It’s a long debate on the relationship between the vested property interests, or in other words, the confirmation of property rights, and rights claims. From many economists’ views, who mostly stand at the pro-market position, it’s the property right that matters in the protection of residents’ (both in rural and urban space) right of livelihood and ‘right to the city’. However, this point of view should be reconsidered more carefully. In my opinion, the willingness to make right claims and to confront state and/or other market actors’ behaviors (such as demolition and relocation) is dependent on the interests involved, rather than on the title of rights. It’s common that conflicts will emerge whenever the residents are discontent or (as seen by themselves) deprived, even though there is no legal title for him/her at all.
Actually, the legal title of rights, or in other words, the vested property interests, only could play a role in promoting the position of the residents in the conflicts, and in alleviating the tension between different subjects and softening the methods which will be used in the conflicts. It’s in this sense that Jinli Zhang in Meishijie chose to confront with the state by soft strategies and actions, such as banners and posters, rather than by more terrific methods, such as self-burning, which has already been observed in many other places in China (especially in the rural area where there is no legal title of the land for farmers).
Thus, in the context of China’s urban transition, it’s evident to claim that the willingness to make rights claims has little to do with the title of rights, rather, they are basically reactions of the residents against the actions implemented in the space by other subjects, which are observed as invasion and/or exploitation and make the residents discontent. Since the rights claims are mainly about the ‘interests’, that is, the compensation or other types of economic reparation, it’s hard for the residents to gather together for collective goods and rights. And this makes the construction of ‘rights to the city’ less possible, since the core issue within this term is the collective good, ‘the right to a totality’. This will be analyzed in details following.
Another problem here is about the validity of term ‘right’ in general and ‘property right’ in particular. As Elizabeth J. Perry has demonstrated, the context is crucial in identifying the content of ‘right(s)’. It means that we should consider both spatial and temporal background to clarify what the real meaning for one to use the word ‘right’. If this argument is true, then we cannot implant such a term directly from a Western context into China’s discursive system. And thus it becomes even more questionable to continually insist on the importance of vested property interests. Actually, institution is important, but we should move beyond institutionalism.
As to ‘right to the city’, it’s also an implicit expression, leaving us too much space to take use of it. If go back to its origin, we will find that it’s just a term used by Lefebvre to demonstrate the necessity of ‘autogestion’ – an ideal regime, focusing on the workers organization and on the grassroots democracy, which is a violent rebel of the existent regime and even the concept of the state itself. However, Lefebvre ‘spends little time elucidating what a right to the city might look like practically’ (Attoh, 674), and thus makes it difficult to put it into practice. Though other scholars have analyzed this term further, how can we achieve ‘the right to a totality’ or ‘a collective rights’ within the existent regime? How can we expect this regime will provide us vested weapons to fight against itself? Considering this, it’s better to transfer this term into other more practical and less revolutionary ones to make use of.
Last but not least, I think it’s unquestionable that there are spatial-temporal dimensions within the framework of rights claims. And three types of claims could be identified: the claim of economic interest in the (re-)production of space (Meishijie Case); the claim of social interests and organizational participation in the (re-) production of public space (Guangzhou Case); and the claim of meaning and management of local public spaces (Tokyo Case). This point could be connected with Perry’s conclusion. That is to say, the spatial and social context is crucial to identify the meaning of ‘right’ and the types of ‘rights claims’. In all these cases, vested rights are important as tools for the residents to struggle, but they don’t improve the willingness for them to make rights claims automatically – here, it’s always the interests that matters, though in different forms.