The Chen Xiwen Interviews

This post contains two interviews with the same Chinese official: Chen Xiwen, whose title is vice-minister of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs in China.  One interview appeared in the English-language South China Morning Post, and the other appeared in the Chinese-language Sing Tao on the same morning.  

There are some differences between the two interviews.  The Chinese one is blunter and can afford to deal with a lot of detailed information without needing to provide lots of background.  For example, the Chinese version can jump right into the book The Chinese Peasant Study without much ado, whereas an English-language reporter might have to explain what that was all about and so that reference was skipped.  As another example, the key about agricultural taxes is glossed over in the SCMP version, whereas it was the keypoint in the Sing Tao version.  SCMP emphasized the peasant riots and the role of the Internet which play well to western audiences, but these are just indicative of the problems.  The real issue is problem-solving and that is boring to western audiences.  This is the typical difference between English and Chinese treatment of the same subject.  In any case, these are interesting interviews with the person regarded as the number one expert on agricultural policy in China.

It may strike the reader as unusual to see a top Chinese government leader praising the peasants for their democratic awareness as well as the willingness to fight for their rights.  But just remember the statistics in the pyramid: 800 million peasants live in almost 4 million villages which are in more than 2,000 counties which are in more than 30 provinces/municipalities under the central government.  At any time, it is statistically certain that some village leaders are up to no good, possibly with the connivance of county officials and out of the sight of the central government.  Chen goes ahead and praises the Internet for letting the central government catch on to certain problems.

But before we get to the two interviews, here is the Reuters report:

Protests by Chinese farmers show the country is changing socially and economically, and that people are willing to speak out against injustice, a Hong Kong newspaper quoted a Chinese official as saying.  Hundreds of farmers protested in a Beijing suburb last month after being forced from their property to make way for an Olympic stadium. Similar protests over land disputes have taken place elsewhere in China this year.

Chen Xiwen, vice-minister of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, said the protests demonstrated that farmers knew how to protect their interests, the South China Morning Post reported on Monday.  "It shows farmers' democratic awareness is improving, but unfortunately their sense of law and order has not improved as quickly," Chen, who was in charge of agricultural policy, was quoted as saying.

Many of the protests are by villagers angry that their land has been taken from them without adequate compensation, signed over by local government officials to businesses for development.

China's Communist leadership frowns on displays of dissent, but Chen said the protests had helped central authorities address the problems faced by the farmers.  "Now, thanks to the Internet, any incident will quickly come to the attention of the highest level of mainland leadership. In the past, they could easily be covered up by local officials," Chen said.

State-controlled media are barred from freely reporting on many protests, and details are often hard to come by.  China's leaders fear such protests might spiral out of control or channel anger over growing social inequality against the Communist Party, which has monopolised power since winning the Chinese civil war in 1949.

It is a useful exercise to compare this much abbreviated agency report (just the second and fourth paragraphs refer to the interview) to the greater details that can be found in the two reports about the interviews themselves.  This reflects the general problem of relying only on English-language reports from western agencies, as the local media are usually fuller and more detailed and nuanced.  Furthermore, the Chinese-language local media are usually more detailed than the English-language local media.  You can read these three reports, see that one is nested within the next within the third, and then you can wonder what had been omitted.  It will be very a very illuminating exercise.

(SCMP)  Mainland official hails bloody riots as a sign of democracy.  By Wang Xiangwei.  July 4, 2005.

Violent protests by the mainland's farmers are inevitable due to the country's enormous social and economic changes, according to a top central government official in charge of agricultural policy.  Chen Xiwen also hailed farmers' willingness to speak up against injustice as a sign of democracy.

