China waking up to the threat of rural unrest (again)

Another decree, another promise to roll out new reforms, and another sign that rural rage has the CCP scared out of their wits.

Faced with steadily increasing peasant unrest, the Communist Party has decreed extensive changes to improve the lot of farmers and stop rapid economic development from encroaching on their land.

The party declared rural reform a major goal of its new five-year economic program, which began this month. The government has also announced the abolition of an agricultural tax that is thousands of years old, free public school education for peasant children and new rural insurance to subsidize medical care for those among the country’s 800 million farmers who cannot afford to see doctors.

The swift sequence of decisions reflected the depth of concern in the party and government as farmers outraged by land grabs and pollution increasingly rise up in violent protests that senior officials have said pose a threat to stability and continued economic growth. The Public Security Ministry estimated the number of riots and demonstrations at 87,000 during 2005, up more than 6 percent from 2004 and quadruple what it was a decade ago….

Premier Wen Jiabao last month warned senior rural bureaucrats against making “a historical mistake” by failing to protect farmers and their lands, which he predicted would lead to more violence. In particular, he cautioned, towns should not violate the law in seizing land nor sell confiscated fields to businesses as a way to raise public funds.

“This is a key issue that affects the stability of the countryside and the society, and it must be clearly recognized by all levels of government and party committees,” he said, according to a text of his speech published last week by the party’s official People’s Daily.

President Hu Jintao drove home the message Friday in an address to the Politburo, urging resolution of the “major contradictions and problems we are faced with” in the countryside. “If we cannot succeed in developing agriculture and rural areas while helping farmers improve their lives markedly, we will fail to reach the goal of building a comparatively prosperous society,” he said, according to the official New China News Agency.

He’s certainly right about that. I hope to God they are serious this time. We’re talking about the bulk of China’s population here, the ones who traditionally create the revolutions. They can’t be treated like untouchables forever. Unfortunately, I remember getting my hopes up for reform with the publication in 2004 of the Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha, which was then banned and the owners fined. So I take each new announcement of “sweeping reforms” with a hefty grain of sea-salt, and hope that maybe, just maybe, this one time they may really go ahead and do what they promise.

Read the rest of the article to see how so far all the pretentious talk about cracking down on officials who take away peasant’s land illegally have come to nothing. Absolutely nothing. Maybe this time it’ll all be different. Maybe.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 23 Comments

It is quite simply a case of the ball being in Beijing’s court. If Hu, Wen et al really want to ensure future stability, they’re going to have to bite on the bullet and fire/arrest the guilty officials. They can do it if they wish. But merely hoping that acting tough, while trying to divert attention away from the true extent of the problem to “save face”, will work is a bad idea.

Even someone like Zhang Dejiang must not have “immunity”. Who cares if he was appointed by Jiang? Jiang is an unpopular old man and is no longer head of the CMC. If Hu doesn’t act just because the old fart is still alive, then he’s never going to be able to sort China’s political problems out.

January 28, 2006 @ 1:02 pm | Comment

The party declared rural reform a major goal of its new five-year economic program, which began this month. The government has also announced the abolition of an agricultural tax that is thousands of years old, free public school education for peasant children and new rural insurance to subsidize medical care for those among the country’s 800 million farmers who cannot afford to see doctors.

Much of the reforms talked about here are not new and in fact have already started and already made a big improvement in the countryside. The tax burden on rural farmers has already been reduced dramatically and was a big reason why most Chinese people were so high on Hu/Wen a couple of years ago. School fees are also being reduced with some provinces planning to completely abolish school fees this year. This is one area where Hu/Wen haven’t gotten enough credit in the Western media.

January 28, 2006 @ 1:17 pm | Comment

This is a good website have a look http://ihatechina.ytmnd.com/ and stop stealing jobs and all the international investments.

January 28, 2006 @ 3:23 pm | Comment

Ya know, I’m going to go out on a limb here and figure that a website called “I hate China” is not exactly a source of unbiased information…just a thought.

January 28, 2006 @ 3:46 pm | Comment

Friday I Ching: “Strike Hard” or “listen to the farmers”?

