The 8th Rebellion

From Other Lisa…

Interesting editorial in today’s UK Guardian about the Chinese textile industry, rural poverty and the potential consequences of a trade war with the West over cheap Chinese exports. The part that interested me was not so much about the textile controversy as the following commentary about the nature of Chinese peasantry and what has and has not changed since 1949:

Eight hundred million peasant farmers occupy a country almost exactly the same size as the USA. Most farm tiny plots of land leased to them by the village co-operatives, often the same plots their families have farmed for 2,000 years or more.

One of China’s best-kept secrets is that the communists never succeeded in breaking patterns of land ownership that were first legally registered in 350BC. A property-owning, one-party state has been transmuted into a lease-holding, one-party state .

China’s peasantry, unlike any other in the world, has a tradition of empowerment as well as a long experience of living on subsistence incomes. Today’s villages are testimony to the harshness of life. Houses are rarely more than a storey high and most have dirt floors with no more than rudimentary facilities; human waste is another useful source of fertiliser. Outside at this time of the year, vegetables are being dried ready for storage over the long winter. A family gets by on a weekly income of no more than £10.

China’s rulers, imperial and communist dynasties alike, are profoundly wary of these peasant millions. Regime-change in China has always been rooted in a mass peasant revolt sparked by deep resentment of inequality and poverty; the last six imperial dynasties fell this way.

There are still a few people left who think there was a communist revolution in 1949. Today, it is pretty obvious, given the increasingly tenuous link between communism and contemporary China, that it was a seventh regime-changing peasant revolt. And the communist leadership is terrified that if it doesn’t deliver more prosperity and equality, it will fall prey to an eighth.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

Well yes of course, 1949 was just the start of the next dynasty. Except this time the emperor wasn’t going to Tian Tan to confer with the Heavens, he rather took his wisdom from communist writings and also produced his own manual on how to be a Red Chinese.

A few good things happened back then too, like the health care system the way it was in the seventies, a historic good example.

Finally Deng opened up the shop, but progress was slow in the eighties, so yes, maybe things got close to a regime change in 1989, but those calls for more democracy were still based in ideology. By now, no Chinese can be mobilized anymore based on ideology, it’s all become driven by the urge for general well-being and against abuses like corruption.

Has not this government done more for the Chinese peasantry than any other before? Raising wages and cutting taxes. Changes may be slow but hey, if you have to share the pie with the 800 million lot, that’s what happens. This time around, Chinese farmers have better chances by keeping the pressure on for more health care and the like, rather than ousting these guys.

August 29, 2005 @ 4:38 am | Comment

I’ve always seen 49 as a new dynasty – Mao in particular seemed to fit a certain Imperial mode – but the continuity in land ownership was something I’d never really thought of.

As I’ve often said before, I wish China’s leaders luck – a failed China is not something that the world can afford, IMO.

August 29, 2005 @ 10:14 am | Comment

Interesting perspective Lisa. So you hope for the status quo to continue with a small elite guaranteed power and the rest told to enjoy the ‘bread and circuses’. Your perspective is well worth considering, because I suspect that sooner rather than later China’s rulers will present the west with the North Korean scenario: if you don’t prop us up we will implode and you won’t like the mess that creates.

August 29, 2005 @ 9:37 pm | Comment


Er, well, no. Such is the danger of making quick comments in the middle of my work day to be polite.

Look, I’d rather see a more democractic China for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I think the feedback mechanism greater democracy provides is the only way for China to have a prayer of rooting out the corruption endemic to the current system. Similarly, I strongly believe in both the necessity and the utility of a watchdog press. And I think strengthening the rule of law as a counterbalance to arbitrary authority is a must.

I mean, I’ve said all of these things in this forum more times than I can count, including that quote about democracy: ‘it’s a crappy system, it’s just better than anything else we’ve got.’

I firmly believe this.

On a practical level, I hope that the current government can keep China’s peasant masses fed and clothed and housed, because I hate to see the sheer human misery that a major breakdown in Chinese society would create. I suppose you can make the argument that only a major breakdown and sheer misery will motivate the kind of revolutionary change that will bring about a more democratic China, but, I don’t know, that sort of thing hasn’t really worked all that well in reality, has it?

I’m hoping that the current government will evolve into something more genuinely representative and just, though I have to say, so far the signs aren’t terribly promising.

August 30, 2005 @ 12:04 am | Comment

Ah, this old chestnut. This topic was the first argument I ever had with commenter KLS a while back. I.e. is keeping the status quo in China (lack of freedoms, censorship, corruption etc etc) a price worth paying for keeping the population clothed and fed etc?

Or, to continue this debate on a bit: would the collapse of the current govt and political system be a good thing in the long run, despite the fact that it would likely cause a great deal of misery to the majority of the population in the short-term?

Even then, would any post-CCP govt be necessarily better than the one we have now? Who’s to say that an even more harsh regime would rise from the chaos of any collapse?

August 30, 2005 @ 1:52 am | Comment

“I’m hoping that the current government will evolve into something more genuinely representative and just, though I have to say, so far the signs aren’t terribly promising.”

Deng Xiao Ping’s famous statement about black and white cats cuts both ways: if the Party succeeds in building a well-off society, who says fulfledged democracy is a necessary ingredient? That was my point in my comment above when I said 1989 was about democracy as an ideology (perceived as the solution for every problem), but now people are just focussing on the well-off-ness rather than any particular government format or ideology.

Would e.g. health-care reform come about faster when there were several parties bickering (that’s multiparty politics) about how it should be done?

