Back from Hiatus

It has been 5 months and 14 days since my last post.

In the week following my visit with the Lu’s, I defended my thesis, graduated from Zhejiang University, packed up my dorm room, and flew home to Maine.

One month later I was hired by a NeighborWorks America as the new Rural Specialist.

Two weeks later I was (back) living in Boston.

One month after that I heard that Nat Geo will publish a blurb about me in late Spring of 2016. Almost simultaneously, I heard they were bought over by Rupert Murdoch, and laid off 180 employees. Word on the street is my brief second of magazine fame is still on schedule, though it could range anywhere in size from thumbnail to 1/2 page.

So much for branding.

Why the long writing hiatus, you ask? Have I had trouble adjusting? Was it reverse culture shock? Would I like to cry over a back rub and chug some seltzer water?

I’ve had lots to write about. There’s the ‘Village of Filial Piety’ I visited right before I left, where the village chairman hangs photos up in the community room of all the elderly parents in the village, alongside notices tracking how much money the children have sent home to their parents that month. A public shaming of sorts to mitigate the decline of a core confucian value.

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Then there was the wu-shu village, famous for training experts in Chinese kung-fu.

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Then there’s the Shanghainese family, the husband an exec at a multinational firm that sold vending machines, who left their comfortable lives in the city, to start an organic cooperative farm in Moganshan, a small town settled in the mountains about sixty kilometers north of Hangzhou.

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Or, there’s the story of my Nat Geo Explorer’s project. I spent the past two years poking and soaking a so far undocumented rural housing program known as ‘down-the-mountain, out-of-poverty’ in Suichang County, Zhejiang.

In short, local governments across various counties in China’s richest province, Zhejiang, are trying to promote economic development, consolidate the labor force, and foster economies of scale.  One way to do this is to incentivize peasants in remote mountain villages to relocate to villages and townships off the mountains by offering a variety of housing subsidies. My research took place in Suichang, the poorest county in China’s richest province. My question was: do peasants in the mountains want to leave their land and their community in the mountains behind, and why?

The question drives at the heart of a global debate over models of development – if peasants want to leave their land, then shouldn’t China take the crucial step and transition from an (albeit fuzzy) collective land ownership institution and ‘free the peasants from the land’, via a private land rights institution, and thereby conform to a western liberal democracy? Or, if they don’t want to leave their land, then doesn’t the decision to remain a member of their original collective village lend some legitimacy to the collective ownership institution as serving their best interests? And, by extension, indicate legitimacy to the possibility of China pursuing an alternative path of development that is founded on an alternative to a private land rights institution?

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So, what did they say? Stay or go?

Both.

Nearly everyone I interviewed goes back and forth (I’ll dig into the interviews in posts to come). One family I interviewed that remained behind explained that they would like to move down if they could afford to, but even with the subsidy the price of relocation was too much. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that those I interviewed who go back and forth, often choose to keep their household registration in their mountain village, in order to maintain access to their land and vote in their original community.

So there.

‘Third way’ model of development or Western liberal democracy?

Collective ownership institution or land privatization?

Community or Individual autonomy?

It’s a conundrum. At the heart of the matter I think we want both.

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The Third Road?

After spending the past two weeks in Jilin helping out on the farms of friends I first met back in 2010 – Wei and the Lu Family – I sat down this morning to binge out on the news I had missed in prep not to be stuck on repeat asking, ‘Wait, what happened?’ when I fly back to the US later this week.

No sooner had I finished double-clicking headlines, lining up tab-by-tab all the articles I intended to peruse (fist-bump to fellow news-gorgers that know the trauma of queuing up 30 tabs only for your browser to unexpectedly quit) than I found I had juxtaposed side-by-side two articles that would be funny if the contradictions they reflect weren’t so infuriating: on the left tab was the Guardian’s article titled, “Here’s how much corporations paid US senators to fast-track the TPP” and, on the right, “IMF admits: we failed to realise the damage austerity would do to Greece“.

Simultaneous images flashed through my mind of multinational corporate execs, Wolf-of-Wall-Street-style celebrating a virgin frontier for untold super-profits should Congress liberate the reins on their free-trade trojan horse in the latest crusade to commodify, extract, and exploit every last nook and cranny of the globe; meanwhile, millions of ordinary dispossessed Greeks are ensnared in just the sort of IMF-brokered austerity trap, or ‘structural adjustment program’ the TPP’s shadow will surely cast upon whichever country happens to be trailing in last place once the next crisis strikes in global capitalism’s swift race to the bottom.

