Tea Leaf Nation

A Mass Gathering Organized on Chinese Social Media? No Problem, Says Government

An FP writer joined a surprisingly cheerful goodbye to an old coal town slated for demolition.


Baziling’s coal mining families started moving away in the 1980s. It was a trickle at first, as China’s economic reforms began to bear fruit, and word of jobs in boom towns like Shenzhen and Guangzhou started filtering into the mountains of northern Guangdong province. Then it became a steady stream, as miners realized that better futures could be had on the country’s coast. Finally, in 2003, Baziling’s single mine privatized, went bankrupt, and laid off its remaining miners. With the village’s livelihood extinguished, the last stragglers moved to the coast or into apartments offered by the government in Pingshi, the next nearest city.

On a hot summer weekend, some ten, 20, or even 30 years after leaving, Baziling’s former residents traveled from all corners to say one last goodbye to their mountain village. Among them was Fei, my mother’s caregiver in the United States, who had been among the first Baziling residents to move away in the late ’80s.

When she left Baziling — in an age before cellphones and the internet blanketed China — Fei had never expected to see her neighbors again. But WeChat, a Chinese social media app with over 700 million users, had enabled Baziling’s far-flung former residents to find each other again, even after decades of silence. It was on WeChat that Fei learned that authorities were preparing to raze her hometown, and that former residents had received permission to organize a final reunion. Fei signed up as soon as online registration opened, paying around $8 online for a T-shirt that would serve as an admission ticket. Within weeks, thousands had pledged to come.

I was amazed that the authorities would allow such a thing. I spent time in China in the 1990s and lived there in the early 2000s, and had witnessed firsthand the government’s aggressive aversion to large gatherings. There had been no shortage of citizen protests in response to top-down decisions to raze residences over the past few decades, and authorities have been particularly sensitive to them.

Yet here, local authorities had agreed that some 1,000 people — many displaced by the economic forces the Chinese state had unleashed — could come together via social media to meet at a coal mine that had laid off its last workers, in a town the government was about to demolish.

I asked to tag along. “You will learn so much about China,” Fei said, and signed me up for a T-shirt. My brief visit afforded a glimpse at the paradoxes of modern China — the power and pervasiveness of social media, the reaches of its authoritarian state, and the complacency of a still mostly satisfied middle class.

One Baziling home marked for demolition. The characters read "Dangerous home: Entry prohibited." (Photo credit: JUNE SHIH)

One Baziling home marked for demolition. The characters read “Dangerous home: Entry prohibited.” (Photo credit: JUNE SHIH)

In the weeks before the event, Fei’s WeChat never stopped buzzing. Friends she hadn’t seen since she was a teenager kept surfacing, mainly from big Guangdong cities like Zhuhai and Foshan, announcing plans to return. They live-blogged their journeys home: “Getting on the freeway!” “Who’s here? Karaoke tonight?” “Look at these yang berries!” (A tart berry found only in the region, edible only with a liberal dash of salt.)

After flying to Hong Kong and crossing the border at Shenzhen, we took the high-speed rail to Baziling’s closest major city, Shaoguan. Through WeChat, Fei found us a ride to Baziling with Yong, whose family had lived on the floor above Fei’s. Now a courtly man in his mid-40s, Yong installed air conditioners in the giant provincial capital of Guangzhou. He drove a compact Ford he had borrowed from a friend.

With Yong’s classmate, Qin, an electrician on the coast, we went to get a look at the old village ahead of the festivities. Others had the same idea. As Yong expertly negotiated the narrow lanes, we frequently found ourselves edging past or yielding to other cars. “None of these sedans are local,” Yong said. “No one here can afford them.”

We were surprised to find that Baziling was not yet a ghost town. Farmers from the surrounding countryside had moved into the deserted houses and made use of every inch of land. They planted rows of corn within hollowed-out homes and throughout the village. Fresh laundry hung in front of several decrepit, low-slung houses. Chickens waddled down streets. While Baziling is in Guangdong, a province known for the factories belching out low-cost consumer goods to the world, Baziling’s mountains and valleys were covered in green, the air clear.

We went to look for the old cafeteria, where in the ‘60s and ‘70s, before the disbanding of the communes in the ‘80s, the whole village went for meals. “I loved the rice wrapped in lotus leaves,” Fei reminisced. The cafeteria was gone, replaced by rows of corn.

