Joseph Kahn on China’s suppression of Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha


The publication of this survey on the plight of Chinese peasants was seen just a few months ago as a major breakthrough. It seemed to signal a new willingness on the part of populists Hu and Wen to actually encourage dialogue on a taboo subject. It was, for me at least, unbelievable. They were actually exposing the abuses against the peasantry! So there was little surprise when we heard weeks later that the book had been banned, but there was a lot of disappointment.

Kahn presents the first detailed article I’ve seen on this sad story.

The book describes one farmer, named Ding Zuoming, and his decade-long campaign to enforce central government directives limiting taxes and fees. Although the Beijing authorities reviewed and approved his complaints, the local police found an excuse to arrest him, the book says. They beat him to death in custody.

The authors tell the story of Zhang Keli, described as an idealistic public official devoted to fighting poverty. Over time, he found that fellow village chiefs had found ways to enrich themselves and their relatives, even while they won promotions.

“He felt like he would be an idiot not to take his share,” Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu wrote.

The book became an unexpected best seller earlier this year. Whether that was because it named names in exposรฉs about the underside of China’s boom or because its publication coincided with an effort by Mr. Wen to promote new rural policies is unclear.

Chen Xiwen, the deputy director of the Central Finance and Economics Leading Group, a high-level government policy-making committee, and the man considered China’s foremost rural policy expert, said in a recent interview that he had bought two copies, one for the office and the other to keep at home….

Propaganda authorities evidently felt the book went too far. Even as a media frenzy built in March, the government-owned publisher got a verbal order to cease printing. Media coverage ended instantly. The authors estimate that the book has sold as many as 7 million copies, but they earned royalties on only the 200,000 legal copies sold before the ban.

More disconcerting to the authors, a disgruntled local official named in the book, Zhang Xide, filed a libel suit against them seeking $24,000 in damages. As Chinese officials rarely file court actions without the approval of superiors, Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu say they effectively face prosecution by Anhui Province.

That would be the final irony, if after all the exultation and dismay the authors end up being punished. Sometimes it seems like part of the culture, putting the nation’s heroes and whistleblowers in jail.

Reform in China so often seems to resemble — pardon the expression — a Chinese fire drill. They give us a strong hint of improvement, we get all excited, articles come out, the blogs go nuts, we all wonder, Is this it — the real thing?? And then it just evaporates as though it never happened at all, and we’re back where we were before. It’s exhausting. It’s dizzying. And it’s always exactly the same.

UPDATE: I edited this post, changing an earlier sentence where I said the books authors might face going to prison; if they are punished, they would probably have to pay a high fine, and not face prison time.

The Discussion: 28 Comments

I have a theory about this … god only knows if it’s right of course since it’s purely speculative.

I think that a lot of things that signal apparent reform or new openess may be caused by something entirely different. The Chinese government seems incapable of swift action or decision making. They’re petrified of allowing one man rule, because when Mao had it, he effectively used his influence to attack the party members … and none of them want to be the targets of a new Cultural Revolution. Thus, the leadership structure is designed that you always have to have a consensus at the top before you can do anything. So, while there is a disagreement, nothing gets done. For example, in this case, it may simply have been that some people didn’t want to suppress it, others did, but no action was taken until a general compromise and consensus could be reached. It wasn’t therefore a policy decision to be more open … it was rather a vacuum of decision making that allowed this book to be published and circulated for so long, and when a decision was finally reached … well, we can see what happens.

Anyway … it’s a thought.

July 8, 2004 @ 8:39 pm | Comment

So it got banned. So what?

Foreign movies were banned in China this year. So what? I watched three before I left. Including Shrek 2. The point is that they can’t be banned fast enough before they get published and republished and repirated. And that means they’re aren’t winning.

The book is out there and being read. It’s that simple.

Maybe you’re getting that dizzying feeling for another reason.

July 8, 2004 @ 9:03 pm | Comment

Li En, I am inclined to believe you.

As for Adam: Maybe you’re getting that dizzying feeling for another reason.

Not quite sure what that means, but I won’t ask.

Adam, you may have a so-what attitude about the government’s drastic about-face — one that may result in the author’s going to prison; that’s your choice. I just see it differently, especially after this was pointed to some months ago as a great step forward. Celebrate the appearance of progress, be silent about the CCP’s taking it all away. That’s cool; I just see it differently. I can’t be silent. Just my obnoxious journalistic nature.

July 8, 2004 @ 9:58 pm | Comment

Adam is so invested in his mistaken assertion that Hu and Wen were reformers that he’s become an apologist to the dictatorship. It’s sad, but it’s the only conclusion I can come to after reading his willingness to excuse, explain or dismiss each successive outrage.

July 9, 2004 @ 4:25 am | Comment

Richard, Adam has a good point. This book is easily available in China. I’ve seen many a copy on the side of the road, and one in my apartment. The CCP can only take so much, as can the people. You’re right in that the censorship is bad, and I hope that the authors spend as little time in jail as possible, but when a copy belonging to a CCP member is sitting in my apartment here in Beijing, one has to wonder….. I’m not trying to excuse, justify or pretend that things aren’t so bad here, I’m just saying the kind of perspective one gets here in the mainland is far more useful in interpreting such events than anything in the western press.

