Little Yan, find themselves friendless, jobless and directionless in New York; their infant son left in Wukan with Zhuang’s parents.  The few contacts Zhuang has in New York don’t have the advice he needs to survive as an undocumented immigrant in Flushing, Queens.  As Hilgers recounts, Zhuang came to America believing that applying for asylum could easily be done with a simple application and some newspaper clips about his advocacy.  But Zhuang quickly learns that America’s immigration system is a bureaucratic nightmare; that this proud man whose name once was splashed on the pages of the New York Times, is nothing more than a number in America’s soul crushing asylum process.  It is Hilgers’ deft writing and keen observations that allow the reader to feel with Zhuang.  Yes, at times, he is arrogant, thinking that because of who he is, he will go to the front of the line.  But at the same time, the reader feels the disappointment that Zhuang must have felt when reality set in.

Hilgers goes back and forth between Zhuang’s old life in China – recounting the injustices that the Wukan villagers suffered as a result of their standing up to the government – and his new life in Flushing, effectively interweaving the two stories into one narrative.  But it is the second part of this narrative – the immigrant life – that currently resonates the most given the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy toward migrants fleeing violence in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras.

The size of the crowds of the 2011 Wukan Protests Photo courtesy of the BBC

Hilgers doesn’t shy away from the fact that for Chinese immigrants, it is in many ways easier to obtain asylum than those currently coming from Central America.  U.S. immigration policy makes a distinction between state-sponsored violence and violence perpetrated by private actors, preferring the former.  For the Chinese, showing state-sponsored violence – the one child policy, discrimination against Christians, assault of human rights activists – is pretty easy in a one-party, Communist dictatorship.  In fact, as Hilgers documents, an asylum industry of sorts has emerged in Flushing: churches willing to give out attendance certificates to its members; Chinese immigrants who, unlike Zhuang, have never thought about democracy attend the weekly protests of the Chinese Democracy Party; and asylum lawyers that abound in Flushing, willing to tell their clients the “tricks” to get asylum, even after a 2012 raid by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Zhuang Liehong in New York City. Still Protesting. Photo courtesy of Lianian Films.

But for the families coming from Central America, trying to obtain asylum is not as easy since the violence they are fleeing is perpetrated by criminal gangs, in other words, private actors. Even though these countries have weak governments, where crime is rarely prosecuted, that is not enough to show state-sponsored violence.  And in addition to Trump’s current zero tolerance policy, a policy that initially ripped children from their parents, and Jeff Sessions’ rescission of domestic violence and gang violence as a basis for asylum, Trump has also revoked the temporary protected status designation for El Salvadorian immigrants, a status that allows undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States.  By September 2019, 350,000 immigrants will be deported backed to El Salvador, one of the world’s most violent nations.  Somehow, under U.S. immigration policy, unspeakable acts of violence on little Latino children isn’t a grave enough atrocity. Hilgers doesn’t discuss this issue in her current book, but it is something that many readers might be thinking about given Zhuang struggles and the current struggles of the migrants desperately trying to find a safe place for their children. And, as Hilgers recounts in her analysis of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, even with a complete ban, Chinese immigrants found a way to get into the United States.  As long as circumstances in the home country remain dire, people will continue to flee to a better place.  And that place has long been America.

Through Zhuang’s story and many of the other engaging characters Hilgers writes about – Little Yan, Karen, Tang Yuanjun – we get to see the insular, and lonely world, that is immigrant life in Flushing.  At times it is heartbreakingly sad and at times, down right funny.  But through it all, Hilgers brilliance as a writer shines through; every character she writes about, she completely humanizes.  These are not immigrants from a foreign country with a different culture; these are human beings that, like each of us, suffer life’s disappointments and, like each of us, find joy in life’s small accomplishments.  Given the times, it is important to be reminded of that and Patriot Number One is a must read.

Rating: ★★★★½

Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, by Lauren Hilgers (Crown New York, 2018), 324 pages

Follow Up on the Wukan Protests – A Constitutional Challenge?

By , February 7, 2012

It's a Constitution We are Propounding!

In the beginning of January, we posted a piece on the recent protests in Wukan, admitting that while there was something happening in Wukan, we at China Law & Policy where unclear what it was.  Enter Prof. Keith Hand of UC Hastings School of Law, a specialist in Chinese constitutional law, who on Friday published a fascinating piece in the China Brief interpreting Wukan as a manifestation of the villagers’ constitutional discontent.

Hand’s piece teaches the lesson that, in analyzing legal developments in China,  we are often prisoners of our own legal systems.  Case in point is constitutional law.  China is often criticized by foreign scholars about not having constitutional law; yes there is a law on paper, but the courts are prevented from hearing any constitutional claims and for American legal scholars used to constitutional jurisprudence being propounded by the courts, this is almost anathema.

