Shanghai See-Saw

Brian Hicks

Updated February 7, 2006

Next to the main road there used to be a restaurant. A small shop where the smells were inviting, the people smiled and the food piled high on the plate before you devoured each delicious bite of tender meat.

But now there’s a convention center.

This metamorphosis is more and more common in China. Though I have reported about China’s construction boom (the equivalent of a major US city is erected each month), I have not told you as much about those who are dispossessed in the process. The cost of development is high, especially when the government reserves the right to evict any resident who is not quiescent to the planned progress.

In Shanghai, the 2010 World Expo will precipitate the relocation of hundreds of thousands of residents. The Economist reports that hundreds of businesses and some 18,000 families will be displaced before the end of the year. The site of the expo will take up a space twice the size of Central Park, and will involve some $25 billion in preparation.

Relocated families will receive about $1000 in compensation for their trouble, which almost always includes finding new jobs, new schools, and other aspects of daily living.

Officials say that 95% of the residents of Pudong, Luwan, and Huangpu districts have signed relocation contracts, but those who have not done so by their eviction dates will be forcibly removed.

The Three Gorges Dam, one of the most momentous engineering feats of the past century, caused the removal of a full million people from their homes in southwestern China. These hefty government initiatives weigh on the people they impact, and more and more those who feel the weight stir to shake off their burden.

In Guangdong, a southern Chinese province that enjoys the largest provincial GDP in China (gross and per capita) and leads in several other economic indicators, a December protest left dozens dead and scores more wounded. The incident marked the first time since 1989’s infamous Tiananmen Square uprising that state police fired live ammunition on protesters. What set off this clash? Local residents protested unfair reparation for land confiscated to build a wind power plant.

After 74,000 incidents in 2004, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security tallied 87,000 public protests throughout the country in 2005. That’s a 10% increase, and it is more likely than not that as the Shanghai Expo, the Beijing Olympics, and other government projects proceed, land use and compensation will be a fiery issue.

The pot is bubbling, but not yet boiling over. China has historically had a difficult time corralling the desires of rural areas into the same arena as the traditionally powerful east.

Google and Yahoo, as internet search companies sensitive to China’s laws, and construction firms like Caterpillar who provide the means of both construction and destruction, have to tread a tightrope when doing business in the Middle Kingdom. If revolution is the tradition, it will benefit those who have stepped carefully during China’s boom if the tide turns against the current regime.

Though wind power, a noble and profitable enterprise, was the goal of Shanwei officials’ land confiscation, the meritocracy of GDP still governs local officials’ thinking in most of China. Introduction of a proposed "Green GDP" will also motivate such developments, but social capital should be considered as well in order to keep the populace feeling that they truly benefit from the progress China is making on the world stage.

– Sam Hopkins

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