On the one hand we have this story in yesterday’s Boston Globe:China to ‘strike hard’ against rising unrest BEIJING (Reuters) – China is preparing to strike hard against rising public unrest, a senior police official said according to state

January 28, 2006 @ 8:05 pm | Comment

How can you have the slightest doubt about the ultimate success of their “sweeping reforms?” Of COURSE their reforms will work. Because, the Communist Party is correct. The Communist Party is DESTINED to succeed, and it ALWAYS represents the best interests of the People. The Communist Party is MAGICAL!

And how do we know this? We know this is true, because the Communist Party says so!

And there’s nothing more to talk about, because the Communist Party is correct.

Just like the Koran. “La illaha il al La”, there is no god but THE God, and God is the Communist Party, and death to all unbelievers.

January 28, 2006 @ 8:48 pm | Comment

Seriously, they’re doomed. Collectively the Communist Party is like a three year old child who wants to believe in his own “magic” powers – but they’re like a three year old child with an arsenal of tanks with which to smash anyone who dares to confront them with reality.

They’re doomed because a single Party dictatorship categorically is incapable of sustainable self-correction. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. They will never give up their fantasy about how – in some magical way – they “represent” the interests of “the people” – and so, they will carry on in a fantasy world until reality finally catches up with them and destroys them. I just hope the casualties won’t be TOO numerous when it finally happens.

And then the world will see that Russia really HAS been ahead of China for the past 15 years. Russia didn’t reform too quickly – China delayed for too long in even contemplating any real reform – and since 1989, China’s Communist Party has been playing a dangerous fantasy game, hoping and hoping that they can keep patching up all of their crimes and their failure with glitz and glassy new skyscrapers…

…meanwhile it’s like a mattress has been slowly smoking in their basement, and now it’s catching fire….

January 28, 2006 @ 8:59 pm | Comment

I have no doubt that Hu/Wen have done a significant amount of work to address the problems in the countryside, as Hui Mao has suggested. But I’m not too optimistic that the rate or magnitude of reforms actually touches the core of the problem. What the Hu/Wen regime had done seemed to be nothing more than a clever publicity stunt.

If lives in rural areas are really improving that much, thanks to Hu/Wen, why is it that there are still increasing number of farmers abandoning their land to work in the city. Many of them become the subject of exploitation. A report in the Age today says, “Millions of the country’s estimated 140 million migrant workers — mostly farmers who work on building sites, restaurants and in other service industries — are owed wages ranging from a few months to more than a year; at least 20 billion yuan is the official figure.” Has the Hu/Wen leadership done anything to address this problem yet?

This news report reminds me of my grand-mother’s experience during late 1930s and early 1940s. She lived in a farming village in the southern part of China. That area was occupied by the warlords. The local government came and went. Policies changed everyday. The KMT regime could do nothing about it. Life under the warlords was so difficult that many women had to leave their family behind to go to work as factory workers or housemaids in Hong Kong and Macau. It looks as if farmers in China are not really getting too far ahead, not even after they’ve been through all these revolutions and political reforms in the last 50 years!

January 29, 2006 @ 7:58 am | Comment

P.S. the title of the report is “New China rises on the back of unpaid migrant workers”. Sorry, I don’t know how to link it.

January 29, 2006 @ 8:01 am | Comment

“China’s Communist Party has been playing a dangerous fantasy game, hoping and hoping that they can keep patching up all of their crimes and their failure with glitz and glassy new skyscrapers…”

A good point Ivan. The western media has not been skeptical enough of this tactic either, in my opinion. Modern China is too often represented in the west as the Shanghai skyline and scant mention is made of the fact that most of the futuristic skyscrapers were built by “floating population” neo-serfs, that the builidings themselves are 80% unoccupied and that Shanghai is just one city in a massive nation.

January 29, 2006 @ 9:17 am | Comment

I just saw this on the Discovery channel. You guys see the CCTV building under construction? It’s an impressive design. Certainly we will give CCTV’s journalism more credibility once it’s complete.

New Tang Dynasty’s better watch out. It will increasingly lose credibility in the public eye unless they can get another european design firm to build them an even more impressive tower.

http://www.arup.com/eastasia/project.cfm?pageid=1948

January 29, 2006 @ 10:29 am | Comment

Fat Cat,

I think what Hu/Wen has done is much more than a publicity stunt. My friends and relatives that come from rural farming areas all confirm that the tax burden has been reduced dramatically. You can also verify this from anecdotal evidence posted on overseas Chinese internet forums. Even in the western press, there has been articles mentioning that factories along the coast are now having a harder time finding workers and are forced to raise wages and improve conditions to attract workers because some workers are returning to their homes now that it’s possible to make a basic living farming again. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the rural/urban inequality is going to disappear any time soon. It is simply impossible for two thirds of China’s population to remain farmers and still obtain a high standard of living. There has to be a mass movement of population from the countryside to the cities before lives can improve significantly. Managing this transition will be a much tough task than abolishing taxes or reducing school fees.