While stressing that he did not approve of using violence, the recent spate of protests demonstrated that farmers now knew how to protect their rights and interests, said Mr Chen, vice-minister of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs.  Reports of such protests also helped the central leadership act quickly and solve problems faced by farmers, Mr Chen said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

The mainland has been hit by a spate of violent protests by farmers in recent weeks, mainly over land disputes and pollution. In April, thousands of farmers fought a bloody battle with police and officials over unpopular chemical plants in Huaxi village in Dongyang , Zhejiang province, while at least six people were killed in Hebei province last month when several hundred armed thugs attacked villagers who refused to hand over their land to an electronics factory.

"On the one hand, riots like the one in Dongyang are a tragedy and show that local authorities failed to do a proper job," Mr Chen said. "But on the other hand, they show that our farmers know to protect their rights, which is a good thing.  It shows farmers' democratic awareness is improving, but unfortunately their sense of law and order has not improved as quickly."

Mr Chen, who has studied mainland agricultural issues for more than 20 years, is the key official credited with drafting a series of central government documents in the past two years that have helped reduce farmers' tax burden and allocated more funds to boost agricultural production.

Uncharacteristic of officials' usual aversion to sensitive issues, Mr Chen is ready to admit the problems and discuss policy from a unique perspective.  Referring to several damning reports on the plight of farmers that have attracted international attention in recent years, he said more protests had gone unreported.

"There are at least 3 million villages across the country and you can imagine how many problems crop up each day," he said.  "If there are 30,000 villages having problems, that accounts for only 1 per cent of the total. People have to look at this from a national perspective and against a backdrop of phenomenal social and economic changes taking place.  Overseas media tend to play up the riots, and it is their job to do so. But you have to remember, things are getting better for farmers generally and few of them would tell you that they want to go back to the past, despite their complaints."

Mr Chen hailed the role of the media and internet in reporting the riots, which he said enabled the higher authorities to act quickly.  "Now, thanks to the internet, any incident will quickly come to the attention of the highest level of mainland leadership. In the past, they could easily be covered up by local officials," he said.  He said as China was going through a critical stage of reform, the interests of certain groups like farmers could be easily hurt. 

(Sing Tao)  All agricultural taxes to be eliminated.  July 5, 2005.

[translation]  The book "I speak the truth to the Premier" relates that "the peasants are really suffering, the peasant villages are really poor, and the agricultural sector is in real danger."  The book "The Chinese Peasants Study" describes how the peasants of Anhui province were oppressed by the miscellaneous taxes and fees imposed by local governments.

In an interview with Chen Xiwen, vice-minister of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, he said that these two books told the truth, but they do not represent the entire truth otherwise "this government should have been finished a long time ago."  He said that the central government is trying to alleviate the burden on the peasants.  Premier Wen Jiabao had proposed last year to eliminate all agricultural taxes by 2008.  In reality, that goal will probably be realized by next year, even as this year's agricultural production will exceed last year's.

There are 800 million peasants in China, and that is why some people have said that the China problem is really the peasant problem.  55-year-old Chen Xiwen has been investigating agricultural strategies for more than 20 years, and is regarded as the number one agricultural policy expert in China.  The Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs is headed by Premier Wen Jiabao, and his deputy Chen Xiwen has the responsibility of dealing with the agricultural issue.

Last Friday (July 1), Chen Xiwen was interviewed by this newspaper.  He said that the economic reforms have gone on for more than twenty years, and the situation is such that the cities have developed quickly whereas the peasant villages have developed slowly.  The problems of the hardship of the peasants, the poverty of the peasant villages and the danger of agricultural sector are still present.  The first reason is that major adjustments in the reforms have not yet fully taken place, and that includes: the co-existence of two systems of land ownership; the imbalance between urban and rural interests; the lack of standardization in the real estate market; imperfections in the land acquisition and compensation systems.  "But we can see that the peasant villages have made some progress, except they are relatively behind the cities."

In the book "The Chinese Peasant Study" published last year, there were reports about how the peasants were exploited by local governments in many ways.  This book had received attention outside of China.  Chen Xiwen acknowledged frankly that what the book says is "actually true" and he even admitted that the problems in reality are "far more than these."  Chen had even purchased a few copies of the book to give to other people.

