Advice to China: Mind the gap

Another post on the Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha, this one over at Shanghai Eye, is poignant and distressing. And a must-read.

It not only includes some beautiful photographs and exquisite writing, it also drives home just how misleading the ever-burgeoning figures for China’s GDP can be, obfuscating the grim (and I mean, like, very, very grim) lot of China’s disenfranchised peasantry. As the peasants witness the obscene divide between themselves and China’s growing urban rich, they have to see just how awful their situation is.

The evidence uncovered by the authors [of Nongmin Diaocha] would be shocking even if it provided only the sharp facts of life in the Anhui countryside, where peasants earn about 400 RMB a year and have to pay a quarter of that to the corrupt local county government. Once you add in the violence, the intimidation, and the murder, it is obvious why so many in the rural community in Anhui have chosen to try their luck in Shanghai.

400 RMB — that’s about US $52 if I remember right. Yeah, the cost of living is low, but that’s still dirt, dirt poor. It might be better than it used to be, but it’s only relatively recently that there’s been such an enormous gulf between the poor farmer and the city dwellers driving cars and buying stocks. It’s a classic recipe for calamity.

To the government’s credit, it seems to be acutely aware of the enormous probem this gap represents. Can they do anything about it aside from the recent populist gestures? My guess is that they must have a plan. If not, would they have dared risk allowing the distribution of the Nongmin Diaocha? No, they’re not stupid; there’s a strategy here. I think.

I have no conclusions and apologize if this seems half-baked. It’s just that there seems to be some sort of shift recently, or at least that’s how it seems from the outside. Can anyone on the mainland confirm (or deny) that something’s in the air?

The Discussion: 27 Comments

My reading of this situation is a little different. I don’t think they are allowing the release of this documentary as part of a grand strategy to solve it … rather, it will be one faction within the government allowing it to go out in order to put pressure on another faction. It is a policy debate.

So, probably there are some in the government who wish to deal with this problem. It also means that they lack the clout to push it through. Thus they are pressing their policy goal by trying to mobilise public opinion behind them.

What I predict to happen is this: if the reaction to the documentary is too strong, it will cause a backlash in the leadership against the people wishing to do something about the problem. If they reaction is not strong enough, the factions of the government unwilling to change anything will remain in control of policy. Thus, either way, nothing effective will result.

Of course, this is all speculation … but it seems to me to be a plausible explanation … and it is also why I am so pessimistic about the likely results.

March 1, 2004 @ 9:11 pm | Comment

Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps backward, one step forward. And then a few leaps sideways. It’s the China dance.

March 1, 2004 @ 11:47 pm | Comment

A person’s judgement is shaped by his experience. Hu and Wen lived in dirty poor area for more than ten years. Therefore they are willing to visit poor area regularly. On the other hand, Jiang’s life is mostly in Shanghai. It is natural that he would rather practice his Italian opera than visit a poor place.

Despite being labeled as evil in the west, socialism/communism was started against the plight of working class during the early stage of capitalism. Therefore it is natural for Hu to return to the root of socialism to help the poor.

March 2, 2004 @ 9:34 am | Comment

Steve, what planet do you live on? Get your head out of the marxist textbooks and have a look at the real world. When Hu was living in Tibet, his response to the plight of those poor people was to use armed force. It’s also good to see how much the Hu family cares for the roots of socialism … such as how his daughter married a rich capitalist in Hawaii, no less.

Do you really think that socialist ideology has any relevance at all to the thinking of Hu?

By the way Steve, socialism/communism was not only labelled as evil in the west … it was also invented in the west. The reason most people today consider the system to be evil is that history has shown that such governments are tyrannies perfectly prepared to slaughter their own people in order to stay in power. The common people end up impoverished and oppressed (you really think the problems of China’s peasants just started recently?) and the rich people end up dead and their assets stolen. The only ones who benefit from the system are the ruling elite. As China has stepped away from communist economy management, many urban Chinese have managed to benefit from a higher standard of living. The peasants haven’t slipped backward … they just haven’t advanced with the cities. So, what did socialism/communism give to the Chinese people? Well, the peasants were already oppressed, so it just kept them that way. The middleclass landowners were rounded up and killed. Everyone else got to make a virtue out of being a poor factory worker, and even if he had a terrible standard of living, he could live a wonderful life in his mind because he was contributing to building Da Zhongguo, because that’s what state media told him. What was it you were saying about the plight of the working class?

