What Do Rural Chinese Villagers Think About Their New Bosses?

As it turns out, not much.

Trefor Moss
Trefor Moss

QIANDONGNAN, China — Guizhou is China’s poorest province, 1,000 miles from Beijing. People here earn perhaps $2,500 per year, less than half the average national wage. Its scruffy towns sit waiting for China’s storied economic miracle to transform them too, while millions of peasants — many of them ethnic minorities — work the flooded rice terraces carved into the steep sides of Guizhou’s saw-tooth valleys, just like their ancestors before them. Americans who fret about being overtaken by China should come here to reassure themselves.

From these villages, the 18th Party Congress currently being held in Beijing, where President Hu Jintao will officially yield power to his successor, Xi Jinping, feels very remote indeed. Yet the political and economic trajectory that China’s leaders are mapping out will determine the future of Guizhou, just like China’s other regions. So what do the people here make of it all? What do they expect from their leaders? Are they even paying attention?

The answer to the last question, at least, is easy: Even in Langde, a small Miao minority village, the Congress is impossible to avoid. Like many of China’s ethnic minorities, Miao people often wear traditional dress and live in quaint wooden housesall of which makes their world feel more like a film set for a Song dynasty costume drama than part of free-wheeling, 21st- century China. But banners hung in the village exhort the villagers to support "The Big 18," common shorthand for the Congress. A big video screen shows the opening ceremony in the village square, a courtyard normally reserved for singing and dancing during traditional Miao festivals. And on the morning the Congress opens, speeches by the No. 1 and No. 2 men in the Communist Party, Hu Jintao and Wu Bangguo, bellow out over loudspeaker.

It’s Wednesday, Nov. 7, day one of the Big 18, and peasant Chen Donglu is watching the Congress on TV in his home, friends and family crowded beside him (Chen’s name has been changed; the names of other villagers have been omitted, in case the authorities take issue with their views). Chen is in his thirties; when he entered his house, he was wearing the somber blue smock and cap that Miao men traditionally wear. But he was just entertaining some tourists, he explains, and promptly pulls off his old-fashioned clothes to reveal a tracksuit. Most of Chen’s guests, when asked by the foreigner in their midst, profess an indifference to politics; one young woman even admits to never having heard of president-in-waiting Xi — though her compatriots find this ridiculous.

Chen, however, says he is upbeat about the Party Congress. "After the Big 18 things are really going to change," he insists. "First, they’re going to give us more money. Then we need more new roads." Warming up after a few cups of homemade rice wine, Chen complains that Guizhou has been neglected, while flashy eastern cities like Shanghai have hoarded all the wealth. Now it’s Guizhou’s turn for a government windfall, he reckons.

Similar complaints about Guizhou’s predicament can be heard in Madang village, down the valley from Langde, where a middle-aged woman sits in her home making indigo cloth under posters of the Communist Party’s early leaders: Mao Zedong, General Zhu De, and their comrades. It is still day one of the Big 18, but she is unmoved by all the fanfare. It won’t make any difference, she says, because only the rich stand to benefit from China’s development. She is unimpressed by suggestions that the government has made progress improving the lives of the poor. "I meet a lot of poor people around here," she replies, "and many of them are really struggling. The government needs to do more to help them." And the images of the old Communist Party leaders? "They’re just pictures," she says. "Everybody has them."

Guizhou is hardly a hotbed of simmering rage that could threaten the party’s rule, but the locals are resentful that China’s economic miracle might pass them by. Outgoing Chairman Hu should certainly know this: He ran Guizhou from 1985 to 1988. People here mainly recall that Hu did a competent job, though they struggle to remember any specific achievements that might have earned him promotion. But this fear of the have-nots accounts for all those red banners strung up in these out-of-the-way villages: The bosses want the people at the bottom to know that they are still part of the picture being painted by those at the top.