Conrad, I healthy dose of real life on the streets of mainland China would do you and your comments a world of good.

July 9, 2004 @ 5:56 am | Comment

SIgh … I don’t get these people … they think that just because the Chinese government is too incompetent to effectively enforce all its evil dicatates, that somehow makes those dictates any less evil. And then call this a healthy does of reality? *Cough*

July 9, 2004 @ 7:49 am | Comment

Chris, I think you are missing a larger point: We all came out and congratulated the government because it was allowing this book to be sold. Period. Not that it was available through illegal means. We saw it as a breakthrough and as the first sign in years that the plight of China’s peasants was a real priority, and we gave Wen and Hu a lot of praise. A lot of stuff is “out there” illicitly via the Internet and other means. But the peasant survey and its availability to everyone was a shining example of change from within the government, exactly what I was waiting for. That’s why Kahn has a very long story about it in today’s NY Times. I posted several times in the past on how good this was, so when news comes out about the government going in the exact opposite direction, banning the book and threatening to imprison the authors, I’m not going to shrug and say “So what?” Neither is Kahn, and I’m grateful for his article.

July 9, 2004 @ 9:08 am | Comment

It is at least a sign of progress that such material got its way to publication by a state owned publisher. Granted that this is still a closed society, things are quite different compared to the old days.

There are tons of complain about and lots of outraging stuffs going on, but reforms take time. I guess, as a Chinese, I still have (and need) a sense of hope. If we decide that the top leaders are just a punch of evildoers, things would be simple and no more discussions are needed.

July 9, 2004 @ 9:20 am | Comment

Of course they aren’t all evil doers, though quite a few seem to qualify. It was great that it was published, and it was great that things opened up after SARS and it was great they that Dr. Jiang was treated as a hero for more than a year — but it’s equally upsetting that these positive signs were then reversed. There’s still room for tremendous hope and opportunity in China. China responded well to the international pressure over SARS (at least for a few weeks), so it’s important that the world media not be silent over their wrongdoings. If we all shrug and say “So what?” there will be far less impetus for true reform.

July 9, 2004 @ 9:41 am | Comment

While it is a shame that the book was banned I don’t think it indicates that nothing is being done for the plight of the rural workers. Most of the books stories take place 4 or more years ago and who knows if they acurately reflect what the conditions are like in Anhui now. I know I don’t; I have never been there.

I do know that up until the SARS period conditions had been improving for some rural workers in Shandong, Liaoning, and Hebei when they took a step backwards. And I have noticed that the conditions recently in areas of Liaoning seem to be approaching pre-SARS levels again.

July 9, 2004 @ 10:18 am | Comment

Hu has focused a lot of effort on improving the plight of China’s peasants. That’s a fact and I’ve credited him for that. And that’s why the banning of this book is such a disappointment.

July 9, 2004 @ 10:20 am | Comment

I edited this post; the authors are facing a heavy fine, not imprisonment, if they lose the lawsuit in court. Sorry about that.

July 9, 2004 @ 11:40 am | Comment

i posted a message with the nytimes article about this book on the china daily forums. it’s been up for about six hours. i know the moderators/censors have seen it, but they probably haven’t got any specific directives about banning this topic. anyway … i’ve never been to china, but it seems to be opening a lot more than some give it credit for.

July 9, 2004 @ 7:33 pm | Comment

You’ve never been to the PR of C?? Where does your intense interest in the country come from?

July 9, 2004 @ 8:22 pm | Comment

Richard, my point was simply to state that there is only so much the government can hide. Everybody with their head out of the sand knows what’s going on, or at least has a good idea even if they lack the specific details in areas outside their expertise. I agree with your point completely, though. Censorship is a gigantic leap backward.

Filthy Stinking No.9, I’m not trying to minimise anything, let alone justify oppression. I’m not stupid. By ‘a healthy dose of reality’ I simply mean that somebody who lives in Hong Kong and who’s claim to fame is his habit of constantly spouting right-wing propaganda is not in the best position to be commenting on events here in the mainland, especially when he still thinks the CCP is one colossal monolith of evil. Relax, let’s debate the real issues here.

Yes, I am disappointed with the behaviour of the Hu-Wen team, yes, I would love to see more efforts at genuine reform and opening up. But an official ban, as has been admitted by most commenters, is of limited effect. The information is out there, we all know what’s happening, as much as Americans know what the US government is up to (i.e. we have enough information to make logical conclusions about the truth). But, as M.C. pointed out, reforms take time.

In fact, M.C. gets my vote for wisest comment in this thread.

