Small farmers losing their land (land-use rights) in shady deals between local officials and developers of urban expansion, industry or infrastructure is a major problem in China. The central government fears social unrest by the (now an estimated 50 million) expropriated peasants, which may add to the conflict potential 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 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.After an hour flight from Beijing we landed in Dongying City in the perfectly flat plain near the mouth of the Yellow River. Delta means oil&gass and hundreds of meters of new river-deposited land every year. This is not the poor Chinese countryside! 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 being filled up with massive blocks of high-rise residential and commercial buildings. Reality is here like a re-make of a Stalinist propaganda film about the unstoppable roll-out of the modernist revolution that literally bulldozers away everything old, poor and backward. We were taken 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 received a warm welcome.
The text of my talk had already gone through 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-organisation’ 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 pronounced “the Indian Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen”, he just uttered 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 is impressive, also in small things. A well-printed conference brochure before our seminar and a DVD with beautiful cover including video recordings of the conference already available at the last conference day! For check-in before departure of your local flight 30 minutes is enough. People work and things work. There may be a local prize for this, such as an enormous work pressure on urban professionals leading to what one guide called the ‘no child policy’: couples simply have not time for kids if they always work till nine or ten in the evening and the stress also affects fertility.
The great official hospitality is another experience. With the Kenli land authorities we sat twice per day on a round table with giant turning disc in the middle loaded with an incredible quantity of luxury food: piles of crab, big fish, a large fowl with its head still up staring into the crowd, everything extraordinary tasty. The final dinner was really an ultima cena including ‘the’ drink ceremony, which meant that every few minutes somebody offered a toast with a quality local strong drink of 38% alcohol ‘at fundum’, toasting on good health, our friendship, Chinese hospitality, our brilliant joint future etcetera. Our delegation leader Leon Verstappen offered some 10 toasts and thus confirmed his very solid reputation. For me the evening ended less heroic with a long, queasy and sick night.
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 makes one think 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 contextualised approach. Their key staff is trained at the best international universities and is very outspoken on international development. The CAU School of Humanities and Development, whose dean prof. Li Xiaoyun was our guest in Groningen the year before, 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 lot of interest for this crazy philosopher who studies African intellectual history (My talk was on “How African Intellectuals look at African Development”). Yes, they were very interested to receive Dutch students in their programme – an inviting and dynamic place!
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