And as for “the early stage of capitalism” … doh! Wake up … Marx’s theories about stages of historical development are simplistic and historically inaccurate. If he had been right, the most advanced capitalist countries would have become the communist systems first … there are no “stages of capitalism” … though there are stages of communism …

Early idealism. Fanatical revolution. Murder on a grand scale justified by the noble goal. Futile attempts to make the dream come true in reality. Abandonment of those attempts when found to be impracticle. Descent into tyranny and oppression. Decades of oppression and poverty. Gradual abandonment of the principles of communism. Total abandonment of them.

There are your stages of history … demonstrated not by some scholar in an English library (Marx) but by the hard facts of the real world.

Well, I should thank you Steve. I learned something new today. There are actually people in the world today who still believe in that nonsense.

March 2, 2004 @ 11:26 am | Comment

I have to side with Li En on this one; the pattern is undeniable, and China went through every phase like clockwork.

Where China shows some hope (finally) is its rejection of Mao-style economic communism and an easing of the very heavy yoke imposed on its people’s necks for 40 years. But before we go dancing in the streets, Hu has a lot to do to show us how sincere he is and how willing he is to rock the boat. As I say in this post, I think we are seeing more positive signs. But what an uphill battle it is!

March 2, 2004 @ 11:59 am | Comment

“It’s just that there seems to be some sort of shift recently, or at least that’s how it seems from the outside. ”

No shift, but a rising tide, I think. As an inefficent reader of the Chinese press I’ve noted an steady increase in attention paid to the issues under discussion – Li Changping’s open letter was the earliest notable event I know of, but I am sure there are other, earlier examples.

If this book is a ‘shift’ in any way, it’s perhaps that it presents material in a very new way – the stories and statistics contained within could have been found in, or deduced from other publications – anyone who wanted to find evidence of rural poverty could have done so, but it would be in dull reports or academic journals.

This, however, is being sold on street corners, fits in a reasonably sized pocket and is written in a personal, accessible style – the case studies in particular are gripping.

I suspect the real impact of this book will not be the result of the material it presents, but the wider audience it reaches with that material.

I’ve been reading the Diaocha chapter by chapter since November. As far as I’m concerned Time Magazine can name Chen Guide Person of the Year right now . . .

PS. I very rarely visit here. Comments on my comment can come to my email admin(a)

March 2, 2004 @ 12:06 pm | Comment

I tend to agree with the policy analysis idea and tend to think also that it is only one part of a far longer running debate. I noticed that the extracts of this book that I have found printed and translated into English on the web are set in Anhui during the end of the 1990s. Added to this I have noted since I arrived in China in the fall of 2002 that the plight of rural people has never been very far from the pages of newspapers. Articles like this one
are not that uncommon. The conspiracy theory side of me also looks at the year of the tax reform in Anhui in the article (2000) and the dates I have seen of incidents in Anhui “An Investigation of China’s Farmers (Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha)” (1997-1999) and I wonder if the authors really are self employed. I still have not got my hands on a copy of the book yet though so this is just idle speculation. Hopefully next week I’ll get the book.

I am glad it is getting some media attention even if I think the story is not that new. Better that the media focus on the tragic lives of billions of rural poor, a real problem, than the usual disease/disaster of the week that seems to sometimes be all that the the traditional press in the West will report when it comes to China.

March 2, 2004 @ 2:38 pm | Comment

Oops, sorry for the second post but I also had a question I forgot to ask. Has anyone seen any reports online of stories from the book that are set after 2000? The writing of the book seems to have taken place starting in 2001 but I have yet to see any excerpts later than 1999.

March 2, 2004 @ 2:40 pm | Comment

Gradual abandonment of the principles of communism. Total abandonment of them.

Followed by: anarchy, widening class divisions, massive corruption and civil unrest (in some cases), and widespread poverty. Such are the “hard facts” in the ex-Communist countries of central and eastern Europe, whose economies are only now recovering to their pre-1989 levels.

Obviously the people of the former Soviet bloc are better off (though many in Russia, Georgia, Uzbekistan, etc., might disagree) now that the command-and-control system has undergone its inevitable collapse — so hold your fire, Zhang xiansheng. But history suggests that the road toward full democratic capitalism will be rocky indeed, all the more so given China’s enormously vast peasant population; indeed, the countries that have fared the worst in post-Communist Europe are the ones with the largest proportions of agricultural workers.

March 2, 2004 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

I think Zhang Li En is spot on when he talks about the power conflicts. It is also true to say that there has been a number of slow shifts in the mainland media – and a lot of very brave domestic journalists are now being permitted to report on corruption, poverty and workplace safety, often at great personal risk – and these seem to be serving the interests of reformers in the central government. I think it is easy to be pessimistic about the CCP, but change seems to be inevitable.

