Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"This Land Is Our Land" comes to China

China Daily, a state-run English-speaking international Chinese newspaper, printed an Op-Ed, calling for the right to roam across the Chinese countryside. My book and advocacy get a mention.

One of the shortcomings of my book, This Land Is Our Land, is that I was unable to do a complete survey of all countries' right of access laws. I was only able to report on a handful of European countries that have clear laws and whose systems have been written about in English secondary sources.

If I had all the time in the world, I would have researched the systems of Asia, Africa, etc. But let me get to the point: it appears, from this column, that China, despite being communist, has as lousy a roaming culture as America.

It's nice to see my ideas being spread to faraway countries. And it's encouraging to see this printed in a state-run paper, and not some fringe periodical for radical ideas that'll never get to see the light of day.

Here's a link to a more readable version of the article.


owen said...

This is an interesting article. I read your book a while ago, and it is an argument I think a lot of americans and europeans can get behind. But I don't know enough (I am american) to say whether the european history of land use is specific enough to make your argument irrelevant in countries like china. It would be interesting to see some comparative study of whether chinese would take advantage of the right to roam.

I recall in your book you observed that the interesting hiking adventures are the ones that involve reflections on the anthropocene, not simply a tour through an undisturbed national park. The way we build the national parks as undisturbed slices of nature certainly has political elements -- as we all know, it would be false for white amercans like Teddy Roosevelt during the construction of the National Parks to claim that without european settlers, the US would have no human presence. The article points this out, saying how the beautiful greenery in virginia near DC are unusable, owned by a handful of landowners. Having driven through that area of the US before, the proximity of DC to forests and farmland sometimes strikes me as unusual. China, without same racist & imperialist past, might have a different conception of what "undisturbed nature" means.

China's economic history is interesting, and completely different from the american and european stories. I've recently been reading the book Fanshen by William Hinton, which details the land reforms by the communist party during the civil war in china (late 1940s), and the redistribution measures (giving land and wealth from landlords to the poor peasants). These measures are perhaps one of the most drastic worker's and peasant's reforms to be attempted. I did not realize how recently the chinese peasants were ruled by feudalistic landlords. It wasn't uncommon for them to earn about 12$ a year. For these peasants, land was one of the most important things a family could own, and the civil war was organized around the reorganization of land. Hinton even compares Mao's proclamation that land shall be equally distributed to Lincoln's emancipation proclamation. Being foundational to modern china, the revolutionary equal ownership of land certainly affected their views of private property.

Deng Xiaoping's liberalization and introduction of capitalist elements into china during the 80s might lead some to believe that they behave similarly toward private property as Americans. I don't think this is entirely the case, and a cursory internet search brings up this post from a professor of law at George Washington Univ: https://www.theconglomerate.org/2008/02/no-trespassing.html . He claims that that "in Chinese real property law: nowhere does it seem to contain a clear prohibition against trespassing." It reminds of the fact that in your book about the right to roam, we only recently started enforcing trespassing laws (was it 1922?). So I'm not even sure to what extent they don't have the right to roam :)

I have heard before that american cities are different from cities elsewhere in the world, particularly the global south. American cities, unlike others, are surrounded by suburban areas (which can't be used for much) and the downtown areas are often the most expensive. In China, since the 40s or so, I believe their population has increased from 600M to well over 1B. This must put a lot of stress on development projects (e.g., they used more concrete in 2011-2013 than the US in the 20th century!) and urbanization but I'm not sure if they have a "suburban" population similar to us, which may make it easier for urban people to access forestry.

In the last 2 decades or so, China has put a lot of resources into reforestation. For example, in 2018 they initiated a plan to reforest an area the size of Ireland. It will be interesting to see how this shapes environmentalist culture in China.

Ken said...

Owen--Great thoughts, and thanks. One other big element in all this is: what is the state of recreation in China? If they're still emerging from their feudal past and climbing up and out of poverty, has there been enough time and progress for people to develop a recreational relationship with nature (far different than just working the land)? I know there are a ton of Chinese doing overseas tourism, but that's different than a culture of hiking, birding, paddling, mountain biking, camping, etc. I have never been to China and I ultimately don't know, but you can tell that my guess is that this culture of recreation just doesn't exist as it does in, say, Norway or Boulder, CO. I think for there to be a right to roam movement, you'd need a large group of people eager to go on a long ramble. This may take decades, but then again, things are moving so fast there.