The Chinese Peasants Study: General News Coverage

At this time, this book is 'hot'.  The Telegraph explains:

Chinese Peasantry: a Survey discloses the poverty and corruption affecting the rural majority of 900 million, whose exploitation underlies the gloss of China's perceived urban economic miracle.

It describes farmers being beaten to death for complaining about embezzlement, officials conniving to hoodwink Communist Party leaders about production levels, and a tax system which forces the poor in effect to subsidise the rich minority. It helps to explain the exodus of workers from farms to low-paid, often dangerous jobs in the booming coastal provinces or Europe and America.

First published by a literary magazine, the work immediately struck a chord with the public. Many readers said they were in tears throughout.

One journalist wrote a self-criticism on the People's Daily website saying it made him feel ashamed. "If we do not take action to overcome the obstacles that confront us, only one word can be used to describe those working in the Chinese media: degenerates," he wrote. After the magazine sold 100,000 copies, it was published as a book, which has sold 150,000 more in a month. The government has yet to respond, leaving the writers in a politically sensitive limbo, and they are refusing interviews with foreign journalists.

When I was in China a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of China Newsweek and there was an interview with the two authors.  As a professional survey researcher, I found their survey process and the various restrictions quite interesting.  In the United States, an author would typically draft a proposal to see if any publisher would accept and publish the book.  Here, these two authors were going to write the book on their own time and money and not worry about profits.  The interview is posted on line at in Chinese, but I will give a quickie English translation here:

Towards the end of 2003, in the sixth issue of the literary magazine Dangdai, the headline article was titled The Chinese Peasants Study.  The article focused on the rural peasant villages in the province of Anhui, and it used a literary style to report on the causes and processes of peasant tax reform in rural areas.  The contents were largely "taboo" subjects with many hitherto unknown exposés that named hundreds of local, provincial and national officials and up to a thousand peasants.  Most of them went by their real names.

After this report appeared, it gained a tremendous response.  More than 10 printings of the magazine were made, and all of them were sold out, especially within Anhui province.  In bookstores, the unabridged version of the book has sold out several times already.  Various websites carried excerpts and published critical appraisals.

On February 9th, the two authors of the book, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, were interviewed.

Newsweek:  Why did you think about writing on the subject of the Chinese peasants?

Chuntao:  My home was in Hunan province.  I left my rural village at 11.  Guidi went to the city at age 9.  Our relatives are still in rural areas.  We go back home every year during the Lunar New Year holidays.  To write about the peasants is to write about ourselves.

Newsweek:  I understand that you had the idea about ten years ago.  Why did it take so long to actually start writing it?

Chuntao:  We kept finding out that the rural villages were still quite poor.  Around 1994 or 1995, we obtained files materials on two cases related to the peasants and we were very shocked.  The peasants were overtaxed.  We decided to write about the topic, but the moment was not yet right.

Newsweek:  Why was the moment not right then?

Chuntao:  If we wrote solely about the burden on the peasants and the problems of agriculture, we thought that the readers would only experience despair.  We are not interested in pure 'exposés' as such.  We don't want to just present an ugly picture about the situation of the peasants.  We wanted to write about the relevant solutions, in order to give people some hope.

Newsweek:  In your book, you mentioned that some reporters who investigated the peasant cases were thrown into jail.  Did you encounter similar dangers during your study?

Chuntao:  We told the cadres in the villages that we were there to report on social reforms.  But we were still sometimes followed around.

Newsweek:  As writers coming from the city, how do you gain the confidence of the peasants to give first-hand information to you?

Chuntao:  We must respect them and treat them as our own people.  When we went to Wangyingchun, we contacted the peasant representatives.  At first, they did not want to talk.  If even the government cannot solve the problem, what can two intellectuals do?  There was also a cadre following us and listening to our conversations.  So we got a car and drove the peasants to our hotel, checked them in, invited them to eat hot pot and drink with us.  They were moved because nobody ever treated them that way.  Usually, people ignore them even if they get on their knees.  That was how they came to trust us.  When we encountered problems during our writing, we could just telephone them.  We even paid for them to travel to Hofei to see us.

Newsweek:  There are also details about the personal and working lives of the officials.  Where did that information come from?  Are the sources reliable?

