Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ryan Pyle Blog: Forced Evictions & Beatings


This is an a story that happens entirely too often, but it doesn't always have a chance to make the news. Apparently, according to the New York Times, thugs were sent in to "remove by force" residents, many of which are artists, that were set to be evicted from their homes in northern Beijing. After getting beaten up they were all arrested in an attempt, the following day, to march in to central Beijing in protest. Once again, dignity is stamped on in the face of development. The full article is below, but first a bit of commentary.

In China, money talks. And it never matters which side of the money question you are on. For example, decades ago artists were lured out of the city center to the remote sections of northern Beijing to create "Artist Villages". These villages were the breeding grounds in the 1980s for many of China's most successful and influential artists as the rent was cheap and there was a lot of collective creativity and collaboration. But more importantly the artists were given long term leases (money talking), some up to 30 years, on their properties and some invested huge amounts to create their dream studios and galleries. To anyone that has been out there, and I have been several times to several of the more remote artist districts, the region has been transformed by the artists. Now, however, the money is talking again.

The Government loves to sell land; especially in the midst of insane property valuations. The Government owns the land, and apparently property rights, leases, contract rights and legal rights don't mean a damn thing. So if the government can offload a huge parcel of land to a property developer for a large sum of money, whether people are still living there or not, they'll do it in a heartbeat. Development, and revenue creation, at all costs.

So this artist village has been sold off to a big property developer who wants to raze the whole place and put up more non-desrcript high rise apartments. The problem is the land is inhabited. And instead of paying people compensation to move, the government and their developer buddies often like to use force and intimidation - and why not when you can get away with a media black out and no legal action against you. The problem is, and this is why the foreign media has an important role in China, is that this kind of heavy handed behavior is exactly what many of Beijing's elite officials don't want outsiders to see. They don't want people in the west, who are keen to invest in China, to see that China is still a country of thugs and money hungry developers that don't mind whacking a few skulls to move things along quickly.

In many parts of the country, even in Beijing and Shanghai, business rules are still defined by a system of "village rules". This country has a lot of problems that it doesn't seem to be ready to address; one specifically being that government officials have little or no respect for the rights of the people they are supposed to be working for, that being the average Chinese inhabitant; I wouldn't dare use a term like citizen, as that would imply a certain level of respect and rights. Government leaders need to remember that their sole role in life is not to great wealth for themselves. Holding a position in government is about serving the people, not beating them with pipes so you can get a big bonus from a property developer. China has 1.3 billion people, and they deserve a high level of service. Is that need being met? I'll leave it up to you to decide. But the corruption that exists in China at every level, and this case wreaks of property developer and local official collaboration, is a prime example of how impossible it is to draw the line between where big business stops and the government begins. And the little man will always get stomped out.

I worked on a story about this with TIME magazine back a few years ago where Bamboo farmers lost their land to a bunch of government officials who wanted to build a hotel and karaoke bar on their land. The same thing happened, no notice. No compensation. No settlement. Just sticks, pipes and beatings. The only difference was that the story I worked on was in a remote part of Jiangsu province. Today it is in Beijing. Scary times. Full story is below.

Time Magazine Story: China's Fighting Farmers

Copywrite: New York Times
LINK to Original Story: LINK
February 24, 2010
Beijing Police Beat Artists Protesting Evictions

BEIJING — Nearly two dozen artists protesting the forced demolition of their homes and studios marched through the ceremonial heart of the capital before the police intervened and prevented them from reaching Tiananmen Square, the artists said Tuesday.

The protesters said they decided to take to the streets on Monday hours after scores of masked men swinging iron rods swarmed over their community on the northern edge of the city, which has been resisting redevelopment.

Wu Yuren, 39, a photographer and installation artist who was among those who were attacked, said six artists were sent to the hospital with minor injuries. He said the attackers, about 100 men wearing white face masks, had been sent by developers who wanted to clear the area for a large-scale residential project.

“They didn’t say a single word,” Mr. Wu said. “They just started beating us.” The police, he added, did not arrive for an hour and then sat in their patrol car until the attackers fled.

Another of those beaten, Satoshi Iwama, said he received five stitches after a blow to the head.

Although protests against forced evictions have become increasingly common in China, the aggrieved rarely succeed in venting their complaints on Chang’an Avenue, the heavily policed artery that passes in front of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and Zhongnanhai, the residential compound of China’s top leaders.

Ai Weiwei, an artist and dissident who joined the demonstration, sent out a spate of Twitter messages detailing the march, which he said made it only about 500 yards before the police intervened.

“It was instinctive,” he said of the decision to protest. “We made a lot of noise, and I think we had a big impact.”

It is unclear whether the protest will force any action against the masked attackers or alter the course of development that threatens at least 10 clusters of studios where artists live and work on the fringes of the city. The clusters, called “artist villages,” house as many as 1,000 painters, sculptors and performance artists.

For two adjacent art districts that were the scene of the early morning protest, known as Zheng Yang and 008, it may be too late. In November, the developer cut off electricity and water, and most of the buildings have already been destroyed.

Xiao Ge, a curator who helped organize a roving performance last month to draw attention to the evictions, said the developers gave most tenants a week to move out.

Many artists are furious because they were lured to the villages with long-term leases — some for nearly 20 years — and encouraged to invest their life savings in renovations. Gao Qiang, a furniture designer who moved to Zheng Yang last August, said he spent almost $12,000 to fix up his studio after he was given a three-year lease. Although he is angry that he will lose most of his investment, he and other artists say they are most concerned about bullying from developers and, at best, the apathy from the authorities.

“It is not an issue of money, it is an issue of dignity,” said Mr. Gao, 38. He added that on Tuesday, the police told the artists that they would provide better security and try to reconnect severed utilities.

The police declined to comment.

The fight over the future of Beijing’s artist villages coincides with soaring real estate values and ugly scuffles over land expropriation, several of which have led to the suicides of those facing eviction. Widely publicized in the media, the suicides have helped prompt the government to consider modifying the nation’s urban redevelopment regulations.

Even if the proposed reforms, which would provide market-rate compensation for property owners and outlaw coercive evictions, are adopted, it is unlikely that they will help Beijing’s artists. Many artists live in officially designated rural areas, which are not covered by the measures.

Berenice Angremy, who has been a curator and art consultant in Beijing for the past eight years, said the repeated dislocations had been devastating to artists, both financially and psychologically.

“The government is trying to make Beijing a great cultural city, but without artists, it’s not going to happen,” she said.

Ryan Pyle

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