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Peasant Time Bomb


“There is chaos under heaven and things could not be better.” – Mao Zedong

“The biggest danger to the Party since taking over has been losing touch with the masses.” – Hu Jintao

SHANGHAI – Everywhere in developed, urban China – Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou – the message was the same. The next “counterrevolutionary rebellion” – as the Communist Party defined the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – if it happens, will be a peasant revolution. Foreign diplomats and Chinese scholars in Beijing or young, urban, ‘Net-connected professionals in Guangzhou have told Asia Times Online in unmistakable terms: nobody from the party’s “fourth generation” leadership wants to go back to the Maoist model of economic autarky and foreign-policy isolation.

Most of all, however, nobody in the leadership – as well as most influential intellectuals – wants the toppling of the Communist Party by pluralist forces advocating a multi-party democracy: that would amount to, in the words of a Beijing scholar, “an unpredictable, very dangerous destabilization”. There’s only a slight detail: what 1 billion Chinese peasants will make of all this. Enter Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao.

Everywhere in developed, urban China another message was the same. “There’s no chance you can go to Hefei [in east-central China's Anhui province] unnoticed to talk to Chen Guidi. He is strictly prohibited by the Public Security Bureau [PSB] from speaking to the foreign press. And if a Chinese national does it [an interview] for you, his life will be in danger.” Husband and wife Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao are a very dangerous couple. All because of a book, the notorious Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha or The Chinese Peasant Study, published in January 2004, banned just before the opening of a new session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) last March by the Communist Party Propaganda Department. It turned into an explosive, underground mega-bestseller – more than 7 million pirated copies have been sold. The 460-page yellow-bound volume with the title in black characters can be easily found under the counter, even in some bookshops, for 22 yuan (US$2.65).

The time bomb
Last October, The Chinese Peasant Study won the prestigious Lettre Ulysses Award, sponsored by the German magazine Lettre. The gritty, emotion-packed literary reportage depicts economic exploitation, social injustice and political oppression in rural China – as well as some extraordinary tales of resistance. It took three years to write and consumed all of Chen’s and Wu’s savings. They visited more than 50 towns throughout agricultural Anhui province, talked to scores of senior officials in Beijing and interviewed thousands of peasants to explain how, in its mad urbanization drive, the party not only neglected the lot of 900 million peasants – deprived of decent health care, welfare, education, the right to have more than one or two children – but also treated them harshly, plunging them in a guaiqian (vicious cycle) in which nothing has fundamentally changed a social structure that has been systematically exploiting Chinese peasants for centuries.

A constant pattern emerges: if a villager, for instance, accuses a local party boss of corruption, he inevitably goes to jail, accused of “provoking riots”. The key issue in the book – and in China’s modernization as well – is corruption. A whole chapter details how local, rural party officials twist their numbers to cheat the party leadership in Beijing out of revenue.

Both Chen, born in 1943 in Anhui province, and Wu, born in 1963 in Hunan province, come from peasant families and spent their childhoods in the countryside before moving to urban China. When they returned to their roots, as they write in the preface, “we observed unimaginable poverty and unthinkable evil, we saw unimaginable suffering and unthinkable helplessness, unimagined resistance with incomprehensible silence, and have been moved beyond imagination by unbelievable tragedy …”

A typical passage reads: “Farmers worked all year long to earn an average annual income of 700 yuan. Many farmers lived in mud-clay houses that were dark, damp, small and shabby. Some even had tree bark roofs because they couldn’t afford tiles. Because of poverty, once someone fell ill, he either endured it if it was minor disease, or else just waited to die. There were 620 households in the whole village, of whom 514, or 82.9%, were below the poverty line. Even though the village was very poor, the leaders were prone to boasting and exaggeration about their performance, and as a result the government struck it off the list of impoverished villages. So the villagers were burdened with exorbitant taxes and levies.”

Chen is no maverick: he is a member of the respected, state-sanctioned Association of Chinese Writers. Chen and Wu definitely are not “splittists” – the unforgivable ideological sin. They are in essence moderate reformists who believe the party is reformable: one of the chapters in the book is a glowing tribute to the fairness of Premier Wen Jiabao, who was just a simple official at one time. Nevertheless, the book had the capacity to scare the fourth-generation leadership because it graphically depicts the workings of a time bomb – the other side of the market-Leninist glitter in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It details how the rural masses have gotten next to nothing since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were introduced in the late 1970s. The average annual income in Shanghai, 14,800 yuan ($1,790), is seven times as high as in rural Anhui, 2,100 yuan. In a nutshell, the annual income of a farmer in today’s China is only one-sixth to one-seventh that of an urban professional – but he pays three times as many taxes, plus a plethora of local taxes of dubious legality. Moreover, untold millions subsist on less than 2 yuan (24 cents) a day.

One system, two countries
In practice, China’s real “one country, two systems” is represented by the decrepit Maoist huji zhidu or household registration system, which ties peasants to their land and was a key instrument to enforce the collectivization of agriculture. The fourth generation is more than aware of the anachronism. Long ago, Luo Gan, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of the police and the legal system, proposed a single, nationwide registration system for all Chinese. The State Council approved it, but implementation has been very slow. According to the new system, peasants may migrate to the cities as long as they have been able to find a job. Many have not found jobs, but they still migrate in hopes of finding work.

