Review: David Bandurski, Dragons in Diamond Village: Tales of Resistance in Urbanizing China (2016)

In 2030, one billion Chinese will live in cities, two-thirds of the total population, or one of every eight people on the planet. At the time of the Chinese Revolution in 1949, 80 percent of the 400 million Chinese were rural; at the beginning of the Deng Xiaoping “reform era” in 1978, 70 percent of the population was still on the land. By 2012, 50 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people lived in cities. The post-1978 urbanization of hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants, when complete, will amount to the largest migration in human history. Like much else about contemporary China, from total production, by way of the new nationwide high-speed railway network, to the dozens of new cities (largely unknown to the outside world and with populations in the millions), the dimensions of Chinese development are colossal. The book under review here takes us to one aspect of its dark underside. The slow rate of urbanization from the revolution to 1978 was the result of the conscious policy of the “hukou” system, a virtual Chinese apartheid putting urban residence, or even moving elsewhere, out of reach for the great majority of the peasantry. The hukou, which has been made more flexible in recent years but still plays a major role in controlling the movement of people, is essentially a local residence permit linked to one’s birthplace and providing access to an array of social services (education, healthcare, housing) in that birthplace and only there. For those born in the booming coastal cities of Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, so much the better; the far greater part of the population born in remote and poor villages, is left with the choice of poverty, grinding out a meager living on the land, or joining the hundreds of millions of migrant laborers who live on the edge as second-class citizens in urban areas.

The hukou has actually existed in different forms for 2,000 years, sometimes as part of a remarkably sophisticated census and tax system in earlier dynasties; in post-1949 China, the main objective of the hukou was preventing a mass movement off the land and the creation of the kinds of urban slums found in many underdeveloped countries, then and now. The result over time was, not unlike in the rural world of the former Soviet Union, the growth of a substantial population of effectively hidden unemployment or underemployment. This situation has not been overcome to this day, and is in fact one of the dilemmas which China’s ruling group confronts, namely integrating hundreds of millions of migrants, present and future, into a viable life in the cities. The basic economic strategy of Mao’s China was a systematic, planned exploitation of the peasantry to pay for urban industrial development. Whether farming small family plots or living in the communes formed in the 1950s, the peasantry sold agricultural products at controlled low prices fixed by the plan in return for more expensive industrial goods, in effect a process of planned primitive accumulation of the peasant surplus. This surplus fed the industrial sector, which actually averaged annual growth of 8–9 percent over the thirty years of China’s Stalinist planned economy, a very high rate for such a poor country.

Even prior to Deng’s final consolidation of power two years after Mao’s death in 1976, some groups of peasants in poor areas such as Anhui province had banded together, sometimes clandestinely, to sell agricultural produce outside the controlled prices of the plan. Once the central state allowed this practice nationally, there was an initial burst, sometimes a 500 percent increase from previous levels, of agricultural production for sale in urban markets. Deng himself admitted with some candor that “it was as if a previously unknown army had appeared in the countryside” producing outside the plan. This explosion lasted into the early or mid-1980s, when local party elites were dismayed to discover peasants with incomes five times their own, and began a series of taxes and fees to tap this wealth for themselves. But this unplanned agricultural growth, combined with thousands of small, successful town and village enterprises (TVEs) producing everything from buttons to cigarette lighters to electronic goods, was the first general breakthrough of the reforms.

During the same period, the large-scale movement of poor peasants to the booming cities of the coast, above all in Guangdong province, had also taken off, providing the cheap labor for China’s emergence as the world’s workshop. China in these decades and until ca. 2012 was benefitting from the so-called “demographic dividend” of a seemingly limitless supply of cheap labor from the countryside. (In 2012, for the first time, the total active population fell and has continued to fall. This, combined with intensified workers’ struggles, is part of the end of “cheap China.” The demographic dividend is over. Villages are increasingly populated by children of departed migrants, cared for by their grandparents.)

