05/16/2024, 17.20
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Shandong: the spectre of forced demolitions in rural areas rises again

by Silvia Torriti

Cranes and excavators are back at work after they were halted in June 2020 following local opposition and academic criticism, social media in China report. Ostensibly, the goal is to modernise rural life by merging a fifth of 70,000 villages, forcing people into new neighbourhoods on the outskirts of medium-sized cities. Anyone who fails to comply can expect violence.

Milan (AsiaNews) – Recent reports suggest that forced demolitions in rural villages have resumed in Shandong, a province in eastern China, after the authorities stopped them in June 2020.

One of the worst cases occurred on 19 March, when demolition teams in riot gear allegedly invaded Xizhifang, a village in Jinan prefecture, sparking local protests.

Calls to the police to intervene were useless, as agents went after protesters, searching their mobile phones, beating them, even forcing some to be under house arrest.

The practice follows a well-known pattern, generating the umpteenth show of dissent against the "village merger” campaign, he cun bing ju in Chinese.

Considered the feather in the cap of the “rural revitalisation strategy" (xiangcun zhenxing zhanlüe), the policy involves destroying entire rural villages and the consequent transfer of residents to modern, larger "communities" (shequ), on the outskirts of medium-sized cities.

These new settlements, consisting of blocks of flats or detached dwellings, are set to include all amenities, like hospitals, schools, hospices, police stations, and waste collection zones.

The purpose of village mergers is to accelerate the natural process of urbanisation, promote the modernisation of rural areas and the local economy, and improve the standard of living of farmers.

To this end, the authorities in Shandong launched an ambitious plan in October 2019 to merge a fifth of the province’s 70,000 traditional villages, to be completed by the end of the following year.

During the implementation, numerous mistakes and excesses were made on the backs of the rural population, courageously exposed by some Chinese researchers and academics.

He Xuefeng, a well-known sociologist at Wuhan University, is one of them. In describing the pain caused by this policy to farmers, he went so far as to call it "the Great Leap Forward of modern times".

In fact, the practice of "village merger" is in many ways reminiscent of Maoist policy, starting with the way it is conducted.

The stories collected by Chinese scholars show serious cases of violence and abuse of power by local officials who, also driven by personal gain, force residents to sign contracts for the demolition of their homes.

Families who refuse to do it are labelled "saboteurs" (dingzihu) and subjected to horrific retaliation, their domestic utilities cut off, their homes vandalised, and their crops damaged.

People who tried to oppose demolitions have even been beaten or arrested, while others have been fired or pressured to quit their job.

Often the demolition notice comes so unexpectedly that families do not even have enough time to remove their belongings, which remain under the rubble of their homes.

Another widespread practice is "first destroy, then build" (xian chai hou jian), whereby rural homes are torn down before new ones are ready, leaving people with few options: turning to friends or family, seeking rental accommodations, or making do with makeshift shelter, like simple straw and mud huts or tents set up on the edge of plots of land.

Although ramshackle, such accommodations are sometimes preferable to the new homes in modern rural communities. Indeed, once they move into their new flats, families must pay for furniture, furnishings, appliances, and pay for various utilities, since local governments in Shandong cannot pay any subsidies even though they were promised.

"I don't like the new house,” a farmer from Juancheng (Heze prefecture) said. “We have to spend money from the moment we open our eyes in the morning.”

Speaking about his old life, he noted that “In the village we used to draw water from a well and cook rice with the firewood we collected. Now we have to pay for water even when we flush the toilet, or for electricity when we cook [...]. It's so unusual [...] and then we don't have any money. It's easy to survive in the village without too much money."

Moving away from one’s village of origin means having to give up one's work, as the distance no longer allows residents to farm as they once did. For this reason, many are forced to give up their right to cultivated plots, becoming for all intents and purposes "landless peasants" (shidi nongmin).

Such a decision means giving up on one’s main source of income. Although people might be compensated for ceding the rights to land, this will not be sufficient to ensure their livelihood for long.

What is more, they are not guaranteed to find employment in the place where they are going to live or in its immediate vicinity.

Economics is not the only factor that make the prospect of moving to new communities unattractive. There are also sentimental reasons that raise concerns among rural residents.

Since most of them are elderly, it is quite difficult for them to leave the house built thanks to the efforts of generations and start their lives elsewhere.

Once they have moved, farmers are forced to integrate into a new social context and rebuild interpersonal relationships.

This process is long and complex, since the residents of the new communities, although coming from neighbouring villages, often are different in economic and cultural, as well as habits and lifestyle.

Lü Dewen, a researcher at Wuhan University, is quite correct when he says: “If Covid-19 was a natural disaster [. . .], the fusion of villages is a man-made calamity; [it] weighs menacingly and has no consideration of human feelings. It goes against the mindset of farmers.”

Although the authorities initially tried to hide rural unrest, sometimes censoring online pictures and comments, criticism from Chinese scholars have found a vast echo in the media, giving rise to a rare example of "constructive journalism" in the Middle Kingdom.

As a result, the authorities in Shandong have had to admit mistakes and temporary suspend the village merger campaign in June 2020.

But recent rumours in Chinese website suggest that cranes and excavators are back at work in the province's countryside.

Indeed, the policy papers published after 2020 on 'three rural issues' (san nong) - agriculture, rural areas, and farmers – suggest that this policy will continue, provided that the will of those involved is respected. The latest news raises serious doubt that this is really the case.

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