I felt like taking a kamikaze sword to my dorm room. But, with just five days left and a security deposit in the balance, I decided that writing Wei and the Lu family’s stories would be a more constructive outlet to vent my vexation. The choices they have made in their lives – to leave the city and start farms in the countryside – show that it’s still possible to transcend a world of governments and corporations whose sole definition of growth is built on social and environmental decay. And, far from isolated, their decisions echo the growing chorus of peasants, activists, and rural scholars, many loosely associated under China’s ‘New Rural Reconstruction Movement’ (and more broadly, the ‘Global Justice Movement’), who together are paving a road towards a future where individuality can coexist with mutuality and long-term sustainability, rather than just short-term profits for the privileged minority.

I’ll start from the beginning.

Jilin province, situated just north of North Korea’s border, and has undergone the same sort of double-exploited transformation that has befallen many of China’s interior and hinterland provinces: to sway industries away from the more developed urban coastal cities, their selling points became not only an ununionized labor force, but an even more vacuous vacuum of occupational health and environmental regulations so as not to hinder production practices. Subcontractors for Chinese and international industries, ever-eager to satisfy the global corporate demand for cheap labor and the global consumer demand for cheap products, have at once transformed these regions into the engine of growth for China’s rural economy and the dumping ground for some of the world’s dirtiest, most dangerous conditions that damage the health of workers and deliver large volumes of pollutants into the land, water, and air of rural villages.

To twist the knife even deeper, after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, WTO rules required industries to open up to competition by shedding their ‘surplus’ workforce in the wake of economic ‘liberalization’. It should come as no surprise, then, that the northeast region, having served as factory floor for some of the most toxic components of global production practices, then oversaw a disproportionate number of layoffs when industries had to downsize their workforce; that is, if they first escaped bankruptcy.

This is where the story of Wei and the Lu’s begins.

Wei and the Lu family (a mother, father, and son) became friends when they all worked together at a State-owned wood enterprise (SOE). Wei worked in the forest survey department deciding which trees were to be cut; meanwhile, the Lu’s worked in the wood factory, producing sundry products from floorboards to chopsticks.

After the factory went bankrupt in 2005, the Lu’s (who have urban citizenship) moved from the city out to the countryside, taking over the use-rights to a farm that had belonged to a relative in a village otherwise populated by Korean ethnic minorities, and just a stone’s throw from the border of North Korea.

When I first visited the Lu’s back in 2010, they were raising cows, goats, ducks, and chickens while growing corn, soybeans, and lettuce.

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(At the time of my visit everyone in the village was busy gathering corn stalks to feed their animals for the winter. One afternoon, a neighbor piled the trailer so high it tipped, and other neighbors came to help or observe the debacle.)

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Today, the cows are gone and the cornfield has been replaced by a small, successful ‘black ear’ fungus farm that they started last winter. They employ eight local villagers to help pick the fungus that is grown from small, tightly packed bags meant to simulate the trees that the fungus grows on in the wild. Their produce they sell in nearby towns and cities, as well as export some to South Korea. Far from the city, Ms. Lu said they’re now enjoying a “more simple life”.

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At the same time, a little more than a year ago Wei acquired the use-rights to some land at the edge of a town near the base of the Changbaishan mountains. Anticipating the local government’s plans to rapidly develop and promote the tourism industry around the mountains, he is now knee-deep in establishing an organic tree-nut and vegetable cooperative farm, with solar-heated guest houses for tourists to stay while picking their own tree-nuts or harvesting vegetables.

As China’s socially and ecologically destructive growth-based ‘development’ trajectory continues in a region that has born some of the world’s highest social and environmental costs of production practices so that outside the borders global elites and consumers can enjoy the benefits of cheap labor and goods, Wei and the Lu family are transcending these contradictions, and their deeper principles serve to remind us of the essential values of human life.

With concerns over social and environmental justice casting a shadow on the future, stories like these are becoming less isolated, and they offer a beacon of hope out of an otherwise dark tunnel that is global capitalism’s bleak race to the bottom.

