The 'Real' Problem with Rural Poverty in China

In yesterday's post, I translated a section from the book Social Stratification in China Today.  The first lower-class stratum identified consists the rural poor peasants, and I offered a facile explanation:

In the case of the poor rural peasants, the fundamental reality is that there is only that much one hectare of land can yield in terms of economic, and there is no way for agriculture to match the growth rate of the industrial and modernized economy.  The rural residents must move outside of agricultural production in order to improve their incomes.

If you read through the translated text, it sound just like that which social science researchers would write about the pains induced by economic structural reform in the inexorable march of history.  That particular experience seems similar to the one that was experienced by farmers in the American mid-west several decades ago.  You can look at the photographs of Dorothea Lange or read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath to see how plain and honest people are forced to leave the 'earth.'  

But you must remember that this is China.  While the poor rural peasants form a huge underclass, the limits of agricultural productivity are not the only problem that they are facing.  Unfortunately, a bunch of social science researchers will not be able to openly address what I call the super-structural problems of rural poverty because the researchers are probably institutionally prohibited from releasing such information, assuming that they have it.

I am going to translate an essay by the dissident Yu Jie who was recently invited by the police to have a 'chat' down at the police precinct house.  The title of the article is "When the cadres come down to the village, they are like the ghouls entering" and it was published in his book Rejecting Lies:

According to Beijing's Observation Point magazine, many peasants in Duchang county, Jiangxi Province, are living on the brink between life and death.  These peasants are even more afraid of government cadres that they were of the Japanese ghouls back then.  At the end of each year, the county's Daqiang Town cadres and the village committees comes in a group of more than forty strong to come to Dengsiban to collect fees.  This groups comes to the village with a lot of pomp.

The villager Xie has a family of three plus two younger sisters born of a different mother.  According to the standards, each person has to pay 160 RMB as "reserve" fees for a total of 800 RMB.  Xie is classified as a 'special poor peasant', but the group had no mercy.  They took away his 60-kilogram pig and undervalued it at just over 300 RMB.  They even took most of the poor-grade grain in storage.  It was near the Chinese New Year, and it is still more than six months away from the summer harvest.  But the collection group paid no attention, and they searched around for some more before leaving.  The only thing that they did not do was to smash the dishes and bowls, or tear apart the house.  The Xie family sat in the barren house and they stared at each other and cried their eyes out.  A villager said angrily: "This is like the ghouls entering the village in their Three Cleansing campaign.  How shall we live?"

This villager also said that when they slaughter pigs during the Chinese New Year, they are forced to pay a sizeable "live pig slaughter fee" even though they had been paying taxes when they slaughter or sell pigs the rest of the year.  Furthermore, even those who don't own pigs have to pay this "live pig slaughter fee"!

The village also has a "earth" policy, wherein all migrant workers who are working elsewhere have to pay the village 50 RMB each.  When the villagers asked the village cadre for the reason, he said viciously: "There is no need for a reason!"  A villager sighed: "If there is a place that will accept me and it does not matter if I work as a horse or a cow, I will leave this damned place!"

This "damned place" happens to the origin of the revolution.  It is frequently mentioned in the history of the Communist Party by the party historians in reverential terms as the "old revolutionary district" and the "cradle of the Red Army."  

My friend Mo Luo is from Duchang.  At his home, I read a book titled <<The Glorious Duchang>> published by the history department of Duchang.  This little booklet listed the number of people who joined the Red Army, the number of people who sacrificed their lives for the revolution, and so on.  If we compare these historical materials with the current situation of the peasants, it is really regrettable.  These days, the best dream of the people of Duchang is to get out of the place.  Is that not the biggest irony for the Old District?

Today, Duchang is everywhere in the rural areas of mainland China.  On the streets of Beijing, I have spoken often to peasant women who are begging along with their children.  They told me that they can't survive in the peasant villages and therefore they had to come to the city to stay alive.  At home, they can kill themselves working hard for one full year, and that income won't be enough to pay for the miscellaneous food quotas, taxes and fees.

The biggest problem in China is definitely the peasant problem.  But how many government officials and intellectuals are really paying attention and thinking about the peasant problem?  Many people have gotten a few years of education overseas and they come back from as national esteemed economic experts.  But they have never thought about the peasants, and the 'prosperity' that they designed for China had nothing to do with peasants -- more than 1 billion peasants are simply 'passed over' lightly by them.  This kind of economics is an official economics which has no basis in conscience and human knowledge, and such economists are just accomplices and sidekicks.

The last paragraph might be a bit shrill, but the point is made that there is a huge bureaucratic problem on top of the purely agricultural production/productivity problem in rural China.  You can ask for how much food was produced by the average peasant and you can multiply an average price to get an average income.  That is just the theoretical average income.  But what is left after the taxes and the myriad of mind-boggling fees?  This is the real income and it is the real life-and-death problem for the rural peasants.

Is the Chinese government aware of this?  You bet.  You might recall reading this translated chapter in the Chinese Peasants Study about the Premier Wen Jiaobao and his penchant for making surprise visits to ferret out what has been really going on.  If Wen Jiaobao knows, then why does he seem to be doing nothing?  This is behind the scene and this blogger definitely does not have a clue. 

I wish I could cite some social science theory or practice about how to overthrow or transform a massive bureaucratic system, but there is nothing on this grand scale for a country of 1.3 billion people.  The most recent empirical experiment was the de-Ba'athification program in Iraq in which all Ba'athist Party members were dismissed from their government positions.  That was a big flop because nobody knew how to run the country, and eventually many of them had to be brought back in what was a huge waste of time, money and opportunity to win points.  And the people that were not brought back are the backbone of the insurgency in Iraq.

I am reminded how once upon a time that a Chinese leader named Mao Zedong wanted the government/party bureaucracy to do his bidding.  They declined to act as he wished.  So he responded with what was known as The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution with which he smashed that recalcitrant system.  Instant replay, anyone?