China’s Oppressed Majority
Lettre International, No. 66, October 2004, Berlin Traveling from the dazzling skylines of China’s rich coastal cities to its depressed central and western countryside seems like a journey back in time. Each mile into the Chinese hinterland reveals that the country’s economic miracle has largely bypassed its 800 million peasants, who constitute nearly two thirds ...
Lettre International, No. 66, October 2004, Berlin
Lettre International, No. 66, October 2004, Berlin
Traveling from the dazzling skylines of China’s rich coastal cities to its depressed central and western countryside seems like a journey back in time. Each mile into the Chinese hinterland reveals that the country’s economic miracle has largely bypassed its 800 million peasants, who constitute nearly two thirds of the population. But China’s widening gulf between the rich and the rest has received far less press attention — either foreign or domestic — than the country’s spectacular economic growth.
This disparity may explain why the work of Chinese journalists Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao has made waves at home and abroad. In their 2004 book, A Survey of Chinese Peasants, Chen and Wu investigate the flip side of modernization in east-central China’s Anhui province, chronicling the discrimination and brutal repression farmers often receive at the hands of corrupt local officials. The power of Chen and Wu’s writing stems from exhaustive research into the plight of the Anhui peasantry paired with a close-up, personal look at people’s lives.
One of these detailed accounts, excerpted in the German interdisciplinary quarterly Lettre International after the book won the magazine’s annual reportage award last fall, tells the story of the 1998 murder of four peasants. Suspecting a local official of corruption, the villagers elect a committee to take control of his accounting ledgers. When the infuriated official sends his sons to kill a prominent committee member in broad daylight, three other locals try to intervene in his defense, with tragic results.
Despite its poignancy, the relatively short passage cannot convey the book’s larger themes, such as China’s long history of failed attempts to reform its rural economy. According to Chen and Wu, the few reform-minded officials who seek to enact positive changes are regularly blocked by power-hoarding colleagues. But apart from corruption, the two main culprits in the peasants’ plight are distorted production incentives and taxation. The state not only controls all of China’s land but it frequently readjusts land allocation to peasant households, effectively discouraging investment in farms. In addition, peasants are still forced to concentrate production on grain and sell a significant share of their annual harvest to the government at low fixed prices. Meanwhile, the corroded tax system encourages graft and deflects the tax burden to the weakest link in the chain: the peasant. "China is one of the few countries that not only fails to subsidize agriculture, but taxes farmers heavily," the authors write.
Chen and Wu argue that reform of the country’s rural economy is no longer an option, but an imperative. At stake is the country’s internal stability. Noting that corrupt local officials have survived all attempts at tax reform, they advocate top-to-bottom change in hopes of ending the worst inequities between the rural and urban economies. The problem is that the central government depends on local government for implementation: Initiatives from the top may be the only solution, but change will come slowly, if at all.
The Lettre International award triggered discussion in major newspapers and journals across Europe about the problems of China’s rural population. Many of the world’s biggest publishing houses, including Germany’s Rowohlt, Britain’s Penguin, and France’s Actes Sud, have shown interest in publishing translations.
The Chinese reaction, however, was contradictory. The book initially won praise from all sides — including the Central Propaganda Department and party organ newspaper People’s Daily — and became a national bestseller. But this very success eventually prompted officials in Beijing to order the Central Propaganda Department to stop the book’s printing.
Chen and Wu may face more serious consequences. One of the officials exposed for corruption and brutality (nearly everyone in the book is quoted by their real name) filed a libel suit against the authors. The case is still pending, and it is uncertain when the verdict will be handed down. Although Chen and Wu’s lawyer estimates their chance of winning at about 50 percent, similar lawsuits used to discipline the media have rarely been decided in the defendants’ favor. But the authors are not without allies: Although they were denied access to the courtroom, hundreds of peasants showed up to the trial to voice their support for the two journalists.
All may not be lost. China’s new crop of leaders, particularly President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to a new, more balanced approach to development, prioritizing agricultural incomes and rural infrastructure. Certainly the history books suggest that is a good idea: In ancient times, Chinese peasant revolts often led to the end of a dynasty. And that is one journey back in time China’s leaders are not eager to take.
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