Tag Archives: China

No region for buffer countries

by Rhodri C. Williams

Events in Ukraine continued to metastasise since my earlier post reporting on the Yanukovich defenestration last week. I spent a long weekend in Finland, ironically enough reading a fascinating history of that country’s long and troubled history as a buffer country between Russia and Sweden. I was also sans internet, which always seems like a blessing until you get back and realise that the world moves on without you, occasionally in distressing directions.

What I missed of course, was the creeping Russian military takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, which is now by and large recognised as a fait accompli, with the only remaining debate focused on how to keep the de facto Russian border from moving into mainland Ukraine. Its impossible to keep track of the tsunami of commentary that has been triggered by these undoubtedly tectonic events, but it is revealing that much of it focuses on the role of the big blocs putting the squeeze on Ukraine, rather than the poor buffeted Ukrainians themselves.

One of the interesting things about the Western end of the discussion is the dizzying range of responses. At the most parochial end, the mid-term election attack ads on how Obama lost Ukraine are already in the make. However, such arguments only underscore how remarkably far the West has already penetrated the vast territory consigned to Soviet Russian tutelage after World War II. Imagine if Putin was coming under criticism in Moscow for failing to block an extension of the NAFTA, and you might get the idea.

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Forced urbanization in China moves from practice to policy

by Rhodri C. Williams

No half-measures to be taken in China’s peaceful rise, it seems. An astonishing New York Times piece recently reviewed the implications of a policy still not finally approved in Beijing but apparently in full swing in the provinces – according to which (wait for it) 250 million people will be forcibly urbanized over the next 12-15 years. That is more than the population of Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world. If the policy succeeds, the world’s most populous country will have gone from being 80% rural in the early 1980s to 70% urban two generations later.

The scope of the project is almost unfathomable (enjoy the NYT video, in which nighttime images of scores of the world’s biggest cities are overflown before a 250 million headcount is racked up). As is the potential for rights violations, accretion of social ills and mayhem that could result. One observer is quoted as stating that this is program is neither less ambitious nor less risky than the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. So why bother?

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Kyrgyzstan property issues update, part 2 – Unen-durable Solutions

by Kaigyluu

‘Kaigyluu’ is the pseudonym of a longtime TerraNullius reader with broad experience working on housing, land and property (HLP) and legal reform issues in many countries post-socialist, post-conflict or both. Having provided an earlier briefing last year on the aftermath of the 2010 ethnic riots, Kaigyluu yesterday updated TN readers on the local and regional politics of rebuilding Osh, and today addresses the policy choices of international actors involved in humanitarian response and reconstruction.

While housing, land and property (HLP) rights were put on the agenda in the immediate aftermath of the June 2010 inter-ethnic violence in South Kyrgyzstan, the HLP process was complicated (a) by a lack of clear rationale or objective and (b) strategic choices made at the outset.

With respect to the first point, based upon an initial assessment by the Global Protection Cluster (GPC) conducted in the wake of the June events, UNHCR focused first on the construction of shelter and then on legal assistance to restore HLP documents lost or destroyed. The assumption upon which provision of such legal aid was based proved faulty, in that it was soon discovered that over 80% of affected households had never had proper documentation. And so the HLP project concentrated on obtaining documentation for those whose homes were destroyed, as well as registering the newly constructed replacement shelters.

Nevertheless, the justification for securing documentation only for those whose homes were destroyed, whereas the majority of the affected population – and, indeed, the population at large – also lacked such documentation, was undermined. The project might have been realigned – and was, ad hoc, to provide documents to those whose homes were threatened with expropriation – but the follow-up scoping mission recommended by the GPC to conduct a full situational assessment was never carried out.

This leads into point (b) on strategic choices, namely that the international community chose to channel their support through the State Directorate for Reconstruction and Development for Osh and Jalal-Abad Cities (‘SDRD’ – previously, the State Directorate for Rehabilitation and Reconstruction or ‘SDRR’) set up by the central government, and headed by current Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiev. The international community decided to bypass the Osh mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov – understandable, given his nationalist (and often erratic) rhetoric.

Myrzakmatov was opposed to anything directed by Bishkek: an opposition entrenched when he successfully resisted the attempt of the interim government to remove him. Unfortunately, in the case of reconstructed (and, indeed, all) housing, the issuance of building permits was controlled at the municipal level. Therefore, in Osh, construction permission was never granted. And so, the majority of the shelters constructed there remain unregistered; whereas, in Jalal-Abad, where the mayor was successfully replaced (twice) by Bishkek, authorities were more cooperative, building permission was issued, and registration proved relatively simple.