January 29, 2006 @ 2:10 pm | Comment

Sky

CCTV will get more respect when they act like real journalists, rather than a Chinese version of Fox News……

January 29, 2006 @ 5:26 pm | Comment

I’m kidding around Raj.

Incidentally I don’t think Fox is as bad as CCTV.

January 29, 2006 @ 5:36 pm | Comment

Hui Mao, thanks for replying to my comments. I’m glad to know that tax cuts are improving the livelihood of the farming population. However, I’m not convinced that a mass movement of population from the countryside to the cities will provide a solution to social unrest, particularly when there is a lack of industrial legislation to protect the right and welfare of workers. So managing the transition is not just a tough task, it would be almost an impossible one.

I think that the Chinese leadership need to think beyond the square, so to speak, to find a long-term solution to social unrest. But then, their knee-jerk reaction to critcism, their deliberate attempt to cover-up mistakes and their eagerness to divert public attention to other issues (Taiwan, Japan) make me wonder whether they’ve actually had a clue.

January 29, 2006 @ 8:01 pm | Comment

Yeah, the idea of shifting the problem from the countryside to the cities, reminds me of the proverbial “Polish blanket” (sorry for the ethnic joke, for any Poles here – just choose a group of your choice, any dumb nationality like Irish, or Americans, Belgians, etc..)

…well the old joke tells about a guy who tried to make his blanket longer by cutting off part of the bottom and then sewing it back onto the top…

January 29, 2006 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

Ah, of course the above “Polish blanket” joke would not be applicable to Russians. If a Russian thinks his blanket is too short, his typical Russian solution will be to burn down his enemy’s house and then celebrate with some vodka. Actually that’s the Russian solution to just about everything. :-)

January 29, 2006 @ 8:22 pm | Comment

Well, it wouldn’t apply to Australian’s either. For a start, an Australians will not notice that his blanket is too short. He believes that all blankets are the same. If someone tell him that his blanket are not long enough, they’ll say, “No worries mate, lets have a drink”

In any case, thanks for the jokes. I could do with a good laugh today.

January 29, 2006 @ 8:39 pm | Comment

And of course if a Chinese Communist’s blanket is too short, the Propaganda Department will order everyone to keep quiet about it.

(this is turning into a variant of “light bulb” jokes, I see….)

January 30, 2006 @ 7:06 am | Comment

http://tinyurl.com/85kdd

Great article on Gao Zhisheng from the Observer!

January 30, 2006 @ 7:15 am | Comment

So the American equivalent of the blanket joke would be:

The American would get in his Monster Truck SUV and turn the Heat on high until he got warm. Then, he would drive down to the local Wal-Mart, buy a bigger–and cheaper–electric blanket, swing by Starbucks for a latte, and return home. Once returning home, he would turn the thermostat up to 75F, throw out the old blanket, and store the new blanket in the closet.

Or would that be a Red State American v Blue State American v Purple State American?

January 30, 2006 @ 7:24 am | Comment

Yagij,

And you forgot to mention how, at bedtime, the American will then pray to God to win the war in Iran, to defend the American way of life.

(You should know I’m a Yankee, but you made some good points there)

January 30, 2006 @ 7:43 am | Comment

War in Iran? Have we finally gotten around to it? I guess Hamas winning the elections in the PA motivated BushCorp to speed up that timetable. Anyway, I’m digressing.

It’s funny that you should mention the prayer about war saving the American Way of Life (TM). I remember being at church one day where the sermon was about everyone remembering that we’re all human, war is bad, and we should love our neighbor, even if that neighbor is on the other side of the globe. That sermon was followed up by a prayer by the lay leader for God to help the “Good Guys” and minimize the effect of the “Bad Guys”. My entire family was rather amused by the differing PoVs, but our minister has one raging Liberal streak in ‘em while the congregation is moderate->conservative.

(I’m American too.)

January 30, 2006 @ 9:20 am | Comment

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