But as Hand’s piece, “Constitutionalizing Wukan: The Value of the Constitution Outside the Courtroom,”  emphasizes, the constitution is alive and still kicking in China.  Courts may not hear constitutional claims, but such claims are still being made and still being interpreted in China, just outside the courthouse doors.  For Hand, protests like Wukan and the subsequent government response serve the same role as the courts in interpreting the constitution.  In Wukan, the villagers protested for their version of the Chinese constitution and the government, in its compromise with the villagers, provided theirs, moving constitutional jurisprudence forward.  As Hand points out, this explains why Chinese constitutional scholars are interpreting the Wukan protests in a positive light and as one of the most important constitutional cases of 2011, even though it never made it to a courtroom.

Why do these guys get to have all the constitutional fun?

This grassroots, constitutional interpretation is not absent from America.  In fact, as Hand mentions, some American constitutional scholars view many popular protest movements as an important part of moving society – and in the U.S., the courts – forward to a different view of the constitution and have called this “popular constitutionalism.”  Could the Supreme Court handed down all of its decisions of the 1960s without the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movements?

Will constitutional claims ever be heard in a Chinese court?  Who knows, but as Hand makes clears, constitutional jurisprudence i happening in China, just not where most Americans might look to find it.

For a deeper understanding of popular constitutionalism in China, read the Hand’s short piece here.

The Wukan Protests –Because Something Is Happening Here But You Don’t Know What It Is

By , January 2, 2012

The tale of Wukan village is not an uncommon one in China. Rural farmland is constantly taken by corrupt village officials for real estate development and the villagers – the owners of the land through the collective – receive little to any compensation. For certain Wukan’s story is a little different from other run-of-the-mill land taking protests: the length of the protests (close to three months), the unity of the group (close to 20,000 villagers), the complete expulsion of the Chinese government from the village, the death of a protest representative in police custody, and the attention from the western media distinguishes Wukan from other taking protests.

But now that it appears that the villagers and the provincial government have reached some sort of agreement, has Wukan ended differently from other protests?

Some China watchers have argued that it has and see Wukan as the general populace’s deepening understanding of its rights under the law and its willingness to fight for those rights (see here and here). But given the discriminatory structure of China’s Real Property Rights Law (“the PRL”) and the Land Administration Law (“the LAL”), one hopes that these villagers are not really fighting for their rights under the law as it stands now. As Prof. Eva Pils points out in “Waste No Land: Property, Dignity and Growth in Urbanizing China”, China’s property laws have been written specifically to render villagers into “second class property rights holders” and permit their land to be legally taken for urban development. The below summarizes much of the article and views the Wukan protest in light of Prof. Pils’ analysis.

How Villagers in China Get Screwed

(1) The Limitations on Rural Land Use Rights

As a nominal communist country, land cannot be privately owned in China. The PRL, passed in 2007, maintained that distinction. Instead, the land is owned publicly; in urban areas, the land is owned directly by the state; in rural and suburban areas, the land is owned by the village collective, usually through the villagers’ collective economic organization or the village committee. This difference in ownership between urban land and rural/suburban land is not just limited to who owns the land, but extends to what individuals can do with the land.

Although not directly owned, individuals are able to own certain usage rights associated with the land that they occupy. These land usage rights differ depending on the underlying ownership of the land – if it is owned by the state or if it is owned by the collective. In urban areas, these usage rights include the ability to live on and to construct non-primary residence buildings on the land (known as “construction rights”); rights to the land can last for 70 years in urban areas. As a result of the ownership of these “usage property rights” and the fact that these rights last for 70 years give urban residents the ability to buy, sell and lease their usage rights, providing somewhat of an appearance of actual individual ownership.

But in rural areas, the usage rights are much more restricted and this is where the problem first begins. First, villagers are pretty much limited to one type of usage right: the right to farm (there are other rights, such as the right to building housing). Under the LAL, which was adopted in 1986 and last amended in 2004, this land use right cannot be transferred or rented for “non-agricultural construction.” (See LAL Art. 63). Urban land use rights have no such restriction. The Property Rights Law (“the RPL”), passed eight years later, continued the limitation on rural usage rights.

Furthermore, rural land use rights are limited to 30 year terms. As a result of these restrictions, there is no free flowing market for the sale of rural land use rights – real estate companies interested in building a housing complex in a suburban area do not go directly to the owners of the rural land use rights; all they would be able to purchase is the right to farm the land (note that Prof. Pils does discuss the illegal minority use rights market between the farmer and the real estate investor).

