Peasant leaders emerge to fight graft

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2003, 12:00am

Researcher finds farmers in Hunan making a stand against levies by local officials

A new generation of peasant leaders is emerging as villagers take a stand against corrupt government officials, new research suggests.

The finding comes in a report by Yu Jianrong, a researcher of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who studied budding farm organisations in Hunan province for more than three years.

He found that many leaders had emerged out of escalating disputes over extortionate fees and taxes charged by local governments. Farmers were standing up for themselves and organising petitions against the levies.

But despite their troubles with grassroots officials, the report says that the peasant leaders view the central government as an ally.

'They generally believe that governments above the city level are still reliable. They are the family members and benefactors of farmers,' the report says.

'They perceive county governments and the lower level as the direct intruders on their interests. They are foes and enemies.'

Dr Yu said the leaders were better educated than the average farmer, and some of them were demobilised soldiers or migrant workers who had returned from cities. They usually had better access to information and a better understanding of government policies. The report said some of the leaders were viewed as heroes and martyrs by farmers, who believed they were fighting to implement the central government's policies at grassroots level. Many of the peasant leaders served time in jail after scuffles broke out between farmers and local officials.

Dr Yu said it showed that peasants were taking an active role in politics. 'Farmers no longer limit themselves to supporting the party's policies and requesting the implementation of the policies. They take a step further to supervise the implementation of the policies and even work to interpret and publicise ... the central government's policies,' he said.

In return, the peasant leaders had gained the respect of local farmers, and there are signs that loose networks are forming among the leaders.

Local governments have made many attempts to crack down on such activities. Dr Yu found that some local governments hired local gangsters to intimidate the leaders. But he said it was unfair to label the leaders as conspirators or subversives because most of them were staunch supporters of government policies.

He said the growth of peasant leaders actually provided an opportunity for the government to fill the vacuum of an effective administrative body in the countryside because there was no organisation representing the interests of farmers.

There have been rising calls among mainland rural experts for the formation of farmers' associations and Dr Yu said letting things take their natural course and allowing the peasant leaders to fill this role was the best option.

But despite their support for the central government, Dr Yu warned that if leaders' activities were suppressed by the party, the farmers' representatives could become disillusioned and turn more radical.