Eminent Domain in China – The Fire This Time

“Rioters in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have besieged government buildings, attacked police officers and overturned SWAT team vehicles during protests this week against seizure of farmland, said officials in Shanwei, a city that skirts the South China Sea not far from Hong Kong.

“. . .[H]undreds of people . . . blocked an important highway while others mobbed the local office of the Communist Party and a police station in the city of Lufeng, injuring a dozen officers.”

So reports the New York Times – Andrew Jacobs, Farmers in China’s South Riot Over Seizure of Land, N.Y. Times, September 24, 2011, at p. A5. Click here .

Evidently, what happens over there is that there are no enforceable private property rights — the local government owns the village land that had been occupied by farmers for generations, and sells it to developers to raise revenue. In the case of Lufeng, the folks in city hall sold some 800 acres to developers “for industrial parks and high-priced housing.”  Hmm. Sounds a little like the Kelo case, doesn’t it? Anyway, the bone of contention is the farmers’ forceful complaint that they haven’t been fairly paid for their land taken in the process. “The proferred compensation per acre, villagers said, has been barely enough to buy a new bed.”

As regular readers of this blog know, this is hardly the first time rioting took place in far-off lands when incensed farmers took umbrage at being mistreated in this fashion, and got physical about it. Events like this have also taken place in Japan and Mexico, as well as China.  Even here, in the good ol’ U.S. of A., there have been physical confrontations in Minnesota where farmers got physical with state troopers when their land was taken for electrical transmission lines. Also, Bernard Frieden and Lynn Sagalyn report in their book Downtown, Inc. – How America Rebuilds Cities, that some of the urban riots in the 1960s were motivated by the inner city folks’ reaction to wholesale displacement of locals by redevelopment projects.

The bottom line of it all is that people are territorial creatures who feel strongly about invasions of their turf, and governments are looking for trouble when they overdo the use of eminent domain for uses that do not meet the test of genuine, as opposd to feigned, public necessity. So far, we have been lucky on that score in this country, but we fear that this may not last. The Kelo case angered the great majority of Americans, and made it clear just how badly American  law went off the tracks when it proclaimed that in the name of “public use,” unoffending private land may be taken for private revenue-generating purposes, in the hope that some of it will trickle down to the community. Which it rarely does because redevelopment deals often include tax breaks for the redevelopers and before it can trickle down, that money has to be used for servicing the TIF bonds that are issued to pay for the whole shebang.

When you add to that the fact that lawful, indigenous occupants of such land are evicted for the sake of grandiose municipal plans that all too often prove to be costly failures that consume millions to no public purpose,  and you couple it with prevailing undercompensation that is part and parcel of American judge-made law of eminent domain, you get a prescription for violence that, so far, we have been spared. But that state of affairs is not something you can count on indefinitely. It all illustrates the wisdom of Justice Holmes, when he observed that “Property is protected [by law] because that answers demands of human nature and therefore takes the place of a fight.” Davis v. Mills, 194 U.S. 451, 457 (1904).

Saving the best for last — well, maybe not the best, but certainly noteworthy — we note in passing that Planetizen, the planners’ blog, features the New York Times report, but whereas the Times headlines these events a “Seizure of Land,” the planners call it a “sale.” Which goes to show that those wonderrful planning folks may not understand the difference between seduction and rape.

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