July 10, 2004 @ 12:39 am | Comment

Several things: I think that the current Chinese leadership is so factionalized that it will be difficult to judge Hu/Wen until Jiang Zemin has really “left the stage,” and FS9’s remark that the appearance of the book in the first place may have reflected a lack of consensus among the leadership is a good one. I think that the combination of official censorship and a pervasive & extensive black market for “censored” materials is a way of having your cake and eating it too – officially you censor the stuff and condemn it or try to cover it up; unofficially, the truth is out there. I would think the gov. could crack down harder on such things if they wanted to…granted, I speak from the perspective of someone who lived in China in the bad old days of 1979…so as heinous as the current regime can be, things are so very different now that I still can hardly believe it at times.

As for the exhausting dizzyness of the swings between reform and repression…yeah…I sure remember that. But in the old days the swings seemed much, much greater. If that makes any sense. It’s late.

July 10, 2004 @ 1:20 am | Comment

It occurs to me I may have been unneccessarily hard on some people in my last comment. My apologies if any offense was caused.

July 10, 2004 @ 5:27 am | Comment

No worries Chris … at least, I didn’t take offense.

I think that incompetence is not to be underestimated as a factor. A lot of the senior people in various posts got their jobs in the days when it was a virtue to boast of being an ignorant peasant … there really are people in leadership roles who would boast of only knowing how to read a few hundred characters.

I remember my surprise at being able to buy a bilingual Chinese reader of Animal Farm in Beijing. Back in Sydney I was talking about it with one of my Chinese teachers who was of the right generation to have been sent to the fields simply because she was a uni student at the wrong time in China’s history. Her explanation for how such a thing could get by was that the people who run the censorship board are a pack of ingorant bores who don’t really know what they’re seeing. So the publisher just dresses it up with a description of how this is an attack on the corrupt capitalists, or some such thing, and they just pass it for publication …

It may simply be the case that this book got published because the publisher took the censor out for a banquet meal and they got drunk together. It’s how a lot of business is done in China. I doubt there was much politics in the initial decision to let it out … only in the decision to ban it.

July 10, 2004 @ 9:21 am | Comment

I have a post dnouncing Mao as a mass murderer up at a China Daily message board this instant; it’s been there for 2 days now. Another example of the inconsistency and arbitrariness of Chinese censorship (and the fact that it’s in English may have something to do with it as well).

Chris, no offense taken, and I always enjoy your perspective. Censorship may be my No. 1 hot button so I know I can get overly impassioned on topics like this. And Joseph Kahn, too, sees this as a sad story worthy of a long article, so I think I’m in good company.

July 10, 2004 @ 1:20 pm | Comment

They let it get printed,

and then they banned it! Where’s the outrage! Where’s the damning condemnation! Not from here. Why? There’s this book (“Investigations in Chinese Peasants”) that was heavily critical of government policies and that exposed some embarrassing incidents i…

July 10, 2004 @ 9:17 pm | Comment


I don’t think that you have to have been to the mainland to have an intense interest. After all, I came to China to feed an intense interest, and I had never been before.

Isn’t as simple as, “Man, I’ve never smoked pot, and people always told me not to do it. And I don’t know anything about it, so i guess I should just try it.” It’s really that simple.

INformation about real life in China is very limited. I think that would drive several people to want to know more. If not, then it’s a sad case for humanity that nobody would follow up curiosity with active exploration of an unknown.

Then again, only one person invented the telephone. Or did he?

hmmm. dun dun dun!

July 10, 2004 @ 9:44 pm | Comment

HK, of course you don’t have to have been to the mainland to be intrigued by it. I’ve been intrigued by China ever since I learned it existed.

True enough that there’s not enough information out there about life in China. Thank god for bloggers like you and me who can tell the world the truth! (Said with a big hint of humor.)

July 11, 2004 @ 6:45 pm | Comment

I never tell the truth. ๐Ÿ™‚

July 12, 2004 @ 1:33 am | Comment

Asia by blog

Before I begin today’s edition a simple request: if you come across an entry (or you’ve got an entry on your blog) that you think should appear here, please send it to me. Also if you have any feedback on the current format or other likes and dislikes …

July 12, 2004 @ 1:55 am | Comment

Are too! Are not!

Arguments about how well/poorly things are going in China are as inevitable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west (and likely to happen just as often). Things are getting worse! Are not! Are too! Are

July 12, 2004 @ 2:07 pm | Comment

Asia by blog

Another edition of the various links in Asian blogging: Hong Kong, Taiwan and China Dan McCarthy posted an article on Living in China stating China would not attack Taiwan, ever. Joseph had an extensive (and to my mind accurate) response, including the…

July 15, 2004 @ 12:26 am | Comment

Asia by blog

Another edition of the various links in Asian blogging: Hong Kong, Taiwan and China Dan McCarthy posted an article on Living in China stating China would not attack Taiwan, ever. Joseph had an extensive (and to my mind accurate) response, including the…

July 15, 2004 @ 12:30 am | Comment

Getting the book published was an accident.
Getting it banned is just the daily job of the CCP propagandists.

August 7, 2004 @ 3:30 am | Comment

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