Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Mag Train, or Mega Pain?

While most of China is paralyzed by one of the coldest winters of nearly half a century, including the South, and Southwest, the citizens of one district in Shanghai is engaged in a potentially flammable protest against the Shanghai government. As reported by western media (NYTimes, and Washington Post) and in China (Chinese only), some citizens are waging their "battle" against the city government, which has proposed an extended stretch of the Shanghai mag-lev train. Under the proposed plan, the train line, connecting the Pudong Int'l Airport with the Hongqiao Airport, will cut across a densely populated residential area, potentially wrecking the peaceful life of thousands of residents (the number could be over one million based on one undisclosed source). As soon as those residents caught wind of the plan, they began vehemently opposing it, but in peace and through various forms of pleas and petitions. Their efforts so far culminated in a public hearing held on January 19, 2008; this event was attended on the one hand by officials from the city bureau of environment protection, bureau of city planning, the Mag-lev Project management team, and various district officials, and on the other hand by affected citizens of the proposed project.

One of the citizens' key concerns is just compensation for the loss to their property due to the project. Reportedly, the plan proposes to "condemn" property within 22.5 meters of the train line on both sides. In other words, the government will appropriate private property by way of eminent domain; however, it will only do so to property that it deems necessary for the consummation of the project—those apartments located on the plots of land lying within 22.5 meters of both sides of the train line. And the government will compensate the owners of property that it deems "affected" by the project, whereas those owners with property beyond the 22.5 meter boundary take nothing.

Many homeowners cannot stomach this Mag-lev project and the compensation methodology to be employed by the government. First, they disagree with the 22.5 meter rule as proposed, citing that it is arbitrarily set without adequate scientific evidence that the property beyond the boundary will be unaffected by the train. Of course, two sub-issues are embedded in this concern. 1). whether the government needs to "condemn" more land beyond the 22.5 meter line for safety concerns; and 2). whether the entire project will affect the health, safety, home value, and qualify of life of those residents alone the train line, irrespective of the 22.5-meter eminent domain proposal. Second, they disagree that this project is for public good. Public good is the prerequisite to eminent domain proceedings initiated by government entities (more on this later), but the construction project, linking two airports, does not either directly or indirectly benefit the people concerned. Rather, the benefit and convenience go to transit travelers. Third, they oppose the proposed plan all together because they believe that this project is a direct consequence of poor city planning, and that they should not bear the burden and consequence of substandard governance.

So far, the city government appears to be just listening. Officials have appeared at the public hearing, received complaints, and have "softly" pressured vocal dissenters. But, the severity of the issue, with homes and lives of thousands of residents on the line (pardon the pun), begs the question of "what next?" if the government turns a deaf ear. What other recourse do the citizens have? What are their rights under the Chinese legal system? How can they protect their rights in a country where the central government has been "pursuing" the Rule of Law? How should they navigate the complex and at times unfriendly legal system to enforce their rights?

To be Continued...


Will Lewis said...

Ugh... Eminent domain. I can really see where the government can get away with invoking eminent domain in a socialist state, and I wouldn't bet on the citizens winning this argument. But for me in the U.S., eminent domain has always seemed to be repugnant to the freedom to own property, and yet the government has had plenty of success using eminent domain in the U.S. even when the government is acting as a strawman for private interests. Then again, I don't think any government body in the U.S. has ever tried to seize the land of anywhere near 1 million people by eminent domain...

Anonymous said...

The citizens want to have their property compensated - but government will only remove and compensate those property within 22.5 meters, leaving all other residents suffer from pollution. Definately there is surprisingly high amount of improper payment and interests exchange between the approval authorities and the meg company, yet Not a Single Soul in China dare to to raise this issue or even show his doubt.

Brad Luo 罗竞雄 said...

I won't bet on the citizens winning either. However, the citizens of Xiamen successfully prevented the construction of a chemical plant in their city by protesting. That shows that they do have some "power" on local gov't's political decisions. Nonetheless, one cannot equate that with the case here since a chemical plant is hugely different from a mag-lev train. I guess the perceived environmental impact with respect to a chemical plant is greater than that of the magalev train.

People in SH are not going to let this pass without a fight. At least that is my impression. Many of the citizens are in the middle class, highly educated and better off. This eminent domain issue surely looks, smells like the Three Gorges Dam deal. But these folks in SH are different from the "country folks" along the Changjiang River, who silently submitted to the gov't. Look at what happened to the "scientific studies" about the impact of the Three Gorges Dam?! These folks in SH have bright eyes.

There is power in numbers (1 + million); and there sure is power in knowledge.

Brad Luo 罗竞雄 said...

You raise a very poignant point--corruption in gigant public utility projects in China.

I haven't heard anything, no reporting in China. There are two possibilities--no corruption in the approval process, or corruption is perpetrated by sophisicated players and not yet uncovered. But in a political system where litle or no transparency in this kind of project, and where the people do not have a say in the initial decision-making process, corruption has ample room to germinate and fester.

"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

That no one has yet said anything so far about possible corruption does not mean that on one ever will. The exposure of the high-profile social security/pension fund theft by high-ranking SH officials gives a little hope...

Let's see what happens.