The recent wave of Tibetan self-immolations garnered increasing media attention outside of China. Yet self-immolation is a form of protest that has also been used, on rare occasion, to protest a whole range of injustices, not just the suppression of Tibetans. Yet, until a recent New York Times article highlighted the issue, very little Western media attention has been paid to Chinese self-immolations. The article, for starters, contains the following map, showing the locations of 39 suicides-by-immolation that have occurred in the past 5 years:
These are sites where protests over land grabs – a recurring and incendiary problem throughout rural China – escalated to the point of a peasant committing suicide by setting him or herself on fire. 39 is a pretty small number when compared to the millions of farmers who have been displaced over the same period of time. Since China has historically had one of the world’s highest suicide rates (though it has declined significantly in the past couple decades), it is perhaps surprising that the number of self-immolations by farmers has been so low. Nevertheless, it’s an indication of the on-going social strain that land seizures have caused in the Chinese countryside. These seizures have been a frequent topic of this blog, and they remain one of China’s most pressing problems.
The article features the story of Ms Tang, who owned a small manufacturing workshop with her husband, on the outskirts of Chengdu, Sichuan. Ms Tang set herself on fire when a group of men surrounded her workshop and started to beat members of her family who were defending it. Property developers and local governments often resort to these kinds of thug tactics in an effort to force those refusing compensation out of their houses.
An analysis of the suicides shows that many of those who took their lives, like Ms. Tang, tasted prosperity and were incensed that it was being taken from them. According to relatives and neighbors, the Chengdu city government had offered Ms. Tang 800,000 renminbi, or about $131,000 at current exchange rates, for her workshop. Given that commercial property in the same district sells for 20 to 30 times that amount, Ms. Tang was unwilling to sell.
A national activist who tracks unrest, Huang Qi, said cases like…Ms. Tang’s have spurred the government’s recent crackdown on corruption and forced it to rethink the idea that fast urbanization is the best way to stimulate economic growth. In Chengdu, at least, the party secretary behind the city’s ambitious urbanization drive, Li Chuncheng, was toppled last year, a move that Mr. Huang said was partly caused by unease over the methods used to take land.
Recently, China’s Premier Li Keqiang has been talking a lot about the need to promote a more ‘humane’ urbanization. But he does not mention cases like Ms. Tang’s. For the government, urbanization tends to be seen as a great civilizing and modernizing force that will propel China to prosperity. Violent land grabs, however, tend to make a farce of this claim. Li has been going on the rhetorical offensive to affirm that urbanization will continue, cities will keep gobbling up land, but that it will all be done rationally and without violating the rights of farmers.
Urbanization should be advanced steadily on the basis of fully respecting the rights and expectations of farmers and strictly preserving arable land. The government should draw up mid and long-term plans as well as comprehensive policies and measures to steadily promote the process of urbanization.
While this may sound like empty rhetoric, Li’s focus on ‘humane’ urbanization is at least a tacit recognition of the sacrifices made by people like Ms Tang.