These realities are the backdrop of the estimated 150,000 “incidents” now occurring in China every year. Mo Yan’s The Garlic Ballads (1988, banned in China in 1989 after the Tiananmen massacre) tells the story of peasants in one area encouraged to grow garlic by the local cadres, who then reject most of the crop because of overflowing warehouses, culminating in a riot in which the peasants storm party headquarters. This book was followed by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao’s Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants (English trans., 2006) a work of underground journalistic reportage conducted all over Anhui province, detailing further uprisings. Most of the estimated “incidents” are revolts against local party cadre in response to extortionist taxation or seizure of peasant lands for luxury housing and hotels or golf courses, not to mention ever-increasing urban strikes. David Bandurksi’s Dragons in Diamond Village takes us deep into this world. The author not only wrote about the struggles of soon-to-be displaced villagers, but also participated in them, with fluent Mandarin and tireless online detective work uncovering the financial and real estate machinations of local elites. Chinese “cities” are different in that their borders often include huge swaths of undeveloped land or farmland that will eventually be incorporated and developed.[1] The borders of greater Beijing encompass an area the size of Belgium; Chongqing, in western China, sometimes known as the largest city in the world, with a population of 30 million, actually has only 8 million people in the city proper. (But, between 2011 and 2013, China consumed 50 percent more concrete than the United States had consumed in the entire twentieth century). The idea is that such cities will absorb the villages and farms in their periphery over time. The authors cited in the footnote debunk the Western media myth of “ghost cities,” huge new areas of housing and office space with initially few or no residents, showing that in fact the Chinese state has its ways of filling them up, as in building 8–10 new universities in such a place and compelling students to move there, to be followed by restaurants, cafes, bookstores and thereafter, little by little, a regular urban population and urban life.

But there is all too often, once again, a dark side to this process.

Bandurski’s book shows in arresting detail the story of one village, hundreds of years old, that fought, and of the courageous residents who refused to roll over and play dead as Guangzhou, the dynamic capital of China’s booming Guangdong province, attempted to expel them, offering at most pennies on the dollar of the value of their land rights. (The state owns all land in China, but peasants are granted use of a plot of land, supposedly permanently, and others can lease land for 5 or 10 or 20 or 50 years.) As mentioned, Bandurski had worked with a number of individuals who refused to be bullied, intimidated or bought off. His complex story is ultimately centered on Xian Village as it was swallowed up by Guangzhou. Xian Village “lies at the heart of Guangzhou’s central business district, a small parcel of its formerly collectively held land (and) transformed in the space of five years, between 2005 and 2010, into a commercial property worth…about $303 million.”

Lu Suigeng and members of his family were the local Communist Party officials who presided over this process, pocketing millions in “transfer fees” intended for village accounts after Xian Village’s collective farmland had been seized by the state and rezoned for non-agricultural purposes. “Lu Suigeng ran the village as a private fiefdom, monopolizing its business, politics and security,” in league with district officials and police, “who the villagers were certain were getting kickbacks.” As in so many cities around the world, hosting the Olympics for a few weeks is merely a pretext to seize valuable real estate for the long term. In Guangzhou’s case, hosting the 2010 Asian Games played the same role, as backdrop to the war for Xian Village, waged not only against long-term residents but also against the thousands of migrant workers who had settled there.

Demonstrations demanding the removal of Lu Suigeng in August 2009 attracted thousands and were totally blacked out in China’s mainstream media. In spite of two weeks of sit-ins, Lu Suigeng failed to appear, stonewalled, and then unleashed a campaign of intimidation using cops, both plainclothes and in uniform. The main spark of the mobilization was an announced “regeneration” project that villagers knew meant their expropriation and expulsion. This was a protracted war of position, ultimately lasting years. The villagers over time tried every legal channel of appeal, petitioning at every level, and their petitions led only to official silence, bureaucratic run-around and thug violence.

Bandurski introduces us to Huang Minpeng, a peasant from Hebu Village, somewhat to the north, which had already been razed. His years of struggle against “regeneration” had given him, a semi-literate who never finished primary school, a “rich informal education” in “law, land use rights policy, community organization.” After defeat in his home village, he became an organizer building networks in other villages facing the same fate. Huang’s struggle began in 2009 when district officials had a “signing ceremony” to requisition 208 acres of 22 economic cooperatives for a local university (creating universities is a common strategy in these types of expropriation: get the land for an ostensibly noble cause, then subdivide and sell off most of it for real estate scams). Various levels of leaders participated in the signing ceremony; everyone, in fact, except the villagers affected, who had been simply unaware of the negotiations.

Bandurski introduces us in turn to the chengguan, “mercenary armies of quasi-police” who “handle the dirty business of urban order and cleanliness” and who “do the rough, insensitive and lawless jobs that the police want to keep at arm’s length,” as “fighters on the front lines of China’s urban assault on the countryside.”

In this confrontation, the chengguan waged a “guerrilla war of intimidation.” Huang was arrested and detained; two days before his release, the chengguan and hundreds of cops seized Hebu Village while chengguan teams leveled the fields and the crops in them.

