Jiao Guobiao's Letter to Wen Jiabao
This post brings together two developments that appeared to be otherwise unrelated. First, Jiao Guobiao is the person who posted a long essay titled "Let Freedom Ring" on the Internet (see previous post). He was concerned about a couple of serious problems: the back wages that have not been paid to laborers, and the process of petitioning officials up the hierarchy due to the impossibility of getting satisfaction locally. These are well-known problems. So how does Jiao Guobia expect them to be solved?
The second development came from The Chinese Peasant Study. The two authors concentrated on the problems of the Chinese peasants. Again, how do they expect the problems to be solved? In a previous post, I translated Chapter 30 of The Chinese Peasant Study. The point was that these two authors are moderate reformists who believe in the essential goodness of some members of the top echelon. Chapter 30 is a glowing portrait of Chinese premier Wen Jiaobao on whom they pinned their hopes for peasant policy reform.
To complete the cycle, I have translated an open letter from Jiao Guobiao written to premier Wen Jiabao in October 2003. On the sole basis of this letter, Jiao would sound like a moderate reformer as well, and he is counting on the essential goodness of Wen.
At some point, it is necessary to make an evaluation as to whether Wen Jiaobao (or someone like him) is the key to solving these problems. One can hope, one can even hope against hope but is there really any hope?
Certainly, Wen Jiabao did not respond directly to either Jiao Guobiao or the authors of The Chinese Peasant Study. Is he expected to? Under this political system, he is not. And I don't blame him at all. Do I want Wen Jiabao to respond to every Internet essay post? Or do I want him to work directly on solving the problems? I should think the latter.
In the American political system, the president is required to be more visible to the public. Disregarding the work habits of the current occupant of the White House, it would seem that an American president seeking re-election devotes the last year of his four-year term on the campaign trail --- criss-crossing the country many times, attending rodeos, churches, conventions, sports events, college commencements, etc to give speeches, shake hands and kiss babies. I would have to ask, Who is minding the store? The Mexicans probably have the right idea by imposing a single six-year term limit for their president, allowing for enough time to accomplish the objectives without worrying about re-election.
So is Wen Jiabao actually doing any good away from the public eye? Since it is away from the public eye, I wouldn't know by definition. We will find out when enough time goes by and there may not be one or more landmark events to indicate that these problems have been totally solved. The incremental changes, if any, will be more obvious in retrospect. As Jiao's letter indicates, it is not a matter of legislation only, because it is the lack of uniformity in the adherence to and enforcement of the existing laws in different localities that is causing so much grief. The sea change of bureaucratic culture may be hard to discern immediately. And while it is happening, it won't look pretty at all because all you will hear is a list of officials being busted for corruption and maladministration. An article on this subject appears in Asia Times.
I don't know if there is any other viable option. Mass demonstrations? Armed insurrection? An American invasion? Do you think any of these alternatives will solve the backwage problem or the petitioning problem?
Frontline Magazine (July 2004 issue)
Dear Premier Wen:
On the television news program, I saw that you traveled all the way to the muddy fields of flooded areas in Shaanxi and Anhui during the National Day holidays. It was heartwarming to see you walk around in tall plastic boots carrying an umbrella. But the most ironic fact is that on October 1st while you were consoling the affected people in the flood disaster area of Huinan area of Shaanxi province, another peasant came in from Hubei province to Tiananmen Square where he attempted to pour gasoline on himself and immolate himself.
I believe that the central leaders ought to go down to visit the base and to do some work at the base level. But if the central leaders could set up a desk at the eastern entrance of CCTV, the effect would be just as good, or even better. Why is that? Because every time that I go down to CCTV on business, I always see a lot of hapless people coming from around the country to lodge their complaints. Since the emperor is no more, CCTV becomes the representative of the empire.
Actually, even if they complain to the CCTV, they will still be hapless because nobody treats their business seriously, without my having to say that "nobody treats these people seriously." They had their hearts broken when they complained in their local areas. When they come to Beijing to visit CCTV, nine-and-a-half out of ten of them will have their hearts broken. Even worse, they now have no one else left to complain to and they don't know how to go any higher. If there is an office set up in Tiananmen Square, then Zhu Zhengliang from Anhui and the peasant from Hubei would not have to pour gasoline on themselves to immolate themselves.
Alright, I am not complaining on their behalf. I want to say this: Can you make sure that the elimination of the petition process becomes a 4-year or 8-year goal of this government? Recently, the 9-year voluntary education program, the development of northeastern China and other projects were assigned schedules. It would be great to be able to set up a schedule to eliminate the need for citizens to travel to file petitions.
