Hu and Wen take their populist show on the road

I think Hu’s and Wen’s outreach to the nation’s rural poor is a good thing, and further proof of their growing concern with the potentially explosive crisis of rural unrest in China. Too bad it seems to bear some of the hallmarks of my own president’s staged “townhall” meetings with the people.

First came thousands of police and troops to guard the roads, then hundreds of officials to monitor residents, and finally the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to share Lunar New Year celebrations with ordinary citizens.

At a time when the Chinese government is worried by rising social unrest, Wen and other national leaders this week embarked on annual pilgrimages to workers and farmers in poorer regions.

Wen toured rural Heze and neighbouring Jining in Shandong province in coastal northern China, highlighting his promise to improve farmers’ healthcare, schools and incomes in the country’s next five-year development plan.

“When the village prospers, rural life improves. When people prosper, they become more unified — that’s how a society becomes harmonious,” he told residents of Guozhuang Village near Heze, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

But even as Wen promoted his commitment to improve the lives of rural residents, the massive security and controlled encounters with locals during his tour were a reminder of the divide many Chinese say separates them from their rulers.

“Because society is so unequal these days, it can’t be really stable. It’s good for leaders to visit ordinary people, but they also need to act on their words otherwise, protests and petitions will keep growing,” said Zhou Mengxin, a long-time protester in Heze who is familiar with many local grievances.

While Wen met farmers and oil well workers in Shandong from January 27 to 29, China’s President Hu Jintao travelled to Yanan in western China’s Shannxi province, the mountainous retreat that Mao Zedong used as a base for spreading revolution across China in the 1940s.

It’s a start, and I never doubted Hu’s and especially Wen’s sincerity in dealing with this mind-numbingly complex and difficult issue. I’m still forced to feel a degree of cynisism, however, because I’ve seen too many false starts. When we start to see some meaningful changes come out of these efforts, like enforced protection of migrant workers’ wages, I’ll be the first to praise Hu and Wen for their efforts.

The Discussion: 8 Comments

I thought many of you said the CCP does not have to care about public opinions and does not need to answer to the public, because it controls all information and rules with an iron fist. How can you explain the CCP leaders wasting their time traveling to the rural areas and participating in these photo-ops? Why would they care? Couldn’t Xinhua news just tell the villagers that they should feel happy?

This seems like something politicians in democratic countries would participate in, no?

February 1, 2006 @ 12:14 pm | Comment

It has to care when so many of their citizens are rioting. That threatens their power, and that’s something they cannot tolerate. They really have no choice. That’s not to say they aren’t sincere (Wen, anyway), but if they weren’t under a direct threat, I don’t think they’d be spending their time doing this. God knows, it took them long enough to respond to the outcry. So you see, they aren’t wasting time at all. They are doing what they do best, ensurting they hold onto their power at all costs.

February 1, 2006 @ 1:38 pm | Comment

Rich, well said. We’ll see how this goes. I can’t help but think how China’s evolution in recent decades is like “Animal Farm,” where the revolutionaries become the out of touch leaders they fought to replace. It’d be interesting to see a study by an outsider on how the CCP rule is today compared to Nationalist rule during the 1930’s, adjusted for the communist insurgency, Japanese war, and value of life over time (each life is more valueable today than 50 years ago, as living standards have increased)

CH, I never said the CCP does not care about the public. I said they haven’t set up the mechanisms to address public grievances, and that their main priority is to stay in power. This is not the same as “they don’t care,” There is a difference. A Big one.

On setting up mechanisms, the milestone rich mentioned will be a good one. And when the CCP finally does that it will be a better day for China. On main priority to stay in power, the only way they can show this is no longer true is when they allow alternative points of view on critical issues.

You can have all the good intentions in the world. But they key is to set up reasonable incentive structures and legal mechanisms.

CH, your comparison is flawed. US presidents dont’ often visit slums. For the poor, there are at least some mechanisms to help those people, including property rights, minimum wage, and the legal mechanisms to enforce those rights.

February 1, 2006 @ 1:43 pm | Comment

Richard, I don’t see how rural unrest can be held down without extensive land reform that puts control of the land in the hands of the peasants. That is the issue at heart here, and the central government’s call for the rural authorities to behave nicely is strictly a case of putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. Structurally, local authorities are going to form alliances with powerful developers — it is inevitable. Hence, the Rural Tour ’06 is going to fail.


February 1, 2006 @ 5:25 pm | Comment

The Hu/Wen adminstration is very pragmatic when it comes to addressing important issues such as rural unrest and social disparities.

But something more needs to be done to crack down on sleazy officials in the county and village levels. This is where the problems begin and governace at this bottom rung of leadership is the worse. [A friend from China jokingly told me he would love to be a Party Secretary or Vice-Party Secretary at a county because its so easy to “tanwu” or take money from the government.]

If this major problem is not tackled effectively really soon, China is in for a very big surprise. The number of protests could double or triple in the coming year and its legitimacy as an excellent place for foreign investment will be indefinitely jeopordized.

I don’t think shifting attention elsewhere will fix these inherent problems which is probably why Hu/Wen is personally embarking on these “tours”.

Chinese peasants don’t ask for too much, its not unreasonable for leadership at all levels to show retraint and compassion when dealing with these folks.

I heard there was a online petition or complaint board set up by Guangdong for people to monitor which places need special attention when it comes to rural grievances. This would be a helpful step forward for the underprivledged peasants. Does anyone else know about this?

February 1, 2006 @ 6:57 pm | Comment

Cool! Finally our government is facing the rural problems. We will be one more step ahead to Tang Dynasty. ๐Ÿ™‚

Don’t know if you remember how old china textbook talked about empoyee benefits in america. Old book said those benefit offer is for sustain employee’s labour in a long run instead of for their own happiness. Terrible hun? blaming everything even positive thing.

And now? we dont see those thing in textbook anymore, however, more and more I feel we are being blamed even positive move. lol.

Are we really that great already to make other people jealous? Not yet, isn’t it? lol.

February 1, 2006 @ 7:56 pm | Comment


I don’t believe we can just blame the local officials. People will behave to their benefit in any situation. Local officials act the way they do because they fear nothing. Once again, the people have no recourse to recall their leaders.

Previous efforts to allow local elections might have mitigated this. However, this is inconsistent with the party dictatorship at the higher levels and I suspect the CCP worries that it would foster a nationwide populist movement, and therefore eliminated it. In the meantime, no amount of reform that does not take this into account will work.

For example, flat orgnizations/companies that have 360 degree reviews often lead to the best behavior of everyone. Functional organizations that are essentially structured like the military will always exploit the masses. But unlike companies and militaries, governments should be responsible for the people. Not just the well connected ones.

February 2, 2006 @ 8:01 am | Comment

Criket. Cricket…

February 2, 2006 @ 11:03 pm | Comment

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