Guest post by Graciela Rodriguez| Representative of REBRIP
When you see, in many cities, the incredible number of vacant buildings built by private companies with the strong support of government credits and subsidies (for example, in Beijing, official data says that the vacancy rate is 30 percent, and it is possible to see that many cities take on an almost ghost-like atmosphere due to this “vacant emptiness” in many finished neighborhoods), I think that it is possible that part of this enormous accumulation of construction is being prepared to reduce social tensions that can be produced by this continued, strong process of migration involving high numbers of rural dwellers.
The government has been promoting unification of arable territories for intensive exploitation, through creation of production cooperatives and other forms, using domestic and international capital (similar to the so-called “pools de siembra,” or “sowing pools,” in Argentina, or the rural investment associations connected to Brazilian agribusiness).Deprived of their plots of land, rural dwellers end up migrating to the medium and large cities, a process that has accelerated rapidly over the past decade, and that has facilitated land concentration while maintaining an enormous reserve army of workers.
(Here it is necessary to also share a quite impressive fact regarding construction workers, who only get paid after completion of the project they are working on, which can mean months of work without pay!!)
A special chapter should be dedicated to the role played by architecture in the construction of Chinese “modernity” and, though not being an expert on the subject, I feel it’s important to highlight this due to its phenomenal explosion in the cities over the last decades.But perhaps a comment by architect and critic Rem Koolhaas fits here like a glove, and provides an interesting summary of the situation:“Asia itself is in a process of disappearing.It has become a kind of immense theme park, and Asians themselves have become tourists in Asia.”
Cities, and the neighborhoods and buildings within them, have multiplied without apparently following any urban planning system, much less being guided by collective values; they simply multiply, with few rules and with no concern for creating a space or urban conditions or following a clear urbanization strategy.On the contrary, they are solely the product of market logic, not even from the perspective of housing demand, but just to meet the needs of increased construction activity per se, making clear unsustainability and the tragedy of the logic of capitalism.
2 – On the other hand, another notable phenomenon is the consolidation of middle sectors and a stronger civil society, together with the increased number of NGOs that deal with local themes or those of citizen interest, especially those related to those most vulnerable in the population.
One of the most notable examples is noticed in relation to internal migrants.The lack of full citizenship for these workers is effectively seen by the fact that they and their children have no access to schools or other types of public services in cities.These workers, who already live in very precarious housing conditions (as seen all over the world in many photo exhibitions denouncing this), have no access to free education and must resort to private schools.
Many times, NGOs try to fill this enormous gap, although we were told that their work is often made difficult by the central government.(We ourselves had the experience of having to cancel a meeting with migrant workers, which would have taken place in the neighborhood where they lived, because of a telephone call from the police a few hours before the time scheduled for the meeting).
3 – Another very important and notable element is the growth of the bureaucracy and corruption.The intricate procedures you must follow when getting documents, permission to travel, tax and fine exemptions, certificates and ration cards to stay in the cities, and a broad array of “services” provided by some civil servants in the villages of origin and in the cities where the migrants are going to live, have led to a systemic network of “venalities;”
this has probably facilitated consolidation of the current process of corruption, some already known and punished by the central government, and others that one can notice in specific sectors, which can only operate with the help of bureaucracy, such as, authorization for taxi services and others, or as we know very well, when seeking political support to ensure so-called “governance.”The old petty politics of creating difficulties in order to sell “favors” in Brazilian city councils or of “relaxing” principles to ensure political support takes place in a similar way, though having to do with other types of business, in a society like Chinese society where clan culture is deeply rooted.
4 – The environmental issue is a great challenge for China, but it is not possible to say that it has been fully discussed, though we noticed that it was an object of concern in people’s everyday life.Like other cities, due to its size and location far from the coast, Beijing usually has a tinge of gray and very often suffers from the effects of fine dust particles, which lay over buildings, cars, plants, and is constantly breathed, giving rise to many health problems, especially for children.(Our visit coincided with the APEC Summit and, for this reason, an extended holiday was decreed to improve air quality, because of the important visits, and we heard that this made the sky bluer than usually and the population happier).
Also in the case of Beijing, it is notorious that its industrial park has been closed (and a beautiful and large cultural center was created in its place) and the factories distributed across the country, obviously generating new problems, conflicts and serious impacts on the territories, especially affecting water quality, causing scarcity problems and, in general, worsening environmental conditions.
Even though it is also necessary to mention the efforts and investments made by the government to compensate for environmental damage, especially with the creation of an energy matrix cleaner than coal, highly used until now; China’s problems and commitments are completely insufficient from a global perspective and should be discussed in depth and without delay by organized society.
In terms of women’s rights, in particular gender inequalities, it can be said that there are many problems and challenges, both in terms of the precariousness of the rights of working women, the social problems related to violence against women and other more contentious situations such as forced abortions or the single-child policy (now becoming more flexible), and also by contradictions promoted by the powerful, government-linked Women’s National Confederation, which represses more comprehensive and democratic debates.
The 1995 Beijing Conference was very important to make the women’s movement in China more open (which had an important historical background because of its communist past).However, the country’s position on the international level, though characterized by a low profile, continues, in general, to offer difficulties for the development of Human Rights rules and for ensuring the Sexual and Reproductive Rights of women in particular, worsening recently as a result of a certain “cooperative spirit” it has been developing with Russia – known for its backward-looking position regarding human rights and sexuality issues, especially those related to LGBT rights.
This short report does not even come close to including all the information recorded and collected during our stay, and is thus unable to fully describe the complexity of the situation observed.Thus, many reflections could be made and will remain necessary and challenging, especially with regard to social movements in countries with similar problems and those suffering each day, more and more, from the effects of Chinese investments and their unsustainable logic.It is necessary to increase knowledge, debate, and the necessary alliances between organizations and social movements around the world and especially in the countries of the South.
However, focusing on unsustainability itself and the many contradictions of the Chinese model – which do not differ much from capitalist development in any other place –, it should be pointed out that it was thanks to the support of millions of peasants, the so-called internal migrant workers, many of them women earning extremely low wages and living in absolutely precarious conditions, that the powerful Chinese economy of today was built.But the continuity of this unfair and unsustainable growth, typical of the capitalist model, still continues to force millions of peasants and dwellers to leave rural areas and become industrial workers in cities where a great number of them will face brutal exploitation.
The savagery of the system in China exposes some of its deepest wounds, which are especially impressive because of the speed and numbers involved (though not so much because of the brutality of its nature, since it is not so different from that of other countries and situations undergoing terrible exploitation)…
I come back to Brazil with a deep feeling of oppression in the face of what the development of capitalism, which has in China its best exponent, has achieved and continues to intensely produce.No doubt, there are many (and I say many!) tasks and challenges in China today, among them the task of overcoming the immense poverty and lack of social justice, but the success in meeting such challenges will surely depend on the flowering of a strong and democratic civil society, which is also capable of forging international alliances, especially with organized social movements in the countries of the global South.Efforts in this direction are a priority task.