More broadly, apart from reliance on the SDRD, there a choice by the international community – perhaps by default – to opt for a ‘rule of law’ approach, as opposed to one driven by the need for a recognition of rights. That is, the reconstruction and HLP process was channelled through the existing domestic land and housing regime. As such, it became vulnerable to the inefficiencies or gaps in the system, as well as any political or personal manipulation of it.

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Kyrgyzstan property issues update, part 1 – Who’s afraid of the big bad master plan? Rebuilding Osh’s mahallahs in brick

by Kaigyluu

‘Kaigyluu’ is the pseudonym of a longtime TerraNullius reader with broad experience working on housing, land and property (HLP) and legal reform issues in many countries post-socialist, post-conflict or both. Having provided an earlier briefing on the politics of property in southern Kyrgyzstan after the 2010 ethnic riots, he, she or it now follows up with an update in two parts. Part one focuses on the local and regional politics of rebuilding Osh, while part two, tomorrow, addresses the policy choices of international actors involved in humanitarian response and reconstruction.

International attention on Kyrgyzstan, limited as it was during the Tulip Revolution (Redux) of April 2010 and inter-ethnic riots that followed two months later in the south of the country’s geologically and politically unstable Ferghana Valley, has long since waned and turned elsewhere. Indeed, with the Western military drawdown in Afghanistan, the importance of Central Asia – exemplified by the bidding-war between the US and Russia over the Manas airbase outside of Bishkek – has diminished correspondingly, while the problems in the region continue to fester and grow.

At least in terms of rebuilding and reconciliation (including international reconstruction assistance) in the aftermath of the June 2010 clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the ‘southern capital’ of Osh, as well as the nearby city of Jalal-Abad, progress would seem to be consolidating. The latest government shuffle, following the collapse of the yet another parliamentary coalition, saw the appointment of Jantoro Satybaldiev as Prime Minister. Satybaldiev, a former Head of the Osh Administration, led the central government’s reconstruction effort following the June 2010 clashes. He was a key partner of UNHCR, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and other international actors in this, and seen as a counterweight to perceived hard-line nationalists in the south, such as Osh’s current mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov.

Not only can Satybaldiev’s ‘promotion’ be construed as a reward for his work in the South, it is also hoped that his elevation will give him the authority to overcome the last hurdles to secure the housing, land, and property (HLP) rights of those displaced by the June 2010 events.

A ‘friend’ of the post-2010 reconstruction effort is sorely needed in high office. This past summer, the City of Osh began long-threatened expropriation of land and the demolition of at least two dozen houses, as well as several business premises, in order to widen roads: this, despite ‘iron-clad’ assurances to donors that reconstructed houses would be not be touched. It is feared that this is but the precursor for implementation of a new urban plan: one that is rumoured to include the replacement of the traditional Uzbek enclaves with ‘modern’ apartment blocks and, amongst the conspiracy-minded, one that is said to mirror – or even predate and predict – the patterns of supposedly spontaneous destruction that occurred from 11 to 14 June 2010.

The international community funded the reconstruction of almost 2,000 homes damaged or destroyed during clashes. UNHCR and ICRC led the emergency response, providing two-room (28 m2) shelters for affected households before the onset of winter in 2010. The ADB provided an additional $24 million to expand (up to 100 m2) and complete 1,500 of those shelters in a second phase of reconstruction in 2011-12.

However, optimism over Mr. Satybaldiev’s elevation may be misplaced. It is debatable whether the new Prime Minister will wish to expend precious political capital to protect those affected persons, the overwhelmingly majority of whom are from the minority (but substantial) Uzbek community. He seems still to accept, if not actively encourage, the inevitable replacement of the mahallahs – the traditional neighbourhoods composed of walled family compounds favoured by the Uzbeks in the centre of Osh – with high-rise apartment blocks. Off the record, even Mr Satybaldiev’s patron, President Almazbek Atambayev is said to have expressed puzzlement and mild exasperation at the international community’s obsession with preserving and reconstructing the mahallahs, in the face of the inexorable march of modernisation and progress.

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Minority self-determination in China and the demolition of Kashgar

by Rhodri C. Williams

For those seeking yet more grim reading on the destruction of homes and cultural heritage worldwide, the Uyghur Human Rights Project can oblige. The UHRP just released a lengthy report on the final stages of the destruction of the old town of Kashgar, a cradle of the indigenous Uyghur culture within China’s Xinjiang autonomous region (referred to by Uyghurs as East Turkestan). The press release announcing the report stresses the manner in which both the nature of this process (top down, without the scantest consultation) and its apparent ends efface even the most notional commitments of the Chinese government to granting any meaningful self-determination to the Uyghur community:

The Chinese State’s Demolition of Uyghur Communities reveals how the destruction of Uyghur neighborhoods has resulted in the loss of both physical structures, including Uyghur homes, shops and religious sites, and patterns of traditional Uyghur life that cannot be replicated in the new, heavily-monitored Chinese-style apartment blocks where many have been forcibly relocated.

