For a book that sounded like an academic treatise it was a surprising hit. Selling an estimated 10 million copies since its publication three years ago, An Investigation of Chinese Farmers tells the story of how corruption, illegal taxes and despotic local governments have destroyed the lives of millions of mainland farmers. Scheduled for its first English release next month in the US, the authors say that since writing their book, little has changed in the countryside. Both born and raised in farming communities, the husband-and-wife team, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao , began their investigation into life in rural Anhui province in 2001. Focusing on the depressed Huai River region, where Chen grew up, the result is a China far removed from the glitzy lights and skyscrapers of Shanghai and Beijing. One chapter entitled 'The Anti-tax Uprising', tells how a row over illegal taxation turned one village into a war zone. While half the farmers were tending to crops, armed police and officials raided the village and in the ensuing fracas, 52 people were arrested, including old women and children. Having earlier complained to officials about the egregious tax-raising policies of their local Communist Party chief, Gao Xuewen , villagers expected police to arrest him. But instead it was the farmers who were rounded up, as Mr Gao had convinced authorities that the villagers posed a threat to regional security. 'It reminded them of the invading Japanese army ... except that these villains did not speak Japanese,' wrote Chen and Wu. In another chapter, the authors describe how an audit of village accounts became a bloodbath. Suspecting one of their village heads of cooking the books, villagers persuaded authorities to dispatch accountants to investigate. Accosted by Zhang Guiquan, the village deputy head believed to be siphoning funds, three members of the accounting team and one of their relatives were hacked to death. 'There were so many illegal taxes. The farmers all knew they were illegal, but when they went to complain they were beaten up. They have to go to higher and higher officials in Beijing who might investigate and make some arrests,' Chen said. A mild-mannered man with a flowing mane of hair, Chen steadily reels off a list of problems faced by farmers. Pointing to a passage in the book which catalogues 269 types of illegal tax, including 'pig raising' and 'pig killing' taxes, 'building township cinema' taxes, and 'stipend for safeguarding firearms and cartridges', Chen argues that through a combination of heavy taxation and the hukou residency system, farmers have had to suffer at the expense of their urban cousins. The two-tier system of residency was imposed after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Having a rural hukou means millions of economic migrants have been unable to access the subsidised services in urban areas, thereby saving city governments billions of yuan. 'The hukou system sees population as status groups that ought to be treated differently ... not as equal citizens,' said Frank Pieke, an expert on rural affairs and director of Oxford University's Institute of Chinese Studies. Dr Pieke agreed that rural areas had helped bankroll China's development. Since the 1990s, when Beijing started squeezing provincial budgets, local governments had to find alternative sources of revenue. 'You can say this led to abuse of power and corruption, but in the final analysis the illegal taxation of the rural populace is a consequence of a diversion of funds to urban areas.' The constant struggles against official injustices, land seizures and the endless scheming and politicking of villagers and officials that the book details, form a sobering backdrop to what has now been recognised as one of the gravest challenges facing the mainland in its efforts to modernise. Years of stagnant economic growth have left the countryside lagging behind the cities in income levels and living standards. Experts last year put the mainland's Gini co-efficient, an internationally accepted measurement of income equality, at about 0.45, a level considered to be a danger threshold for social unrest. 'We need to pay closer attention to balancing development between urban and rural areas ... and promote social equity and social stability to ensure all the people can enjoy the fruits of reform and development,' Premier Wen Jiabao pledged at the National People's Congress meeting in March. Mr Wen's concerns are well founded. Last year, official figures reported 87,000 'public disorder disturbances', an increase of 6.6 per cent on 2004. 'Protests are now pretty systemic and with the way market reforms and restructuring are impacting on the countryside they will only get worse,' Dr Pieke said. Reading the book, it is apparent why. The English title is Will the Boat Sink the Water, a reference to a remark by Tang dynasty emperor Taizong (600-649) - 'Water holds up the boat; water may also sink the boat' - in which the boat is the emperor and the water represents the farmers. Chen and Wu detail the endless, and for the most part ultimately hopeless, stream of villager protests and petitions. Officials are mostly depicted as profiteers who focus on wooing their supervisors with extravagant banquets and inflated figures, rather than addressing grassroots issues. 'Could it be that our system itself is a toxic pool and whoever enters is poisoned by it?' the book asks despondently. Hugely influential when it was first published, the book was subsequently banned, but this only served to push it into the hands of the country's flourishing black market booksellers. Praised by academics for its insights, some, however, felt it is not an accurate picture of rural conditions. 'The book cover says 'China Investigation' but really it is only Anhui province, one of the poorest parts of China,' said Dang Guoying , a rural affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'In other parts of rural China, living conditions are better.' Vowing to tackle rural problems, the government this year launched a programme called 'building a new socialist countryside'. Ploughing billions of yuan into rural infrastructure and basic services to help kick-start development, the government also abolished the agricultural tax, a significant move that many saw as easing the tax burden on farmers. But Chen is not so sure. 'The goal of building a new socialist countryside should be brought up and was brought up in time. But whether it makes any difference to the problems will depend on how it's carried out. The benefits to education, medical care and social welfare have improved, but I don't expect any great improvement in the next few years,' he said.