Hong Kong Interviews SinoBeat

HKFP Interview: Veteran China watcher David Bandurski on the ‘back alleys of urbanising China’

Award-winning journalist and China media analyst David Bandurski will launch his new book, Dragons in Diamond Village, at the Fringe Club in Central, Hong Kong on Tuesday afternoon. After a decade of research and investigative reporting, Bandurski takes us into the world of Chinese villagers who were forced to give away their land as cities expanded. In an interview ahead of the book launch, Bandurski told HKFP about the challenges he faced in writing Dragons in Diamond Village and his views of the latest developments on China’s media scene.

dragons in diamond village

David Bandurski and his new book. Photo: David Bandurski.

HKFP: Tell us a little bit about your experience writing Dragons in Diamond Village. How did you come up with the idea? How did you find and interview the characters in your book?

Bandurski: The book was a long process. It began more than 10 years ago, shortly after I arrived at the University of Hong Kong, where I specialise in Chinese media research. One of our earliest fellows at the Journalism & Media Studies Centre was a professor from Shanghai’s Fudan University, Lu Xinyu. She had written extensively about independent documentaries in China, and the treasure trove she brought along included a documentary called “Sanyuanli” by Ou Ning — a wonderful black-and-white film about an urban village in northwest Guangzhou.

Quite typical of urban villages in south China, Sanyuanli was a dense tenement community enclosed by the newer city, built by the local Sanyuanli villagers themselves on top of their housing plots. The village had its own rich history, going back centuries. But by that point the farmland was gone, and the tenements were now home to tens of thousands of migrant workers from the countryside. This rental income sustained the village’s original inhabitants, who numbered just a few thousand. In Chinese, this process is called “farming property.” I’d never seen anything like it. These were pockets of rural China right in the middle of the city.

dragons in diamond village

The Xian Village ruins in Guangzhou, still home to thousands of migrant workers today, with skyscrapers of the central business district behind. Photo: David Bandurski.

Within weeks, I had made my first visit through the alleys of Sanyuanli — and I was totally enchanted. Sure, the village was dark and cramped, the buildings sometimes so close they shut out the sunlight (“handshake buildings,” they have been called). But it was clear that they played an absolutely essential role too, offering a foothold in the city to rural migrant workers. We always hear about China’s property boom, but in fact the bulk of new residential building is vastly out of reach for the new urban majority, by which I mean migrant workers.

So I knew immediately that I wanted to write about these places. Getting at the stories in the book, though, took a lot more time and effort. There are 138 urban villages inside Guangzhou’s main urban area. I explored dozens of them over the years, each time I made it to the city. Eventually, I decided to focus the main story on Xian Village, an ancient community in the middle of Guangzhou’s central business district that has faced the prospect of demolition and redevelopment since 2009. The book’s title refers to the tradition of parading dragon boats during the annual Duanwu festival, an important part of village identity and tradition in Xian that ultimately gave shape in 2009 to a campaign by villagers to fight local corruption that threatened the community’s future. Xian has been called “Diamond Village” owing to the immense value of its land and property holdings.

HKFP: Did you run into any difficulties reporting in Guangzhou?

Bandurski: I did have one close call with local security thugs in Xian Village in August 2012, after I slipped into the village at dusk. The village was walled off from the rest of the city at the time and the situation inside was dire. That episode is in the book, so I won’t say more than that.

Reporting on the ground is not a difficulty so much as a challenge. It just takes time and endurance. What proves nearly impossible, when as in my case you’re also trying to investigate various land deals and village businesses, is getting companies or government agencies to respond to questions you have. You hit a wall almost every time. So I spent a lot of time sifting through whatever documents I could track down — company reports, court cases, news archives.

HKFP: What was your most memorable experience writing the book?