Obviously, there has to be an accountability system for petitioning. Any official from whose area someone has to go to Beijing to file a petition will be subject to administrative discipline. You know that this is just damming the water and not necessarily solving the problem in total. Not only does it not solve the problems, but it might increase the problems. This is because many petitioners may encounter cruel treatments from the local officials, adding injury on top of injury and abuse on top of abuse.
Thinking back to the year 1998 when the current government came into being, I wrote (at that time, I was not on the Internet and I had to write a paper letter) to Department Head Zhang Zuochi about the fact that Chinese labor laws could not protect these types of labor and that the Chinese labor and social protection cannot cover people who perform this type of labor. This was not logical at all. When a peasant dies in the field as a result of being struck by lightning, should it not be the same as workers dying because they were caught in machines? Are these not similar industrial accidents? But how many laws in the Chinese code of law refer to peasants being struck by lightning in the field (and the associated compensation)?
The fact that you were able to include the labor of the Chinese peasants into the system during this government term was a great credit to you. Actually, it is no extra credit because this is the way it ought to be anyway!
I don't know if my letter actually arrived in the hands of the person who was supposed to receive it. I know that four years later today, I know that this type of labor protection has finally seen a small crack of a breakthrough. In mid-September, some newspapers reported that the first group of old peasants reached retirement in Qingdao, Shandong.
During the October 1st holidays, a relative came from my hometown. I asked him about this year's public food assessment and tax reforms. The answer was, "It is still more than 100 plus kilograms." The public food assessment is 100 plus kilograms of maize per person. Each person has about one hectare and each hectare can produce about 400 kilograms. Therefore, the 100+ kilogram public food assessment is about one-fourth, which is about five times more than the 5% permitted by the country.
I asked: "How can they come and collect?"
"Hey! If you don't pay, you get beaten up! You get beaten up hard!"
"Weren't all the fees changed into taxes?"
"It is up to him to say whether these are fees or taxes. He just gives you a small receipt printed out by computer. If he says fees, they are fees. If he says taxes, they are taxes."
"Then it is like as if nothing ever changed?"
"Hey, when you are greedy, no law can prevent that!"
After the harvest of 1987, the village officials went around to collect the public food assessments. My grandfather had two bags of maize 'collected' from this home. He was more than 80 years old and had never seen anyone come around to collect assessments like that. He wanted to fight with them, but fortunately someone stopped him. He eventually died at the end of the summer of 1989 from lung cancer, and that collection effort probably contributed to his death. Now that was more than 10 years ago, but somehow the same collection efforts persist. Grab the food? Beat people up? Heavens! When will we ever change that?
From the founding of the republic to reform, 20 years. From the reform to now, 25 to 26 years. In the first 20 years, we saw stormy political struggles. The mass struggles caused pain for many people, killed several hundreds of experienced cadres and several hundreds of thousands of 'rightists' and starved several tens of millions of peasants to death, without mentioning the pain to their families. This was due to a complete failure in policies.
During the latter 25 to 26 years, a complete failure in policies did not occur. But the quality of the law enforcement was sometimes poor, and therefore caused injustices especially among peasants and civilian laborers. The numbers are not trivial.
The media have frequently reported on people who were beaten to death, or people who committed suicide by drinking poison. Examples are workers like Sun Zikang who was beaten to death, or Zhu Zhengliang who set himself on fire. How many cases must there be over these twenty plus years? Our government ought to set up a specialized project to figure this out in order to assess scientifically the pluses and minuses of the twenty plus years of reform. This would have policy implications that will improve Chinese society, especially with respect to an index that will indicate how well the peasant society is doing in terms of a civilized place to live. This index is my invention to indicate civilized culture.
The petitioning phenomenon is one of the ugliest aspects of Chinese society. It is a tumor in Chinese human rights that is visible because it is outside the body. We can see it clearly without any special equipment.
Today, the newspapers report that the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hung Chun is again arguing with the United States about the human rights situation in China. As long as this petitioning phenomenon persists around the country (and petitioning has just escalated to self-immolation after Zhu Zhengliang), we will never be able to win an argument with the Americans about human rights.
After more than 20 years of reform, it is time for our government to really use all its efforts to solve this problem that plagues the people. I believe that your government should devote at least one-third of its energy and efforts towards solving this problem. People may gain material benefits but as long as their spiritual happiness index is not raised, it is all for nought.
If you can eliminate the need to make petition journeys during this government term, the Chinese nation will be fortunate! I bow to you on my own behalf!
Like the rest of the country, I watch you visit the disaster areas with your difficult but warm steps. I wish you the best of health in your difficult work!
October 5, 2003