Editorial: China is failing its "most disadvantaged," argues economic historian Qin Hui, who likens Chinese slum demolition to the white South African government’s handling of shantytowns during apartheid.
Chinese authorities say they are committed to improving "public services' for "disadvantaged groups." Evidence suggests, however, that in certain slum areas some of the most disadvantaged are not only being neglected, but are also having their makeshift dwellings knocked down in the name of development.
Slum demolition has reportedly taken place in Hainan's Sanya, where people have lost their homes without any compensation. In Shenzhen Nanshan, authorities have also reportedly razed a shantytown known as the "the farm," leaving more than 200 residents with neither shelter nor compensation.
Even developing countries treat their poorest better than we do. It is regrettable enough that a country cannot protect its weak, but at the very least, the government should refrain from bullying them.
In India, migrant workers build their houses in the slums, but as long as they have some proof of residence, they will not be forcibly relocated. If businesses need to move someone for the sake of development, they approach that person and negotiate compensation.
Taiwan is another example. Their "urban renewal projects' (similar to our renewal and development projects) ran into problems with slums, or what they referred to as "illegal structures." But their residents have to be given adequate compensation in a timely manner. To address the problem of illegal squatting, Taiwan has built "renewed housing" for relocated residents. I've gone to see some of these housing projects and although the standard of housing is below that of low-cost public housing, the difference is minimal.
Recently, much of the "renewed housing" has undergone renovation. I found it unbelievable that this kind of compensation was even being offered to those who had inhabited what were seen as illegal dwellings.
Only one precedent comes to mind for what we do to our poor, and that is how the white imperialists in South Africa treated the black population under apartheid.
Like elsewhere, South African leaders used legal arguments to bulldoze poor neighborhoods. It's true that cities must have construction regulations and that no government in the world should be willing to have buildings built anywhere at all. In many cases, in other words, shantytowns are indeed "illegal structures."
The way the apartheid government in South Africa treated its black population was unjustifiable, but that said, laws can still reasonably regulate the expansion of slums. We don't expect shantytowns to crop up in New York's Times Square or London's Trafalgar Square, and for the sake of city planning and public good, construction must indeed be regulated.
But regulations must also respect human rights. On this point, I offer three recommendations:
First, regulations cannot benefit one party at the expense of all others. An issue that touches on basic human rights must be done legally and according to protocol. Laws concerning expropriation must also include input from all parties involved, including the victims and the so-called "floating population." Looking out for the interests of the documented urban population is not enough.
Next, the regulations must respect common decency and common sense. In the past, migrant workers in China were supposed to work in urban areas but leave their families in rural areas. This is not unlike the approach the white South African government took to dealing with its black labor population. These types of "floating populations' cannot be permanently sustained. Residence in the city is inevitable. What are migrants expected to do if we do not provide housing, if they cannot afford market prices, and simple, makeshift houses are deemed illegal?
Finally, regulations must be made for the long haul. They should not flip-flop or be constantly altered. In recent years, commentators have pointed out that the shantytowns in Shenzhen have already been there for over 20 years. It was a mistake not to deal with them then, but is it fair that the residents have to pay the price now?
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