Friday, February 01, 2008

Ryan Pyle Blog: Land & Property


Anticipating that anyone out there might be reading, and in an effort to write a blog at least twice a month, I've decided that the 1st and the 15th of every month made solid initial writing dates. I honestly don't know how people blog every day!

You'll notice that this blog wasn't published until Feb.11, but at least I started writing it on Feb.1st. Still a weak effort I know.

Today I would like to walk through two stories I recently shot regarding land and property rights. One was in a rural region of the country and the other was in a suburb of Shanghai.

1) The Shanghai Story:
Many of you might have seen the New York Times article ( on China's urban middle class organizing themselves against the government over the extension of the ultra high speed Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) Train. The article was written by a good friend and colleague of mine, Howard W. French. His story used first person accounts of how China's emerging middle class feel about their own property, and also how they feel about new infrastructure projects near there homes - and how that may effect their property value; a series of thoughts and calculations that just didn't exist 15 years ago. The country is indeed changing fast.

First some background. The Shanghai government announced that they would like to extend the 430 km/hr MagLev train from Shanghai to Hangzhou, a boom town specializing in high tech products and internet businesses. The plans call for the train to travel through a densely populated suburb of Shanghai, named Minghang district.

Residents of Minghang are mostly well educated working professionals who commute back and forth to the Shanghai city center, or to nearby industrial parks, for work. Many of the men and women I met during my two days in the area were university educated, mainly engineers. These working professionals are all new home owners and they take a lot of pride in the fact that they've been able to purchase a home in the greater Shanghai area. News of a 430 km/hr MagLev track passing some 100 meters from their residential complex did not generate the excitement the Shanghai government was looking for.

So, instead of "taking it" quietly, as was much the norm in the past, our highly educated and highly motivated working professionals have decided to organize and protest. Protests and public gathering that are not sanctioned by the government are, of course, illegal. And protest they did. A protest in People's Square in downtown Shanghai on the day that Gordon Brown was visiting. Websites, blogs, SMS's circulating their district, signed petitions presented to local government, daily meetings at night to discuss progress on talks with the government, etc, etc.

The backlash from the government at first was typical, plain clothes thugs dispersed throughout the residential complex, intimidating those attending meetings; one house arrest; one man was beaten and then it stopped and civility took over. Dialog took the place of the security forces trying to scare people. The shift was welcomed by most.

It was an interesting process to watch as a journalist, the residents of the complex were very keen to have the foreign media there; and this is where my doubts began to set in. Protesters had three main complaints, one is health related, the other is noise and the last was decreased property value.

Now, having a 430 km/hr train speed past your house will decrease property value; and the health concerns (which I don't fully comprehend) seemed a bit much. The noise issue seemed frivolous. To speak plainly, this was all about money, it was the property value that struck a cord with these folks. Noise is negligible since most of Shanghai's streets are a complete nightmare at all times of day - one could hardly imagine hearing the MagLev train speed past over the street noise with include taxi's and buses honking horns at all hours of the day.

So with property value as the key issue it was easy to motivate other residents, several thousands in fact who ended up signing petitions and protesting the train. But in talking with many of the residents and breaking down their arguments and understanding their motives, I feel mostly they just saw this as their chance for a government handout, a one off payment to compensate these folks for putting a high speed train next to their homes. It wouldn't be the first time the government has paid off people to keep them quiet, and my guess is the MagLev train is important enough that they'll most likely pay these residents off as well. Therefore setting a president that protesting and involving the foreign media works. The next case should be even more interesting.

2) The Countryside Story:
This story hasn't been published yet so I can go too much in to detail about locations and such, but it's typical of much of what is happening in the countryside these days.

A small inlet of local farmers have lived on their land for 3 and 4 generations in most cases. They were farmers and that was all they knew. Late last year the government decided that those farmers were sitting on some prime land, as the area around them was pristine bamboo forests. Local officials could smell tourist dollars, and they acted quick.

Initial notices were sent to farmers telling them that their land was being confiscated, and that they would be compensated accordingly. The only problem was, as always, the compensation was a fraction of what the land was worth, and more importantly what it meant to the farmers. No the Chinese government owns the land, this true. There is no private land ownership in Rural China. But it has been agreed upon that some type of subsidy must be made to residents for loss of future income; and this is often the cause of many problems.

Now I may be biased about this, but if you take someone's land away and they have no other skills, and almost no education then fair compensation must be made. But without an independent legal system there is really no incentive for the local government officials to treat farmers humanly.

To make a long story short the government eventually decided that enough was enough and brought in the bulldozers one day and kicked all the people (using force) out of their homes and then demolished their homes with all their belongings and furniture in their houses. They had nothing left but the clothes on their backs. The next day when they returned to the scene and tried to dig through their homes to salvage anything they could, they were beaten and arrested.

3) Brief Summary:

Two different stories about land and property rights. Two very different tactics used by residents and government officials. Where the Shanghai residents still await an official response regarding the MagLev, the farmers had their fate sealed with truly unbelievable cruelty. I don't have any grand response or solution to this problem. The provinces in China, and they're leaders have always had great autonomy from the central government in Beijing, in many cases they also control the legal system and banks as well. Surely, if this country (China) is to develop the way Beijing thinks it should, cases like the one in this farming community need to be stopped and corrupt officials need to be punished and made an example of; but as long as double digit growth continues to race head with no end in site, who cares about the rule of law, or the rights of Chinese people? Not the government.

China is going to have to face a stiff reality check sometime soon. And that day will be a nasty one indeed. I hope the country can change and can create an independent rule of law and respect it's people and take the clamps off the media. Voting may speed this process up, but in my mind it's not completely necessary.


Ryan Pyle


  1. i'd just like to say that i like reading your blog. you should write more. :)

  2. Ana,

    Thank you for reading and I am glad you enjoy. I will try to write more often.

    Thanks for being a regular reader.





This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle