The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A hidden political significance to graffiti on China’s D.C. embassy

The gates to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, where graffiti appeared on Wednesday. (Google Maps)

On the first day of a high-profile diplomatic conference in Washington between China and the United States, someone reportedly spraypainted the Chinese character for “demolish” on the Chinese embassy -- perhaps a protest, some have suggested, against forced evictions and land grabs in China.

The sign, pronounced “chai” and written 拆, is a common sight in China, typically used to mark condemned buildings. But the sign may be a bit more political than that. As Gwynn Guilford explains over at Quartz, local Chinese officials often demolish older buildings to make way for development, often at the expense of the people who live and work on the property.

“That made the character a symbol of forced evictions and government bullying,” Guilford concludes.

So-called land grabs have become a controversial issue in China, particularly over the past 10 years. Under a process similar to eminent domain, local officials can confiscate homes and farmland and resell it to developers, sometimes taking a piece of the profit for themselves. While the owners are supposed to be paid a fair price for any land the government seizes, this doesn't always happen. In some cases, real estate developers who are close with local officials are able to secure rock-bottom prices for highly desirable land, displacing families and denying them a fair share of their home's value.

According to one survey by Renmin and Michigan State Universities, as much as 43 percent of Chinese villages have experienced these confiscations. It’s been enough to launch several minor uprisings around the country, including a recent stand-off in the southern province of Guangdong that injured at least eight people.

That could explain the reception the embassy graffiti has had on Chinese social media. The Chinese news site reports that photos of the embassy gates quickly went viral on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, where many, including artist and activist Ai Weiwei, celebrated the tag.

“The government has been forcing farmers to sell their lands and house owners to sell their houses,” reads one comment, translated by the South China Morning Post. “Many people have been protesting and I hope the government can do something.”

Some  reform groups have also seized on the graffiti; within hours of the tag going viral, Initiatives for China -- a pro-democracy group headed by Chinese intellectual Yang Jianli -- published a lengthy statement encouraging U.S. officials to raise the issue during their upcoming talks.

The Chinese embassy, needless to say, wasted no time cleaning up the mark. Addressing China’s development controversies could, however, prove a bit more difficult.