Fei was overjoyed to find her house standing. “We were one of the first families to have a TV set,” said Fei, whose family had enjoyed a relatively “red” background because of her father’s military service. “I remember all the kids watching through this window. It felt like the whole village was here.”

But as we climbed a path along the top edge of the village, long-buried memories started breaking through the surface. Qin pointed to each home that had lost a father in a mine accident; it seemed as if every third or fourth home had suffered a loss. Qin’s father had been killed in a mine accident, leaving his mother and five brothers destitute. Until very recently, China had some of the world’s worst records for mine safety. Smaller, rural mines like Baziling were the deadliest.

Fei had been too young to remember the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a campaign by Communist Party leader Mao Zedong to purge “impure” elements that terrorized the nation and resulted in widespread social instability and economic stagnation. But she could still recall tough times. “All I remember is feeling so hungry walking down this road,” Fei said.

Still, as they surveyed the decaying buildings, Qin and Yong agreed that the government had ultimately done a good job for the town’s people: each of them was enjoying a more comfortable life in the city than he could have imagined as a child growing up in a rural coal mining village. Qin noted that the government had provided him vocational training and helped him find a job on the coast as the mine was shutting down.

When we returned for the reunion the next morning after a night of karaoke in neighboring Pingshi, we were reminded of the government’s overwhelming focus on maintaining power and stability. Though they were permitting the social media-powered gathering, authorities clearly had not overlooked the potential for unrest. A few miles before we reached Baziling, police stopped us and told us to park our cars. No one without a T-shirt, which had been distributed only by high school class leaders, would be allowed onto the buses that had been chartered to bring people the final miles into town.

The authorities were not taking any chances with a gathering of this size. Security personnel — from local police in cheap-looking uniforms to police in black golf shirts and bulletproof vests — were out in force throughout the village, and even in neighboring towns we’d passed through on the way. As we boarded the bus, Fei, Yong, and Qin did as they were asked. Fei suggested I keep a low profile and avoid telling anyone that I was an American.

A main stage with tented seating stood in front of the largest building in the town — the deserted “Workers Club.” Large banners festooned the front, one depicting coal miners in traditional 1950s socialist propaganda-poster style, topped by the slogan: “We workers have the power to create new splendor.”

From the stage came a continuous stream of speeches, choral performances, and traditional dances by former miners, as well as covers of pop songs from their (mostly city-raised) children. A former DJ for the defunct Baziling radio station read an old mine report aloud. But they were all drowned out by the squeals of old friends finding one another, catching up on who had moved where — from Norway to Africa to the United States, who had married whom, who had arrived in a luxurious Range Rover. People also traded frequent updates on who among them had lost fathers in the mines, in surprisingly casual tones.

Security personnel navigated the sea of reunion-goers as they organized themselves into group photos and took smart phone selfies with schoolmates they hadn’t seen in decades. Police pulled out anyone who was not wearing the official blue T-shirt, emblazoned with the phrase: “Impressions of Baziling/Love you and me.”

They needn’t have worried; reunion-goers appeared to be a self-selected group of the apolitical and mostly satisfied, who bragged about their lives on the coast. Some joked about cautious parents who had refused to make the journey, believing a large gathering like that would be asking for trouble. None of the reunion goers seemed to know for sure why the village was being razed. “Safety reasons?” Yong guessed. None seemed to care. No one seemed to wonder what would happen to the village’s squatters.

Those same squatters, who had never had the comparative fortune of being allowed to work in the mines and live in the village during its heyday, remained cordoned away from the party in the square, curiously watching the drone cameras filming the event. “Please, can I have just a quick look?” one man asked a police officer, lingering at the rope after being refused entry.

Around midday, Baziling’s former canteen cooks reunited to serve up a lunch of hot chili chicken, pork bone and radish soup, and pickled cucumbers. The heat under the tent had become stifling. After having spent four hours catching up with most everyone she had hoped to see and adding even more friends on WeChat, Fei was ready to go. We hitched a ride with yet another of her schoolmates, a high school classmate who had become an entrepreneur in Shenzhen. “He has a driver and a Range Rover,” she said.

As we left the village, I asked Fei how it all had felt. “Everything used to seem so big to me. But now it all feels small.” Fei said she was glad she had come to the place where, after all, she’d grown up. But she hastened to add, “It is not a symbol of anything else.”

At top: Former coal mine workers dance as part of the farewell to Baziling. (Photo credit: JUNE SHIH)

June Shih, a former State Department official, is a writer and lawyer living in Alexandria, Virginia.

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