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What about the Family Pig Farms? Part III

I returned with Anna, my mandarin teacher, to her village for the May 1st holiday weekend. Last time I was there, we had talked about interviewing her father’s friend, who I’ll call Shushu.

Shushu is from a neighboring village where he has his own pig farm. He also buys pig feed from Anna’s family and sells it to other pig farmers in the area. However, he is best-known, and widely respected as, a livestock vet. Anna had said that if I wanted to talk to anyone about the pig farm situation, I should talk to him.

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One of Anna’s neighbors herds goats near her home.

On Saturday evening Shushu came over with Anna’s ‘Auntie’ (who I spoke with during my last visit), and a few friends. After rushing upstairs to grab my recorder, we all crowded around the dining room table. I started by asking Shushu how he got into the pig farm business to begin with…

“My father was also a livestock veterinarian, so when I was 19 he began to teach me how to treat and prevent animal diseases. Then, about ten years ago, I started my own pig farm. Now, I also help small-scale pig farmers in the area sell their pigs on the market.”

“Has the pig health situation changed from when you were young?”

“Before, the animal diseases were not very serious, but now they are very serious.”

“Why have they become more serious?”

Auntie: “Because they raise too many pigs on too large a scale.”

Shushu: “The equipment and the scale is bigger. Before, maybe a family had only one or two pigs, but now, they have maybe 200, 400, 800. The foot and mouth disease is a problem… In the US you must have this same problem. In America, companies will give the animals a lot of bad medicine to control their growth. So they have these problems, and then China imports pigs from the US, and then the diseases infect pigs here. That is why we see that the diseases animals have now are more and more serious… Well, this is possible, but no one can say for sure which countries these problems are coming from, or who is responsible for them.”

(For some recent news reports on what he is talking about, see this Reuters article: “China halts some U.S. pork imports over feed additive use“, or this WSJ article: “China Restricts U.S. Pig Imports“)

“I heard about how the government is now telling you all to take down your pig farms in order to protect the river.” I asked, “So what do you think about this policy…like, the government is only telling small-scale pig farmers to take down their pig farms, but they aren’t telling the large-scale industry?”

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A sign along the river by Anna’s family’s home reads: “Take care of the river environment, dumping is strictly prohibited”

Shushu: “This process is just getting started. China will copy the US. In America, the pig farms are very big. But in China, they are all small. So, the Chinese government will deal with the small pig farms first, and then they will build really big pig farms like in the US. The problem has only just begun.”

At this point I burst into cryghter (my unique blend of dry-crying laughter). Everyone thought this was funny for a minute or two; then Shushu, along with Anna’s dad and two friends, were eager to play poker and politely asked me if I could move to the couch so they could begin their game at the table.

After gathering myself and taking a seat next to Auntie and Anna, I asked Auntie what she thought would happen in the future if China copies the US and makes really big farms:

“Now we don’t know, because it is just the start. This will be a process over several hundred years. The first step is to kill the small pig farms.”

“Will you fight back, or protest?”

“If they give us money, we won’t protest. But if they don’t give us money, then we will protest because we invested all of our money in our pig farms.”

“But the pigs you raise, those can feed you for your entire life…the money the government gives you, the compensation, that only covers what you invested in your pig farm…you can’t use that to pass on to your children…”

Anna: “I know, I have also thought about this. Many people I have talked to have said they will change their job – they will go to the city to find a job, or they will start another business.”

Auntie: “We haven’t thought yet about how to deal with this, because they haven’t decided to give us money. Later we will decide…”

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What about the Family Pig Farms? Part II

 I returned with my mandarin teacher to her hometown for the weekend to attend the celebration of her cousin’s daughter’s first birthday. In China, your first birthday is a big deal. And not just for your family, but for your whole village. Then your 60th. But the rest in between are kind of like…whatever. At least that’s how my mandarin teacher explained it. In this post, I’m going to call her Anna.

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In addition to being honored that her family invited me to the party, I was curious about what was up with the family pig farms. The last time I visited, her relatives and neighbors had explained that the local government, following a new province-wide water conservation and sanitation policy, had told all the family pig farmers in her village that they needed to take down their pig farms by mid-March. The policy is not, however, being applied to the large-scale pig industry.