Chuntao:  Some peasants, or people in the know, or people who prefer to stay anonymous gave us the tips.  The sources should be reliable.  We also have other information on hand.  Most of the basic facts came from documented information.

Newsweek:  Do you feel that the peasants may be somewhat biased when they talk about the officials?

Chuntao:  The peasants are very straightforward.  Some of them are not very articulate.  They would not be able to fabricate any kind of lies.  We also sought confirmation, but many officials will deny.  Some things do not even require investigation because everyone knows they are true.  When we run into people who are borderline cases, we try to hold back.  Nevertheless, we have offended a lot of people already.

Newsweek:  You mentioned that according to the actual situation, you visited Wangyingchun eight times, but the book only mentioned four occasions; you visited Guaichi four times, but the book mentioned only once.  Since you insist that you wanted to be truthful in the book, including keeping the real names of all the principals, why would there be these discrepancies?

Chuntao:  As long as we can present the hardships faced by the peasants, that was all we wanted to do.  But we have to be concerned about social image.  That is to say, if we wrote it that way, our book would never be approved and published.

Guidi:  What we actually observed was far more severe than what we wrote.  We thought that if this literature was written to such extreme, it would be exceedingly difficult for city dwellers to comprehend.  The complex difficulties of reality may be impossible to reflect in literature.  As it turns out, the things that we wrote about were precisely what touched our readers.  That reassured us.  If the readers can understand these facts, they may proceed further to understand the nature of the peasant policies.  This is where we feel our contribution will be.

Newsweek:  At the end of this book, it says that "the book began in October of 2001 and the third draft was completed in October 2003."  Other than literary issues, are there other reasons for you to revise your work?

Chuntao:  The matter of positioning.  We were afraid that if we go too far, we would create unnecessary problems.  As long as we communicate our viewpoints, we can afford to be more indirect and muted.

At first, we felt that we were too antagonistic.  We wrote too much about the failures of the central government with respect to the agricultural policies.  When we thought about it, we were being too extreme.  It was their intention to do the best for the peasants, but the country was just too vast.  The peasant problem was too complex and beyond their capability.  In our final revision, we adjusted our assessment.

Newsweek:  Someone has made the criticism that you were trying too much to appease.  You praised the leadership above the provincial government, you laud the peasants, and you shove the responsibility onto the Intermediate cadres.  Accordingly this was not an objective approach.  What do you think?

Chuntao:  It was very difficult for us to interview the senior officials.  You have to be honest.  But many people can observe that the lower-level cadres had bad attitudes, they were violent and they behave like bureaucrats, and then they conclude that all of society is rotten.  Our understanding is that many senior officials were interested in reforms and results.  They wanted to improve the provinces and hence the country.  But how would the common people know?  They don't have any way to find that out.

Newsweek:  According to one point of view, the peasants are the foundation of the country.  The country is obliged to give them equality.  These are the rights of the peasants, not gifts from the government.  But some readers feel that you are hesitant on this point in your book.

Guidi:  I feel that our positions were very firm.  The peasant problem must be solved.  As writers, why are we thinking about these problems?  For the sake of the peasants, we can collect the primary data that we collected from the base, augment them with the theory of sociologists and agricultural experts, and offer them to our readers.  We can be forceful, but we cannot solve the problem.  We can only offer our work for others to think about.

Newsweek:  Given the divergence between urban and rural areas, how do you think city dwellers should look at the rural areas?

Chuntao:  City dwellers understand the rural areas through the media.  Their understanding of the peasants is superficial.  Many of them think about everything from the urban perspective and they think that the peasants are destined to be like that.  Whether the city dwellers hold prejudices against or sympathies with the peasants, they don't really understand them.  This book was written for the city dwellers to read, so that they can understand how peasants really live.  Maybe they can do something for the peasants.  We also hope that the decision-makers and policy-makers will read this book, and get some inspiration.

Newsweek:  Do you think that the city dwellers will think about the peasant policies after reading the book?

Chuntao:  The response to the book was exceptional.  At first, we thought that the world was too cold-hearted.  We did not expect that 80% of the people who read the book would be supportive.  Someone people have named us as the Lu Xun of this era, some people have called us the representatives of the peasants and some people have told us to form a peasant society.  These are high praises.  Some party officials have come to us and tell us, "There are some amongst us whose blood is not cold."  An old writer telephoned us.  He had joined the army before the liberation and has lived in Beijing.  He said, "This book is full of my old wounds from start to finish.  I feel so sorry about the peasants."

