Avatar and Property Rights in China

Most commentators have interpreted the movie Avatar as having an anti-capitalist message. Libertarian economist David Henderson, however, claims that it is actually a defense of property rights. Though I must reserve judgement until I see the movie, I am skeptical that Henderson’s interpretation is either the message intended by the producers or the one most American viewers come away with. However, it’s interesting that Henderson’s interpretation is exactly how the film was perceived by many in China, where the government has forcibly expelled millions from their homes in recent years, in order to make way for various development projects [HT: one of Henderson’s commenters here]:

BEIJING: The bull-dozers await at the gates. An evil corporation sends its guards, using every possible threat to move the residents from their land. But all resistance is futile. The people watch in horror, as their homes get torn down to rubble and they are forced to relocate.

This is a not-so-unfamiliar storyline in China where forced land acquisitions by influential real estate companies are rarely away from the headlines. Here, home demolitions are arguably the most controversial of social issues, and widely regarded as the biggest cause of social unrest.

This also happens to be the plotline of James Cameron’s epic blockbuster film ‘Avatar,’ which opened in China last week and has seemingly taken the country by storm.

A week on after its January 4 release, the show is set to break all records at the Chinese box-office….

[M]any film critics and bloggers have also been struck by the close resonance the film’s plotline has had for many cinema-goers here.

“China’s demolition crews must go sue Old [James] Cameron, sue him for piracy/copyright infringement!,” one blogger wrote at the website Tianya.com.

At least a dozen movie-goers The Hindu interviewed after one screening in Beijing’s Sanlitun district said they were moved by the story, particularly its close parallels to the land conflicts that are common in many of China’s cities.

The resonance was so deep that some film critics here dismissed the plot-line as “too common.” “Some Chinese movie critics think that while the movie is not bad, parts of the plot were too mundane,” the popular and controversial writer Han Han said. “I completely disagree, because brute-force eviction is unimaginable for audiences in other countries because they think that it can only happen on alien planets. Or in China.”

The film’s release here also happens to coincide with a number of high-profile demolition cases, which have recently stirred debate about land rights….

The only difference between Mr. Cameron’s film and land conflicts in China, cinema-goers said, was the plot’s denouement.

“The humans actually failed to successfully evict and demolish [the aliens]?,” one blogger wrote. “Truly embarrassing. Why didn’t they send China’s chengguan [security guards] there?”

I previously blogged about massive property rights violations in China here and here. As American cases such as Kelo v. City of New London prove, China isn’t the only country where “brute force eviction” is used to drive out homeowners and businesses for the benefit of influential interest groups. Nonetheless, the massive scale of the Chinese abuses dwarfs anything that has happened in the US. And it should also be noted that forcibly displaced Chinese generally get much less in the way of procedural rights and financial compensation than is available to their American counterparts. Today’s China is a vast improvement over the Mao era, when the government didn’t recognize any private property rights at all and slaughtered its people by the millions. But there is a long way to go before most ordinary Chinese truly have secure property rights. Though our own problems aren’t nearly as severe, we need stronger protection for property rights on this side of the Pacific Ocean as well.

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