KONG - When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao presented
his third Government Work Report this week to the
National People's Congress (NPC), there was plenty
to boast about.
With China's economy
racing along at 9.9% growth last year and
surpassing Britain as the fourth-largest economy
in the world, the premier clearly enjoyed basking
in the nearly constant applause
the faithful 3,000 delegates assembled at the
Great Hall of the People in Beijing for his
But the emphasis in this year's
report on building a "new socialist countryside"
betrays a worrying trend for the central
government: outside of the urban centers - which,
following the old Soviet model, have been the
focus of economic development since the founding
of the People's Republic of China in 1949 - there
is growing civil unrest over the gross inequities
of China's phenomenal economic growth.
Arguably, this increasing discontent among
the 800 million people who live in China's rural
areas transformed this past year into a grassroots
movement that is primarily aimed at combating
local corruption, but has also shaken Chinese
leaders at the highest level.
attempts to appease the angry countryside,
contained in a new five-year development
blueprint, include abolishing the agricultural tax
on farmers that dates back more than 2,000 years.
The premier has promised farmers that
doing away with the tax will save them 33.6
billion yuan (US$4.2 billion). In addition, he has
announced that he will save peasants another $8.75
billion this year by scrapping other fees they
currently pay. To increase spending in China's
impoverished countryside is a policy of
"epoch-making significance", Wen said.
Chinese peasants enjoyed a dramatic rise
in living standards after rural reforms in 1979,
which saw the people's communes abolished and
lifted more than 200 million people out of
poverty. But after the 1989 Tiananmen
pro-democracy movement, which affected nearly 100
Chinese cities, the government has followed
policies aimed at raising urban incomes and
placating the grievances of urban dwellers.
Annual incomes in rural areas average
about 2,400 yuan, compared with urban incomes
averaging about 8,000 yuan. However, the actual
difference in wealth between the country's vast
hinterland and cities is much bigger.
Based on a detailed study, the prestigious
academic research organization the Chinese Academy
of Social Sciences estimated that the average
urban income was actually seven times that of
rural areas, if such benefits as superior
education and medical care available to urban
dwellers were included.
In his speech to
the NPC delegates, Wen called the Chinese
leadership's new focus on development of the rural
areas "a major change", adding: "We must apply the
guiding policies of industry replenishing
agriculture and the cities supporting the
President Hu Jintao has also
pledged to raise productivity and the quality of
life for Chinese farmers. To achieve this vision,
the central government will spend $42.4 billion on
rural development, a 14.2% increase over last
year. In comparison, defense spending, another
priority for Beijing, will increase by 14.7% to
countryside into a model of rural development,
however, will require more than rhetoric and
billions of dollars. Implacable, deep-seated
corruption lies at the heart of peasants'
complaints about local officials who enrich
themselves by taking their land and poisoning
their environment. Increasingly, aided by
committed activists, they are fighting back.
More than 40 million farmers have been
displaced from their land, and the number is
increasing by more than 2 million a year. Landless
farmers are now among the poorest people in the
country, and their desperate plight has sparked
violent outbursts with sometimes tragic results.
Consider, for example, the recent case of
the otherwise unremarkable fishing village of
Dongzhou, in the city of Shanwei, Guangdong
province. On December 6, police in the village,
which is about 160 kilometers from Hong Kong,
opened fire on a group of protesters whose land
had been grabbed by the government to make way for
the construction of a power station.
According to local authorities, three
people died in the incident, but villagers
reported that nearly 20 were killed. But the death
toll is not the only thing about which officials
and villagers disagree.
villagers were armed with knives, spears and
gasoline bombs and mounted an attack warranting
the force that was used against them. But
residents of Dongzhou say they were engaged in a
legitimate protest against the seizure of their
land, without adequate compensation, by the
Shanwei municipal government.
a curfew (lifted in January) and a travel ban
(still in effect) have been slapped on the
village. But small-scale, peaceful protests
reportedly continue daily.