Newsweek:  How did the peasants that you wrote about react to the book?

Chuntao:  The response from the peasants came the slowest.  Several days ago, the peasants in Shaozhangchuang found out that the book was published.  They sent two representatives to come to Hofei by bus to buy 50 copies.  But they were too poor and could only afford 10 copies.  They wanted to make music (drums and gongs) to thank us.  They were genuinely grateful to us.  They feel that we have helped them by revealing the facts, and their situation may improve as a result.

Newsweek:  Someone pointed out that your book happened to have appeared just at the right moment.

Guidi:  That is their opinion after the fact.

Newsweek:  Where did the pressure on you come from?

Chuntao:  We wrote so many things about the place that we were at, most of them criticisms.  Certain leaders were really unhappy.  We have been sued in court for libel and defamation.

Newsweek:  Are you afraid?

Chuntao:  We are not concerned about those people who come out in the open.  We are more concerned about those who are still hidden.  Our child is still young.  We have sent him away.  I don't want to leave him, but I have to protect him.

Newsweek:  Did you have any financial support over the three years of this study?

Chuntao:  No financial support.  We were working on a sensitive subject.  Other people may worry about being dragged in.  We did not think that it would cost so much, but we ended up spending more than 50,000 yuan.

50,000 yuan is practically all our family savings.  Our family depends solely on Guidi's wages.  I have not worked at a job for nine years, doing only freelance writing.  You don't know, but we eat simply and I only have a few pieces of clothing.  My son is almost four years old, but he has never been to KFC.  My husband's glasses cost 60 yuan, and we already thought they were very expensive.  A friend of ours bought a 2000 yuan pair of glasses, and we were shocked that glasses could be that expensive.

At one point, we had no money and so I wrote for "Family" and "Friends" magazines, because they pay somewhat better.

Newsweek:  Did you ever think that your book would become such a hot seller?

Chuntao:  Absolutely not!  Literature is very much on the fringe right now.  The bestsellers are always those 'baby' books (note:  the reference is to erotica such as Shanghai Baby and the like).

Newsweek:  So why did you spend your own money to conduct this research?

Chuntao:  With the interviews came this sense of responsibility.  Some of peasants had run out of options.  After we spoke to them, we had to say something on their behalf.  Being peasants ourselves, we also felt that we were doing something good for our own kind.

I don't understand where all the righteous heroes in the novels disappeared to.  We are not heroes, because we have no power and we have no money.  All we have are our writing pens.

Newsweek:  As a mother, would you want your son to grow up to be a peasant?

Chuntao:  That is impossible.  With our educational backgrounds, even if he were in a rural village, he would eventually be able to enter university.  Alright, even if he became a peasant, he would be an elite peasant.

(Mingpao)  This extract is billed as the most appalling incident recorded in the book:

On October 5, 1997, a fully armed convoy set off from Lingpi County city in Anhui province to Dakao village in Fungmiaochun.  A total of 32 police vehicles, sedans, lorries and fire trucks, carrying more than 200 public security police officers and officials.  The convoy roared with screaming sirens through the dirt roads of the countryside, tossing up clouds of dust and scaring the local people.  It was an impressive show of force not seen in the county for many years.

After arriving at Fungmiaochun, the armed policemen blocked all the exits from Dakao village.  Led by the local party officials, the armed guards rushed towards the western section.  The unarmed villagers did not know what to do.  Apart from outside visitors, a total of 52 people out of the 100 or so inhabitants were arrested.

The reason for routing these people was that they were "refusing to pay taxes by violent means."  Among the arrestees were a 70-something-year-old man, a 3-year-old child arrested with the mother, an old Communist party member with decades of party membership, disabled retired war veterans and a large group of women.  In any case, all those who have commented on the tax burden of peasants, or complained to upper echelons, or supported complaints to upper echelons, or questioned or otherwise demanded an audit of the village books, or complained about the village cadres or have crossed them in other ways were arrested.

As the trucks carried the arrestees away, there were loud crying heard everywhere.  A few infirmed old people were crying in bed, remembering that it was just like that when the Japanese came into the village during the war.  The only difference was that these people did not rape women, burnt houses or spoke Japanese.

