David Bandurski on “Dragons in Diamond Village”

Award-winning writer and independent film producer is the editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong where he researches and writes about Chinese journalism. His book, “Dragons in Diamond Village” (Penguin Australia 2015), will come out in the United States on October 25 from Melville House. Vividly narrated, Bandurski’s non-fiction book breathes life into the “tales from the back alleys of urbanizing China” through powerful portraits of  he meets. I corresponded with Bandurski about the book.

China Digital Times: In “Dragons in Diamond Village” (Penguin Australia 2015), you say that you shared stories of your boyhood in Oklahoma and how you found yourself in China with your interviewees. How did you find yourself in China?

David Bandurski: Well, that story actually does begin in Oklahoma. It so happens that I attended what is still one of the very few public schools in the state to offer Asian languages. I studied Japanese beginning in seventh grade. My twin brother studied Chinese and was one of the first (if not the first) American high school students to live and study in Shenzhen in 1988. His year in China was cut short by the political events of the following Spring. Anxiously, we watched the live coverage of Tiananmen unfold on the still-young CNN network. That’s still one of my earliest and deepest impressions of China.

I started learning Chinese myself in high school, but it wasn’t until graduate school years later that I uprooted myself and decided to start over with Chinese at Nanjing University. The changes happening in China—and especially, I thought, in nearby Shanghai—were a lot more interesting than the literary theory in which I was then immersing myself. I was hooked. I’m still hooked.

CDTWhat sparked your interest in writing about “urban village regeneration” projects? How did you shift your focus from to urban villagers in ?

DB: After arriving in Hong Kong 12 years ago, I made regular trips across to the cities of the Pearl River Delta. Hong Kong was a great base of operations, but I was still interested primarily in China stories. In the course of my media research at the University of Hong Kong, I became acquainted with the emerging movement of independent filmmaking in China, and I saw Ou Ning’s documentary “Sanyuanli,” about the urban village of the same name on the northwestern fringes of Guangzhou. I plugged the term “urban village” into my news database before I’d even finished watching the film. There was a great sub-current of coverage of urban in the Guangzhou press, in tabloids like the Southern Metropolis Daily. I devoured it all, much of it about the gloomy conditions in these “islands in the city,” these strange slums built on rural land in the midst of the city. But after making several trips, I glimpsed another story behind these gloomy headlines. These places were sanctuaries for migrant workers in cities that were often hostile to them, even as the booming economy relied heavily on their labor. So I started writing stories about the “rural” migrant workers who carved out new lives in these strangely “rural” urban enclaves. It was only years later, when the drive to demolish many of these intensified, that I turned my focus to the lives of the local villagers.

CDT: How did the urban regeneration projects impact relationships between migrant workers and urban villagers?

DB: Well, when it comes to urban village regeneration, the lives of migrant workers are really considered by no one. They can’t hope to benefit in any way. No one offers them compensation, lowballed or otherwise. They are simply expected to move on. Which they do—usually to other urban villages further out on the margins of the city. Generally, there is a strong sense of local identity among urban villagers in Guangzhou. They are rooted in the land and culture, and see themselves as entitled relative to the migrant workers who occupy their rental properties. Economically, though, the local villagers rely on migrant workers for their income through rental housing, a process that is sometimes called “farming property,” or zhongfang. I love that term, because it offers a clue to just how rural the mentality remains, even as villagers are becoming landlords in these places.

CDT: In the current era of CCP stability maintenance you describe the petitioning system as a trap. The leaders see the petitioners as a threat to their power and stability. Were villagers encouraged to submit petitions? How did you find out that only two out every thousand of petitions were ever resolved? If the petitioning system is broken, what other means do villagers have to protest as they are uprooted?

DB: First off, I have not systematically researched petitioning in China. In this respect I rely on the studies of scholars like Yu Jianrong, who have conducted systematic studies. Yu’s well-known study, “Investigation Into the Letters and Calls System and Thoughts on Reform,” published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, found that only two out of every thousand petitioners even receive reply slips for their petitions (Chinese report). But this study was released in 2004, predating the regime of stability maintenance that took shape in the Hu Jintao era, when the focus really shifted to intercepting petitioners. The only other avenue for villagers and other rights defenders should be the courts. But lack of judicial independence means that this avenue is closed. In fact, another Yu Jianrong study found that 60 percent of petitioners had first attempted resolution through the courts. Now, in Xi Jinping’s China, even the phrase “judicial independence” is off limits. So things have hardly improved.

