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Grassroots Perspectives on Relocation: Threats and Opportunities


Literature on land disputes typically portrays villagers as victims unable to protect their interests. While they sometimes protest against land expropriation, their efforts tend to be met with little success. Undoubtedly, villagers are in a position of relative powerlessness. However, their perspectives on urbanization, development, and displacement are complex. This article provides some ethnographic context for the widely discussed related topics of land disputes and compensation. Based on fieldwork in rural Sichuan, it examines how the selection of agricultural areas for industrialization and road building, entailing relocation of villagers, has been understood by local villagers. Rumors of possible relocation (and compensation for existing homes) have often translated into the speedy building of rather absurd house extensions to maximize compensation. In response, village officials and the county government have attempted to crack down on what they claim are illegal buildings. Some households have already been moved, conflicts loom large, and the village Communist Party secretary has caused even more controversy by building himself a huge house, hoping for a large compensation payment.

The article considers how villagers view relocation; the relative value they place on industry, development, and land; and discourses in which industrial development and tourism are concurrently evaluated. In the relative absence of a welfare state to protect them, rural residents regard land as the most fundamental guarantee of livelihood, and they are unwilling to surrender control over it. They resent the minimal compensation they are offered and suspect that local officials take bribes from investors and pocket a large share of the benefits. At the same time, they welcome the development of infrastructure and of transport, which they regard as a step toward improving living conditions and employment opportunities. Through their participation in (and rejection of) building practices, and their calls on the local state to offer better compensation, villagers are also reconfiguring their local moral universe. These negotiations are an instance when the legitimacy of the local government comes under scrutiny and tensions among villagers as well as between villagers and the local state come to the fore.

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