Eddie Song

Translation: Stop the Violent Land Grabs in China Before It’s Too Late

Author and vocal reformist Chen Lan. Via Weibo

The forced demolition of farmland to make way for high-rise apartments, shopping malls and factories is not news in China. As the country expands its infrastructure and as local governments seek revenue to fill their coffers, this deeply troubling phenomenon has occurred with increasing frequency. But what makes it even worse is the persistent threat—and in many cases, reality—of violence directed at the original landowners.

Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, was set ablaze with consternation after a police officer shot and killed a farmer in Panjin, a city of about 1.2 million in China’s northeastern Liaoning province, after the farmer set himself on fire to protest a land grab on September 21. An official investigation concluded the officer’s actions were “legitimate,” only arousing further netizen ire.

In particular, author, prolific Weibo user, and strident reformist Chen Lan (@作家陈岚) cast heavy doubt on the official report’s findings. One of Chen’s posts, “Let the Bullet Stay in the Barrel for a While” (a send-up of a popular Chinese film “Let the Bullets Fly”), has found particular resonance, with netizens re-tweeting her words over 21,000 times. Tea Leaf Nation translates, with the original version at bottom:

Let the Bullet Stay in the Barrel for a While

Xinhua news agency has covered the Panjin shooting, but its report plays down several details that should be considered more.

The clash was caused by the 15 mu (1 hectare) farmland that was leased to the Wang family; the demolition contractor proposed to pay 270,000 RMB (about US$ 42,960) in compensation or 18,000 RMB (about US$ 2,860) per mu on average. We all know the prices at which the government will auction off one mu of its land. For example, in a third-tier city in Jiangxi, one mu of land costs up to 300,000 RMB (about US$ 47,740) at auction. The Wang family, who live by farming, will have nothing to live on once they lose the farmland, so they proposed to sell the neighboring house together with the farmland, pricing the 300-square-meter (about 3,230-square-feet) house at 900,000 RMB (about US$ 143,210). Readers can decide for themselves if this price is fair or not.

The demolition contractor only offered 470,000 RMB (about US$ 74,790). After days of conflict, the demolition contractor signed a land deal with the Wang family while verbally agreeing to their proposal. But the agreement to purchase the house at 900,000 RMB (about US$ 143,210) was not fulfilled after the demolition was carried out. There’s no doubt that the Wang family made a bad judgment and now are in a bad legal situation, but the fact is that they’ve had to take a huge financial hit. What alternatives does a farming family that loses its farmland have? We can imagine what approach a lower-class family like the Wang family took to seek justice.

On the morning when the clash broke out, although not all of the terms in the agreement had been agreed upon, the demolition contractor’s bulldozers trampled Wang family’s farmland, whose harvest was due soon. Their yearly harvest could have been around the corner.

Wang Shulong called the police at 7:22 am, saying, “My farmland is being demolished by force; it could be a fatal situation, will you come?” But the police did not take action immediately.

Even more interestingly, the demolition contractor called the police three times: When the demolition workers were intercepted; when bulldozers were intercepted; and when Wang Shulong threatened to set himself on fire with gasoline. The police came on each of those three occasions.

When the police came to the scene, Wang Shulong did not attack them immediately; instead, he showered himself with gasoline and took out a lighter, ready to ignite himself; officer Zhang Yan said that Wang Shulong intended to kill him as well. But in fact Wang Shulong did not do so. Seeing him drenched in gasoline, Wang Shulong’s mother became agitated; so she wielded a sickle, yelling and charging at Zhang Yan, whose hands were injured in this brief clash. But they separated after.

I have three questions. First, why did the police not take action after Wang called them while doing so after the demolition contractor called them? Were they biased?

Second, given that Wang had asked the police for help, why did he turn rather agitated and confront the police when they came rather than calming down? And what did they say to each other before the confrontation? Did Zhang take a truly impartial position?

In a widely-shared image, officer Zhang Yan vividly recounted his version of the tragic story from his hospital bed

Third, as a policeman who deals with the grass roots, Zhang should have the wisdom and experience to know how to handle the conflict … shouldn’t the police have brought the demolition team that caused the clash under control first and ask the bulldozers to leave in order to reduce the tension? Wang Shulong had showered himself with gasoline; the police did not want to force a peasant to burn himself for the sake of the farmland and money, did they? So why did the police try to bring under control the Wang family who had obviously been desperate and out of control? Here, I am wondering again whether Zhang Yan had had an absolutely impartial position.