The good news for the leadership is that these challenges have buyable solutions. In villages like Langde, change means more money, not abstractions like political reform. "Ordinary people just don’t care about politics," a shopkeeper in Xijiang, another Miao village, tells me. "There’s only one political issue that interests them: Japan and the Diaoyu Islands" (islets known in Japan as the Senkakus). Guizhou is a very long way indeed from the East China Sea, the scene of China’s long-running territorial dispute with Japan. But even here, people seem more inclined to kick the Japanese than to ponder the political choices of their own government.

Only a few people appear truly engaged with the political implications of the Big 18. Back in Langde, Chen, who actively follows politics, is highly skeptical of the prospects for political reform: "There’s just no way," he says. (Hu’s opening address to the Congress, where he said "we must unswervingly follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics," suggests his pessimism may be well founded.) But one of Chen’s other guests, a young woman who earlier expressed political disinterest, suddenly warms to the theme. "I think we will start having elections within 10 years or so," she offers. "China is just changing too fast [for Beijing not to introduce them]. But it will be an election between two Communist Party candidates; there will still only be one Party. Look at Taiwan! It’s such a mess: They have all those parties and none of them ever agree on anything." That’s democracy, I suggest; the parties aren’t meant to agree. But that doesn’t compute with this crowd. "The Chinese system can’t accept more than one party," she repeats. "We have a saying: If the party dies, the country dies." The others nod.

This impression that the party is the sole heir to China’s political future seems almost universally held, outside the dissident community. Nobody is able to envision China as anything other than a political monopoly. Democracy, elections, and reforms are all familiar concepts, but ones couched as intra-party possibilities. In other words, there might be an election one day, but it would be Xi Jinping versus Li Keqiang, the man expected to be China’s next premier, not dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Another Miao villager, also from Xijiang, was anything but dismissive of the Big 18. Asked to name his favourite Chinese leader, he opted enthusiastically for Hu Yaobang, a reformist party secretary from the 1980s. Praise for Hu then flowed into an unprompted account of why political reform should now be Xi’s priority after the Congress. "Actually our government is quite good," he said, "already much better than in Thailand." (Bangkok is closer to Xijiang than Beijing.) "But now is the time for political reform," he continues, "after so long focusing only on economic reform."

This villager didn’t really understand what a politically reformed China would look like, or if he did, he wasn’t going to share it. "How would an election in China work? I have no idea. I suppose the richest person in China would simply become the president," he says. Money rules Chinese politics, he adds, even at village level, where they already have elections. "We all got to vote, but of course the winner was an extremely rich man. You have to be rich to become the leader." He hasn’t heard about cases like the October New York Times report attributing $2.7 billion to Premier Wen Jiabao’s family, but says he has no trouble believing them. The party has, after all, acknowledged that it has a problem with graft. Even President Hu openly warned this week that corruption is a cancer that threatens to terminate China’s one-party system.

No one spares a kind word for Bo Xilai, the disgraced party chief of nearby Chongqing and now the official villain of the Big 18. Guizhouers want a better deal, but not the sort that the left-leaning Bo offered. "Bo was a bad guy," concludes a third Xijiang villager, who happened to be party to the previous conversation. "He had no new ideas of his own, so he just used those old ideas from the Mao era. I thought it was quite dangerous."

These political discussions, though, never go far. The red banners supporting the Big 18 are intended to engage country folk with the party, but not with politics. Guizhou people watching the Congress have exactly the same questions as foreign China-watchers. What are the leaders thinking? What will they do? What can they do? Like foreigners they fumble blindly for answers, and ultimately they have no say over how those answers will be reached.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that by day two of the Party Congress, the villagers already seem to have moved on. In the palpably poor town of Chong’an, Miao people are oblivious to all the Beijing committees and the slogans; those who have TVs have switched them off and instead are celebrating their New Year with singing, dancing, and — the main attraction — buffalo fights. Those bright red banners rhapsodising the Big 18 are here too, but the villagers ignore them. As the water buffalo smash each other in the mud and the spectators crow in delight, I lamely ask a few of Chong’an’s peasants how this rivals the wall-to-wall coverage of the Party Congress for entertainment. Most mutter that it’s all the same to them, claim disinterest, or visibly recoil at the intrusion. Finally, an old farmer, irritated, turns his only eye on me. "Just watch the cows," he says.

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