My interest in the book is to narrow the focus and document the petitioning process as a piece of the stories I tell. There is the case of Huang Minpeng, who in fact receives two reply slips when he petitions over the seizure of his ancestral land. But these reply slips simply refer him back down through the bureaucracy, until he is returned to the very same township government that took his land in the first place.

CDT: “Dragons in Diamond Village” pits the alleged perpetrators like Lu Suigeng against the villagers who are portrayed as victims. Did you meet any villagers whose lives improved after the demolition process? Were any villagers paid off to help in the demolition process in exchange for profit?

DB: I’m not sure I entirely accept the premise that the villagers are simply victims. All of the stories I tell are about villagers who decide to stand up. And they stand up not against regeneration or demolition per se, but against the corrupt way that these projects are handled. That’s a point I think I make quite explicitly in the book. My sources in Xian Village make it clear themselves. They are not opposed to development; they are opposed to corrupt and speculative projects that are rationalized as “development” but gamble with their legacies and livelihoods.

Unfortunately, I did not meet villagers whose lives improved as a result of the demolition process. This is true even of Li Qizhong, whose story of resistance has a kind of happy ending. As for Xian Village, whose nickname is “Diamond Village,” the future remains to be seen.

CDT: Did you worry about your safety as you were tracking down Lu Suigeng’s money trail? Who was most helpful to you in figuring out his connections and what was the process like unraveling his networks?

DB: To some extent, yes. I was reporting the Xian Village story at a time when things there were frankly quite scary. The environment changed toward the end—though I don’t want to give away too much. At one point, a veteran Chinese journalist who knew what I was up to urged me to tread carefully. Every time I phoned up this or that company, I was afraid word might get back to Lu Suigeng or those with whom he was involved.

I only wish I could say that I “unraveled” a network. At best, I think, I picked around the edges, and even that was a herculean labor. Investigation is a time-consuming, dispiriting and expensive process—particularly if you are not working with institutional support. All of my phone calls and e-mails to village companies and developers were essentially for naught. If a phone number did reach a human being—and very often, they didn’t—no one saw an upside in speaking. At one point, I hired a Hong Kong firm to pull the registration and shareholding records for a laundry list of associated businesses in Guangzhou. They also made inquiries by phone and generally came up empty-handed.

In the end, the strands I was able to pick free relied largely on documents. For example, I was able to track down company registration documents in Hong Kong related to Lu Suigeng’s family. These led me, through property records, to another company that was ultimately connected to the local Poly Group subsidiary involved in the village regeneration. One of the village’s hotel properties also had a Hong Kong connection. And court records in Guangdong could also provide pieces of the puzzle of these companies and their deals with the village.

CDT: You write, “I quickly found, however, that even the simplest of questions led me down blind alleys as murky as those between the tenements themselves.” What were the murkiest moments in your research for this book?

DB: Well, I’ve already talked about the frustrations of trying to get even the most basic information about the village’s business deals, or about the family controlling it. But one of my biggest frustrations was a period of many months in 2012 when it was almost impossible for me to get into the village at all. I was stopped several times trying in various ways to get inside. At one point, I waited for almost two hours in an alleyway back behind the McDonald’s on Huangpu Road West. There’s a place there with an iron door leading into the wall outside the village, which I knew led into the dark northwestern corner of the tenements. Finally, a migrant worker came down the alley and unlocked the door with his own key, and was kind enough to let me in. After I had a close call that I describe in the book, I decided—and other villagers suggested—it just wasn’t worth it to keep sneaking in. So from that point on until the end of the year, when things started to shift politically, I stayed clear and met people on the outside.

CDT: Has the crackdown on corruption in the Xi Jinping era and the long-awaited arrest of Lu Suigeng’s partner Cao Jianliao set higher standards for the way urban regeneration projects are carried out in China? Do you think the capture and prosecution of Lu Suigeng would provide some justice to the villagers?

DB: In most, if not all, of the cases I’ve seen of village demolition, it’s quite a stretch to talk about “urban regeneration” at all. In the sense, I mean, of projects that have any broader benefit for urban society in China. While the public interest is often used as a justification, these are quite uniformly private development projects involving upscale residential, office and retail. Urban villagers have little or no say in the process of redevelopment.