Inequality in China is much more acute than in India. A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CAAS) says it is actually the worst on the planet, barring the odd sub-Saharan African country. China’s “peasant question” is an economic, social and political crisis of gargantuan proportions. Scholars at CAAS estimate that since the start of Deng’s reforms, 270 million Chinese have escaped poverty. That’s not enough in a nation of 1.3 billion people. The crucial question is how “one system, two countries”, where 400 million people advance while 900 million are left behind, can possibly co-exist. One billion peasants – 80% of the total population – can never be fully assimilated, no matter the rhythm of the economic miracle.

The impact of Chen’s and Wu’s book, anyway, has been tremendous. In March, during the National People’s Congress, the fourth generation actually managed to criticize the third generation’s obsession with China’s GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate, and is now formally engaged in a new development strategy more respectful of the Chinese people and the Chinese environment. Premier Wen, reformist ally of president and party chief Hu Jintao, coined the indispensable slogan of “The Three Peasant Problems”: farmers, villages and agriculture. But the key issue remains corruption – and this strictly concerns Communist Party officials. It’s a tremendous contradiction. The party vows to try to solve the “peasant question”, but at the same time simply cannot tolerate that 900 million peasants are a de facto underclass, or the idea that the party itself may be responsible for this situation.

The Chen-Wu saga, of course, continued. Former Linquan county party secretary Zhang Xide filed a libel suit against them, seeking the equivalent of $24,000 in damages, in his home court, Fuyang county, where his own son is a judge. Chen’s and Wu’s lawyers tried to move the trial to a neutral location. The request was denied. Chen and Wu made clear to all that they were in fact being prosecuted by Anhui province: in other words, an arm of the Communist Party.

In an interview last year to Radio Free Asia, Chen emphasized that as Chinese peasants are 40% of all the peasants in the world, this is not only a Chinese but a world problem. The couple have accumulated enough material for three more books on “the peasant question” and are already writing a new book about their legal battle, Fighting for Peasants in Court.

Last month Chen’s Beijing-based lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, was forced to send an official letter to the Fuyang City Intermediate People’s Court stating that the court had exceeded the time limit of six months for a decision in the libel case. Pu also significantly commented on what everybody knows already – the Chinese media’s thunderous silence about the whole thing. Freedom of the press and the prohibition of libel against individuals are part of the Chinese constitution. But the concept of accusing a party official for the sake of the public interest simply escapes the mindset of the official Chinese system, according to Chinese journalists in Shanghai and Guangzhou – and it certainly will not be part of a new Media Law currently being drafted. As Pu Ziqiang told the Yazhou Zhoukan newspaper last September, “This case can really be treated as the trial of the century, because it is forcing the legal system to come up with a definitive statement: [Do] the news media have the right to criticize the misdeeds of government organizations and officials?”

Successful urban professionals in both Shanghai and Guangzhou are unanimous: the libel case against Chen and Wu demonstrates how the law, for the party, is an instrument of control, and how, for Chinese society, it should function as a check on the power of party officials, and as a way to protect individual rights. Premier Wen, according to diplomats in Beijing, is a passionate proponent of a Singapore-style neo-authoritarian system for China. There’s one enormous difference, though: Singapore may have been a one-party state since Lee Kwan Yew’s early days in the 1960s, but government corruption is in essence non-existent.

It all comes back to the same point: is the Chinese ultra-authoritarian system reformable? Dialectical contradictions abound. According to a Beijing scholar, the party recognizes that courts should be impartial and trusted by all in a country facing what some believe to be an imminent social volcano. Courts should have a major role in fighting corruption and improving governance. At the same time the party leadership fears that the primacy of the law will spell a clear and present danger to its power monopoly.

Another new slogan dictates that the fourth generation is marching toward the “Comprehensive Well-Off Society”, which establishes that China’s GDP levels in 2020 should be four times as high as in 2000. The question on anyone’s lips is how this development drive will match the lingering communist ideal of a society that by definition has to eliminate poverty, protect the environment, eschew wars and create opportunities for all its citizens.

The armies of the night
In urban China, the ultimate threat, the menace, the dangerous Other, the Alien, is not a foreign terrorist: it’s the mingong, the Chinese migrant peasant worker.

More than 200 million mingong are roaming China. At least 25% don’t get paid by their employers, or their lump payment – before the Chinese Lunar New Year – is delayed. According to Zeng Peiyan, a member of China’s State Council, the equivalent of more than $13 billion has not yet been paid to mingong; in some cases debts are more than 10 years old. Sixty percent of mingong have to work more than 10 hours a day. And 97% have no medical benefits whatsoever. Shanghai urban professionals insist that technically, at least for now, no Chinese peasant can dream of having formal employment.

