Hunan: A Land of Contradictions

China is constantly a land of contradictions, and I think no place in China exemplifies this more than Hunan. Hunan is home to the earliest forms of civilization in China. It has always been one of the poorest provinces in China. It is the location of many of the stories in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is the home of Chairman Mao. Hunan is old and new, poor and rich, traditional and modern.
These contradictions have been shining even more clearly recently. On the one hand, Hunan is, for the first time, exploding with prosperity and modernization. On the other, it continues to oppress its people and fall embarrassingly short on the issue of human and women’s rights.
Changsha is a modern boomtown. With the global market slow-down effecting even China, much of the growth and industry that originally grew near the port cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou are now moving inland, and the move is helping the stabilize that sluggishness. But industry isn’t a new thing for Changsha. Changsha is the home of SANY construction group, one of the 500 most profitable companies in the world, and also to Zoomlion, which is the 7th highest selling construction company in the world. Hunan is also the center of the fireworks industry. Most of China’s fireworks (and fireworks for the rest of the world) come from Liuyang, an area just east of Changsha. The fireworks for the London Olympics’ opening ceremony came from Liuyang. Hunan is also home to Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive Co Ltd, a company that just unveiled the first super-capacity light rail train.
Right now, Changsha is one of fastest growing cities in the world, and it’s no surprise. It is one of the best places to live in China right now. 90% of urban residents own their home, the highest home-ownership rate in the country. The local government is pushing to make this number even higher by subsidizing low-income housing. Residents who qualify can own their home for a little as 1 RMB per square meter. There are over 40 free swimming pools throughout the city for local children to take advantage of during the summer months. Changsha also has 57 free parks for residents to enjoy. When I went on a city tour hosted by the Mayor last year, he spoke at length about the city’s commitment to being “green” and these city parks are part of that. The pollution can be pretty bad (haze so thick you can’t see across the street), but it is not near as bad as tier 1 cities like Beijing or Xi’an. The city is also reaching out to the youth in the area by providing assistance for starting businesses and providing economic relief to families who might not be able to afford schooling on their own. Changsha is currently constructing a new subway system both to ease traffic and to link some of the outlying areas to the city center. Changsha is a mid-way point for the north-south fast train rail line. Currently, you can get to Shenzhen (the Hong Kong border) in 3 hours. By the end of the year, travelers will be able to get to Beijing in about 6 hours. Changsha also boasts a world-class zoo and international entertainment. Changsha might be far from being a cultural and financial powerhouse like Shanghai, but it is up-and-coming and offers small town benefits you can’t get in a big city like Shanghai. With all these advancements, Changsha might be making a bid for tier 1 city-status in the near future.
Oh, and there is also this: Changsha just announced an 830 Billion RMB stimulus plan. The stimulus plan is mainly for infrastructure and will take at least 5 years to implement, but the groundwork for this ambition plan is laid. Oh, and don’t forget that Changsha will soon be home to the world’s tallest building.
When it comes to business and construction, Hunan is progressing, but when it comes to human rights, Hunan is still dreadfully behind the rest of the world. Hunan’s policies are not unique in China, but whenever a human right’s crime occurs, it never surprises me that out of all of China, many cases come from Hunan.
Hunan has long been a center of child trafficking. As a poor province, there is never a shortage of abandoned or unwanted babies. When my friends hear about us wanting to adopt, they say “why not just go to countryside? You can get one for 1,000 RMB.” It is tempting. If it wasn’t so hard to get the baby registered as an American, I just might do it. Hunan is the source of this sad story of a dead baby lying in a gutter with no one stopping to see if it was alive. Hunan was also the center of a huge baby-kidnapping ring where children were kidnapped to be sold to state orphanages. Even family planning officials have had a hand in kidnapping children of families believed to be in violation of the one-child policy. But if the family planning officials can catch the women early enough, they will just try to force her to abort instead.
This latest case really takes the cake though. 6 years ago, in Yongzhou, Hunan, an eleven-year old girl was kidnapped, beaten, raped, and forced into prostitution for 3 months before her mother, Tang Hui, was finally able to rescue her. While 7 men were arrested in connection with the case, after a botched trial (or I should probably say a “typical” trial in China) where Tang accused the court of falsifying evidence to get lighter sentences for the men, Tang refused to accept the outcome. Only 2 of the men were sentenced to death and one was sentenced to a little as 15 years. Tang continued to harass the court officials, often lying down behind their cars at their homes and offices, in order to get attention and force them to re-examine the case. Instead, the officials had her arrested. She was sentenced to 18 months in a forced labor camp because she “severely disturbed order in workplaces and in society, which had an extremely terrible social impact.” However, it would appear that her actions actually had an extremely positive impact since, due to internet outrage on her behalf, she was released.
While it is great that she was released, across the country more and more cases of government abuse and mismanagement are coming to light thanks to the internet. There have been two NIMBY protests that have been successful in protecting the environment (one in Shifang and one in Qidong), the forced abortion of Cao Ruyi’s unborn baby was stopped (though what became of her is unclear, there have been no news reports on her since June), and the government actually apologized to Feng Jianmei and fired the officials responsible for her forced abortion. The fact that the Chinese people are speaking out through the internet and getting reactions is great, but it is sad that it is taking this kind of public outcry to get the government to do anything. In fact, for every forced abortion that is stopped due to internet outrage, hundreds are still being carried out against people who have no means to speak out. The government doesn’t care that Tang Hui’s daughter’s case was mishandled, they care that the public now thinks the case was mishandled. They don’t care that Feng Jianmei’s baby was aborted illegally. They care that someone had the gall to take pictures of it and put them on the internet.
So what is Hunan to do? Hunan is having an influx of people and money on a scale they have never experienced before, and they aren’t quite modern enough to handle it. Recently, Changsha announced that all restaurants, bars, and KTVs who provide free wi-fi must install monitoring equipment. Of course, it is impossible to know the real reasons behind this move, but for the government to think they can keep the internet quiet about anything for any amount of time is just delusional. There will be more protests, more scathing pictures, and more outcry for information and government transparency.
I didn’t write this to tear Hunan down off its rightly deserved pedestal. Hunan has come a long way and I actually do enjoy living here. But if Hunan thinks it is going to become a world-class location for new international businesses, investors, and people looking for a good place to settle down, they are also going to have to step up their game in terms of human rights and protection of all people.
The world is watching to see what happens here next.