This report does not discount the importance of providing modern structural amenities to Uyghurs. However, it asserts a failure on the part of Chinese authorities to engage in meaningful consultation with Uyghurs regarding how they wish to transform their own communities. The report details the international and domestic legal instruments to which the Chinese government is bound that are designed to protect residents from forcible eviction from their homes and ensure that indigenous populations, such as the Uyghurs, have the right to develop according to their own principles.

Commenting on the report in Open Democracy, Henryk Szadziewski notes how ominously this paternalist, assimilationist and security-fixated approach comports with China’s growing role as a development actor in other states in which urbanization and ethnic tensions are politically salient factors (see also his earlier comment here).

Meanwhile, the not-so-subtly-monikered ‘True Xinjiang’ website lays down an uncompromising view from Beijing, with the ‘truth’ about the 2009 riots in Xinjiang stood up against the ‘lies’ of the exiled opposition groups, and unimpeachable foreign sources such as random English teachers, pleased German reporters, and the UNDP trotted out to attest to the mellow good feelings that actually prevail (just don’t mind that awkward link to ‘Beat down terrorism, separatism and extremism!‘).

Whatever one might think of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, Xinjiang is clearly one of those oppressed areas that is simply beyond the pale. Like Chechnya and Tibet, it lies within the internationally recognized territory of a country able and willing to go to the mat in the UN Security Council to prevent even the threat of intervention in oppressed areas outside its borders. Sadly, however, even having the deck stacked this clearly in their favor does not yet appear to have convinced the Chinese authorities they have nothing to lose (and much to gain) by  seeking out and taking on board the views of their Uyghur citizens.

Someday, none of this will be yours: the predatory state eyes ‘public’ land

by Rhodri C. Williams

In trying to keep track of even a fraction of the local and regional flare-ups over land rights these days, I keep thinking back to times when I was working in Bosnia and a  particularly infected property dispute would come up in the course of the restitution process. My colleague Charles P (one of the unsung geniuses behind the famous ‘PLIP‘) would shake his head wearily and mutter the climactic phrases of a classic quote from Gone with the Wind:

Why, land is the only thing in the world worth working for. Worth fighting for, worth dying for. Because it’s the only thing that lasts.

It has long been understood that land is fundamental to the material needs and identity of just about anyone not yet caught up in the great wave of urbanization that characterizes our time (as well as many of those who have). The Endorois decision by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights also represents the latest in a long line of affirmations that recognition of the rights of those with longstanding claims to land through use and attribution is a precondition for them to participate in the life of the state on equitable terms.

It has also long been axiomatic that states retain the final word on land use, and that even where formal nationalization never took place, post-colonial states often inherited – and maintained – laws that held all land not formally owned in a state of inchoate expropriation. Shaun Williams writes on the ongoing challenges presented by ‘state land’ administration in post-colonial urban settings in a recent TN guest-posting, while Liz Alden Wily describes the rural consequences of the ‘public land’ problem in a pithy contribution to ODI’s 2009 research on land and conflict issues.

After the Cold War, the notion that individual and community rights to land might come to be seen as on a par with the state claims to eminent domain were buoyed on the rising tides of human rights and human security. Even if few dared to go as far as to posit a general right to land, there was a sense that policy was pointing in a protective direction. The rise of the post-conflict restitution discourse as symbolized by the Pinheiro Principles has been one example. Another has been the tendency for development standards and instruments to give property rights greater prominence. For instance, The Atlantic recently inferred a paradigm shift in international views on property rights from the post-Cold War proliferation of bilateral investment treaties (BITs) incorporating protections of private property rights:

While the specifics often differ, many BIT provisions protecting foreign investments have become near universal. Both the Turkey-Turkmenistan and U.S.-El Salvador agreements protect foreign investments from direct or indirect expropriation, nationalization, or similar measures “except for a public purpose, in a non-discriminatory manner, upon payment of prompt, adequate and effective compensation, and in accordance with due process of law.” Some countries’ more recent BITs also contain provisions designed to protect environment, labor, public health, and other public policy concerns in addition to the property rights of foreign investors.