That night, the arrested village residents were interrogated.  Anyone who did not 'bleed' out the penalty amount was not allowed to leave.  Some were beaten.  Most arrestees asked others to arrange for loans at usurious interest rates, for amounts from 1,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan, selling their assets and having to leave home to work off their debts.

Stylistically, this is not a dry ethnomethodological study.  The style is more literary and, despite the authors' claim to have toned down the writing, they employ a great deal of hyperbole.  In the quoted paragraph, the reader will have to question whether the comparison to the Japanese invaders is inflammatory.

(Asia Times)  PART 4: The peasant Tiananmen time bomb.  By Pepe Escobar.  January 21, 2005.

"There is chaos under heaven and things could not be better." - Mao Zedong

"The biggest danger to the Party since taking over has been losing touch with the masses." - Hu Jintao

SHANGHAI - Everywhere in developed, urban China - Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou - the message was the same. The next "counterrevolutionary rebellion" - as the Communist Party defined the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989 - if it happens, will be a peasant revolution. Foreign diplomats and Chinese scholars in Beijing or young, urban, 'Net-connected professionals in Guangzhou have told Asia Times Online in unmistakable terms: nobody from the party's "fourth generation" leadership wants to go back to the Maoist model of economic autarky and foreign-policy isolation.

Most of all, however, nobody in the leadership - as well as most influential intellectuals - wants the toppling of the Communist Party by pluralist forces advocating a multi-party democracy: that would amount to, in the words of a Beijing scholar, "an unpredictable, very dangerous destabilization". There's only a slight detail: what 1 billion Chinese peasants will make of all this. Enter Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao.

Everywhere in developed, urban China another message was the same. "There's no chance you can go to Hefei [in east-central China's Anhui province] unnoticed to talk to Chen Guidi. He is strictly prohibited by the Public Security Bureau [PSB] from speaking to the foreign press. And if a Chinese national does it [an interview] for you, his life will be in danger." Husband and wife Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao are a very dangerous couple. All because of a book, the notorious Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha or The Chinese Peasant Study, published in January 2004, banned just before the opening of a new session of the National People's Congress (NPC) last March by the Communist Party Propaganda Department. It turned into an explosive, underground mega-bestseller - more than 7 million pirated copies have been sold. The 460-page yellow-bound volume with the title in black characters can be easily found under the counter, even in some bookshops, for 22 yuan (US$2.65).

The time bomb
Last October, The Chinese Peasant Study won the prestigious Lettre Ulysses Award, sponsored by the German magazine Lettre. The gritty, emotion-packed literary reportage depicts economic exploitation, social injustice and political oppression in rural China - as well as some extraordinary tales of resistance. It took three years to write and consumed all of Chen's and Wu's savings. They visited more than 50 towns throughout agricultural Anhui province, talked to scores of senior officials in Beijing and interviewed thousands of peasants to explain how, in its mad urbanization drive, the party not only neglected the lot of 900 million peasants - deprived of decent health care, welfare, education, the right to have more than one or two children - but also treated them harshly, plunging them in a guaiqian (vicious cycle) in which nothing has fundamentally changed a social structure that has been systematically exploiting Chinese peasants for centuries.

A constant pattern emerges: if a villager, for instance, accuses a local party boss of corruption, he inevitably goes to jail, accused of "provoking riots". The key issue in the book - and in China's modernization as well - is corruption. A whole chapter details how local, rural party officials twist their numbers to cheat the party leadership in Beijing out of revenue.

Both Chen, born in 1943 in Anhui province, and Wu, born in 1963 in Hunan province, come from peasant families and spent their childhoods in the countryside before moving to urban China. When they returned to their roots, as they write in the preface, "we observed unimaginable poverty and unthinkable evil, we saw unimaginable suffering and unthinkable helplessness, unimagined resistance with incomprehensible silence, and have been moved beyond imagination by unbelievable tragedy ..."

A typical passage reads: "Farmers worked all year long to earn an average annual income of 700 yuan. Many farmers lived in mud-clay houses that were dark, damp, small and shabby. Some even had tree bark roofs because they couldn't afford tiles. Because of poverty, once someone fell ill, he either endured it if it was minor disease, or else just waited to die. There were 620 households in the whole village, of whom 514, or 82.9%, were below the poverty line. Even though the village was very poor, the leaders were prone to boasting and exaggeration about their performance, and as a result the government struck it off the list of impoverished villages. So the villagers were burdened with exorbitant taxes and levies."

