Small farmers losing their land-use rights in shady deals between local officials and developers of urban expansion, industry or infrastructure: a major problem in China. The central government fears social unrest among the expropriated peasants (now an estimated 50 million!), which may add to the conflict potentially resulting from the extreme income inequalities in the country. The central government therefore supports programmes addressing land issues – also projects of foreign agencies.The seminar I was invited to aimed at exploring legal and participatory mechanisms of land management. Four professors in Law and this lost philosopher (me) were asked to sketch Dutch laws and experiences. I was asked to introduce a few fundamental arguments to support the idea that good governance may benefit from civic participation.
Dongying City, an hour’s flight from Beijing, lies in the perfectly flat plain near the mouth of the Yellow River. This is definitely not the poor Chinese countryside! Delta means oil and gas, and hundreds of meters of new river-deposited land each year. A brand new airport, oil and gas installations, and an expanding city surrounded by an extensive grid of 4 or 6 lane highways; a grid that is gradually filled with massive blocks of high-rise residential and commercial buildings. It’s like a re-make of a Stalinist propaganda film about the unstoppable roll-out of the modernist revolution that literally bulldozes away everything old, poor and backward. Our host took us to the row of massive and posh business-/, party-/ and hotel buildings which included the impressive building of our host, the Kenli Land Bureau, and we received a warm welcome.
My talk had already gone through several text revisions to make it suitable for the occasion. The word ‘participation’ is OK, but “do not use ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’”. Discussing the ‘legitimacy’ of government, ‘self-organization’ of citizens and the notion of ‘repressive tolerance’, such words sound almost threatening – better avoid these. The textual ‘cleaning’ was probably completed effectively by the ex-diplomat who was our skilled translator. When I mentioned “the Indian Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen”, I heard him utter just two words – probably not those other threatening words ‘Nobel Prize’. There are no easy escapes from such embarrassing self-censorship. Challenging the unwritten rules will probably not harm the foreign speaker but may reflect negatively upon your host – “better not do it”. Once you are in the situation, you do not set the rules. So if you guard your honesty and want to avoid terminological hide-and-seek games, stay out of the system.
And a system it is! In many respects more efficient and advanced than ours. The mega city of Beijing with its 17 million inhabitants is running smoothly, is cheap, safe, bustling, friendly and inviting. Especially the logistics are impressive, also in small things. For instance: receiving a nicely printed conference brochure at the start of our seminar and a DVD with beautiful cover including video recordings of the conference at the end of it! Half an hour is enough for check-in before departure of your local flight. People work, and therefore: things work. People do pay a local price for this, such as an enormous work pressure on urban professionals, leading to what one of our guides called the ‘no child policy’: couples always work until nine or ten in the evening, so they simply have no time for kids. Moreover, the stress also affects fertility.
The great official hospitality is another interesting experience. With the Kenli land authorities, we sat around a table twice a day, in the middle of it a giant turning disc loaded with an incredible quantity of luxury food: piles of crab, big fish, a large bird with its head still on staring at us, every bit of it extraordinary tasty. The final dinner was really an ultima cena including ‘the’ drink ceremony, which meant that every other minute someone proposed a toast with a local quality liquor with an alcohol content of 38% ad fundum, toasting on good health, our friendship, Chinese hospitality, our brilliant joint future and so on.
Back in Beijing, and thanks to my Chinese colleague in Groningen Yongjun Zhao, we could visit two English taught Development Studies programmes. The respectable Tsinghua University reminded me of the University of Cape Town: modern, large, wealthy and maybe somewhat arrogant. Interestingly, their Development Studies programme was part of an American-led consortium that tried to set a global standard for a Development Studies curriculum. The opposite approach was followed by the China Agricultural University (CAU) that built its curriculum from its own extensive experiences in research and advice on rural development in China, now extended with African development experiences. A universalist versus a contextualized approach. Their key staff are trained at the best international universities and are very outspoken on international development. The CAU School of Humanities and Development, whose dean prof. Li Xiaoyun was our guest in Groningen last year, had invited us for a public lecture. A large audience of staff and international students made me feel at home instantly. In this lively and outgoing atmosphere Yongjun’s challenging talk Assessing China’s agricultural aid to Africa was food for debate.
They even showed a great deal of interest for my talk on “How African Intellectuals look at African Development”. And yes, they were very interested to receive Dutch students in their programme – an inviting and dynamic place!
Dr Pieter Boele van Hensbroek is lecturer at the Faculty of Philosophy and coordinator of education, research and public activities for: Globalization Studies Groningen (GSG)
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