Sunday, May 29, 2005

Revenge of the Mingong

While cruising around the web tonight (procrastinating, in other words), I stopped in at one of my favorite places, the Asia Times, and came across a series of articles by reporter Pepe Escobar, who always has an interesting, if at times controversial, take on world events. This one is really something. The title is: "The Peasant Tiananmen Time Bomb," and it begins with a discussion of the infamous banned book, Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha, in English, The Chinese Peasant Study. If you are not familiar with "Peasant Study," it was the result of a heroic effort by authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, who traveled throughout China's countryside for three years, gathering research and stories for their book:
A typical passage reads: "Farmers worked all year long to earn an average annual income of 700 yuan. Many farmers lived in mud-clay houses that were dark, damp, small and shabby. Some even had tree bark roofs because they couldn't afford tiles. Because of poverty, once someone fell ill, he either endured it if it was minor disease, or else just waited to die. There were 620 households in the whole village, of whom 514, or 82.9%, were below the poverty line. Even though the village was very poor, the leaders were prone to boasting and exaggeration about their performance, and as a result the government struck it off the list of impoverished villages. So the villagers were burdened with exorbitant taxes and levies."

Chen is no maverick: he is a member of the respected, state-sanctioned Association of Chinese Writers. Chen and Wu definitely are not "splittists" - the unforgivable ideological sin. They are in essence moderate reformists who believe the party is reformable: one of the chapters in the book is a glowing tribute to the fairness of Premier Wen Jiabao, who was just a simple official at one time. Nevertheless, the book had the capacity to scare the fourth-generation leadership because it graphically depicts the workings of a time bomb - the other side of the market-Leninist glitter in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It details how the rural masses have gotten next to nothing since Deng Xiaoping's reforms were introduced in the late 1970s. The average annual income in Shanghai, 14,800 yuan ($1,790), is seven times as high as in rural Anhui, 2,100 yuan. In a nutshell, the annual income of a farmer in today's China is only one-sixth to one-seventh that of an urban professional - but he pays three times as many taxes, plus a plethora of local taxes of dubious legality. Moreover, untold millions subsist on less than 2 yuan (24 cents) a day...

...Inequality in China is much more acute than in India. A recent study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CAAS) says it is actually the worst on the planet, barring the odd sub-Saharan African country. China's "peasant question" is an economic, social and political crisis of gargantuan proportions. Scholars at CAAS estimate that since the start of Deng's reforms, 270 million Chinese have escaped poverty. That's not enough in a nation of 1.3 billion people. The crucial question is how "one system, two countries", where 400 million people advance while 900 million are left behind, can possibly co-exist. One billion peasants - 80% of the total population - can never be fully assimilated, no matter the rhythm of the economic miracle.
In the course of writing this book, Chen and Wu exhausted their personal savings; upon its publication, they were sued by a local Party secretary for libel (the case is still unresolved). This has not stopped their work; Wu and Chen have enough material for three more books and are currently writing an account of their legal travails.

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in this case and its larger implications for China read the entire article - there's a lot more to it than what I've quoted here. But these paragraphs towards the end particularly caught my attention:
Successful urban professionals in both Shanghai and Guangzhou are unanimous: the libel case against Chen and Wu demonstrates how the law, for the party, is an instrument of control, and how, for Chinese society, it should function as a check on the power of party officials, and as a way to protect individual rights. Premier Wen, according to diplomats in Beijing, is a passionate proponent of a Singapore-style neo-authoritarian system for China. There's one enormous difference, though: Singapore may have been a one-party state since Lee Kwan Yew's early days in the 1960s, but government corruption is in essence non-existent.

It all comes back to the same point: is the Chinese ultra-authoritarian system reformable? Dialectical contradictions abound. According to a Beijing scholar, the party recognizes that courts should be impartial and trusted by all in a country facing what some believe to be an imminent social volcano. Courts should have a major role in fighting corruption and improving governance. At the same time the party leadership fears that the primacy of the law will spell a clear and present danger to its power monopoly.

10 comments:

Thijs said...

Mingong

Who are the Mingong in the title of the article?

Thijs said...

Mingong

Who are the Mingong in the title of the article?

Thijs said...

OK read the article.
So they are migrant peasant workers.

I guess that time bomb may very well explode. Just how many longer will it tick? Better not.

I think Chinese people should start with themselves if they want a better society.

Other Lisa said...

thijs, you are too fast for me...yes, migrant peasant workers. I'm going to try and paste the characters here, it may or may not stick:

民工

Even if China had the most enlightened political system in the world, they would face a huge challenge in trying to deal with the numbers of peasants. Another problem not mentioned in this article is the lack of good farmland - a problem compounded by "development" projects - factories and homes - that are being pushed ahead by powerful and sometimes corrupt interests. The peasants end dispossessed and with nothing.

Anonymous said...

And this is of course the dirty little secret why urban educated Chinese do not push for democracy. A real democracy in China could mean rule by the peasants. Horror!

tetz said...

hi,
googling for an foreign edition of the book brought to your page.
do you have any idea about the availablity of its english, french or japanese translation?
it seems japanese nor french edition doesn't exist (i'm japanese.)
i came to know the original through a bookreview that appeared in new left review.
Please see
dark side of the chinese moon
. quite interesting.
thanks,
tetz

Other Lisa said...

Tetz, I'm not aware of any translations but I will ask around and get back to you. Thanks for stopping by.

Other Lisa said...

Tetz - one of the China bloggers on my blogroll, Laowai 1979, is working on a translation. You can find what he's done so far at: http://tinyurl.com/88acu

ESWN (also on my blogroll) apparently has translated a great deal of this in the past but the link is no longer on his site. You might email him and ask him...

tetz said...

other lisa, thanks a lot!
I found ESWN translated several chapters. it's quite helpful.
ciao

Other Lisa said...

tetz, happy to help. ESWN does a lot of translating of some really important stuff. He/she is amazing.