Sargeson, S. (2013). Violence as development: land expropriation and China’s urbanization. Journal of Peasant Studies, 40(6), 1063-1085.
In “Violence as Development: Land Expropriation and China’s Urbanization,” Sally Sargeson looks at development as an inherently violent endeavor, what she terms “violence as development” (p.1064). Sargeson argues that urban development, especially as it entails land expropriation from villagers in the path of expanding urban footprints, entails violence as its core driving mechanism, its modus operandi. She contrasts her thesis with other explanations of violence as demonstrating game theory or as constituting political “differentiation” between villagers and authorities (p. 1081). These theories overlook the integral role of violence in the development process. Sargeson’s article gives background on how land use regulations have changed since the 1970s into the 2000s, enabling urban governments and developers to take greater control of land development as a means of garnering enhanced revenues and of growing municipal economies (p. 1067).
Sargeson states that “between 1990 and 2008, governments expropriated” an estimated “4.2 million hectares of rural land” (p. 1068). Sargeson goes on to note that such expansive expropriated territory is likely to have resulted in the dispossession of “some 88 million” rural residents from their land in the same period (Ibid). The figures do not necessarily mean all expropriation has been violent, as many rural residents willingly acquiesce to compensation packages. However, time and again case studies from around China suggest forced and violent land acquisition has resulted in the abuse and even deaths of significant numbers of rural residents, as well as violent retaliation from villagers. Sargeson highlights the complexity of violence as development in stating how it involves “many different actors, purposefully engaged in a wide array of brutal, administrative, pedagogic and practical urbanizing tasks” (p. 1074). The very means of economic growth and urbanization in China is fraught with violent exploitation of the rural underclass.
Sargeson’s thesis of violence as development is both explanatory and compelling. Violence as development explains why disparate regions and municipalities across China have followed a similar path of economic development. Violent actions do not merely arise haphazardly as random instantiations of exasperation or aggression coming from state or civic actors. Rather, violence is systemic and represents the very structural mechanism which has enabled China’s economic growth. Sargeson wisely situates violence within the core of the Chinese economic system, noting how the astounding economic transformation has been built on land seizures, sales, and subsequent redevelopment. However, I would contend that Sargeson’s treatment of violence as development excludes a necessary discussion on the humanitarian crisis which has evolved out of violent development.
The prevalence of violent development constitutes an alarming humanitarian crisis in China. Any discussion focusing on the attributes of violence on such a grand scale as in China deserves commentary on the ethical implications that structural violence has on the political economy of the country and for society more broadly. The crisis entails not only the dispossession of people from their land in an unjust manner, it entails the dispossession of the humanity of the dispossessed. As Sargeson adeptly explains, the materialistic forces of economic development unleashed and perpetrated by aggressive state actors subjugates the rural peasantry to violent exploitation. Violent exploitation, in turn, forces the dispossession of peasant claims to livelihood, their historic and cultural ties to the land, even their “social, familial and self-respect” (p. 1081). The purposeful denial of peasant’s rights to these claims and the identity derived from such claims constitutes the violation of their human rights. The fact that little legal or political recourse exists for the dispossessed highlights the inhumanity of the political economic system on top of its innate violence. Therefore, the agents or functionaries of the political economic system are complicit in the systematic violation of peasants’ human rights. While the point of Sargeson’s article was not to elaborate on the humanitarian situation resulting from violence as development, she hardly addressed the topic.
The central government has direct responsibility in altering legal and political frameworks in order to address the structural problems that enable municipal officials and developers to justify their violent developmental schemes. Greater protection of peasants’ rights is also the onus of the central government. It could be argued that the institutionalization of secure property rights for peasants is the only way to adequately protect peasants’ human rights in view of land expropriation. On the other end, Chinese society is broadly implicated in its quiescence on the humanitarian crisis by not organizing to mitigate the inhumane forces oppressing a large segment of the population. That said, complicity rests primarily with the government since Chinese state hegemony severely hampers civil society from exercising its capacity to organize and advocate for structural changes that might liberate the oppressed. Violence as development represents structural problems touching on the role of state and civil society. Sargeson addresses only the side of the structural problems pertaining to the definition of violence as development. She should have drawn more attention to the implications of violence as development as constituting a humanitarian crisis.
My research suggestions entail two primary areas of investigation. One is the definition of the humanitarian crisis, which entails framing violence as development as a humanitarian crisis. The other area is exploring the implications this has on state governance and civil society. Defining the humanitarian crisis means exploring the definition of terms such as humanity, humane, etc. What constitutes humanitarian discourse in the Chinese context? What is humane and what relationship does that have to policy decisions based on materialistic economic principles? What structural problems are merely problems common to all governance systems and which ones play an active role in implicitly or explicitly violating human rights in the context of Chinese development? These questions lay the groundwork for the next area of investigation.
The second area of investigation centers on the implications that violence as development discourse has on Chinese civil society and governance. Given the authoritarian hegemony weilded by the Party-state, expectations for civil society to act and mediate systemic abuses cannot be too high. This raises the question of what ethical base civic action in China has to work with and to what extent that ethical base requires citizens to organize in defense of human rights. The biggest player implicated in the humanitarian crisis of violence as development is, of course, the Chinese state, whose modus vivendi is misplaced to secure the control of the Communist Party rather than to ensure the protection of citizens’ rights. Is there space at all for discussion on such highly sensitive political themes in China? Now that the wave of urban development is ebbing in its intensity, would relevant political reforms make a difference? These questions present opportunities for further research and a more comprehensive treatment of the discussion on violence as development raised by Sargeson.