Chen is no maverick: he is a member of the respected, state-sanctioned Association of Chinese Writers. Chen and Wu definitely are not "splittists" - the unforgivable ideological sin. They are in essence moderate reformists who believe the party is reformable: one of the chapters in the book is a glowing tribute to the fairness of Premier Wen Jiabao, who was just a simple official at one time. Nevertheless, the book had the capacity to scare the fourth-generation leadership because it graphically depicts the workings of a time bomb - the other side of the market-Leninist glitter in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It details how the rural masses have gotten next to nothing since Deng Xiaoping's reforms were introduced in the late 1970s. The average annual income in Shanghai, 14,800 yuan ($1,790), is seven times as high as in rural Anhui, 2,100 yuan. In a nutshell, the annual income of a farmer in today's China is only one-sixth to one-seventh that of an urban professional - but he pays three times as many taxes, plus a plethora of local taxes of dubious legality. Moreover, untold millions subsist on less than 2 yuan (24 cents) a day.

One system, two countries
In practice, China's real "one country, two systems" is represented by the decrepit Maoist huji zhidu or household registration system, which ties peasants to their land and was a key instrument to enforce the collectivization of agriculture. The fourth generation is more than aware of the anachronism. Long ago, Luo Gan, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of the police and the legal system, proposed a single, nationwide registration system for all Chinese. The State Council approved it, but implementation has been very slow. According to the new system, peasants may migrate to the cities as long as they have been able to find a job. Many have not found jobs, but they still migrate in hopes of finding work.

Inequality in China is much more acute than in India. A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CAAS) says it is actually the worst on the planet, barring the odd sub-Saharan African country. China's "peasant question" is an economic, social and political crisis of gargantuan proportions. Scholars at CAAS estimate that since the start of Deng's reforms, 270 million Chinese have escaped poverty. That's not enough in a nation of 1.3 billion people. The crucial question is how "one system, two countries", where 400 million people advance while 900 million are left behind, can possibly co-exist. One billion peasants - 80% of the total population - can never be fully assimilated, no matter the rhythm of the economic miracle.

The impact of Chen's and Wu's book, anyway, has been tremendous. In March, during the National People's Congress, the fourth generation actually managed to criticize the third generation's obsession with China's GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate, and is now formally engaged in a new development strategy more respectful of the Chinese people and the Chinese environment. Premier Wen, reformist ally of president and party chief Hu Jintao, coined the indispensable slogan of "The Three Peasant Problems": farmers, villages and agriculture. But the key issue remains corruption - and this strictly concerns Communist Party officials. It's a tremendous contradiction. The party vows to try to solve the "peasant question", but at the same time simply cannot tolerate that 900 million peasants are a de facto underclass, or the idea that the party itself may be responsible for this situation.

The Chen-Wu saga, of course, continued. Former Linquan county party secretary Zhang Xide filed a libel suit against them, seeking the equivalent of $24,000 in damages, in his home court, Fuyang county, where his own son is a judge. Chen's and Wu's lawyers tried to move the trial to a neutral location. The request was denied. Chen and Wu made clear to all that they were in fact being prosecuted by Anhui province: in other words, an arm of the Communist Party.

In an interview last year to Radio Free Asia, Chen emphasized that as Chinese peasants are 40% of all the peasants in the world, this is not only a Chinese but a world problem. The couple have accumulated enough material for three more books on "the peasant question" and are already writing a new book about their legal battle, Fighting for Peasants in Court.

Last month Chen's Beijing-based lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, was forced to send an official letter to the Fuyang City Intermediate People's Court stating that the court had exceeded the time limit of six months for a decision in the libel case. Pu also significantly commented on what everybody knows already - the Chinese media's thunderous silence about the whole thing. Freedom of the press and the prohibition of libel against individuals are part of the Chinese constitution. But the concept of accusing a party official for the sake of the public interest simply escapes the mindset of the official Chinese system, according to Chinese journalists in Shanghai and Guangzhou - and it certainly will not be part of a new Media Law currently being drafted. As Pu Ziqiang told the Yazhou Zhoukan newspaper last September, "This case can really be treated as the trial of the century, because it is forcing the legal system to come up with a definitive statement: [Do] the news media have the right to criticize the misdeeds of government organizations and officials?"