March 2, 2004 @ 8:03 pm | Comment

Vaara … have you ever been to any of said eastern European countries? I was lucky to have visited Hungary, Czechoslovakia (as it was known then), and what had been East Germany just a couple of months previously … and frankly, you’re speaking a load of nonsense. None of your nightmare scenario occured. Everything was orderly and the people were happy to have a chance to live their lives in freedom at last. True, they were still in early-days euphoria, but to claim that they are only now recovering to communist levels is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard. My Eastern European Growth Fund has been doing exceptionally well … far better than any I’ve followed weighted to other parts of the world including China. Last year I visited 3 more ex-communist countries … Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Well, they weren’t communist countries because they weren’t even allowed to have their own country in those days. While people would tell me that their countries were poor, there were plenty of new cars on the roads, the buildings looked well kept, the people well clothed, the shops were filled with goods and customers, and frankly your supposition that there was something bad about the end of communism for any of the 6 East-block states that I have visited is pure fiction.

I haven’t been to Georgia or Uzbekistan, but I would challenge you to find me even one Uzbek or Georgian who will tell you they wished they stilled lived in the days of the Soviet Union. Of course you’ll find plenty of Russians who live there who are in a bad way … but that’s more to do with the end of the Russian empire than the change of economic/political system.

You appear to claim that anarchy and civli unresst is an inevitable result of the end of communism? Obviously false. In the countries where it has occured, ethnic troubles are the almost sole cause, not the new economic system. Widening class divisions? Sure … now you can have more than 2 classes … before you were either a high official or a dirt poor peasant/worker. Now you can still be dirt poor it’s true … but you can also be comfortably middle class, moderately wealthy, or very wealthy. Oh no, the evils of class division! As for widespread poverty … the same applies … everyone was poor before … now some are still poor but others are a lot better off.

Now, let’s turn to the most common claim made in China and probably by you too, to judge from your post, that the case of the Russia shows that the collapse of communism was a bad thing. It’s a myth. The factor that is usually forgotten is that the principle reason why the Soviet Union fell apart was because they were bankrupt. They were totally out of funds. The treasury was empty. They had spent so much on maintaining their military and nuclear arsenal (and please don’t go blaming the west for that!) that the rest of their economy was falling apart. Most of the economic problems that the newly ex-communist Russia has had to face were the problems they’d inherited from communist mismanagement. A bankrupt economy. Antiquated and rusting factories. An infrastructure that was falling apart. An unproductive workforce. It wasn’t the fall of communism that caused all these problems … it was communism itself. It’s taken more than a decade for Russia to start getting back onto her feet again … the kind of problems they inherited can’t be fixed in a year or two … and they still are suffering from the legacy they inherited. As for the alleged rise of corruption because of the fall of communism … *cough* … well, I assume you’ve been to communist China.

I’ll leave you with 2 things people said to me in eastern Europe in 1990. One said to me, describing the state of the economy created by communism: “in Czechoslovakia, everyone has a job and nobody works.” Another man was a doctor. He had resented the fact that he had earned more as a tram driver in his student days than he did as a specialist doctor. He told me that communism was like living in a zoo. Sure, someone would come along and clean your cage every now and then, and give you some food to eat … but you still lived behind bars. Capitalism was like being released into the wild. No one was going to clean your home for you or provide you with a free meal … but you were no longer in a cage and you had your chance to succeed. Now Mr. Vaara, take a wild guess which one he thought was better?

March 2, 2004 @ 8:12 pm | Comment

Incidentally, without confirming or denying anything about my identity, why do you assume that I am a xiansheng and not a xiaojie or a taitai etc.? I only refered to you as Mr Vaara as a response to your assumption. I’ve no idea what title is appropriate. Mind you … since you think communism is such a wonderful thing, I guess it should be Vaara Tongzhi. It also avoids the gender assumption.

March 2, 2004 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

Well, I should have known better than to expect a reasoned, civil response from you.

First off, did you miss the part where I said that the people of Central & Eastern Europe are, and I quote, “obviously better off” now? Apparently you did, in your zeal to interpret every single mildly cautious statement about the unmitigated joys of unfettered Darwinian capitalism as evidence of crypto-Maoism.

I realize I might as well be talking to a brick wall, but since you asked for evidence supporting some of the statements I made… here’s some:

The 1998 real GDP in Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Hungary either exceeds or is close to exceeding the 1989 level of GDP. In contrast, the 1998 GDP in Moldova, Georgia, Bosnia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan is less than a half of its 1989 level.

