Land Expropriation Protests in China: An Exploratory Study of “Rights”, Guanxi, and Mobilization

Friday, 3 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
CLM.3.07 (Clement House)
Yin Wah Chu, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong, Hong Kong
The number of social protests pertaining to land expropriation has surged continuously within China since the early 2000s. Prompted by rapid urbanization, collectively owned village land situated at peri-urban areas was subjected to legal and illegal requisition. Land expropriation, even when carried out legally, often generated controversies over the fairness of the terms of compensation. The illegal land grabs, needless to say, imparted grave injustice by taking away what belonged to the villagers and lined the pockets of the beneficiaries such as the village and township governments and the developers. Together with other cultural and communal concerns, all these paved the way for the surge of social protests.

Studies of land rights protests proliferated in recent years, addressing a variety of issues, including the structural conditions leading to the expropriations, political opportunity that made room for the protests, the importance of leadership, the processes of mobilization, and the gender dimension (Walker 2006; O’Brien and Li 2006; Wu 2015; Chuang 2014; He and Xue 2014; Sargeson and Yu 2010).

The present paper intends to contribute to the understanding of China’s land expropriation protests in three ways. First, land expropriation protests in China have often been regarded as “rightful resistance”, which suggests that, while staying within the bound of legality, these protesters put forth a discourse of “rights” to defend their actions (O’Brien and Li 2006; cf. Lee 2007). The idea of “rights”, however, has been contested and observers question if the Chinese notion of “rights” is identical to the idea in the Western context (Perry 2008). This study, then, hopes to shed light on this controversy and, furthermore, examines if the idea of “rights” has contributed to the mobilization of the protesters.

Second, “neo-traditional” practices such as guanxi and the government’s control over employment and educational opportunity have been used to demobilize the potential protesters (O’Brien and Deng 2015). At the same time, communal ties have also been found to facilitate the organization and mobilization of protesters (He and Xue 2014). This study, therefore, likes to examine whether communal ties, guanxi, and what might be considered “patron-client relations” have acted as facilitators or impediments of social mobilization.

Third and related, the study also likes to examine how the idea of “rights” has been juxtaposed with the ideas of guanxi and patron-client relationships in the mentality of the villagers. Under what circumstances would one prevail over the other and vice versa?

This study draws its data from four villages/townships, three of which located in the Guangdong Province and one within the Shandong Province. In each of the cases, in-depth interviews were conducted repeatedly with individual villagers or groups of them. In two of the cases, the researcher also had the chance of observing the villagers interacting with each other during trips of petition to government offices and meeting with representatives of NGOs. The cases differ in their levels of success and the profiles of their protesters.