Land in China: Über Touchy

The New York Times released their second installment of Leaving the Land on Sunday.

Articles in this series look at “how China’s government-driven effort to push the population to towns and cities is reshaping a nation that for millenniums has been defined by its rural life.” There’s a ton of effort going into this ongoing project in China and New York, similar in size to last year’s iECONOMY series or the previous year’s Culture and Control series.

With this installment, the first of three videos I made for the series published. The title “China’s Consuming Billion” plays off of Tom Miller’s book “China’s Urban Billion: The Story Behind the Biggest Migration in Human History” and McKinsey Global Institute’s report “Preparing for China’s urban billion.” The video, filmed in Beijing, Shanghai and Shaanxi Province sheds light on a possible by-product of China’s urbanization plan: a consumer culture that could drive and sustain economy.

One of many thousands of still pictures used to make up timelapses for China's Consuming Billion. Timelapses were shot on a Canon 5D Mark III with Carl Zeiss ZE Primes in conjunction with a Kessler Crane Cineslider and an elktra Oracle Motion Control System with a Basic Controller.

Unlike many videos I make for the Times, this video was made with different subjects and a different story line than the article it was paired with. This meant, reporting solo. Often times, I shoot without a reporter due to varying travel schedules, but we’ll cover the same story. But in this case we wanted to create a broader picture and the stories, while aligned, show different aspects of the issue in the hopes of creating a wider understanding of a complex issue. This meant I had to handle everything from the ground up. And what I was harshly reminded of was that reporting on land in China is a bit like walking on needles.

In years past, I’ve covered land ownership and gentrification issues in Beijing, mass protests over land grabs in South China and forced relocations in the North.

However, this assigned which spanned months of time and multiple provinces proved much more difficult. Throughout the three videos I interviewed dozens of people, and only once did an interview go uninterrupted without problems … that interview was with Jonathan Woetzel, of the McKinsey & Company.

One of many thousands of still pictures used to make up timelapses for China's Consuming Billion. Timelapses were shot on a Canon 5D Mark III with Carl Zeiss ZE Primes in conjunction with a Kessler Crane Cineslider and an elktra Oracle Motion Control System with a Basic Controller.

While I never felt in danger, or physically threatened, time-after-time 10 minutes into an interview my subjects would change their mind and back out. It happened over and over again. Other times, the interviewees would become scared for me and tell me I should leave before someone knows I’m there. One time while filming on a street, the subjects pleaded with me to move on, because other journalists had been beaten up there in the past.

In one scenerio, while filming an interview in a field where a former village used to be, four or five burly men, some in uniform, others not, showed up and stood 20 feet away starring at my subject. He instantly became nervous and his answers became short winded. A moment later his phone rang. It was his mother and she had been called by the police and was told that her son was talking to foreign reporters. That interview ended quickly. Ironically, our conversation was about music.

In another scenerio, a husband of a woman we were interviewing in her apartment came home and made his wife immediately stop talking to us. We were talking about how big a television people should buy these days. The former farmer thought 42″ was too small.

One of many thousands of still pictures used to make up timelapses for China's Consuming Billion. Timelapses were shot on a Canon 5D Mark III with Carl Zeiss ZE Primes in conjunction with a Kessler Crane Cineslider and an elktra Oracle Motion Control System with a Basic Controller.

In this first video, which could be looked at as on the positive side of the topic, people were deftly scared to talk to me because they didn’t want their local developers to know. Its hard to talk to people when they see you and intrinsically become scared. This was a bit ironic, with my primary “hard hitting” question being: What did you buy when you moved into your new house?

You’d think this wouldn’t be a sensitive question, but the fact is: once there’s a camera, a foreign reporter and anything remotely to do with land, development, or relocations — everything becomes über sensitive.
And while these questions don’t seem so sensitive to me, when subjects get scared you have to respect their lives and safety. Developers, governmental officials and Chengguan (城管) can make people’s lives miserable. And what do they really have to gain by talking to a foreign reporter? Not much.

Although the sources don’t have much to hide, the fact that there’s so much fear means something shady is happening. They’ve already been through a lot and tying to figure out when to push to get a story done can be tricky. But when dozens of interviews fail, this becomes exhausting.

That is, of course, unless they have already lost everything and have run out of options … and this is the scene where my second video will pick up in Part Three of Leaving the Land.

The first two articles of the series by Ian Johnson are fantastic pieces of journalism with wonderful pictures by Justin Jin and Chi Yin Sim. See part one “China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities” and part two “Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push From Farm to City”. Both of the first two parts feature very cool graphical and interactive features as well.

The next installments will be on the way as the year progresses.

3 thoughts on “Land in China: Über Touchy”

  1. Your video “LEAVING THE LAND: China’s Consuming Billion” was once again a stunning production and very cinematic as usual.

    A suggestion about your story line, you may wish to press further at the end where you mention some people are at risk of falling through the cracks as China rushes to urbanise.

    Can you describe the risks further? What are the options for those at risk of being left behind to try to catch up? What is the government doing (and not doing) to manage the risks? Some data on such people and policies would be interesting. Difficult I realize in the time limit you’re working with.

    For what it’s worth..

    1. Hey Ben – thanks for the note. The next video, picks up where that last narration leaves off. i.e. the next video goes into more detail about the people who are “left behind.”

      It was actually a tricky compromise we had to make — because this video on its own only tells a portion of the story. But without moving into a longer format of video, we had to cut it off and allude to what’s coming. But, it is indeed a series and portions of the story are being released over time. So answers to your questions are coming.

      Thanks again for the nice comment.

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