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Nevertheless, She Persisted: Women and Land Rights in China

Posted on by Tina Novero
Filed under: Art+Village+City, China,

 

By Susan Moffat, Project Director, Global Urban Humanities Initiative

The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China promises women equal rights. But in reality, many women have to petition for years to secure equal legal rights to their village lands. Their dogged persistence is a striking example of the way quiet, long-term activism can bring about changes to people’s “right to the city,” said Lanchih Po at a recent talk sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative at UC Berkeley.

“Their activism is not photogenic,” said Po, an associate adjunct professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley, who described women who singly or in groups of two or three show up at village offices without banners or fanfare month after month, or bring lawsuits that can stretch on for decades.  “They are considered a headache by local officials…they are persistent for years and years. They just don’t go away. You should see the faces of the officials when the women show up—it’s like they’ve seen a ghost.”

Po studied a town where a woman named Hui protested at the village office three to four times a week for more than ten years.  “I’m so angry - I have difficulty breathing…I can’t stand how they look down on women,” Hui said.

For several decades, Po has been conducting research on villages in southern China’s Pearl River Delta, focusing on the activism of women seeking their share of rights to communally-owned rural land. In the fast-urbanizing, densely populated area around Guangzhou and Dongguan, just up the Pearl River from Hong Kong, these citified “rural” lands often generate significant income when used as sites for factories or real estate development.

The activism of women takes place in the jurisdictions known as “villages,” which have far more autonomy from the central government in China than “cities” do–even when the villages are surrounded by metropolitan sprawl and physically look quite urban. There is an ongoing battle for power between these islands of village government and the central government.  

The villages jealously guard their right to self-determination, including the right to limit the number of villagers who are named as members. By limiting who counts as a citizen of the village, the more-or-less democratically elected village leaders maintain the value of each citizen’s share of the communal land and the revenue it generates.

Excluding village women who marry men from outside the jurisdiction is a key strategy for reducing the dilution of shares.  But in recent decades, these “waijianü”  or “out-married women” have been lobbying for their share of the villages where they or their ancestors were born. When the village claims women are no longer citizens of the village because of divorce, widowhood, or “outmarriage,” the women find they are counted as aliens in their native place.

So they petition higher levels of government for protection, much as African Americans in the American South looked to the Federal government to protect their rights against discrimination by local authorities.  Still, the central government struggles to enforce national laws.

“In China there is no shortage of beautiful laws, whether environmental or relating to people’s rights, but the problem is always implementation,” says Po.

Po says the protesting women in the villages are asserting their rights in a way that is rare in China—by citing the Constitution. “They are asserting their right to the city and their right to change the urbanization process not only through issues of resource distribution but by demanding acknowledgment of their membership in the community.”  These issues are not unique to China, said Po, noting that this kind of “politics of recognition” (following Charles Taylor) does not solely have to do with economic benefit, but also the right to political visibility.

On the one hand, urban village jurisdictions in China represent important zones of resistance to central state control where unique urban physical form and social relations flourish. On the other hand, they are sometimes bastions of discriminatory local customs. When local elected officials deny the citizenship of people in their midst and more distant unelected state officials seek to force that recognition, the picture of democracy and the right to the city becomes very complicated, indeed.

You can see Po’s research on other aspects of Chinese urban villages here:

Asymmetrical Integration: Public Finance Deprivation in China's Urbanized Villages,” Environmental Planning A, Vol. 44 Issue 12, January 1, 2012.

Property Rights Reforms and Changing Grassroots Governance in China’s Urban—Rural Peripheries: The Case of Changping District in Beijing,” Urban Studies, Vol. 48 Issue 3, February 2, 2011.


Art, Politics & the City in Mexico and China: Exhibit(ion)s and Publications

Posted on by Genise Choy

The Art, Politics & the City in Mexico and China symposium took place on October 23, 2015. This wide-ranging interdisciplinary symposium examined art, commerce, politics, violence, history, and urban space on both sides of the Pacific. Creative artists and scholars explored contemporary performance, film, art, and activism in Mexico City from the Revolution to today. The event also featured an exhibition on current art and urbanism in China’s dynamic Pearl River Delta (Art+Village+City) and research on contemporary Shanghai by a team from the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative was presented in a video-based exhibit. In addition, new UC Berkeley publications and…


Art+Village+City: Post-Travel Update

Posted on by Genise Choy
Filed under: Art, Art+Village+City, China,

Art+Village+City in the Pearl River Delta is one of two interdisciplinary courses being sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative in Spring 2015. Students in this research studio are utilizing a variety of research methods from interviews to video documentation to explore the ongoing evolution of relationships between urban and rural spaces and people, and the emerging role of the arts in China’s Pearl River Delta. From March 18th to April 3rd, the students and faculty of the Art+Village+City in the Pearl River Delta Studio visited the three mega cities of the Pearl River Delta: Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.…


Art+Village+City: On Video as a Method and What Constitutes a “Site”

Posted on by Genise Choy

Art+Village+City in the Pearl River Delta is one of two interdisciplinary courses being sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative in Spring 2015. Students in this research studio are utilizing a variety of research methods from interviews to video documentation to explore the ongoing evolution of relationships between urban and rural spaces and people, and the emerging role of the arts in China’s Pearl River Delta. The research studio paired up in teams and produced 7 short videos depicting a “Chinese” site. These sites were the Pacific East Mall in El Cerrito, Oakland’s Chinatown, San Francisco’s Chinatown, and two dollar-stores…


Art+Village+City: Video Presentations

Posted on by Genise Choy
Filed under: Art, Art+Village+City, Bay Area, China, Film,

Art+Village+City in the Pearl River Delta is one of two interdisciplinary courses being sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities Initiative in Spring 2015. Students in this research studio are utilizing a variety of research methods from interviews to video documentation to explore the ongoing evolution of relationships between urban and rural spaces and people, and the emerging role of the arts in China’s Pearl River Delta. Students paired up to create videos of places related to China and the Chinese diaspora throughout the Bay Area. Here is José Figueroa's watercolor documentation of the in-class presentations! We'll be posting one of…


An Example of Data Reshaping Daily Life in China

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures. September 25, 2014 Sensing San Leandro: Capturing Cityscapes Through Sensors Greg Niemeyer (Art Practice) and Ron Rael (Architecture and Art Practice) Presentation available here. Video of the conversation available here. Niemeyer and Rael discussed how using sensors to collect data allow “reality-based” decisions about places to be made, using projects that they and their students have undertaken in San Leandro as examples. by Mengyuan Jin At a time of increasing data–orientation,…


Thoughts on Urban Villages by a Native of Guanghzhou

Posted on by Susan Moffat

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities, we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.  On August 28, 2014, Prof. Margaret Crawford (Architecture) gave a presentation on her continuing research on urban villages in the Pearl River Delta—independent jurisdictions that are being swallowed up physically and administratively by large cities. Along with Asst. Prof. Winnie Wong (Rhetoric), she will be teaching a studio course on the Pearl River Delta in Spring 2015. Her presentation is available here. Video of the first portion of her presentation is available…


Questions of Autonomy in Guangdong Urban Art Villages

Posted on by Susan Moffat

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities, we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.  On August 28, Prof. Margaret Crawford (Architecture) gave a presentation on her continuing research on urban villages in the Pearl River Delta--independent jurisdictions that are being swallowed up physically and administratively by large cities. Along with Asst. Prof. Winnie Wong (Rhetoric), she will be teaching a studio course on the Pearl River Delta in Spring 2015. Her presentation is available here. Video of the first portion of her presentation is available here. By…