Instead, where a real estate company is interested in building a housing complex or a factory in a rural area, the land must first undergo a transformation from a rural (where usage rights are limited to agricultural purposes with 30 year terms) to urban land (with “construction usage rights” for 70 years). To undergo such a transformation, the land must go from being collectively owned by the villagers to being state-owned. Under Article 60 of the PRL, it is the “village’s collective economic organization” or the “villagers’ committee” that acts on the villagers’ behalf, negotiating the compensation for the villagers’ land use rights.

As Prof. Pils points in her example of the Nongkou village in “Waste No Land,” the village committee itself often acts in its own interest, not that of the villagers. It appears that in the case of Wukan, the village committee was not representing its constituents; part of the reason that the Wukan villagers deposed of its government was the allegation that the village committee was corrupt and not reflecting the interest of the villagers.

(2) No Just Compensation

The first problem for villagers is the fact that the law leaves them with second class property rights – usage rights that can never be sold for non-agricultural purposes, necessitating the expropriation of the land by the village committee. But the second major issue is that the compensation villagers receive – if they receive anything at all after the village committee is done with the transaction – is nowhere near what is being paid for the transformation of agricultural land into urban land.

Under Article 47 of the LAL, when agricultural land is expropriated, compensation is “made according to the original purposes of the land being expropriated.” As a result, farmers are only entitled to compensation of the value of what they would have farmed over the remaining life of the 30-year lease rights (there are also other compensation other than the value of the land use right, such as resettlement fees but the largest part of the compensation package is for the land use rights).

The villagers themselves do not reap the benefit of the market value of the underlying land or even the full value of what they are relinquishing. In fact, as Prof. Pils notes, for most villagers, the compensation is a mere 5% to 10% of the value of transforming agricultural land to urban land. Article 49 of the LAL requires transparency to the village regarding money received by the collective for the land, but as the Wukan protesters point out, they had little knowledge of anything that was going on.
Furthermore, any complaint regarding the amount of compensation occurs after the compensation plan has been set (see LAL Article 48), making one wonder – what can really be done after the fact. Again, as Prof. Pils notes, because the compensation schedule is considered an administrative decision, it is not subject to judicial review, leaving the villagers with little legal recourse to contest the compensation (although petitioning always remains as an option).

Compensation appears to be a major in the Wukan protest. As part of the brokered settlement between the villagers and Guangdong provincial officials, the low-level of compensation will be reconsidered. (See China Media Project’s translation of a Nanfang Daily article). Hopefully, the villagers will be able to recoup some of the value of the actual transfer of the land to urban use and not just the value of their agricultural land use rights.

(3) The Discriminatory Definition of Public Interest

As Prof. Pils argues in “Waste No Land,” given China’s economic development philosophy over the past 35 years and the fact that land takings account for a significant portion of the local GDP, converting agricultural land into urban land is inherently defined as a taking for the “public interest.”

In fact, the whole drafting of the 2007 Property Rights Law has been predicated on the ability of governments to easily and cheaply take rural lands without providing the villagers with a more realistic compensation. Although both the Chinese Constitution and the PRL reiterate the government’s commitment to equal protection of the laws, the purposeful distinction between urban land use rights and rural land use rights, Urban land use rights are not under the same restrictive

The third and biggest challenge to being a villager in rural China is the expansive definition of “public interest.” Takings of rural land against the villagers’ wishes are legal in China if it is done in the public interest.
In January 2011, the State Council promulgated new regulations (in Chinese here) better defining “expropriation for the public interest.” But those regulations were limited to state-owned land, or in other words, urban lands. In the countryside, what is the public interest remains intentionally vague.

So What Happened in Wukan?

Wukan is not an example of villagers seeking their rights under the law. China’s property laws – the PRL and the LAL – provide little rights to villagers.

But there is certainly something happening here….I’m just not so sure what it is and perhaps it is still too early to determine if Wukan is in fact a harbinger of something more. Protests in China against rural land takings and the lack of just compensation occur on an almost daily basis. But in Wukan, these protests were large, public and extreme. Add to the mix that one of the protest leaders died while in police custody.

On some level Wukan had the potential to end differently, to end violently. But it didn’t. Instead, the provincial government stepped in to admonish the local officials (although interestingly enough such punishment is going to happen outside of the legal system and under shuangguai, the Party adjudication method – see Nanfang translation), praise the villagers, admonish against further protest and agree to provide greater compensation.
But how often can the provincial or central government step in and continuously calm these tensions? Arguably the government must recognize that it is the structure of the law itself that leads to such discontent. But such a discriminatory law is necessary to provide for real estate development, an increasingly important part of China’s GDP. Will the government change this paradigm and provide equal property rights to villagers? Right now it is unclear. Wukan seems to have ended in the same way as all of these protests do. But perhaps this time the central leadership will realize that constantly involving itself in these local protests is unsustainable.

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