Democracy may come when it’s time for that. Right now, other things are more urgent and calls for real democracy would kind of get in the way.

Of course there is a lot still to be fixed and yes we can ask the 800 million farmers. But at the same time, there are 500 million city people leading a good and stable life that many other countries can only dream of. That’s the population of Europe and the States put together.

August 30, 2005 @ 1:54 am | Comment

Mitch, my disagreement is that I think democracy is actually a more efficient system in many ways for addressing some of China’s problems. I don’t see how the current top down model can cope with the problems it faces, now that it’s relaxed some of its control.

And while I can understand the hesitation on adopting some kind of multiparty system, the crackdown on media and public discourse strikes me as particularly counterproductive.

But like I say, I hope for the best.

August 30, 2005 @ 2:19 am | Comment

In a way, China already has a multi-FACTION system. The CCP is a very broad church of opinions, regions and factions. We see evidence of this all the time. The most recent example of real-politiking was Hu Jintao’s decsion to make the damning report into China’s healthcare system public, no doubt to pressure dissenters in the party to get serioius about the issue.

Also, “dem0cracy” is, really, just another way of ensuring accountability. Dem0cracy and the rule of law go hand-in-hand. Therefore, I personally would like to see China go down the road towards establishing the rule of law. However, in authoritarian systems, the govt IS the law and the political elite do not, generally, like to see any independent bodies which have the power to challenge the govt.

August 30, 2005 @ 2:28 am | Comment

Corruption endemic in the system! I would venture to say that it is not limited to the rulers after the 8th (recorded and successful) peasant revolt, but somehing that has been a part of the ruling system here for thousands of years.

August 30, 2005 @ 2:36 am | Comment

Martyn, I agree that the factionalism in the CCP might form the basis for a more truly dem0cratic system, down the road.

August 30, 2005 @ 3:12 am | Comment

phs, there is corruption in every government in history. As long as taxes are collected and power doled out, there will be corruption. There has to be.

But there’s no denying that the dark side of Deng’s amazing legacy is a system in which corruption is the lifeblood of the nation – something that would have been unthinkable under Mao.

We all know things are better for many, and worse for some. But the bottom line is that a lot of misery could be done away with fairly quickly if there was accountability and rule of law. Until then, the CCP leaves itself vulnerable to all kinds of charges, especially that it cares more about its own survival than the good of its people. Do I really have to document one by one the stories of the party fucking its citizens and allowing them to be trampled by the rich and the well-connected? As long as this continues, the social rifts will widen and unrest will keep growing. You’d never know that here in Beijing, where life seems so good and comfortable, but you don’t have to look very hard to see what’s happening in the world of the disenfranchised.

August 30, 2005 @ 3:39 am | Comment

I’m not so sure about that Lis. Any move towards democracy by the CCP (and, as I say, I would consider the establishment of the rule of law to be a more realistic goal at this point) would mean the end of CCP rule in China. That, is simply not an option.

August 30, 2005 @ 3:40 am | Comment

Wrote a long post but it seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. In lieu I have posted a brief summary:

China is and always had factions: this warlord versus that warlord; this general versus that general; agrarian interests versus trade interests; coastal cities versus the interior; eunuch versus mandarin. What else is new?

What is interesting about the factions is that there are challenges to the ruling party within the system; the only question is will the next serious challenge come from a renewed Shanghai clique, a jealous PLA leader with bigger desires, or a slighted cadre masked as a peasant leader?

As for deM0crassy, I think it would be wonderful for the world. Self-actualization is our highest ideal. However, lady D requires somethings that are lacking: an educated and rational populace (something most places in the world lack); a good school system to act as a training ground for the above; a free and independent court system; a free and independent press. I think China would greatly benefit from phasing in the previous factors first before it takes any large scale movements toward Lady D…

August 30, 2005 @ 8:44 am | Comment

I’m with Martyn on this one: the measures most needed to address systemic problems (e.g. accountability, independant press, rule of law, independant judiciary, reduction of corruption. etc.) all threaten the CCP’s own welfare.

From the CCP’s point of view, the nation’s ills may be serious, but the treatment appears potentially lethal.

Hard to see a way out of this conundrum short of some great shock that changes the equation.

August 30, 2005 @ 8:45 am | Comment

Corruption is the key. If China can surmount the problem of corruption then they have cracked part of the the problem. However, accountability is the key. More moves along the road of regional accountability and the rule of law is the way forward to the great nation of China.

August 30, 2005 @ 9:37 am | Comment

>some great shock that changes the equation.

The US should launch a pre-emptive strike on Taiwan. You heard me. It would be so shocking and confusing to the CCP that democracy would surely follow.

phs: “Corruption endemic in the system!” Is that a Holy Grail reference?

August 30, 2005 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

Thank you for the info!

September 16, 2005 @ 7:00 am | Comment

Heard of the historical Chinese classic “The Water Margin”?
It is no different then and now…just a different mask of the corrupt Soong Dynasty.
We keep exploiting all the poor 800 million Chinese peasants like the old Soong dynasty era, sturcture the country with lots of Local corrupt officials like running dogs, to remain in power and dont educate the poor illiterate farmers, so you can lie to them and they cannot tell the difference.
We need another Confucious to change China and get rid of those Robbers in
power siting and feasting in Beijing at the expense of its own people.
Dont blame the West, the faceless people with no moral and without heaven’s mandate to rule, have to look
at the mirror…and it is ugly!!!
By the way I am a real Chinese at heart and blood and loyal to the Chinese people but not to the Beijing and local running dogs.
Real Chinese

October 26, 2005 @ 11:06 pm | Comment

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