Protests at the ministry

Recommended blog post

In a recent flurry of reflection and recollective pursuits, I revisited my old blog from time spent living in China years ago. It’s easy to think my current interests are just that — temporally unique to my current day to day. But, it has been enlightening to realize that my interests in infrastructure and culture have been long lasting. From a kid fascinated by the construction of the Temple of Heaven, to teenage-era design projects for what is now finally development of Seattle’s waterfront, to youthful 20s exploration of the political and social dynamics of wide-sweeping nation building… the merging of infrastructure and culture have held steady in each path I take.

The following post is an example of that personal glimpse into nation building at grand scale.

Protests at the ministry

Author: 2010 version of myself



May 2010
I arrived to work this morning to see a crowd gathered in front of my building.
Women from the countryside were guarding the door. Ministry workers stood outside, with little interest in the situation. One or two young policemen watched from afar. The building guards, standing in the lobby behind the women, peered out with expressionless faces.
Clearly, these women were protesting something about water — but I could not tell what. And, as a foreigner trying to get into the building, I was immediately viewed as a threat. I tried to pick my way through the women crowding the doorway — but a defiant older woman stopped me with a tap of her cane. Interested more in what they were doing than getting to work, I retreated back to the outside to watch and wait. I tried asking one of the women what they were doing. She would not speak to me.
How could I say — I’m on your side? The women were most likely protesting resettlement measures initiated by the Ministry, perhaps due to reservoir construction (the reservoir resettlement office is in our building). In a country as large as China, with its immense population and increasing need for water — obviously you need to build “solutions” somewhere. And that somewhere often ends up being someone’s home or farmland. Unfortunately, that is unavoidable (though some solutions are better than others). But there are still many issues of environmental injustice when it comes to these large-scale construction projects (think: Three Gorges Dam). Maybe these women were here because the promised resettlement compensation was not being distributed as it should have been. Or maybe these women did not have hukou (a residency permit) to live there in the first place, thus receiving nothing. Either way, infraction was enough for these women to come to Beijing to put up a fight — and that itself is significant.
This morning really just shows how China’s growing water woes are not simply an environmental issue. Not simply a technical issue. Not simply a behavioral issue. It’s much deeper than that, falling into government treatment of its 1.3 billion people, of equity, of rights, and the huge gap between rich and poor, urban and rural.