Successful urban professionals in both Shanghai and Guangzhou are unanimous: the libel case against Chen and Wu demonstrates how the law, for the party, is an instrument of control, and how, for Chinese society, it should function as a check on the power of party officials, and as a way to protect individual rights. Premier Wen, according to diplomats in Beijing, is a passionate proponent of a Singapore-style neo-authoritarian system for China. There's one enormous difference, though: Singapore may have been a one-party state since Lee Kwan Yew's early days in the 1960s, but government corruption is in essence non-existent.

It all comes back to the same point: is the Chinese ultra-authoritarian system reformable? Dialectical contradictions abound. According to a Beijing scholar, the party recognizes that courts should be impartial and trusted by all in a country facing what some believe to be an imminent social volcano. Courts should have a major role in fighting corruption and improving governance. At the same time the party leadership fears that the primacy of the law will spell a clear and present danger to its power monopoly.

Another new slogan dictates that the fourth generation is marching toward the "Comprehensive Well-Off Society", which establishes that China's GDP levels in 2020 should be four times as high as in 2000. The question on anyone's lips is how this development drive will match the lingering communist ideal of a society that by definition has to eliminate poverty, protect the environment, eschew wars and create opportunities for all its citizens.

The armies of the night
In urban China, the ultimate threat, the menace, the dangerous Other, the Alien, is not a foreign terrorist: it's the mingong, the Chinese migrant peasant worker.

More than 200 million mingong are roaming China. At least 25% don't get paid by their employers, or their lump payment - before the Chinese Lunar New Year - is delayed. According to Zeng Peiyan, a member of China's State Council, the equivalent of more than $13 billion has not yet been paid to mingong; in some cases debts are more than 10 years old. Sixty percent of mingong have to work more than 10 hours a day. And 97% have no medical benefits whatsoever. Shanghai urban professionals insist that technically, at least for now, no Chinese peasant can dream of having formal employment.

You can spot a mingong from miles away. Their work clothes, blue or brown, are shabby and covered in dust; they are thinner than most Chinese; and they are also shorter, which leads to widespread discrimination because of their height. Whatever their perceived shortcomings, they are the unknown, heroic protagonists of China's spectacular economic miracle. In the big cities there are now more floating mingong than urban workers.

Their armies can be seen in countless construction sites in Shanghai and Beijing, living in shelters more crowded than prison cells, the more skilled among them earning 70 yuan a day for a 12-hour workday, with a 30-minute break, the new arrivals making only 30 yuan a day. They must register with the big city government every two months and have practically no health and education rights. There are more than 3 million in Shanghai alone, erecting at least one office tower a week. If all unregistered mingong are taken into account, Shanghai's population may be exceeding 20 million by now. In this Beijing winter, late at night, they can be seen working in the streets under freezing temperatures and merciless winds from the Gobi Desert. Sometimes during a lightning-quick break one can spot their shadows gazing longingly at out-of-reach sneakers and mobile phones behind glittering department-store windows.

And there are the girls too, in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, the hordes of manual workers all over the assembly lines in the "factory of the world", Guangdong province, churning out the world's T-shirts, trousers and sneakers; and there are the semi-illiterate girls from desert Gansu province suddenly turned into tour guides in neighboring Tibet.

Soon the army of mingong will be coming back to their provinces for the Chinese Lunar Year of the Rooster - their one and only holiday - crowding train stations with their notorious striped, oversized red-white-and-blue nylon bags crammed with gifts for their families and precious dirty envelopes stuffed with all their savings (as much as 90% of everything they earn). This annual internal Chinese migration is far bigger than the hajj.

The party loses its grip
The countryside is getting angrier by the day. In 2003 - the latest data available - there were no fewer than 58,000 "civic disturbances" involving more than 3 million people. A mob of 10,000 torch police cars in Chongqing, 100,000 demonstrators force the postponement of a dam project in Sichuan, 20,000 miners and their families riot against layoffs and loss of pensions at a bankrupt mine in the depressed northeast. Thunderous silence is the official media's norm. It's taken for granted that every city except ultra-policed Beijing has been facing demonstrations or eruptions of spontaneous violence.