"The facts are right, but they are not the complete facts.  If they were, this government would have been finished a long time ago."  Chen Xiwen was obviously very knowledgeable about the details in the book, but he does not believe that the problems reported by this couple give the complete picture: "They claimed to have investigated in the field over three years and they went to more than 50 counties.  From that experience, they were able to report a few case studies."  Chen reminded the reporter that there are 680,000 administrative villages and more than 3 million 'natural' villages, and so it is necessary to "look at the relative ratio."

Recently, peasants have exploded with protests in Henan Dingzhou, Zhejiang Dongyang and other places.  Six peasants died as a result of the assault in Dingzhou.  Chen Xiwen sighed and said, "The Dingzhou assault was a tragedy and showed that the local government did not have a system to respond to demands.  But this may be a good thing to show the existing problems inside the system, except that the price is quite huge."

He said that the fact that the peasants are fighting back means that their democratic awareness is rising and that they will protect their own interests.  Chen said that some peasants understood the central government's documents even better than local government officials.  "Of course, their sense about law and order is not increasing as quickly as their democratic awareness."

He emphasized that things are different today because "problems are rapidly referred to the highest level of the central government, which can rapidly demand a solution.  The response has been faster than before.  He praised the civil use of the Internet: "Even if you cannot report something through the proper channels, the central government can still find out immediately."

Chen Xiwen hopes that "the problem should be placed in the context of the entire economic plan."  Solving a problem is a process, and this is better than the era of the planned economy in which everything happened at the same time.  "You can trying to ask the peasants to go back to the era of planned economy, and see if they want to do that."

He optimistically believes that since the central government regards the agricultural problems seriously, it will have the ability to solve those problems with the accumulation of the government's resources.  "Our financial revenues have increased by a few hundred billion yuan."

"There is no commercial tax in the cities, so why should there be agricultural taxes in the peasant villages?  It makes no sense."  Chen said that Premier Wen Jiabao had formally proposed that all agricultural taxes be abolished by 2008.  Previously the peasants bore a total tax burden of 90 billion yuan each year.

Last year, the central government began an experiment to eliminate agricultural taxes in Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces.  But this year, many provinces and municipalities voluntarily offered to eliminate agricultural taxes as well.  Chen Xiwen said that agricultural taxes now exist only in Shandong, Hebei, Guangxi and Yunnan provinces.  In practice, Premier Wen's goal will be realized by next year.  The abolition of the agricultural taxes is made possible by the central government spending 64 billion yuan per year to make up for the lost revenue to the local governments.

Last year, the agricultural production increased by 76.7 billion jin (=0.5 kilograms) for a total of 939 billion jin.  This stopped a five-year decreasing trend.  Chen Xiwen said that the floods this year will affect the early harvest.  But the early harvest accounts for a small fraction of the total agricultural output, so the floods will not have a great impact.  At the moment, the summer harvest is 10 billion jin higher than last year, so the total agricultural output may be 7 to 8 billion jin higher than last year.

The Sing Tao coverage is actually for the entire page, not all of which is reproduced in the link (and its translation).  In the unlinked part, there is an answer to the mystery that should strike the alert reader in the above translation -- the government used to collect 90 billion yuan in agricultural taxes and this will be made up by 64 billion yuan coming from the central government.  Isn't there a short fall of 90 - 64 = 26 billion yuan?  Well, for one thing, the government intends to chop down the bloated bureaucracy of officials, many of whom serve redundant and duplicated functions (due to the confusion between party versus government).  The unlinked part also explained that the current experiments with village-level elections are intended to gradually reform the system from the bottom up, since many of the problems (such as those recorded in The Chinese Peasant Study) occur at that level away from the view of the central government.  When the village leaders are elected, it will no longer possible for anyone to impose those horrible and burdensome miscellaneous taxes, fees, surcharges, assessments, fines, etc.