3. A significant decline in living conditions…
COHRE's original report went further. It claimed on the basis of its research that "the percentage of people who have suffered a significant decline in their living conditions as a result of their relocation could be as high as 20 percent in some neighbourhoods…" iii
Note the three caveats in that one clause - "could be", "as high as", and "in some neighbourhoods". But that didn't stop COHRE from applying their 20 per cent estimate to their whole 1.5 million count of evictees, and coming to the following conclusion:
"…COHRE estimates that each year, as many as 33,000 people with sustainable livelihoods were pushed into poverty, or deeper poverty, because their homes and neighbourhoods were demolished." iv
The whole COHRE report was full of caveats like those highlighted above. Naturally few, if any of them, made it into the newspaper and TV stories. It seems that Western media editors want their denunciations of China to be red meat, not hedged around with a load of mealy-mouthed qualifiers.
It seemed to me that if a supposedly-reputable human rights organization was going to claim that a quarter of a million people in Beijing had been pushed into poverty, or deeper poverty, by forced eviction, then they ought to be able to provide some support for their claim. So I wrote to them to ask them about it. In fact, I wrote to them three times this year - on 7th May, 10th May, and 6th August.
The first time, I asked for information. I asked COHRE to confirm an impression that I had formed from the report that that their researcher was not native Chinese, and I asked the following questions, which I quote verbatim:
2.2 Can you tell me how many individuals in total were interviewed by the COHRE representative?
2.3 How many of these individuals testified that they had actually suffered a significant decline in their living conditions as a result of their relocation? (I mean as opposed to expressing a concern that they would, or might, suffer such a decline) v
I consider that these are entirely reasonable questions to ask, and they ought to be simple enough to answer. After all, if you are going to make extrapolations about the plight of 250,000 people based on interviews that you have conducted, you must have some kind of spreadsheet that carries the raw data, and there does not appear to be any reason not to share such impersonal information.
The first time COHRE replied to me, I was informed:
"To your questions: We have not disclosed the name or whereabouts of our China-based research team leader because of plausible threats to himself and persons in his environment.... We do not see the relevance of the nationality of the researcher and decline to answer that aspect of your question…" (my emphasis)
My other questions were not addressed, other than by a general statement that: "The research led by the team leader was obviously extensive; COHRE would not have allowed release of the report were the factual matters at issue not extensively and carefully verified."
I wrote back to point out that I had never asked for the name, or the whereabouts, or even the nationality of the researcher, as this was irrelevant to my enquiry, and I repeated my questions.
I received a reply telling me that COHRE's Media and Communications Officer would get back to me in due course.
Three months later I had still received no reply, so I wrote again. This time my email was simply ignored.
I can only conclude that the zeal with which COHRE calls to account those who do not meet its exacting standards is not matched by a willingness to have its own methods and motives subjected to scrutiny.
But I note that the claim from "Fair Play for Housing Rights" in June 2007 that "…each year, as many as 33,000 people with sustainable livelihoods were pushed into poverty, or deeper poverty, because their homes and neighbourhoods were demolished…" has entirely disappeared from "One World, Whose Dream?" in July 2008.
(China.org.cn November 12, 2008)