Today Global Times ran an editorial called “Human rights award misses point of China’s social progress.” It was about Chinese lawyer Ni Yulan being given the Human Rights Defenders Tulip by the Dutch government for her role in fighting forced demolitions. Following standard GT editorial protocol, it opted to forgo any use of objective figures or examples to substantiate its claims. Instead it chose the basic approach of “fuck you Western media for calling attention to China’s problems rather than playing cheerleader to the overall progress it’s made.”
A few months ago I vowed not to rebut every dumb GT editorial that I came across. After all, I have to eat and sleep some time. So rather than rebutting, I’ve decided to help GT out with a little copy-editing. I’m in journalism school currently and one of the key principles we’re taught again and again is “show, don’t tell.” I know it’s been a long time since journalism school for Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin, who usually writes these editorials, so I’ve taken the liberty of re-writing it so that it has a chance of actually influencing some people toward GT’s viewpoint. It can even keep the same title and lead:
Human rights award misses point of China’s social progress
Ni Yulan has been awarded the Human Rights Defenders Tulip 2011 by the Dutch government after her actions against forced demolition in Beijing, becoming the latest recipient of a foreign human rights prize. An unverified report said that Wednesday, Ni’s daughter Dong Xuan was not allowed to fly to the Netherlands to accept the award on behalf of her mother, who is still awaiting trial.
Ni has served a positive role in helping those who’ve been wrongfully, and often violently, dispossessed of their homes gain awareness of their rights and seek redress. She indeed deserves recognition for the hardships and debilitating physical harm she’s endured in her crusade to help the underclass.
However, coverage on cases like Ni Yulan tend to leave a somewhat unbalanced impression of forced evictions in China. In the focus on individual stories of suffering, it’s easy to miss the greater good that many demolitions are achieving.
There are essentially two types of land seizures now happening on a wide scale in China. The kind Ni has fought against are illegal and often the result of corrupt real estate deals. These unjustly throw commoners out of their homes with inadequate compensation and often feed a speculative bubble that threatens serious harm to the economy. The central government is indeed aware of this troubling trend and should continue to take proactive measures to mitigate it.
The second kind of demolition, however, gets less attention and is actually very good for China. Currently, roughly half of China’s population lives in rural areas. These areas usually consist of single-unit houses which use coal directly for cooking and heating. The houses also often have paper windows or other deficiencies that make them very energy inefficient. This contributes to high levels of both carbon emissions and local pollutants like sulfur.
Moving these people to the cities will put them in more efficient homes and on China’s electric grid, which is quickly cleaning up its energy production. Even when coal is the energy source, plants are becoming 25-50% more efficient and are retrofitting with devices that cut 95% of sulfur emissions.
Once these people are moved from their rural homes, the land is freed up for an even more pressing concern: food. China is about the same size as the US, but has 82% the arable farmland with 420% the population. To make matters worse, desertification is claiming this land at a rate comparable to the size of Rhode Island each year. It’s no wonder 150 million Chinese still don’t get enough to eat.
If we look at a developed country like the United States, a hundred years ago farmers made up 30% of its population. In 1945, on average, it took 14 labor-hours to produce 100 bushels of corn on two acres of land. By 1987, thanks to technological development, it took under 3 labor-hours and just over one acre of land to get the same result. Today, only about 2% of Americans are farmers and they produce much more food than the 30% did a hundred years ago.
China is going through the same process now with its current 35% farming population. Moving farmers from the countryside to cities moves them up the value chain and frees up land for more efficient mechanized farming. According to Geographical Society of China President Lu Dadao, China took only 22 years to increase its urban population from 17.9% to 39.1%. It took Britain 120 years and the US 80 years to accomplish this. So it can be said that China’s development is much more impressive.
It’s estimated that China’s urban population will surpass 70% by 2035, bringing it closer to developed status. It is regrettable that the power entrusted to local officials in order to reach this goal is sometimes abused. The recent resolution of the Wukan situation showed the government’s progress in dealing with these situations, but of course, there remains work to be done.
In this long march forward, it’s inevitable that many toes will get stepped on. Many will be uprooted amidst this progress. However, we shouldn’t let the setbacks completely overshadow the critical overarching goal. After all, keeping people fed is the most important human right of all.
See, I’ll bet you came a lot closer to sympathizing with GT’s main point here than in the original piece. It’s still bullshit, but I think you’ll agree it’s much less rank bullshit.