Survey on poverty among Chinese peasants said to rock the nation

It apparently started as magazine article, and it’s now a best-selling book. It’s wonderful that it’s in print, and it sounds like it’s having a devastating effect — hopefully for the good over the long term.

An exposรฉ of the sufferings of the nearly one billion peasant farmers in China has rocketed into the country’s best-seller lists, apparently forcing the regime to address the issue.

Chinese Peasantry: a Survey discloses the poverty and corruption affecting the rural majority of 900 million, whose exploitation underlies the gloss of China’s perceived urban economic miracle.

It describes farmers being beaten to death for complaining about embezzlement, officials conniving to hoodwink Communist Party leaders about production levels, and a tax system which forces the poor in effect to subsidise the rich minority. It helps to explain the exodus of workers from farms to low-paid, often dangerous jobs in the booming coastal provinces or Europe and America.

First published by a literary magazine, the work immediately struck a chord with the public. Many readers said they were in tears throughout.

The article is rich with examples from the survey citing obscene acts of corruption by local cadres, levying whatever tax they choose on local peasants. That’s not surprising. The surprising thing is that this is being published and sold in China, and I am impressed.

According to Chinese-Canadian academic Wenran Jiang, the report has been made available because it is consistent with Hu and Wen’s current populist campaign to reach out to the disenfranchised peasants and display their empathy. The article’s reporter doesn’t say this is extraordinary, but I do. Again, I am impressed — letting this sort of thing go out is risky. The leaders rarely allow such blunt criticism to be publicly spoken, let alone printed and passed around everywhere. Talk about the potential for disharmony and social instability!

Some believe the book and the response to it moved the CCP to recently re-release Central Document 1, a policy statement prepared in 1982 demanding improvement in farm incomes. Wenran Jiang agrees, but says its importance should not be over-emphasized.

“I am convinced that the release of this Central Document is a response to the book,” said Prof Jiang. “The question is, can it solve the problems by calling for increased rural incomes?

“My answer, on reading this book, is ‘no’. The Document will be just like other ones – come the end of the year, the officials will just falsify their figures.”

Sounds a touch cynical to me. I want to believe this signifies something important, perhaps a fundamental shift. But I’ve seen lots of false starts before, so for now I’ll maintain my healthy skepticism until we see more action.

The Discussion: 15 Comments


I agree that the book and its message being published here is impressive. There is a personal coincidence, however, that I thought I’d alert you and your readers to: Professor Wenran Jiang and I just taped a segment of DIALOGUE (CCTV International–Channel 9) together. I believe it will air tomorrow, the 26th, but I am not certain.

We dealt with some of the same issues that are the focal points of the book and article, however, we ranged further afield than its issues alone.

Professor Wenran is a delightful fellow, he is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta. 20 years ago he taught at CFAU, where I am a professor now. Even in China we can say that it’s a small world!


February 25, 2004 @ 7:15 pm | Comment

What a wonderful coincidence. I must say, I hope he is wrong this time, and that something is actually done to improve the lot of brutalized farmers.

February 25, 2004 @ 7:23 pm | Comment

While he is a personally delightful fellow, his research speciality is the rural/impoverished peoples of East Asia. Spending years studying that subject tends to make one pessimistic in outlook. He is still staunchly proud of being Chinese, however. When I teased him that after almost 20 years in Canada, and having tenure at the University of Alberta, he was a “native” Canadian, he was quick to squelch that notion and tell me that he returns to the mainland frequently.

He does believe that if the CPC can solve the problem of the extreme gap between rural income and urban income China’s future is bright. But if they cannot, he fears that the whole system might implode.

Let us hope for the best.

February 25, 2004 @ 8:45 pm | Comment

He does believe that if the CPC can solve the problem of the extreme gap between rural income and urban income China’s future is bright.

I’m sure he’s right, but let’s keep in mind what an enormous “if” that is! It is by far China’s most pressing dilemma, especially as its middle class grows. It was from such a state of injustice and inequality that Mao’s peasants began their revolt some 80 years ago, and once they’re desperate enough, there’s no rule saying it can’t happen again.

February 25, 2004 @ 9:19 pm | Comment

I’m not a Chinese history major, but from what I’ve read, an awful lot of Chinese dynasties were toppled by peasant uprisings. This didn’t just start with Mao, the danger of a large, disgruntled peasant movement has been here since at least the Qin.

February 25, 2004 @ 9:58 pm | Comment

Well, as we say “you scooped me.”

I’ve been meaning to blog Zhongguo nongming diaocha it for a long time now, almost two weeks!, but just haven’t gotten around to it. Until tonight that is.

Thanks for the kick in the butt.

February 25, 2004 @ 10:21 pm | Comment

Yes, Richard, it is the biggest “if” facing China. The reason I have cautious optimism is that the Party members in the ascendancy are quite aware that it could all come crashing down.

As the commenter Fiona Pollard so astutely reminds us, peasant-class revolutions have a long history of effecting “regime change” in the Middle Kingdom. Being in a position to discuss such things with some of these people in the ascendancy, I know how much they look to China’s history as a guide to its future.

I wished Americans studied history–and attempted to learn from it–as do the Chinese. So, again, I choose optimism. Only time will tell if I did it foolishly.

February 26, 2004 @ 12:54 am | Comment

From my seven years experience of a public servant ,I strongly suggest you not to hope the best.I just want to say this is a ruse.Mr. HU must find ways to strength his position or mandate. He have no or weak support from inner CCP(controlled by henchmen of Mr. Jiang).They need peasants or disenfranchised people to consolidate his power base, to make him a glory and caring leader. From my humble point, he is exploiting us(expat or foreign expert include).I remember that in 1989 when Mr jiang just resumed the mantle, somebody (even some foreign newspaper) thought he WILL BE A REFORMER, because he is fluent in English.

