Progress Versus Tradition in China

By Joe Sugarman

Christopher Mirasola ’12

Christopher Mirasola ’12 spent the summer after his sophomore year studying Chinese in Beijing. There, his roommate told him about his father’s struggles with the family’s river rafting business in a remote part of the country. New cement factories were polluting the waterway, and tourists didn’t want to paddle on a dirty river.

The roommate’s father wasn’t aware of any legal recourse he might have. “He didn’t see a way to fix it,” Mirasola says. China’s rapid economic expansion into its rural provinces has increased the number of disputes between corporations, local governments, and rural landowners and raised the question of how grievances should best be settled. It’s something Mirasola studied for two months last summer, when the Wilson Fellow returned to China.

“Rural China is changing in dramatic and unexpected ways,” he notes. “There’s growing tension between economic benefits and quality of life issues.”

He found that many in rural China rely on justice that’s been practiced for thousands of years—but they are also tapping into new technologies that give them the know-how to resolve grievances via more official channels.

Map of the Guizhou Province

Map of the Guizhou Province

With help from his faculty adviser, Kellee Tsai, a political science professor and vice dean for humanities, social sciences, and graduate programs, Mirasola interviewed researchers and government officials in Beijing about labor laws and class action lawsuits. He visited villages in southwestern Guizhou province, where he encountered cases involving farms being polluted by nearby industries, as well as an eminent domain case in which several houses were torn down to make way for a road. The homeowners complained that they had not been compensated fairly. Instead of hiring lawyers, the homeowners petitioned local township officials, and after a prolonged period of time, they were able to pull the correct strings.

“But there was no attempt to sue the local government,” Mirasola says. “That costs more money and rarely works.” Instead, the homeowners relied on a method long practiced by rural Chinese to resolve conflicts: social connections.

But the increasing prosperity of China’s population has meant more money—even for remote villagers—to hire lawyers and bring cases to court. Access to the Internet and satellite phones has allowed villagers to keep in touch with others more aware of legal rights and the workings of the court system.

But progress has brought a whole new set of issues, from pollution to labor laws to building rights, that China’s rural populace must face.

“These issues didn’t exist before,” says Mirasola, who wants to pursue a career in Sino-American relations. “There’s no precedent. It’s a fascinating thing to study.”

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