What U.S. landlords may have in common with Chinese peasants

In its heyday, Minneapolis Property-Rights Action Committee was an awesome group, able to bring political change to the city. It was widely seen as a conservative group, friendly to Republicans. Landlords, by definition, have money; or, at least, they have real-estate which they rent to others.

Many people think landlords are politically significant only in relation to tenants. They are out to cheat tenants, getting as much money out of them as possible while doing as little as possible to keep up their properties. Therefore, we need tenants-rights advocacy groups to keep the landlords honest.

It's true that some landlords act this way. Tenants do have their grievances. But that was not what Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee was about. As landlords, they saw their tenants as customers. They, the landlords, were business people whose job it was to keep the customers happy. More often it was the landlords who were victimized by tenants - the ones who did not pay their rent, or who trashed their apartments, or who brought drug dealers into landlord-owned buildings. As there are both good and bad landlords, so there are good and bad tenants. Neither has a lock on virtue or vice.

Yet, the liberal political culture of Minneapolis is fixed on the stereotype of the bad landlord. I once attended a dramatic performance sponsored by a Somali-advocacy group which included skits of white landlords and Somali tenants interacting in various ways. A female landlord was lording it over the tenant as if this were how she got her kicks. The solution was to bring in the “good” lawyer to be an advocate for the tenant. The skit was produced by a legal-action group. Is that a surprise?

The stereotype of the undeserving landlord also appears in newspaper ads or in radio commercials. “Fire your landlord” said one commercial that I heard in New Orleans. A newspaper ad that appeared in a local newspaper showed a woman’s high heel at a tenant’s throat. “Are you your landlord’s bitch?” the ad wanted to know. As one might expect, it is mortgage brokers and bankers who sponsor this kind of ad. They’re trying to convince tenants to to purchase their own home.

What the lenders do not say is that they stand to make thousands of dollars up front in fees if they can convince someone to borrow money to buy a house. Many unqualified persons take the bait, borrow money, and find they cannot make the payments. Quietly, the banks foreclose. Someone else takes the plunge to become a first-time home buyer - part of what President Bush calls “the ownership society”. In reality, the high-pressure lending industry has created a “housing bubble” which may not be sustained.

Yes, the lawyers, bankers, and politicians stand to profit from the negative stereotype of the unworthy landlord. They’re higher on society’s food chain than landlords. Surprisingly, some tenant-advocacy groups do not go along with that line. Down in the trenches, they see that the main threat to tenants does not come from landlords (who do, after all, provide housing) but from city officials, police, neighborhood groups, and others who force landlords to do police work at the tenants’ expense.

An alliance was formed between Charlie Disney, founder of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, and Kirk Hill, long-time head of the Minnesota Tenants Union, in which both landlord and tenant representatives condemned abusive city policies. While this shook up the city’s political establishment, Twin Cities newspaper reporters and editors hardly took note. They were too busy reliving the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s or the glory days of organized labor. Landlords, to the extent they were politically significant, were out to cheat tenants.

It’s ironic that landlords belonging to Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, said to include white racists, were a pillar of support for Natalie Johnson Lee in 2001 when she pulled off her amazing upset of City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes to become the only black member of the Minneapolis City Council. Most black leaders in north Minneapolis were supporting Cherryhomes, a white woman, because that’s where the money was. Yet, the press hardly took note. They’re uncomfortable going outside of existing paradigms.

Speaking of paradigms, we know that landlords are a pariah group in China. Mao Zedong railed against landlords although his father was one. “Land reform”, in which the government confiscated properties belong to landlords, was high on the communist agenda. (Landlords, in this case, are owners of land worked by tenant farmers, not owners of apartment buildings.)

A popular school textbook tells how a greedy landlord tried to trick his tenants to do more work. They were supposed to begin work at daybreak, announced by a crowing rooster. This unscrupulous landlord figured he could get more work out of people if he went to the chicken coop at 3 a.m. and poked the rooster with a stick so this bird would crow early and wake everyone up. Unfortunately for the landlord, a 5-year-old boy had to get up to go to the bathroom about that time. This boy caught the landlord in the act and told his parents. They and their fellow workers beat the living daylights out of the landlord. It’s a story many people in China have heard.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I watched a program on cable television about political unrest in 21st Century China. It began with the observation that, within Confucian culture, there exists the idea of civic propriety. A top government official who lived a thousand years ago was famous for his sense of justice. If there were injustices in the community, people would appeal to him and he would have the situation corrected. And so, Chinese people have the idea that they can appeal to top government leaders and perhaps find someone like this just administrator who can help them. If appeals fail at the local or regional level, they come to Beijing in search of justice. Thousands, in fact, are doing that. There are so many applicants for justice that the police turn them away.