He Jieling enters Bandurski’s book with her story of a different kind that begins, as in the case of Huang, with a festive spectacle, again attended by various levels of officialdom, to launch Ha Street in Guangzhou’s central Panyu District. Ha Street was promoted through various media, using corporate brand names such as Nike, Louis Vuitton and Starbucks, as another dream development opportunity. It was in fact a total sham that drew in the likes of He Jieling, a local descendant of “countless centuries,” a poor peasant descended from ancestors in the landowning class expropriated by the revolution. Becoming an activist and troublemaker was the farthest thing from He’s mind. She and her husband wanted to ride the ongoing real estate boom. She was drawn to Ha Street by the promise of a multiplex cinema to be opened there. Attracting thousands of moviegoers, such a cinema would feed into the shop spaces He Jieling leased. She planned a high-end beauty salon and a lottery ticket shop. She fronted roughly 400,000 yuan ($64,000) to sign the lease. It was all downhill from there, to total ruin. She renovated the beauty shop for another 500,000 yuan, and hired a staff of migrant workers. The management company delayed the grand opening but kept charging rent. The Asian Games that were supposed to be the backdrop for the commercial debut of Ha Street came and went. The building was unfinished; there were constant blackouts. He Jieling’s business license was constantly held up, for reasons unknown.

At the celebration in December 2010 when the salon finally did open, a guest warned her of gossip that the management company was working with local criminal gangs. She dug further and discovered that her building had no planning permits at all. “Every one of the tenants had been swindled, not simply over construction delays and fees, but from the very start.” He Jieling began her struggle to have the laws enforced, unleashing “the storm that engulfed her entire family.” She was visited by a local official who tried to warn her off, and then by the plainclothes police. Thugs had already demanded payment for “protection.” She filed numerous official complaints. Thugs visited the salon daily. She was tailed by plainclothesmen. She plunged into online research. In March 2011, an unknown caller demanded that she surrender her businesses, and if she refused, her hands and feet would be cut off in front of her husband and son the next day. She posted an online appeal to continue the struggle after her death. The attack never took place, but the thugs kept “appearing from every direction.”

In mid-August 2010, an attempted demolition of a meat and vegetable market in Xian Village led to a confrontation between riot police and chengguan on one side and up to 2,000 villagers on the other. By dawn, Xian Village was under police lockdown. A month later, five villagers were tried for attacking Lu Suigeng’s nephews in the melee. All were found guilty in kangaroo court fashion and sentenced to ten or eleven months in prison. When they were released, there was a wall surrounding the village, whose exterior was covered with pictures evoking a rosy future for its inhabitants after renovation.

The cinema multiplex opened briefly and then closed for good, the final blow to all the people who, like He Jieling, had invested everything they had in Ha Street, often savings from years of migrant labor. “Every shopfront…displayed a broken dream.”

One local official offered He Jieling enough cash to liquidate her debts if she would stop her whistleblowing, but she refused, choosing instead “the road to disgrace and ruin…All for a bit of dignity.” Further reports she filed with the police brought on an attack by ten men, forcing He to sign over her properties to cancel her debt. The first mention in the media of what had happened was an article about her failure to give the salon employees back pay. She did not, however, relent, and finally Guangdong Television ran a full documentary on the Ha Street scam, featuring He’s story. This was followed by an in-depth report in one of the feistier tabloids. Ha Street remained “a lie whose roots stretched down to some invisible and unaccountable source of power.” He Jieling and others teamed up organize further demonstrations. All the required applications to demonstrate were rejected; she was, in the grassroots expression, “dancing with shackles on.” Her network grew through the “138 Guanzhou villages” threatened by a similar fate. In 2012, the new Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinpeng announced the “Chinese dream” as the policy theme of his government. But, as Bandurksi wrote, “He Jieling’s dreams had been destroyed on Ha Street.”

In the years in which He Jieling was being pulled further and further toward her and her family’s ruin, Huang Minpeng, of the razed Hebu Village, was getting his self-education as a petitioner in China’s bureaucratic maze. He wound up as a regular at People’s Park where petitioners in Guangzhou met to discuss their respective plights. He fell in with what became the “Thursday Club” made up of other villagers radicalized by similar experiences. They learned the contours of the maze by going through the futile petitioning process, the “hamster wheel,” as Bandurski calls it. Into this bureaucratic labyrinth exploded the fall of Bo Jilai, the disgraced high-profile mayor of Chongqing whose wife was convicted of murdering a British businessman, and whose own police chief had fled to the American consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum and telling his story. “Petitioning the American embassy” became a joke among the Guangzhou activists and one day in 2012 Huang Mingpeng and four comrades went to the United States consulate in Guangzhou with extensive documentation of their grievances. Unlike Chongqing’s police chief, they were set upon by twenty plainclothesmen. Huang Minpeng was jailed for ten days for creating a public disturbance and his petition died in the “rat’s nest” of the bureaucracy.