You can spot a mingong from miles away. Their work clothes, blue or brown, are shabby and covered in dust; they are thinner than most Chinese; and they are also shorter, which leads to widespread discrimination because of their height. Whatever their perceived shortcomings, they are the unknown, heroic protagonists of China’s spectacular economic miracle. In the big cities there are now more floating mingong than urban workers.

Their armies can be seen in countless construction sites in Shanghai and Beijing, living in shelters more crowded than prison cells, the more skilled among them earning 70 yuan a day for a 12-hour workday, with a 30-minute break, the new arrivals making only 30 yuan a day. They must register with the big city government every two months and have practically no health and education rights. There are more than 3 million in Shanghai alone, erecting at least one office tower a week. If all unregistered mingong are taken into account, Shanghai’s population may be exceeding 20 million by now. In this Beijing winter, late at night, they can be seen working in the streets under freezing temperatures and merciless winds from the Gobi Desert. Sometimes during a lightning-quick break one can spot their shadows gazing longingly at out-of-reach sneakers and mobile phones behind glittering department-store windows.

And there are the girls too, in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan, the hordes of manual workers all over the assembly lines in the “factory of the world”, Guangdong province, churning out the world’s T-shirts, trousers and sneakers; and there are the semi-illiterate girls from desert Gansu province suddenly turned into tour guides in neighboring Tibet.

Soon the army of mingong will be coming back to their provinces for the Chinese Lunar Year of the Rooster – their one and only holiday – crowding train stations with their notorious striped, oversized red-white-and-blue nylon bags crammed with gifts for their families and precious dirty envelopes stuffed with all their savings (as much as 90% of everything they earn). This annual internal Chinese migration is far bigger than the hajj.

The party loses its grip
The countryside is getting angrier by the day. In 2003 – the latest data available – there were no fewer than 58,000 “civic disturbances” involving more than 3 million people. A mob of 10,000 torch police cars in Chongqing, 100,000 demonstrators force the postponement of a dam project in Sichuan, 20,000 miners and their families riot against layoffs and loss of pensions at a bankrupt mine in the depressed northeast. Thunderous silence is the official media’s norm. It’s taken for granted that every city except ultra-policed Beijing has been facing demonstrations or eruptions of spontaneous violence.

Media professionals in Shanghai note the glaring absence of a powerful organization like the Brazilian Landless Peasant Movement to rally people nationwide. An intellectual from Henan province is convinced of the absolute necessity of a nationwide rebellion. But in conversations with urban professionals in Guangzhou, the absolute majority admits nothing will happen “because of China’s centuries-old feudal system of exploitation”.

Anyway, class struggle is alive and thriving in the Chinese countryside, pitting rich farmers against the growing army of landless mingong – they may be errant, but always keep close ties to their native villages. Surplus manpower in the countryside may reach a staggering 450 million people, according to the most alarmist predictions, with at least 26 million annually trying their luck in the big cities.

A total of 100 million peasants currently work in the so-called “town and village enterprises”. TVEs grew very fast in the early years of Deng’s reforms, but lately have succumbed to better-equipped urban-based or foreign-based companies. They have already absorbed all the surplus manpower they could handle.

As a Guangzhou businessman explains it, the army of unemployed has been growing because of two linked factors – China’s entry in the World Trade Organization (WTO), coupled with massive layoffs by state-owned enterprises (SOEs): “There are many cities that are forcing peasants back to the countryside, because unemployment is now affecting their own residents.” And when and if these millions of peasants go back, they find nothing to rely on, and the same, unchanged pitiful standards of health and education. Chinese economists say the process has been inevitable since collective production has been eroded in order to benefit individual family farming.

A peasant Tiananmen?
The ultimate, lethal danger for the Chinese Communist Party is the merging of peasant protests with urban demonstrations – peasants, mingong, former state employees – all losers united. Thus many of President Hu’s recent actions, affirming his iron hand.

The party’s new strategy to counter all these problems, say Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholars, is to emphasize domestic consumer demand. This is a remarkable turnaround. Former premier Zhu Rongji and the conservatives based their economic policies on growth fueled by large SOEs. As for the export-led growth model, it was articulated by none other than the late Zhao Ziyang in the late 1980s. Now Premier Wen is in charge of the economy, and he wants a “third way”. He wants growth fueled by domestic – not foreign demand. And he wants domestic demand to come from Chinese consumers, not the state.

Intellectuals, speaking anonymously because no one wants to be awakened for forced sightseeing courtesy of the Public Security Bureau, seem to agree that trying to redistribute a little bit of the pie is the only viable strategy if the party is to regain some popular appeal. Moreover, President Hu, Premier Wen and Luo Gan (Politburo member in charge of the police and the legal system) deeply believe they will be able to “rectify the behavior” of the party’s bad apples in order to ensure that the new policies are followed to the letter.

These intellectuals also insist the party will refuse to reassess Tiananmen at all costs – and at its peril, one might add, because all pre-Tiananmen conditions have again resurfaced: the possibility of massive popular reaction against corruption inside the party, against abuse of power by party officials, and against the unbearable urban-rural abyss. The party will do anything to prevent the emergence of an organized and well-focused opposition. It certainly controls a vast intimidating machinery to do so. But for how long?

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