The CCP’s populist approach to China’s rural poor

I have to give Hu and Wen credit. I believe they are truly concerned about the awful pressures on the country’s rural poor, made far worse by corrupt local officials who pocket their wages, over-tax them and treat them with almost unbelievable contempt. Whether this caring is based on concerns for their own survival (labor unrest poses a huge threat to the party) or a higher sense of altruism is hard to say.

An in-depth article in the NY Times looks at how Hu and Wen are using a populist approach to show how much they care — a strategy fraught with risk, since the problem is so immense they simply cannot control it. Not within the present system.

The two men frequently mention the gap between those who have benefited from China’s capitalist-style urban economy and those left behind in the countryside. They have descended coal shafts, toured AIDS and SARS wards and abolished some conspicuous perks of high office.

During trips outside Beijing, Mr. Wen sometimes surprises local officials by halting his motorcade at random villages and inviting peasants to share their grievances, giving him a reputation for earnestness and sensitivity.

But despite a few new programs intended to reduce some rural taxes, Mr. Wen and Mr. Hu are finding that the Communist Party and government apparatus sometimes pay only lip service to their demands.


“We have gone to the government offices time and time again, and they pay no attention,” said He Diren, a local construction crew chief who said his workers had received less than half of their promised wages last year. “If they don’t listen to the prime minister, are they going to listen to us?”

The article illustrates just how difficult it is for Wen and Hu to succeed with such a monstrous bureaucracy standing in their way. For more than 20 years, the lifeblood of this bureaucracy has been corruption, with local party leaders routinely skimming the cream off the efforts of the peasants. Kissing babies and visiting hospitals won’t make a dent.

Intriguingly, the reporter compares their populist strategy with that of Mikhail Gorbachev, “who tried to overcome widespread corruption and inefficiency with similarly well-publicized meetings purporting to address the needs of ordinary folk. Ultimately, those interventions helped make Mr. Gorbachev popular for a time but failed to arrest the collapse of the apparatus he governed.”

I don’t think the analogy goes very far, since China’s economy is humming far more robustly now than was the USSR’s in 1991. But it underscores how difficult it is to satisfy China’s rural poor with symbolic gestures when the rotten system ensures their continued oppression. And it raises the question, What can the Party do about the growing labor unrest fueled by the emergence of a new middle class and staggering class inequalities?

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