Bandurski himself threw his energies into researching the empire of the Xian Village’s powerbroker Lu Suigeng, who had already faced down the mass protests mentioned above. This research, he found, led him “down blind alleys as murky as those between the tenements themselves.” He found, after detailing pages of interlocking companies “a bewildering knot of connections.” But it provided a portrait of “those who, like Lu Suigeng, could monopolize local politics, and therefore assets and resources, without any expectation of oversight…In China’s cult of official secrecy, nothing is guarded so religiously as the particulars of the powerful.” Bandurski’s long march through the maze of documents brought into focus a key figure in Lu Suigeng’s power: Cao Jianliao, Lu’s one-time immediate superior. Cao Jianliao, by 2013 deputy mayor of Guangzhou, was finally felled as the first local “tiger” in General Secretary Xi Jinpeng’s anti-corruption campaign against both “tigers and flies,” high officials and local bureaucrats. (Xi’s nationwide campaign targeted both “tigers”—the top-level corrupt bureaucrats—as well as the much more numerous “flies,” the local thousands of petty officials like Lu Suigeng.) But Bandurski’s story unfolds further before that campaign brings down Lu Suigeng. He recounts the 2012 jump to her death of Li Jie’e, whose house in Yangji Village, her sole source of rental income, had been demolished a few days before, while she was in jail. Nearby, Li Qizhong, another rare holdout in the largely razed village, had barricaded himself in his still-standing building with an arsenal of explosives. Through Li, Bandurski met other militant holdouts. Most of them were not radicals per se but merely citizen activists trying to hold the Communist Party to its own rhetoric and promises.

The struggle of the Xian Villagers to bring down Lu Suigeng continued. The spectacular fall of Bo Xilai (as he was on the verge of being chosen for the CCP’s central committee) as well as Xi Jinpeng’s vows to fight corruption had changed the mood in the villagers’ favor. In fact, Lu Suigeng had been suspended from his local posts and was under investigation. “Conflicts over land-use rights were growing violent throughout the region.” In Xian Village itself, an elderly man was beaten unconscious by a demolition crew. Hundreds of villagers massed and blocked traffic in protest, and tore down the wall isolating the village for demolition. News spread through the internet while the official media blacked out the incident.

Li Qizhong of Yangji village remained barricaded, alone, in his condemned house, with his arsenal prepared to fight to the end. Thugs and demolition crews destroyed the holdout houses one by one. Li’s internet account was eradicated. He finally accepted a payout that would buy “a decent apartment on the outskirts of the city.” His house was demolished shortly thereafter. Finally, in August 2013, an official investigation from higher up toppled Lu Suigeng, his relatives and his hangers-on. The residents of Xian Village erupted in celebration. “For more than four years they had routinely petitioned leaders at the city, provincial and national levels only to be answered with inaction, intimidation and abuse.” Then in December 2013 the “tiger” Cao Jianliao, Lu Suigeng’s political ally and Guangzhou’s deputy mayor, was arrested; the news was again greeted with jubilation. Details of the cases dribbled out in the official media, revealing more of the machinations that Bandurski had uncovered in his own research, “a pattern of corruption among local leaders, village chieftains and property developers.” But the subsequent trial in 2014 focused only on the “crumbs of wrongdoing,” passing over in silence much larger scams. The “fly” Lu Suigeng fled the country and became an Australian citizen. Lu and his network were replaced by a new team that, within months, was using the old stratagem of “deceit and inaction.”

If one were to criticize Bandurski’s book in any way, in light of the hard-won material he presents from years of direct participation with local militants, and the online detective work with which he attempted (not entirely successfully) to ferret out the networks of local power, it would only be because it fails to show the fall of Cao Jianliao and Lu Suigeng in some larger context; why, in other words, they were vulnerable and were selected for ouster, out of so many possibilities throughout China. This is a petty criticism insofar as Bandurski has already taken us into realms that few books on contemporary China reveal; one can hardly imagine He Jieling or Huang Minpeng featured in an academic book on urban affairs. But it is also clear that much of the (four year, ongoing) anti-corruption drive in Xi’s China is used to settle political scores and factional disputes, and hardly for the first time. That petty criticism aired, we can acknowledge that Bandurski has written one hell of a book, with lessons that go far beyond China, for the growing worldwide struggles against urban “improvement campaigns” and gentrification.

  1. [1]This process is laid out in two books to be reviewed in a later issue of IN: Wade Shepard’s Ghost Cities of China (Zed Books, 2015), and Tom Miller’s China’s Urban Billion (Zed Books, 2012).

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