However, the Atlantic’s declaration of a post-Cold War “worldwide revolution in how we think about international law and private property” seems premature, precisely because the line between “private” and “public” property remains so heavily contested. Meanwhile, a host of new factors have pushed many states from simply maintaining the status quo (e.g. allowing their populations to continue using ‘state land’ largely unmolested but without the prospect of genuine tenure security) to active predation. The combination of a general economic downturn, rising food and commodity prices, and new forms of state-backed investment have led many states to put their hand in the cookie jar, allocating nationalized and public land to domestic and international investors at a handsome (and typically highly untransparent) profit.

However, the basic dependence and attachment of families and communities to land they consider their own remains, leading to what must be an unprecedented proliferation of sharp and often violent confrontations between states (particularly less representative ones where governments may stand for ethnic or economic elites) and their own citizens over territory. The problem is not limited to states that have nationalized their land or ‘inherited’ public land from prior colonial regimes. However, it seems particularly acute in such settings precisely because the ordinary devices for protecting property from state intrusion assume the prior grant or recognition of rights in such property. Where such rights were ostensibly extinguished by nationalizations or colonial declarations of public land, legality is shifted to the side of the state and communities with every possible equitable right to their land are implausibly – but legally – reframed as squatters.

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Week in links – Week 50/2011 – Durban, Wukan, Tawergha, Hoima

Quite a lot of interest last week, here goes:

First, Opinio Juris’ Dan Bodansky produced a nice concise guide to what actually happened in the unexpectedly (and confusingly) successful Durban meeting on climate change, followed by a longer analytical piece.  Hopenhagen its not, but neither, apparently, a complete fiasco. All beauteously skewered by the Onion:

Ultimately, however, our personal moments of distress won’t matter much unless our government intervenes with occasional mentions of climate change in important speeches, or by passing nonbinding legislation on the subject. I implore you: Spend a couple minutes each year imagining yourself writing impassioned letters to your elected representatives demanding a federal cap on emissions.

Next, all hell has once again broken loose in a Chinese village that has seen virtually all its arable land siphoned off in crooked development deals. In this case, Wukan village in southern China’s Guangdong province exploded in protests after a local butcher appointed to negotiate with the government was arrested and died in custody. The villagers succeeded in entirely driving out local authorities and appear to still be in a state of open revolt, with police having set up a cordon  around the area without reestablishing control.

The BBC ran an analysis piece last week pointing out the increasing levels of so-called ‘mass incidents’ related to land and how China’s ‘rigid stability’ policy – which sets a premium on absolute social calm above all other considerations – appears to have reached the point of diminishing returns in the face of such grievances. Tao Ran describes the corrosive effect of land disputes on local democracy for the Guardian. Finally, an analysis on the WSJ blog raised the worrisome intimation that the implacable logic of land development in China may threaten the country’s food security:

(A local expert indicates) that local officials have seized about 16.6 million acres of rural land (more than the entire state of West Virginia) since 1990, depriving farmers of about two trillion yuan ($314 billion) due to the discrepancy between the compensation they receive and the land’s real market value.

China’s Land Ministry has also warned that misappropriation of farmland has brought the country dangerously close to the so-called red line of 296 million acres of arable land that the government believes it needs to feed China’s 1.34 billion people.

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But the central government’s attempts to curb such abuses, and to draft new legislation that would protect against land grabs and give farmers a market rate for their land, have met fierce resistance from local authorities who rely on land sales to maintain growth, service debt and top up their budgets.

In 2010 alone, China’s local governments raised 2.9 trillion yuan from land sales. And the National Audit Office estimates that 23% of local government debt, which it put at 10.7 trillion yuan in June, depends on land sales for repayment.

Moving to Libya, transitional human rights complications continue to pile up (see an earlier posting on restitution questions here). BBC now reports that one of the most problematic human rights issues in the new Libya appears to have resulted from an act of revenge – not that taken on the late ‘buffoon dictator‘ Ghaddafi himself – but an apparent reprisal against the entire population of the town of Tawergha. The population of Tawergha were ethnically distinct, singled out for favor by Ghaddafi (as were the Tuareg minority, see posting here) and allegedly implicated in severe human rights violations related to the regime’s attempt to retake neighboring Misrata. They are now displaced in camps throughout Libya, unable to return to a town described as laid waste:

Building after building is burnt and ransacked. The possessions of the people who lived here are scattered about, suggesting desperate flight. In places, the green flags of the former regime still flutter from some of the houses.

Finally, the Guardian reports on the residents of the Hoima district of western Uganda, where local residents fully expect to bear the cost of the rest of the country’s development as plans to develop an oil refinery there take shape. May the other shoe drop gently and in strict accordance with international involuntary resettlement standards…