WTO entry to raise tensions in rural areas: academic

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 May, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 May, 2001, 12:00am

Tension between the Government and farmers will intensify when cheap imported agricultural products begin flooding the market after China's accession to the World Trade Organisation, a leading mainland academic said yesterday.

Professor Ma Rong, who chairs the sociology department at Beijing University, said the farm sector would come under huge pressure, which could lead to grasssroots changes.

As the Government had no solution in sight to relieve the tension, grassroots organisations would eventually have to adapt to the changes, he said.

Professor Ma was speaking after a seminar at the University of Hong Kong yesterday.

'There is no solution in sight. What the Government can do is to keep subsidising the agricultural sector,' he said.

Tensions between local officials and farmers were apparent, although the degree varied in different areas, he said.

China's entry to the WTO has been delayed several times because of deadlock over Beijing's refusal to remove subsidies to farmers.

Professor Ma, a pioneer in research into the functions of and changes in village and township governments since the 1980s, was nevertheless sceptical about reforms to promote grassroots elections.

'I don't think village elections can bring about democracy. They will only create more problems and conflicts in the countryside,' he said.

While the Government is promoting elections at the village level, these elections could breed corruption.

Different interested parties would attempt to bribe farmers for their votes, Professor Ma said.

'Many times factions emerged and there were gang fights, vote buying and all sorts of corruption,' he said.

'The villagers have little knowledge about democracy, and they are not prepared for this.'

He said the current form of village elections did not have much of an impact on the political landscape of the countryside.

The professor said he was equally sceptical about the prospect of township elections, which the Government intended to promote in the future.

'They can try, but I doubt if it is going to change anything,' he said.

A few experiments have been carried out allowing residents of rural areas to elect their township leaders, but there has been no sign that this will be conducted on a large scale in the near future.

Professor Ma said he believed that government organs at grassroots level, such as county and township governments, should step back from interfering in the economy and let go of unnecessary duties.

'Many functions the township governments are performing are not required by the central Government. They [local cadres] just want to prove that they are useful.'

This had created a fat bureaucracy in the village and township levels and imposed a heavy financial burden on the local people.

Professor Ma said one of the intriguing findings of his study was that many cadres on the payroll were not civil servants but had somehow been recruited because the township governments were expanding their functions.

'It is true that the township governments have lost some of the old functions. But they have come up with many new functions. And they are still having control over land, jobs and loans.'

He did not put a figure on how many local cadres did not fulfil any necessary role, but analysts have suggested at least 20 per cent should be removed from the payroll.

Townships were restored after the dismantling of the communes in the late 1960s and serve as intermediaries between villages and county governments.