Media professionals in Shanghai note the glaring absence of a powerful organization like the Brazilian Landless Peasant Movement to rally people nationwide. An intellectual from Henan province is convinced of the absolute necessity of a nationwide rebellion. But in conversations with urban professionals in Guangzhou, the absolute majority admits nothing will happen "because of China's centuries-old feudal system of exploitation".

Anyway, class struggle is alive and thriving in the Chinese countryside, pitting rich farmers against the growing army of landless mingong - they may be errant, but always keep close ties to their native villages. Surplus manpower in the countryside may reach a staggering 450 million people, according to the most alarmist predictions, with at least 26 million annually trying their luck in the big cities.

A total of 100 million peasants currently work in the so-called "town and village enterprises". TVEs grew very fast in the early years of Deng's reforms, but lately have succumbed to better-equipped urban-based or foreign-based companies. They have already absorbed all the surplus manpower they could handle.

As a Guangzhou businessman explains it, the army of unemployed has been growing because of two linked factors - China's entry in the World Trade Organization (WTO), coupled with massive layoffs by state-owned enterprises (SOEs): "There are many cities that are forcing peasants back to the countryside, because unemployment is now affecting their own residents." And when and if these millions of peasants go back, they find nothing to rely on, and the same, unchanged pitiful standards of health and education. Chinese economists say the process has been inevitable since collective production has been eroded in order to benefit individual family farming.

A peasant Tiananmen?
The ultimate, lethal danger for the Chinese Communist Party is the merging of peasant protests with urban demonstrations - peasants, mingong, former state employees - all losers united. Thus many of President Hu's recent actions, affirming his iron hand.

The party's new strategy to counter all these problems, say Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholars, is to emphasize domestic consumer demand. This is a remarkable turnaround. Former premier Zhu Rongji and the conservatives based their economic policies on growth fueled by large SOEs. As for the export-led growth model, it was articulated by none other than the late Zhao Ziyang in the late 1980s. Now Premier Wen is in charge of the economy, and he wants a "third way". He wants growth fueled by domestic - not foreign demand. And he wants domestic demand to come from Chinese consumers, not the state.

Intellectuals, speaking anonymously because no one wants to be awakened for forced sightseeing courtesy of the Public Security Bureau, seem to agree that trying to redistribute a little bit of the pie is the only viable strategy if the party is to regain some popular appeal. Moreover, President Hu, Premier Wen and Luo Gan (Politburo member in charge of the police and the legal system) deeply believe they will be able to "rectify the behavior" of the party's bad apples in order to ensure that the new policies are followed to the letter.

These intellectuals also insist the party will refuse to reassess Tiananmen at all costs - and at its peril, one might add, because all pre-Tiananmen conditions have again resurfaced: the possibility of massive popular reaction against corruption inside the party, against abuse of power by party officials, and against the unbearable urban-rural abyss. The party will do anything to prevent the emergence of an organized and well-focused opposition. It certainly controls a vast intimidating machinery to do so. But for how long?

(Lettre Ulysses Award)  October 2, 2004

The first prize, worth 50,000 euro, was given to the Chinese authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao for their unprecedented and controversial book Survey of Chinese Peasants, (People’s Literature Publication Company, Beijing 2003, Chinese). The explosive text is the first thorough investigation into the economic, social and political conditions of the approximately 900 million Chinese peasants, which are almost unknown in the West. It describes the problems of despotism, of arbitrariness, of corruption, of violence which sometimes extends to murder, and lawlessness, along with unjust taxation, from which a large part of the rural population suffers. The book also shows how China’s enforced industrialisation is built largely upon the impoverishment of the Chinese peasantry. This book, compiled with immense courage despite enormous personal risk, swiftly became a best-seller in China. Several million copies were sold before the book was withdrawn from sale in governmental bookshops following an official directive, and now it is only obtainable in pirate form.

(New York Times)  Painting the Peasants Into the Portrait of China’s Economic Boom.  By Joseph Kahn.  August 7, 2006.

Like many Chinese intellectuals during the recent economic boom, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, a husband-and-wife team of writers, mostly ignored their ancestral homes in the countryside. No one, they described themselves as thinking, wants to read about peasants in the era of skyscrapers and designer bags.