I was back in Xian Village this past August for the sixth anniversary of the resistance movement, a huge banquet held on the old school sports ground. I spoke to a number of people attending from other urban villages in Guangzhou, and their struggles with corruption were very much ongoing. The Xian Village case was an inspiration to them, but so far it has had no impact on governance at the local level. That shouldn’t surprise us, actually. The crackdown on corruption has been a crackdown on individuals, but the system that feeds corruption is unchanged. Petitioning is still largely hopeless. The courts are still dead-ends. The capture of Lu Suigeng might have symbolic value for Xian Village, but justice might still remain elusive.

CDT: Will it be more difficult with the publication of this book to revisit the villages you described?

DB: I certainly hope not. I remain very interested in the villages, their histories and their futures. For a thorny combination of issues I won’t get into, I haven’t been back in Guangzhou since August. But I have every confidence I’ll be back before long. It’s really a wonderful city, and its urban villages are among its most astonishing surprises. I encourage anyone who finds themselves there to try visiting one of the classic villages, like Shipai, located not far from the “Diamond Village” of Xian.

CDT: What do you see as the future of collectively held land in China’s villages?

DB: It’s difficult to say, but I think China will have to move in the direction of giving rural villagers a greater say over the sale and development of their land. This is of course a massive political issue. First of all, there is the extremely sensitive issue of whether or not to privatize land in China — obviously quite a radical departure for a country ruled by a nominally communist political party. Many scholars in China have advised this course, saying it would protect the rights of villagers and encourage large-scale technology-intensive agriculture. It’s worth pointing out that many, many Chinese who retain shares in collective land back home in the countryside are more or less permanently residing in cities already, and haven’t farmed their land for sometimes two or three generations. Others say that the goals of rights protection and modernizing agriculture can be reached even under the current system of collective land ownership, in which villagers have rights to the use of their land but don’t own the land. There are already pilot programs underway in places like Sichuan to reform the rights to residential land held by villagers. So there is certainly a recognition that things need to change.

But setting aside for a moment the issues of land privatization or land-use reform, there are a few looming issues that I hope come out clearly through the stories in my book. The first is that the current system of land financing in China’s cities, by which local governments profit immensely from the sale of cheap land taken from villages, needs to change. Right now, the land system in China is a huge honeypot for political and business elites. Until this changes, there will be a huge appetite for cheap village land—and keeping land cheap means depriving villagers of their rights, just as keeping labor cheap means keeping rural migrants in a constant state of urban uncertainty. A related issue is rule of law. More independent courts would allow villagers to seek real restitution. But right now, China is stepping backward on rule of law. Even the phrase “judicial independence” has become taboo in the media. That doesn’t bode well for land-related cases, or any other cases where citizens seek basic fairness. The courts are in the background in all of the stories I tell in the book, and they never offer relief in cases of land seizure and forced demolition.

Looming behind all of this is the question of political reform. Ultimately, China will need better mechanisms allowing political participation by China’s new urbanites in the planning and policies that impact their welfare. These might be urban villagers. They might be migrant workers, who are now in a kind of permanent orbit around the city. Or they might be homeowners or tenants. Which is why I suggest that the over-arching question facing all of the characters in my book—and several are very aware of it—is the question of citizenship, of rights and engagement. China’s urban future isn’t about steel and concrete.

CDT: How does this research relate to your work analyzing the Chinese media?

DB: The work is quite separate in obvious ways. But through the course of this book, my background in media research has been quite helpful actually. In some cases, what was covered (or not covered) in the local press could provide another piece of the story. This project was really a chance, though, to get back out and look for stories in the world—as opposed to stories glimpsed through the lens of the Chinese media. In fact, I don’t see myself as either a journalist or an academic, or confined by these roles. Ultimately, I’m interested in the stories and the context, whether the issue is China’s media, and social activism, or the next area of interest. Research-based essays can be one way to tell the story—for example, about changes in China’s media or political scene. Creative non-fiction is another. And then there is filmmaking . . . But that’s a topic for another time.

CDT: What’s next for you?

DB: Well, I have a project in the works on forced confessions, an issue I’ve been obsessed with for a couple of years now. As it happens, the topic is now quite current—given Xi Jinping’s active use of this mechanism of political control. But time is getting the best of me. We’ll just have to see.

Bandurski will discuss “Dragons in Diamond Village” at the Bookworm Literary Festival in Beijing on March 13.