Unimaginable poverty, unbelievable tragedy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2004, 12:00am

The Communist Party's No1 Document on agriculture, released from 1982 to 1986, made a comeback this week. It calls for increasing peasants' income and reversing the trend of widening disparity between urban and rural areas.

While the leadership's renewed attention to the deepening rural crisis may be music to the ears of the poor, many people are in tears and feel outraged after reading a recently published investigation on Chinese peasants, Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha.

The authors, Chen Guidi and his wife Wu Chuntao, are both award-winning literary writers with a reputation for voicing the sorrows of the rural poor. Born into peasant families themselves, the couple has a keen interest in China's rural development.

When they discovered that, after years of celebrated agrarian reforms, many remote villages were still farming in primitive conditions and others had again fallen into extreme poverty because of heavy tax burdens, they became concerned. When Ms Wu was pregnant with her first child four years ago, she witnessed a peasant woman and her unborn child die from a birth complication diagnosed before delivery. Both lives could have been saved had the family been able to afford a small fee to deliver the baby in hospital.

Driven by a mission to prevent such deaths from occurring again and determined to uncover the root causes of persistent poverty in the countryside, the couple left their newborn in a neighbour's care and endured three years of personal and financial hardship to complete this groundbreaking 460-page report. What they found shocked them even more: 'We observed unimaginable poverty and unthinkable evil, we saw unimaginable suffering and unthinkable helplessness, unimagined resistance with incomprehensible silence, and have been moved beyond imagination by unbelievable tragedy.'

The authors reveal with convincing evidence that the benefits which peasants gained from previous reforms have now largely disappeared; that in the past decade rural tax burdens have increased 4-5 times, with as many as 360 various fees imposed by all levels of government; that a farmer has to pay three times more taxes than a city resident even though his annual income is only one-sixth that of an urban dweller; and that China's modernisation drive has produced another 'one country with two systems' - one that segregates urban centres from agricultural areas, with the prosperity of the former realised at the expense of the latter.

There are tales of widespread resistance by peasants against economic exploitation, social injustice and political oppression. The authors investigate in painstaking detail the death of a young villager named Ding Zuoming. In 1993, Ding uncovered corruption among village cadres after one-third of his, and other villagers', annual income was taken as taxes. When he organised the farmers to request an audit, local security personnel detained and beat him to death. The villagers rebelled when the local authorities tried to cover it up as an accident, and the central authorities finally intervened to punish the killers.

But justice has not been done. When the authors visited Ding's family two years ago, all three of his children had been forced out of school because of poverty; his wife had broken an arm while working; his mother lay paralysed in bed; and his father was too ill to work. Meanwhile, the small amount of compensation promised had never materialised.

From such disturbing pictures at the very base of society, the investigation goes on to examine the difficult and complex reform efforts in Anhui and several other provinces with large agrarian populations. By reconstructing the debates, decision-making process, progress and setbacks, the report exposes the failures of the entire system. It devotes a long chapter to cheating: how local officials led former president Jiang Zemin, former premier Zhu Rongji and other leaders to inspect dressed-up 'shining spots' where they were blinded by what they saw. They then made the wrong decisions and came up with unattainable policies based on false realities.

Thus, the authors warn, measures for reducing the peasant burden or increasing rural income cannot escape a guaiquan - a strange vicious circle that has persisted for hundreds of years in China. They may produce a temporary cushioning effect when the crisis is severe, but they are not designed to fundamentally change the social structure that systematically exploits peasants.

Originally published by the bimonthly literature magazine Dangdai last year, the report has just been released in full as a book by the Chinese Literature Press. Mr Chen and Ms Wu, with their courage and humanity, have pushed the 'peasant question' to the forefront of China's development debate. If the party leadership is serious about implementing its new No1 Document, it should make this book a must-read for all its cadres.

Wenran Jiang grew up in China and spent five years on a farm in the early 1970s. He is now associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, Canada