“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?