The Plight of China’s Peasants

May 17th, 2010 at 2:22 pm David Frum | 8 Comments |

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“Have you ever been to China?”

Before I read Will the Boat Sink the Water?, I thought I could at last answer “yes.” Now I realize I must be more cautious. I have been to some of China’s cities. But China? No.

Close to half of China’s population still labors on the land. It is their story that the husband-and-wife team of Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao describe in this short, shocking book first published in 2003. The book caused an immediate sensation – so much so that the government banned it. Pirated editions continue to circulate, however: perhaps as many as 10 million copies.

One of the stories in Will the Boat Sink the Water? gives an idea of the book’s explosive contents.

Out of their pitiful incomes – perhaps $100 a year – Chinese peasants pay very high rates of tax, much higher than city people. These taxes support four layers of government: national, provincial, township, village.

The people of one poor village in Anhui province had pleaded for months for an audit of their village books. At last the order came from the township administrators: the village officials must submit to an audit. The villagers elected 12 representatives, led by a man named Zhang Guiyo.

Everybody understood what the audit would find: the village chiefs had been inventing fees, fines and taxes for years – and had stolen much of the money for themselves.

On the morning of Feb. 18, 1998, the deputy chief of the village, four of his sons, and assorted henchmen confronted Zhang Guiyo and his friends. The deputy chief’s men had come armed with knives, cleavers, and clubs. The deputy chief burst into rage: “Kill! Kill! Twelve bastards trying to check my books? Kill them all!” and abruptly attacked them, hacking four men to death and wounding a boy.

Village authorities tried to hush the attack. Villagers were summoned to an old Maoist-style meeting and warned against talking to outsiders. Villagers who sought to travel were painstakingly questioned at the train station as to their destination and intentions.

Mass killings are a hard story to silence, however. Township authorities began to ask questions. They discovered that the village authorities were fleecing the peasants, imposing taxes amounting to over 20% of income. Worse: the village authorities were keeping double books, under-reporting their take to the next level up.

Soon the deputy chief and his sons were at trial. He was sentenced to death, along with one of the sons. Justice? Not exactly. The procurator’s reports, which only came to light later, had described the fight as one of self-defense by the deputy chief. He and his son were sentenced for excessive force only. The legal preconditions had been put in place for his sentence to be reduced later.

In the end, every member of the corrupt village administration except the deputy chief kept his job. The families of the victims received compensation of 100 yuan each: $14. Higher party chiefs spent a day in the village doing chores, in a symbolic display of concern and remorse.

The stolen money was never returned, and there is no reason to think that the villagers’ burdens have been reduced.

Will the Boat Sink the Water? tells similar story after similar story, in poignant and enraging detail.

In the West, you will still hear loose talk in some quarters about the Communist party’s special bond with the Chinese peasantry. (Here’s an especially skin-crawling example.)

But how different really is the relationship between ruler and ruled in China today from, say, 200 years ago? The peasants described by Chen and Wu live in a state of pre-modern authoritarianism, subject to arbitrary authority, shamelessly exploited by superiors who offer no justification but power. Peasants will sometimes petition for redress, much as their ancestors petitioned the emperor. But every petition carries the risk of a beating or worse by complained-of powerholders. One official mocks a petitioning peasant, “Where do you think you are? The United States?”

For China’s villagers, China’s authoritarianism is not an abstract or impersonal thing. It means being robbed, duped, bullied, beaten and killed by near-neighbors. It means that restaurant owners must cook without payment for local bosses, that widows are charged impromptu taxes for the right to slaughter their own pig, that the best grades in school go to the children of the most powerful people, and that even running away is against the law.

Is this situation stable? How long will China’s peasants bear it? I have no idea. How long would you?

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • Carney

    China’s own government admits in its official statistics to tens of thousands of “mass incidents” in rural areas each year (read: riots).

  • bamboozer

    The Chinese have a long history of revolt and insurection and it truely terrifies thier leaders. They are right to be scared, it’s how Mao started out.

  • easton

    I lived in China for 7 years, trust me, Anhui province is about the worst, I simply stopped going there because of the petty corruption in every level for every service so lets not act as though it is representative of China. In fact, it is so bad there I have vowed never to return to Anhui my entire life. I myself lived in a remote village and my wife and her family are from there (I introduced her to her first elevator ride, this in 2000). I knew the Mayor and his family and he lived pretty modestly.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not an apologist for the regime. and Chinese society has a host of deep ills (these being a large reason why I left) but I don’t think it is so representative to take one story as indicative of the whole.

  • jakester

    Yeah, no one really cares about the peasants, that is traditional They are almost serfs. Communism blows big time, the peasants ended up getting their chains tightened harder under them.

  • jg bennet

    china’s greatest natural resource is the peasants! like saudi has oil china has humans and the chinese bosses see the peasant resource as plainly as a saudi oil man sees a barrel of oil. exploit your over abundant resources and you can get rich, which “to get rich is glorious” of course.

  • Arhu

    I think based on our belief, the belief that holds to our peasants “they are inferior to authority (which may be representative of village, town, city, province, state), which enables them to live in constraint”. This belief originated from our ancient Feudal Society —- ministers kneel down to king, ordinary peasants kneel to authority, in this perspective, peasants think authority is superior to them. As long as our peasants can survive (without being hurted physically), I think the plight will continue and peasants will used to this.

  • Bebe99

    A difficult and horrible existence to be sure. No wonder there are so many “illegal” workers moving about China–many no doubt to escape from oppressive circumstances. I’m not so sure they find relief when they get to the city and find their factory bosses act very similarly to their village officials, but at least in the city there are more options.

  • jg bennet

    i was an illegal alien in china for about 9 months and last night i heard some major bs about china on o’reilly. talking about the assistant sec of states comment on the arizona immigration law and china he said that the chinese would shoot people in the head if they were illegal there. well bill i didn’t get shot, i worked, i rented a place etc. the peasants have it the worse though, hell i was illegal and often out of work but still lived like brad pitt compared to them.