The current report has not covered what on earth had happened before the clash escalated.

Wang Shujie, Wang Shulong’s brother, was the one who ultimately set himself on fire; Zhang Yan first thought that it was a demolition worker who was on fire; so he chased after the burning Wang, but was stopped by Wang’s father; then he shot the father in one leg. No sooner had he caught up with Wang than Zhang realized he had mistaken Wang for the demolition worker; Wang also saw Zhang and tried to throw himself upon him. Zhang opened fire, shot this peasant on fire dead. His wife was still at the stage of breast feeding their infant.

As far as this tragic accident goes, some critics have asked why everyone was taking aim at officer Zhang Yan. Doesn’t the demolition contractor have a share of the blame? Didn’t the local government give the administrative order? Doesn’t the dead have his own share of the blame?

Please know this: There were indeed other people who were involved in this tragedy, but it was Zhang who pulled the trigger at the last minute. Each individual has a final opportunity to be responsible for his actions, especially when one faces taking a life, where a second thought could make a difference between heaven and hell.

Zhang Yan had a few other alternatives to firing this bullet, while Wang Shujie had nowhere but a dead-end to go. He was only a peasant, and at the last minute, what he could afford to bet on this tragedy was his life, a life which resembled an ant’s because he had nothing to lose.

The Wang family has already paid a painful price… So please don’t call them violent people anymore. If we put ourselves in their shoes, facing that kind of desperation, we would not necessarily behave like Gandhi either.

I wrote in my 2006 novel Behind: “Over-powerful real estate developers quickly turn public land into [private gain], which turns demolition into an extremely vicious struggle between making huge profits and saving homes.” It has always been ambiguous if lands and residences are state-owned or privately owned, so the powerful have huge room for maneuver, which is the root of these tragedies. 

Six years has passed since I wrote this, and the situation is getting worse, because people are becoming increasingly aware of their rights while living costs are also rising, while land resources that the powerful use for rent-seeking have gradually become scarce; so the struggle will be even more vicious.

Although this bloody incident was caused by demolition, the underlying cause was money. And it was out of control power that pulled the trigger.

He who is affected by demolition declares in despair: If you make my family homeless, I will make your home lifeless. So if the Panjin shooting is not investigated openly and thoroughly, the resistance by the grass roots to demolition will result in death. Demolition contractors could bribe one or two policemen to go to the scene and provoke clashes; then they could open fire legitimately in the name of self-defense; the judicial institution could double as an “athlete” while being a “referee.” Without independent news investigations, how much credibility does this single report have?

Now is the 21st century, and in a rising China, a great power with the world’s second-highest GDP, a motherland where human rights are increasing by the day, do we really want to turn demolition into a battle that uses bullets? Leave bullets for safeguarding our territory, and give peace to ordinary people.

In the Panjin accident, if rule of law had been in good shape, 1) the corpse would not have been cremated; 2) the policeman would have been suspended and asked to write a detailed account; 3) forensic experts would have investigated and restored the scene; 4) the police would have held a hearing; 5) the family of the dead would have filed charges and gone to court; 6) the media would have thoroughly examined both the dead and the policeman, including whether there was any bribery and corruption, and whether the policeman was biased.

Truth is the most effective antidote to rumors and anger, and it can also bring peace to the people. It will be fair to both the policeman and the dead if the truth is told; otherwise all the anger will remain targeted at the policeman who will be one-sided whatever he says.

Although Wang Shujie’s body has been reduced to ashes, every citizen is scared and trembles at the thought of the bullet wound to his body, because nothing is impossible. The authorities have the right to legitimately wound citizens. If the mechanism of confidence between the government and its citizens cannot function properly, then law enforcement officers cannot be supervised, and judicial investigations cannot be independent, open and transparent. Everyone could be hit by a legitimate bullet and go to heaven within a day.

Let the bullet stay in the barrel for a while. And think for a moment, toward whom is that bullet ultimately headed.

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Eddie Song

After living in Shanghai for more than two decades, Eddie left his hometown for City University of Hong Kong to pursue a master's degree in translation. Recently he started out as a news translator, realizing his wish of making a living by doing what he loves. Now he hopes to play the drums well enough to join a band at a jazz club by his thirties.