If you’d rather have a pretty picture, here’s one.

Granted, those figures are several years old already, but they do show that untrammelled prosperity did definitely not follow the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, at least not right away.

I haven’t been to Uzbekistan recently, or to Georgia ever. But here is some anecdotal evidence that suggests that quite a few Georgians aren’t too thrilled with the way things are going. As for Uzbekistan, I can’t comment, mainly because it is (as you probably know) under the thumb of a brutal dictator (who happens to be on the same side as Li’l George in the War on Terror™, but that’s neither here nor there) under whom no dissent is tolerated.

Let me just conclude by saying that I spent 5 months in the USSR in 1985, and another month in the summer of 1989. I saw first-hand the beginning of the end of the criminal, murderous, corrupt, barbaric (have I listed enough adjectives yet?) Soviet régime. I was in Tallinn two weeks after they un-banned the Estonian flag. And I got to see the thrilling first stirrings of free speech and free assembly in (then-)Leningrad.

I’ve also been to Poland and Russia as recently as last summer, and am amazed at the changes that have taken place. But for too many people in both places, post-communist life means crime, poverty, and insecurity.

So I don’t appreciate being called “comrade,” just because I choose not to gloss over the very real problems in the post-communist world.

Finally, I apologize for leaping to conclusions about your gender. Your email address is “g2jon” so I assumed from the “jon” that you are, in fact, male. As am I.

March 2, 2004 @ 8:54 pm | Comment

Getting back to the topic of the Chinese peasantry and how to manage their expectations as the country transitions toward capitalism: it’ll be interesting to see whether the laissez-faire approach prevails, or whether the Chinese government takes a more interventionist approach — which would be hardly likely to endear them to free-market fundamentalists.

As Richard says, a failure to “mind the gap” would be “a classic recipe for calamity.” But short of “shock therapy” (i.e. abandoning all loss-making SEO’s, lifting price curbs, etc.) how will China ever remove the albatross of state control from around its neck?

March 2, 2004 @ 9:17 pm | Comment

erm… make that “SOE’s” as in “state-owned enterprises.” Doh!

March 2, 2004 @ 9:28 pm | Comment

The GDP of Russia has also dropped significantly since 1989. According to the World Bank, 2000 GDP was less than two-thirds of the 1989 figure. Moldova and Ukraine stood at only a third of the 1989 rate, according to economist Joseph Stiglitz, who doesn’t blame capitalism as such, but the transition strategies of the IMF, which is dominated by bankers.

March 2, 2004 @ 10:01 pm | Comment

Li En,

Your style of tirade sounds like a communist(or McCarthyism). For your information, I read NY time, washingtonpost, National review online. Your comments reminds me of CCP’s propaganda to show how evil was American Capitalism because of the apartheid policy.

“When Hu was living in Tibet, his response to the plight of those poor people was to use armed force. ”

It is true that Hu used brutal force in Tibet. But it is misleading to characterized it as his response to the plight of the poor.

March 2, 2004 @ 10:04 pm | Comment

A related topic,

Do any of you read the work by Noam Chomsky, referred by The New York Times as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.”?

I find some of his thought appealing, from anti-communism to anti-capitalism.

March 2, 2004 @ 11:02 pm | Comment

i don’t think the situation debated here is very common in china, though there are a lot poor people, but not most as poor as 400 rmb per year, it’s not common sense, i think this country need invest more money on education rather than let many stupid blinded people discuss useless shit here

March 3, 2004 @ 1:09 am | Comment

Oy, Steve, you’re opening up a gigantic can of worms there. Our friend Li En will reflexively, automatically, and without a single microsecond’s hesitation, brand you as the worst sort of Pol Pot apologist for daring to mention the name of N**m Ch*msk* in anything but the most homicidally vicious terms imaginable.

March 3, 2004 @ 2:05 am | Comment

If I remember correctly, most armed force against the poor is always classified as something other than class, right?

That way it can seem like the armed force is attacking an idealogy rather than a practical and real tangibile problem caused by itself.

Not adding to the argument, just that’s the first thing that popped into my head when I think of how governments disguise their agendas.

Could be wrong.

