A grim investigation of how urbanization is destroying traditional Chinese communities.
Journalist and documentarian Bandurski focuses on the phenomenon of “urban villages,” rural spaces gentrified by land speculation and overbuilding. “The more I heard villagers talk about the community’s history and troubles,” he writes, “the more I was enchanted by what Xian [village] seemed to represent.” The author is attuned to rural China’s fragility, noting how community traditions conflict with rapacious, state-endorsed capitalism. “Behind [village] walls,” he writes, “a bitter struggle was taking place: the villagers against the village leaders and their private army of thugs.” Bandurski first establishes how, in and around cities like Guangzhou, “the scale of urbanisation...is so immense it beggars the imagination.” He discerns deep corruption and state-sanctioned brutality couched in the ornate language of the modern Chinese state, where troublemakers are routinely accused of the ominous offense of “disrupting public order.” The author tracks the stories of several individuals (whom he protects with pseudonyms) who invested their savings in new business developments only to be overwhelmed by shoddy construction and demands for kickbacks. One such impoverished woman’s eventual suicide is depicted as “one of the most iconic tragedies of China’s urbanisation drive.” Contrastingly, he found that in these urban villages, a few well-connected families “ran the village as a private fiefdom, monopolising its business, politics, and security.” In today’s globalized China, he argues, “public ‘success’ cloaked [scandals] involving misappropriated land and purloined millions.” Throughout, he emphasizes, he “was astonished” at the level of corruption he witnessed. Bandurski demonstrates a keen understanding of the traditional lifestyles under attack by enforced modernization, as in his use of the Dragon Boat ceremony as a framing device, representing the villagers’ resilience. However, his overall narrative of civic corruption is harder to follow, with limited appeal for readers lacking familiarity with the arcane social structures of contemporary China.
An intense look at globalization’s tragic hidden costs.