China Again – The Los Angeles Times Wakes Up

Evidently, proceeding on the premise that better late than never, the L.A. Times is finally reporting on the Chinese Wukan land seizure controversy in today’s issue. Barbara Demick, China Fights Back Against Land Confiscation, L.A. Times, December 16, 2011, even if the story is tucked away on p. A7. Click here.

Apart from a summary of events already reported by the NY Times and commented on in this blog (click here ), we learn that the Chinese protests involve more than just parading and picketing.  “[V]illagers in late September destroyed a restaurant and pig farm that belonged to a Hong Kong developer and vandalized local government offices.”

The L.A. Times also provides us with an insight into the financial aspects of this controversy.  It reports that whereas  in 1998, local governments reaped $70 million from resales of seized village land to developers, last year that figure soared to $470 billion (with a “b”). No wonder the comrades have stepped up the incidence of theft, thereby giving a new meaning to the term “kleptocracy.”

Finally, an interesting postscript. It turns out that in some ways the Chinese redeveloper/kleptocrats are no different over there than they are here. These takings are usually accompanied by projections of job creation, etc. But in the event, job creation is minimal and “mostly it was just for luxury villas that didn’t create jobs. The people did not benefit.”

Follow up. The New York Times is not giving up on this story and has followed it up in today’s paper – Michael Wines, Revolt Begins Like Others, But Its End Is Less Certain, N.Y. Times, December 17, 2011, at p. A6. Click  here. What we learn from it is that the Wukan villagers “became so angry that their deeply resented officials — and even the police — fled rather than than face them. Now there is a striking vacuum of authority, and even the villagers are not entirely sure what to make of their fleeting freedom.”

Finally, and most uncomfortably, what emerges from this Chinese brouhaha is a demonstration that there are features of the Chinese donnybrook that bear an unpleasant resemblance to features of our urban redevelopment. There is a cozy, crony capitalism relationship between favored Chinese [re]developers and government officials, that is not altogether dissimilar to our urban redevelopment process. By saying that we do not wish to emulate the idiots who are ever-ready to malign the United States by suggesting that it is like this or that totalitarian government. It isn’t. But in the last half-century, some features of our eminent domain law, particularly as applied to urban redevelopment — notably the U.S. Supreme Coirt’s abandonment of its proper role in applying the checks and balances doctrine to eminent domain — bear an uncomfortable similarity to what is going on over there, where humble Chinese peasants are realizing that no one will protect them except themselves, and are beginning to emulate the 13th century Englishmen who confronted King John at Runnymede and forced him to sign the Magna Carta.

People are territorial creatures and anybody who messes around with their turf is looking for trouble. That has been the case in several countries, as we note every now and then in this blog. That it hasn’t happened here yet, is no guarantee that it won’t happen. Over here, public sentiment against promiscuous use of eminent domain, that makes  a mockery of the “public use” limitation on takings, particularly when it favors well-connected fat cats is running high . We certainly hope that this resentment falls short of physical confrontations, but no one can guarantee it.