Self-immolation, Land Use and Public Discourse in rural China

Self-immolation, Land Use and Public Discourse in rural China

Self-immolation is on the increase in rural China. That's according to a recent article in the New York Times. I was stunned by this news. It set me thinking about land use and public discourse and human connection to place.

Would you burn yourself up if they were going to take away your land? That's what people are doing in China. I find this absolutely horrifying. Not that that makes me unique I suppose, because I think that's the point. It's dramatic. Picture it: Chinese farmers standing on the roofs of their homes and setting themselves on fire - to the tune of 39 in the last five years.

People are doing this because they don't feel like they have any alternative. The government wants their land to expand urban development. They have done what they can to stop the process or to change officials' minds, but their available avenues of discourse are inadequate. And development is king.

'Megacities' as they're called, exist primarily in Asia. During the 80's and 90's, rural Chinese flocked to these urban centers voluntarily, seeing the chance to make a better living. But now, the migration is more forced than voluntary. The Chinese government has set a timeline for moving 250 million people out of the countryside by 2025. That's 12 years. And rural people are resisting. They want to stay where they are.

Suicide as a form of protest isn't new in China, and self immolation isn't its only form. The people who choose it are clearly at a breaking point. They have tried other means of discourse. But with tight limits on public engagement in China, they resort to setting themselves on fire.

I grew up when the Vietnam war was raging, and images of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest the War are etched in my memory. I can easily call up that film clip in my head, where the monk burns and then his charred body tips over in the street.

When my mom was a little girl her family had to leave their land in Wisconsin because of a fire. But it was a fire that burned their house down, not a fire they set upon themselves. My mom, and her mom and dad, and her brothers and sisters lived for a while in the barn. (My mom hates pigeons because of it. They gave her lice.)

The family rebuilt the first story of their house on top of the basement. But they were never able to muster enough money to build the rest of the house and instead they lost it in the economic hardship of the 1930s.

That fire was a defining moment in my mom's life.  It was her eyes that first spied the fire and warned her mother, and she still feels responsible for it.

My grandmother struggled and suffered after that fire. I don't think she had an easy day in her life. There might even have been times when she thought of suicide. But I can't ever imagine that she would become so distraught that she would set herself on fire.

Over the last 10 years I've been working on a photography project exploring how people choose where to live. I've looked at how and why we choose our place, and what we do to make a place more our own. I've gotten really interested in how people make these kinds of choices. And how these choices define us. And what it means when we lose our relationship to the land.

The project looks, in a microcosmic way, at a set of larger questions about our relationship to and stewardship of the lands we live on. What are our beliefs about land ownership. How do we care for and use it.

This photography project was engendered in part by a report that of my parents generation over 2/3's of the U. S. population lived on farms, while of my own generation that number was less than 2%. That's a dramatic shift in one generation, with implications of significant changes in attitudes and social expectations. It's dramatic, but its nothing compared to 250 million people moving in a dozen years.

Interestingly, whenever I've exhibited photographs from this series, the pictures generate conversations with people who remember when their own families lost their farm and moved in to the city. That's frequently how they describe it. They "lost" the farm - or they sold the farm or sometimes, even, they were coerced off the farm and into the city. But in the U. S., even when people make these kinds of decisions under duress, they don't choose to publicly set themselves on fire in protest of their limited choices.

Hopefully that will never change. Because even when the conditions that force hard choices are unjust and coercive, even when it's corporate greed or unconsidered development that gobbles up people's lands, let's hope we always have more avenues of expression than public suicide.

We need to commit ourselves to our civic obligations. We need to maintain our political process that includes dialog and due process. As citizens, we need to do whatever we can to guarantee that our public dialog remains open to voices of protest and political engagement. As China's recent example demonstrates, the stakes are really high.


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