It seems that as China has developed economically, an unholy alliance has been formed between the business class and government officials. The developers want land. The farmers who work this land are unwilling to sell it. So the developers turn to government officials to take the land, offering to compensate the peasant occupants at a rate far less than the land is worth. The peasants appeal for justice but the police beat them. The more they complain, the harder they are beaten. In one case, a woman who complained was committed to a mental institution.

So this is the type of grievance raised in China today. Always there is collusion between local government officials and certain members of the business class. It is a mutual conspiracy to become rich at someone else’s expense.

I thought, my goodness, these peasants could be members of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee - they’re raising the type of issue that we raised. Even if they’re poor, many of these peasants have property. They own the land on which they work. They may own a small building where they live. And now someone with more money and political clout wants that property and is determined to acquire it as cheaply as possible. One finds government officials willing to steal from the small property owners if given a cut of the action. In China, the police stifle political protest by beatings. In Minneapolis, they don’t do that. But there is the same culture of corruption.

On the cable-television program, a scholarly man observed that this type of peasant protest was at the heart of the Chinese human-rights movement. Presently, the peasant protesters retain hope of an administrator in Beijing who will listen to their complaints and do justice. But if justice is denied, the protesters could turn against the government. There are enough of them to topple the existing regime. Some day people may look back to these forlorn protesters, especially if they are successful, as heroic fighters for justice and democracy.

We think our system of government protects human rights. Don Fraser was one who made a name for himself in Congress by advancing a human-rights agenda. Yet, as Mayor of Minneapolis, his own city administration spawned human-rights abuses. The seeds were sown then for systematic violations of property rights under the guise of “innovative and creative ways of acquiring property” as an infamous memo circulated among city department heads put it. This is yet another irony of our political culture.

What have property rights to do with human rights? Let me say that property rights are a form of human rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. If the contemporary Chinese protests are any indication, property rights are not a figment of an ultra-conservative political imagination but are at the core of what is going on in many different countries. We Minneapolis landlords should be proud of fighting for property rights. Though in a more comfortable situation personally, we should have a sense of solidarity with Chinese peasants fighting for the same thing.

American journalists and opinion makers do not recognize, or will not admit, that owning a piece of property does not make someone rich, same as the Wall Street bankers. A cleavage exists between big property owners and small property owners. The big property owners typically have political connections. And that’s where the rub lies. The big property owners use their political connections to compete unfairly with the small property owners or have their property taken away. The small property owner is just so much meat to be seized by politically favored groups.

Republicans write bills that give capital-gains and income-tax cuts to the rich while burdening middle-income and low-income taxpayers with increased property taxes, Social Security taxes, and sales taxes. Democrats enlist government to acquire private property through eminent domain or condemnation to the benefit of favored developers and non-profit groups. They’re addicted to corporate donations and other people’s money. There’s not a “dime’s worth of difference” between the two parties in that respect. All politicians tend to look favorably upon the big donors to their campaigns. The rich and superrich are such donors. The middling-income people are set up to pay taxes and have their property taken away in special ways.

I think that we small property owners who struggle against an axis running between government and big business (or big non-profits) are fighting the good fight. We are in the ranks of a progressive political movement extending all the way to China. Others who call themselves progressive - because they’re too embarrassed to say “liberal” - think all property owners are greedy; and the good people have to be persons who sell only their labor to make a living or else be of a particular gender or race. They are political romantics living in the past, holding on to established stereotypes. Our cause has relevance to today’s world.

A Chinese homeowner refuses to sell to developer.

This is the "nail house" in Chongqing, China - something that cannot be pulled out. The owner is Wu Jian, a local martial-arts champion. Vowing to protect his property, he unfurled a "Property Rights" banner on the roof of the house.

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