February 26, 2004 @ 2:19 am | Comment

I was sent a copy of the Nongmin Diaocha and can forward it to anyone who really wants it. It’s nice that some of you are now realizing that the Chinese press is liberalizing and reporting on things that cast the Party and its policies in a not-so-favorable light. But people who’ve read papers like the Southern Weekend and even the Beijing Youth Daily over the last couple of years aren’t so shocked.

People who view everything in terms of intra-Party factional politics (DeepOcean1974, for example) are, I think, missing the point: Sure, there’s cynical manipulation of the media — perhaps even the foreign media — going on in Zhongnanhai, and yes, Hu’s embattled and needs flanking support from without the Party, but he’s aligning himself with powerful forces favoring a more transparent, open society with the media playing a more important and more independent role. The genie’s out of the bottle.

A while back Jeremy blogged a Nanfang Zhoumo cover with a story about Qiu He, a zealously reform-minded Party Sec in Jiangsu. And Good Good Study was good enough to point me to another controversial reformer by the name of Lu Rizhou, who also used the glaring light of the media to expose malfeasance within the local Party apparatus he was running in Changzhi, Shanxi. You can read about Lu Rizhou in English here. They’re both fascinating characters, and I’m hoping to feature both in a story I’m now working on. I’ll keep you all posted.

February 26, 2004 @ 2:39 pm | Comment

Seems to me that whomever can feed the peasants is who has the Mandate of Heaven, and so has it ever been.

Or at least, that those who can’t will lose it!

It is shocking to me as a foreign observer that the CCP has allowed a book like this to be published, especially this widely.

It’s the first instance of press liberalization that doesn’t, from the other side of the world, feel like Potemkin window dressing. Such an honest portrayal of the single largest problem (well, the banking system is part of it ๐Ÿ™‚ in China is a good sign. If you can’t talk about a problem you can’t find a solution.

Allowing this kind of societal self-reflection is infinately more useful to solving it’s problems than Party Document or, say, the Three Represents.

Whomever in power in China who first understands that the free flow of information via an open press is essential to solving it’s problems, and bringing the People happiness, will truly have the Mandate of Heaven.

Bootstrapping the peasants of China and India into the middle class is perhaps the largest work to be done in the 21st Century (well, aside from the hopeless situation in Africa. I just have to write that one off in my mind as hopeless to avoid being overcome with grief at the suffering of that continent.
Garden of our Fathers, how you bleed!)

Ack, I wonder what the income distribution curves look like for both India and China? Anyone have links to Asian income data?

That doesn’t suck? ๐Ÿ™‚

February 26, 2004 @ 6:18 pm | Comment

David, you’re so right, and this absolutely blew me away. It’s not really inconsistent with the Hu/Wen reforms — and there is evidence of some true reform — especially in terms of cracking down on (or at least acknowledging and focusing on) local corruption. In my mind, if the CCP could achieve this, if they could end the brutality carried out against its citizens by the cadres, it would be the public relations coup of the century, like South Africa ending Apartheid or the Soviets standing by as Berliners tore the wall down.

But…because of the state-owned enterprise system and all the built-in corruption that comes with it, I can’t be truly optimistic. Still, when I see articles like this, I have to ask, Could it really be possible? Could they really be holding the mirror up to themselves? I know that there won’t be any overnight transformation, but this seems like a most positive sign.

Looking at Kaiser’s comment above, I believe he is right, that the media are becoming more willing to say what needs to be said about reform. But then I see it come crashing down by the counter-balancing news of reporters in Guangzhou being fired and foreign reporters forbidden from covering bird flu. So I’ll watch with what I call a healthy skepticism, knowing that time and again in the past when I felt encouraged I ended up disappointed. Maybe this time they’ll really surprise me….?

February 26, 2004 @ 6:31 pm | Comment

As for the comment by Joseph Bosco that:

“I wished Americans studied history–and attempted to learn from it–as do the Chinese. So, again, I choose optimism. Only time will tell if I did it foolishly.”

I remind him that history repeats itself nowhere more than in the Middle Kingdom (or whatever more modern name you choose to give it). Perhaps Fiona Pollard could underline that as well.

Surely there are incredible forces at work here at the moment, but those forces are not the work of the CPC. So much for studying history and trying to learn from it.

February 27, 2004 @ 9:37 am | Comment

I can think of several ways the CCP could really blow it and end up with a fatal (to them) peasant revolt on their hands.

And that’s just talking about the risk of a banking collapse during the ongoing WTO accession process. Anything involving a hot war with Taiwan would accellerate that, as there goes a ton of capital flow.

Anything else that causes a major falling out with the US would be disastrous too (capital flow again. We can replace cheap chinese labor with, oh, cheap Indian labor. They can’t replace the US market for their goods).
Korea gone bad is the major landmine here (Taiwan of course would trigger a lesser version of this too most likely).

All that on top of the structural rural poverty issues that typically bring down dynasties there, in the modern re-mix version.

If I had any money to bet in the market right now, I’d put in on India ๐Ÿ™‚

February 29, 2004 @ 4:31 am | Comment

I am very interested in Mr. and Mrs. Guidi’s observations and reporting on peasant living conditions in China. My Uncle Pallo is a dedicated student of China Politics and International Relations. He is 86 years old and has devoted his past 60 years to the study of International Relations. I am of course interested in Mr. Guidi’s heritage, in as much as, we may have some common blood in our veins.

February 19, 2005 @ 2:00 am | Comment

how can I meet in farmer duck

April 25, 2005 @ 5:04 am | Comment

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