Reflections on a Recent Visit to China

Along with my co-leader, Kirk Martin, I recently led a group of Drake students on a 17 day educational trip to China (May 22-June 7, 2015). Under the title of “Pursuing the Chinese Dream,” the theme of the trip was political, economic and social change in contemporary China. We visited Shanghai, Gui Lin and Hong Kong. Following are a few reflections based upon our experiences.

The Chinese Dream

In his inaugural address to the National People’s Congress in 2012 Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the idea of the “Chinese dream,” which he identified with growing national power and prosperity. But what does the Chinese Dream mean to regular people?

We asked dozens of people we encountered: “What does the Chinese dream mean to you?” Some interviewees dismissed the Chinese dream as meaningless political rhetoric or as abstract philosophizing. Others focused on practical matters: “money,” “owning a house,” “getting into a good university.”

Only one elderly man in People’s Park (Shanghai) ventured in a political direction. As his conversation with a group of foreigners drew a growing crowd, his voice rose and became more theatrical in his praise for the Communist Party and all that the Party had brought the people. Mr. Patriot, as I will call him, reminisced about the hunger and poverty of his youth before gesturing to the opulence of the world-class city surrounding us. He predicted that China would surpass the US in the next decade while comparing Xi Jinping’s intelligence favorably to that of Barack Obama. When praising the party and its leaders, Mr. Patriot occasionally nodded in the direction of another elderly man, who may have been a retired party official. The onlookers seemed amused by Mr. Patriot’s fervor and his boldness in speaking so bluntly to foreigners. We later asked our young guide whether all Chinese were so optimistic and satisfied with Communist Party rule. She replied that “Young people do not speak that way.”

To what degree Mr. Patriot was playing to his audience and how much was sincere is hard to judge. There is no question that people of Mr. Patriot’s age have witnessed extraordinary positive changes over the past 35 years and his pride in China’s rise on the world stage is shared by many Chinese people. What is particular about patriotism in China, however, is how often love of country is conflated with loyalty to the Communist Party. The party makes every effort, of course, to join the two sentiments. And yet China is not synonymous with a particular ruling apparatus and the former will survive long beyond the lifespan of any political party. As our guide intimated, not all Chinese people, particularly the young, conflate party and country so directly as Mr. Patriot. Yet there is no denying that, for the time being, nationalism and patriotism serve as potent sources of legitimacy for the ruling party.

June 4th Vigil

It had been four years since I last attended Hong Kong’s candlelight vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre of June 4th, 1989. Back then, the atmosphere was appropriately solemn and respectful, but there was also an air of hopefulness. On the outskirts of the crowd, political activists energetically recruited supporters and attention. This year, however, the feel was quite different. There were many fewer booths near the park entrance. The police presence was much heavier this year. The crowd seemed tense. From the stage, the speakers appeared angrier (judging by tone, since I was unable to understand their Cantonese). Indeed, six university student leaders burned copies of the Basic Law from the stage, a defiant and controversial act.

Crowd estimates varied wildly, as usual, but most observers judged the numbers down from recent years. Indeed, counter-events were held elsewhere in Hong Kong (one of the largest was held at the University of Hong Kong) by “localist” groups who criticized the continued focus on June 4th – an event, in their view, that occurred in another era and another country – at a time when Hong Kong’s own democratic aspirations and autonomy lay in the balance.

For many years, the annual June 4 event represented a hope that the democratic aspirations of the students who filled Tiananmen in 1989 might yet transform China, perhaps sparked by Hong Kong’s own example of relative freedom. Today, however, young Hong Kongers are less concerned with the fate of political reform on the mainland than with Hong Kong’s own frustrated expectations for local democratic accountability. Hong Kong youth increasingly resent the various ways that China’s influence is changing their city. They seek not only free elections but greater autonomy from mainland control.

From their perspective, the June 4th vigil is increasingly anachronistic and out of sync with their own political feelings and aspirations. This annual commemoration may fade in coming years, or at least serve as a source of contention rather than unity among Hong Kongers.

Urban Villages

Despite China’s enormous cities, urbanization has come later to China than to many developing countries. Fearing that a mass exodus from the countryside would overwhelm urban planners and lead to both massive slums and social unrest, as has been the case in many African and Latin American countries, China’s rulers used a system of residential registration to deny rural immigrants many rights and social services reserved to those born in the cities. In the early years of economic reform, officials also encouraged the development of Town and Village Enterprises in hopes of dispersing industrial jobs more evenly to smaller cities. Even so, China’s rapidly growing cities attracted up to 200 million rural migrants seeking prosperity in urban China.

Now authorities have shifted course, seeking to manage the movement of 350 million Chinese from rural areas to new and existing cities over the coming decades. Western sociologists have often emphasized the stark dividing lines between rural and urban in this evolving landscape. Where the city ends and the countryside begins, a bright line separates urban and rural experiences.

Professor David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong has recently published a new book titled Dragons in Diamond Village that challenges this received wisdom. His study examines what he refers to as urban villages. Many new and expanding cities have not (yet) erased previous rural entities but instead have risen around rural villages, leaving the latter as low-rise islands surrounded by new high-rise architecture. Urban villages often retain a distinct social and political structure (e.g., elected village chiefs), along with collective land rights that, in legal terms, cannot easily be bought out by private developers.

The original villagers have been augmented by rural migrants. Villagers have added space to their dwellings for the purpose of renting to migrant workers, who have few other housing choices in urban environments subject to rising real estate prices. The resulting villages range in population from 10,000 to 60,000 people. Large cities may encompass more than 100 such villages.

The land on which these villages stand is, in many cases, worth a great deal – but only if the village is demolished and the land sold-off. Crooked village leaders often collude with party officials and urban developers to do just this. Bandurski documents one such case (among many) in Guangzhou. Villagers themselves mounted public protests of land sales that enriched corrupt officials while providing little compensation to displaced residents. In this instance, the villagers achieved a limited victory of sorts when their crooked village chief fled China with his riches when it become clear that he would soon be targeted by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Still, without independent courts to guarantee their collective land rights, villagers understand that such victories are temporary at best.

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