Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.
”You have watched the movie ‘Avatar,’ haven’t you?” a colleague asked me the other day. “I sure have,” I answered, ready to show off my knowledge of war on terror and how the movie director, James Cameron, parallels America’s invasion of Iraq with his work.
“Then you’ll probably be interested in this,” she said, passing me along a piece from a reader in mainland China. I thought I had interpreted Avatar from all kinds of perspectives, but it was not until reading the piece that I realized my ignorance (of which I am ashamed.)
For those who haven’t seen the movie, the film is set on the planet of Pandora, a resource-rich paradise that draws the greedy eyes of human beings. It is a story about how the blue-skinned aboriginals of the planet, the Na’vi, tried to protect their woodland home from armed developers who plan to seize a valuable mineral buried there.
Apparently, it’s the scene of the violent tear-down of the tree that resonated among the Chinese people. In an op-ed piece titled, “Real estate developers and law makers should all go to see Avatar,” the writer furiously attacks the large number of forced demolitions in China in recent years.
“Like the story in Avatar,” he argues, ” poor, helpless people, when facing the injustice of forced demolition, can only take extreme measures to make themselves heard or simply accept it and weep.”
He’s talking about the so-called “nail house problem” in modern China. As the name suggests, “nail houses” belong to people who defiantly resist eviction in the face of development and whose homes thus stick out like nails amid a field of debris.
While such demolition might seem common in most countries, the violent measures taken by both the authorities and the residents in China have made the confrontations painful.
Last November, a Chengdu woman doused herself in petrol and set fire to herself in protest against the government because she learned that her house is in the way of a highway project and will be torn down. The tragedy echos an earlier case. In June, 2008, a Shanghai woman threw petrol bombs at a demolition crew planning to tear down her home to build a transportation site for the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
Both cases reflect the tip of the iceberg. Although last month authorities agreed to further look into the issue of housing demolition, from the attitudes of the government officials, one can tell reform will not happen soon. When a 66-year-old villager threatened recently to jump off a building to protest his home from demolition, an official told him: “Go straight to the top floor. Don’t choose the first or second.” In fact, his words have been chosen by editors at the China Daily as one of the “Top ten quotes of the year 2009.”
Besides the corruption of government-business relations and the abuse of administrative power, the lack of “privatization” in the Chinese system is a key factor of the nail house problem. Unlike Americans or Canadians, Chinese people don’t really own their lands. In fact, they are granted 70 years of use of their house–which, in a legal sense, means that in China, ownership of the land is separated from the right to the use of the land. According to law, the State may withdraw such right anytime by offering compensation.
Since my colleague is from mainland China and can work in Taiwan only because she married to a Taiwanese, I asked her what she thinks about the issue.
“The only thing people can hope for is to get some compensation,” she said, “but really, who would want to leave home?”
Yeah. Who would want to leave home? That’s what I feel, too.
– Hsin-Yin Lee