Happily for themselves and for China, they were wrong. Ms. Wu spent time in her family’s home village after she gave birth to her son in 2000. The stories she heard from neighbors there became the seedlings of the groundbreaking literary study “An Investigation of the Chinese Peasantry,” which she and Mr. Chen wrote in 2003.

Though almost immediately banned by China’s Propaganda Department, it sold an estimated seven million copies in pirated editions and stirred consciousness of how the country’s fantastic economic growth had left behind the roughly two-thirds of the Chinese people who are still tied, directly or indirectly, to the land.

Their book, written in part-novelistic, part-journalistic style popular among an elder generation of social critics in China, is now available in a faithful if infelicitous translation. Entitled “Will the Boat Sink the Water?,” it seems unlikely to provoke abroad the same mix of embarrassment, guilt, outrage and denial that it did at home. But it delves deeply into the rural conundrum that continues to bedevil China’s Communist Party leaders.

Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu describe the publication of their book as having been “compared to a clap of thunder.” The statement, like the book, is brassy. But they were prescient. China’s peasant problem has burst into the open with a surge of rural protests that have made the country look less politically stable than at any time since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy uprising in 1989. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s top adviser on rural problems said in an interview in 2004 that he kept a copy by his bedside to remind himself of the task ahead.

The two spent three years traveling the countryside in Anhui province in central China. They were only a few hundred miles from Shanghai, the glittering commercial center on the coast, but experienced poverty and frustration that they argue grew worse throughout the 1990’s.

They collected a dozen anecdotes of operatic pungency. A village chief murders the man who tries to audit the village books. A township leader conspires to get rich by forcing peasants to plant mulberry trees, for which he sells the seeds. A mendacious county Communist Party boss concocts an excuse to send armed troops to crush a tax revolt.

But their greater contribution is the evidence they gather that the one-party political system itself is the real issue. Even in the 1990’s, which they describe as the worst of times for those depending on the land, Chinese leaders were always trying to do something about the rural problem. Ultimately, the authors argue, they will have to do something about themselves.

Rural government has grown much faster than agricultural output. In the Former Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 8) China had 8,000 people working the land for every official living off the public purse. In 1987 the ratio was 67-1. In 1998 it was 40-1, according to statistics Ms. Wu and Mr. Chen collected.

Even as the bureaucracy has expanded, the benefits offered to peasants under China’s socialist welfare system, never very robust, dwindled to nothing. In the 90’s transition to a more market-based economy, peasants paid dearly for education and health care. And their taxes kept rising, reversing income gains that farmers enjoyed when agricultural collectives were broken up in the early 80’s.

Rising burdens and declining benefits produce peasant unrest, not surprisingly, and much hand-wringing in Beijing. But the policy response sometimes worsens the problem.

Consider the initiative to set up an “Office for the Relief of the Peasant Burden” in every local government branch. Jonathan Swift could not have thought of a better name, and the paradoxes are rich. The same cadres responsible for easing the peasant burden dream up new fees and taxes — “setting up a township Web site,” “stipend for the forest guard” — that have not yet been banned explicitly by the central government.

Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu found officials who told the truth to their superiors about the conditions in their villages. But those people failed to get promoted in a system that prizes forward progress, even if it is fake. “No lies, nothing accomplished” is the motto they say most officials follow.

The book makes for compelling reading in parts but has not been, or perhaps cannot be, smoothly translated into English. The Chinese text is full of idiomatic phrases that have been cumbersomely rendered into clichés like “calling a spade a spade” and “see the light at the end of the tunnel” that are not redolent of Chinese culture.

The book also predates the accession of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen, who have made rural problems a priority. The authors get some credit for that policy shift. But today the book’s focus on excessive taxes feels dated. Mr. Wen abolished the main agricultural tax, freeing peasants of formal taxation for the first time in two millenniums.

Taxes, however, were a symptom. No sooner had the tax burden eased than a new and arguably greater abuse has riled the countryside: rural land grabs by local officials eager to cash in on the real estate boom. Mr. Chen’s and Ms. Wu’s work will not be obsolete soon.

More related EastSouthWestNorth posts.

Other relevant linkWill the Boat Sink the Water?  a review by Göran Leijonhufvud  Danwei