Bandurski: I can think of a lot of experiences. But there’s one in particular that actually, looking back, should have made it into the book but didn’t. And unfortunately it’s one of the funniest. It happened one morning after I had tried to sit in on a court case in Guangzhou in which one of my characters, Ah Peng, was contesting his detention by police. I won’t get into the details, more of which are in the book, but that whole morning at the court building, as things went sour, the officer routinely assigned to Ah Peng as a kind of security minder, the agent of what in China is called “stability preservation,” had been slouching in one of the chairs in the lobby. He was a big guy with this glowering look. You could say he was the face of repression.

dragons in diamond village

Xian Village tenements viewed over the ancient village pond. Photo: David Bandurski.

OK, but later on that morning, after the case was postponed, Ah Peng and I were taking a taxi back to the centre of town, where I was staying. There was this cop show playing on the little television screen on the back of the taxi seat right in front of me, a news show of some sort. And all of a sudden, there was Ah Peng’s security minder, all dressed up in his police uniform. “Hey, look!” I said to Ah Peng, “There’s the guy from the court.” He was so excited he pulled out his mobile and called the officer. “We just saw you on TV!” he told him. It was an interesting look at the dynamics of stability preservation, and it made me think about how the officer himself might see his relationship with this villager turned rights defender, this man who just wanted fairness.

HKFP: What does the Xian Village story say about China’s land ownership system and land reform?

Bandurski: Well, all of the stories in my book deal with this question, in fact. Land is still so fundamental to both local and national economics and politics. The cities need rural land, not just for urban development, but to generate growth and revenue. Many cities rely heavily, if not chiefly, on land financing — which means usually that they take land cheaply from villagers, which creates the kind of pain you see in my book, and then sell it on to property developers. The government stands right in the middle of this lucrative process, and it’s unfortunately a recipe for unfairness and corruption.

One of the biggest tragedies is that the focus in planning has not really been on the new urban population. You hear all the time about how many tens of millions of rural Chinese will be entering the cities, or already have. And we assume that this generates demand for residential property, which should be the case. But there is a serious disconnect. The new properties being built are not for these populations. They are mostly for property investment and speculation. The “rural” migrants entering China’s cities still need to land in “rural” spaces there — which is why urban villages play such an important role.

HKFP: Can you put on your media analyst hat and tell us how the media scene and media practices in China have changed since President Xi Jinping came into power in 2012?

Bandurski: That’s not a pretty story, unfortunately. Things have gotten much, much worse for Chinese journalists since 2012, and I suspect that things will get worse still before we see any sort of improvement. This is part of an overall tightening of ideology under Xi, which reflects the Party’s sense of difficult times. Whole topics that were once possible to talk about in the media, like civil society or judicial independence, have now become taboos.

Tianjin blast aftermath. Photo: EPA

Ruins of the Tianjin chemical explosion. Photo: EPA.

We used to see, in past years, quite a lively professional media scene in China, despite strong controls on the media. So for stories like the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, or the high-speed rail tragedy in 2011, we would see newspapers, magazines, websites and social media all pushing in their own way. This year the silence was eerie. There was very little exciting activity happening at all until we had the explosions in Tianjin. Tianjin was a rare bright spot, and it showed us how new changes to media technology might be assisting journalists who still have a hunger to get the story. For example, news apps and platforms like WeChat have become very important. But I’m not holding my breath.

HKFP: Alibaba said last week it is teaming up with Sichuan Daily Group to build a new media platform in China. This is not the first time a traditional media company has joined hands with technology giants for new media experiments. What do you think of this trend?

Bandurski: This is part of an inevitable trend we’re seeing in media markets around the world — the integration of digital and traditional platforms. The new giants on the block in China are the tech companies like Alibaba and Tencent. They are becoming powerful drivers not just of media, but of economic activity more broadly. Just think of the immense power of e-commerce in China, and services like Alipay. It’s hard to say what trends like this will mean. But the increasing influence of companies like this is a two-way street, so expect the unexpected.

HKFP Interview: Veteran China watcher David Bandurski on the 'back alleys of urbanising China'