Downtrodden Peasants, Arise!

It is one of the old, dreary leftist cliches that when imposed upon, peasants and workers of the world will arise, take up arms against their capitalist oppressors and make revolution. But in the real world of today the problem is that when peasants arise for economic reasons they prefer to take up arms against their government which is depriving them of — dare I say it? — yes, depriving them of their property. We noted some of these  past events on this blog, our favorite being the case of Yang, the Chinese peasant who constructed a home-made multiple-tube rocket launcher and fired away at the folks who came to confiscate his land.

Now, the latest such dispatch comes to us from Suijang County in Yunnan Province of China. It seems that the government seized land owned by local peasants but failed to pay them what they saw as adequate compensation. What ensued was what the New York Times, with the utmost delicacy, calls a “protest” by the affected peasants. Actually, the “protest” was not exactly what we would call a protest. It “lasted for five days and was dispersed by . . .  paramilitary police officers and armored vehicles.”  . . . “The protest, one of the largest in China in recent memory, erupted because of heated disputes between residents and the government over compensation for seized land, a common source of conflict in China.” Emphasis added. See Edward Wong, China: Police Break Up Rural Protest, N.Y. Times, April 1, 2011, at p. A6. The moral here seems to be that it’s a bad idea to mess with people’s turf, whether they are Chinese or not.

Similar confrontations have taken place in Mexico where, back in 2002, a major confrontation ensued when the government offered to pay 7 pesos per square meter of land (about 8 cents per square foot) for some 13,300 acres of land wanted for a new airport. We are in no position to express an opinion on land  values in Mexico, but even so, 8 cents per square foot does seem a bit skinflity. It turned out that the campesinos on the short end of that offer did not take it kindly so they took up arms and took hostages. See Richard Boudreaux ad Rafael Aguirre, Standoff Over Land Continues in Mexico, L.A. Times, July 13, 2002, at p. A5.

Our favorite confrontation of this kind took place in Fiji. There, after a lengthy delay in payment, former owners of land that had been taken for a reservoir showed up en masse at the government building, stripped to the waist, carrying spears and demanding their compensation then and there. If you have not been to Fiji, be advised that native Fijians tend to be rather large, and not to be messed with. So the local government types called in the army, which proved to be a mistake. As the story was told to your faithful servant, after assessing the situation, the Army types responded by expressing their disinclination to inflict violence on their friends, and instead of taking up arms, took up generous quantities of kava, a local medicinal tincture reputed to engender good feelings among its consumers. So instead of expelling the spear-carrying protesters, the Army folks joined them in a few cups of the aforementioned potion, which resulted in  much good feelings but no attempt to expel the protesters. On reflection, the governmemnt types saw the light, and the money that was due to the displaced property owners was promptly found and duly disbursed.

And of course, there is the granddady of them all. In the 1950s, the Japanese decided to build the Narita Airport near Tokyo and instead of taking the customary long time to persuade the targeted land owners to sell their land voluntarily, the Japanese government expropriated it. Oh, boy! Bad idea. Suffice it to say that during the ensuing half century there have been recurring riots by the former farm owners, and after their death, by their progeny. While on a trip to Japan, your faithfuil servant was puzzled by the heavy presence at the airport by the Japanese National Police — a heavily armed paramilitary force, equipped with heavy automatic weapons and armored vehicles, which they deemed prudent to have on hand for such contingecies.

And if you think that it’s only in far off, exotic places that such goings on go on, be advised that we had some violent confrontations between the state police and farmers whose land was being taken for high-voltage power lines in — ta, da! – Minnesota. Yes, Minnesota. Those sturdy Scandinavian types may be renowned for being law-abiding and peaceful, but not when you mess with their property.

So the moral here would seem to be that no matter how civilized your society, messing with people’s property without damn good reason, without affording them fair compensation, determined in an impartial way, and without treating them with elemental dignity is to look for trouble.

Follow up. An eagle-eyed reader of this blog reminds us of another violent confrontation in Japan, also concerning the taking of land for an airport. See David Holley, An Unlikely Field of Battle, L. A. Times, May 31, 1998, describing Japanese protesters of airport expansion into their farm land, who attacked police with rocks and Molotov cocktails and beat three officers to death. Those folks don’t fool around when you mess with their land.

Also see Jarrett Noble, Land Seizures in The People’s Republic of China: Protecting Property While Encouraging Economic Development, 22 Pac. McGeorge Global Bus. & Dev. L. Jour. 355-356, notes 1 and 2 (2010), citing reports of other violent confrontations in China, between owners of “grabbed” land and its [former] owners.