On Saturday afternoon, as we walked through the village on our way to go fishing with Anna’s father and brother, I bounced around excitedly, snapping photos of each red banner we came across that was hung up outside the pig corrals advertising the family pig farm, indicating that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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“Look at these guys, brandishing their pitchforks at the state and economies of scale!” The voice in my head said while clicking away. I felt like a kid front stage at a rock concert within arms’ length of the band. 

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However, after my first few stop-and-shoots Anna told me to cut it out. I credulously asked if she wanted me to stop because she thought it might raise some eyebrows if the wrong person saw a foreigner photographing all the pig farms in the village.

“No,” she laughed, and explained that all these pig farmers buy their pig feed from her family, and if I’m going to write something on my blog then I should give her family an advertising boost and take photos of the banners promoting their business, instead of their customer’s.

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Then we went fishing. Anna’s dad’s fishing strategy, otherwise known as electrofishing, involves stunning fish with an electric current delivered via pole, and then swooping them up with a net. In the photo above he is hooking up the electric box.

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The next day we visited Anna’s ‘Auntie’ (not her real aunt, but a family friend) in the neighboring village. Auntie has been raising pigs for the past seven or eight years, and she also buys her pig feed from Anna’s parents.

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When I asked Auntie if the new water conservation policy had affected her farm, she said not yet — so far it has only been applied to Anna’s parents’ village because they are upstream and closer to the river. Plus, it doesn’t make sense for the government to enforce this policy against everyone all at once because the price of pig meat will skyrocket. The government will implement the policy gradually. She assured me, however, that in the future it will definitely apply to them.

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Echoing what Anna’s cousin had told me during my previous visit, Auntie explained that her family and neighbors in her village will also first wait to see how much compensation the local government offers them before making any decisions about how to respond. If they think the money is enough, then they will take down their pig farms. But, they all know that the local government is poor and most likely won’t be able to compensate them adequately. So, if it comes down to a face-off, her family and neighbors will band together and protest to the higher levels of government.

The sort of collective protest Anna’s family and neighbors have described, otherwise known as Rightful Resistance**, is a phenomenon that has been documented widely by scholars across rural china, and, especially in the context of this new water sanitation policy, it is why I am against the concept of land privatization in rural China. The collective ownership institution is the base for a community of stakeholders to engage in collective action and resistance against unjust state and market forces.

A private land rights institution is often assumed an inevitable point of transition in developing countries because history has proven that it may be the only solid foundation for citizenship in a modern democratic society. However, at a point in time when the commodification and degradation of resources, land, and labor has made it possible to imagine the end of the world, it is more relevant now than ever to ask the question of what alternative development paths are possible. Collective and community institutions for labor organization and resource management that enable rural residents to protect themselves and their local environments from exploitation and subsistence crisis are core to this mission.

Up until now, small-scale rural livelihoods were simply becoming irrelevant in a globalized world blindly guided by the logic of economies of scale. But with environmental policymaking designed to protect the status quo in the face severe resource constraints, it looks like they are first up on the chopping block.

Calif water crisis

“California has ordered emergency water restrictions on residents while Nestle, fracking companies, and large farms have been granted an exemption even though they account for 82% of the state’s annual water consumption (residential accounts for 12%). At 1.1 trillion gallons per year, almond farms alone consume 10% of the state’s water, or as much as entire city of Los Angeles. You can check out their page at US Uncut.

NY Times: http://nyti.ms/1FfzUdQ

Almonds: http://bit.ly/1IEm5rg

**Rightful Resistance”[1] is where farmers and ordinary villagers cite their right to popular regulations to demand fair village elections, boycott rigged votes, and lodge complaints at higher levels[2]. O’Brien and Li [3] surmise:

 “They adroitly use the language of power to defy ‘disloyal’ local officials and call for scrupulous implementation of existing statues and leadership promises. Engaging in disruptive but not quite unlawful collective actions, rural rightful resisters have made their presence felt at government compounds throughout the nation.”

[1] O’Brien, Kevin J. 1996. Rightful resistance. World Politics 49 (1) (October 1996): 31-55

[2] O’Brien, Kevin J., and Lianjiang Li. 2004. Suing the local state: Administrative litigation in rural china. The China Journal (51) (January 2005): 75-89.

[3] O’Brien, Kevin J., and Lianjiang Li. 2000. Accommodating “democracy” in a one-party state: Introducing village elections in china. The China Quarterly Special Issue: Elections and Democracy in Greater China (162) (June 2000): 465-489

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