March 3, 2004 @ 3:19 am | Comment

Touchy touchy Vaara. Don’t like being called a comrade? Then stop being an apoligist for a reprehensible political and economic system. It doesn’t really matter how many negative adjectives you apply to the Soviet system when your central thesis is “they were better off in those days”. Measurements of state GDP under the communist governments has no more relationship to the truth that the officially published figures coming out of China today. Not only does the government in Beijing have no interest in telling the truth, the subordinate officials have no interest in passing up genuine statistics, leaving the leadership in the position of not knowing the true situation, even if they did want to report it. Soviet leaders from the time of the collapse have said that they didn’t even have a budget as such, because the army would simply take what it wanted, but estimated that perhaps 80-85% of the economic was either directly or indirectly supporting the war machine. Now technically that’s all got to be figured into GDP stats, but it doesn’t represent the true state of the economy, because the military is almost entirely non-productive. So figures for the East Bloc prior to 1989 are either a) fabrications or b) guess-work by outsiders or c) not an accurate reflection of the economy, or more probably a combination of all three.

Not being thrilled about the current situation in Georgia etc is not at all the same thing as wishing things were how they were in Soviet days. Before you criticise someone else for leaping to conclusions etc., I think you better spend a bit more time thinking about the arguments presented.

I agree that things are more insecure now … as it obvious from the final anecdote I provided about the zoo. Crime levels are up … because the government no longer has a monopoly in that particular trade. It’s also no longer acceptable to put common criminals up against and wall and shoot them. Sure, it keeps the crime levels down, but I wouldn’t want to live in a country like that. On the other hand I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that felt more secure than the Baltic states, even late at night. People laughed at me when I asked about any mafia activities.

I’m not even going to bother responding to the Chomsky line of argument. You’re right, he was a disgusting apologist for the Pol Pot regime. It’s not his only failing, but I have so little respect for him and is ideas that they don’t warrant the effort to engage them.

As for me presenting McCarthy-type arguments … it seems to be based on the premise that because I judge Hu from his past actions, that somehow makes me into a propagandist? Huh? What are you talking about?

March 3, 2004 @ 9:08 am | Comment

NOTE from Richard TPD: I edited this comment, as I don’t approve of “outing” commenters who don’t want the world to know their full name and personal details. To the anonymous poster — don’t you think that’s kind of a low blow? I mean, what’s the point?

I trust, Zhang Li En (a.k.a. XXXX, Ph.D. student in at XXXX in XXXX– ah, Google!), that you tone down the polemicism amply in evidence in your comments above when you “run all the tutorials for the Modern Chinese History unit” there, and that you don’t bite the heads off any naive undergrads who happen to peep up in defense of the modern CCP, as poor Steve did. This whole string started so well, with your very plausible assertion that the “Investigation on Peasants” was intended to muster popular support for one faction in an intra-Party debate. But was the stridency of what followed really called for?

March 3, 2004 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

your central thesis is ‘they were better off in those days.’

It isn’t, never was, and never will be. GDP isn’t everything (as much as certain free-market fundamentalists would like to believe otherwise) — just look at the relative standards of living in the U.S., with its turbocharged but military-addicted and unequally distributed GDP, vs. — oh, let’s say the EU. I’ve lived in both places and do not feel palpably worse off now I live in a country whose GDP is 10% less than America’s.

March 3, 2004 @ 1:48 pm | Comment

Well, normally I refrain from personal abuse, but in this case I will make an exception. To the person who posted the 2nd to last message, just above Vaara’s: considering that you’re not even prepared to put a name or email address to your post you’re a coward and ****ing ****hole. How’s that for stridency?

As for your comments about my professionalism: I am very good at what I do, and have been assured by students (who have since graduated) that mine was the best course they ever did at university. I have also been told that if I wasn’t here, the course wouldn’t even be offered. Stick that up your pipe and smoke it.

Care to identify yourself, you *****?

PS do you really think I’m so stupid as to think my identity couldn’t be tracked using the email address? It isn’t exactly hard to open a yahoo account now is it? I’ve been using this email address for about 5 years now. If you want to continue this conversation, I suggest you do so directly to my email address, you ****.

(and no, this hasn’t been edited by Richard. I’ve censored myself … but you get the point).

And Vaara, yeah, I agree with you about your latest comment.

March 3, 2004 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

Jeez guys, Diaocha is far more interesting that your two’s back and forth.

March 3, 2004 @ 5:41 pm | Comment

Adam, you have a point — we do seem to have strayed off-topic a bit.

Meanwhile, I just posted that the CCP is now suppressing public discussion of the Diaocha indefinitely. And it looked like we were really making progress! At least they haven’t taken it off the shelf; you just can’t talk about it in public. Shhhh!

Really, I want to be optimistic, I want to believe in all the good intentions of the reform-minded CCP. But this sure doesn’t help.

March 4, 2004 @ 12:12 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.