In the village
of Huaxi in the eastern province of Zhejiang,
farmers have scored a rare (if perhaps temporary)
victory against official corruption, but at what
cost? Ten months after a village protest turned
into a riot against the construction of 13
chemical factories on land illegally seized from
farmers, the once-humming factory buildings are
now empty shells, a testament to the farmers'
determination and anger.
claimed that the factories had poisoned their
water and their farmland and were responsible for
a number of illnesses, miscarriages and
stillbirths. The roadblocks they erected to
disrupt transportation to and from the factories
were torn down by local authorities, after which
their protest turned violent.
the factories remain closed for now, the
government backlash against the villagers has been
harsh. Massive arrests, not to mention allegations
of torture in detention, followed the riot. And
villagers can only wonder when the now-empty
factories will be humming again.
most celebrated recent case of grassroots
insurgency against corruption occurred in the
Guangdong village of Taishi, an erstwhile farming
community that has turned into an industrial
adjunct to the sprawling city of Guangzhou. There,
after yet another land deal that left villagers
without fair compensation, residents tried to oust
the elected village chief, Chen Jingsheng, for
alleged corruption. Chen is also the unelected
Communist Party secretary.
particularly strong-willed villagers - Feng
Qiusheng and Liang Shusheng - demanded last May
that Chen open the village account books for
public inspection, but he refused. This led to a
standoff in early August at the village committee
office, where residents blocked the village
accountant from what appeared to be an attempt to
run off with the books. When police and district
officials arrived the following morning to seize
the accounts, a group of elderly women staged a
The sit-it ended on September 12,
when the administrative building housing the
committee office was stormed by hundreds of riot
police who used truncheons and water canon on the
elderly protesters. The district officials took
advantage of the opportunity to grab the suspect
ledgers. It just so happened that Premier Wen was
paying a visit to the region at the time, meeting
with regional and city officials, and villagers
could not help wondering about the coincidence.
That raid, however, did not stop other
protests and clashes with the police. Nor did it
prevent Feng and Liang from filing a formal
petition, signed by more than 400 of Taishi's
1,500 registered voters, to remove the chief and
hold new elections in October. In the end,
however, the chief stayed on, no elections were
held and government-chosen auditors found no
evidence of malfeasance in the keeping of the
The moral of the story
may seem bleak, but the events in Taishi were seen
by many as a sign of hope and progress. First of
all, the drawn-out battle between the villagers
and their chief became something of a cause
celebre that was widely reported in the Hong
Kong and international media.
important, the Taishi clashes brought local
farmers together with well-known political
activists who were attracted to their quest for
justice. Peasant organizer Lu Banglie was a great
help to villagers during the crisis, as was the
former philosophy professor and veteran activist,
Yang Maodong - better known in China as Guo
Feixiong. Lu and Yang were especially valuable in
offering Feng and Liang legal advice in drawing up
their petition to remove the chief. Indeed, Lu had
already succeeded in removing a corrupt official
in his home province of Hubei.
Lu and Yang
paid for their activism in Taishi, however. Yang
was arrested, while Lu suffered a nasty beating by
hired thugs. But the two crusaders were also
instrumental in turning Taishi's struggle into an
international media event and are partly
responsible for what might be called the Taishi
effect: just weeks after protests broke out in
Taishi, similar demonstrations occurred in
villages nearby. And, of course, Chinese officials
worry that the trend will continue and that Wen's
NPC promises will do little to stop it.
"We need to see clearly that there are
many hardships and problems in economic and social
life," Wen said in his government work report.
"Some deeply seated conflicts that have
accumulated over a long time have yet to be
fundamentally resolved, and new problems have come
up that cannot be ignored."
Yong, a rural expert with Huazhong Shifan
University, said: "The widening gap between the
cities and the countryside is no longer just a
problem of the peasants and the countryside. We
have succeeded in the initial industrialization of
the country and now every industry and every city
should partake in the building of a new
Xu is among the 200 party
cadres and rural experts who took part in a
February meeting at the Central Party School where
communist leaders announced that development of a
"new socialist countryside" was the "foremost
task" facing China in the next five years.
While it is true that China's rural
population needs more money, what they also need
is a legal framework that protects their
interests. Since there is no law in China that
prevents farmland from being taken for industrial
purposes and also no legal guarantee of fair
compensation for farmers, it is far too easy for
local officials to grab land and at the same time
strike lucrative deals for themselves with
The fact that farmland remains
collectively owned in China also works against
farmers. Critics say the real test of the
government's commitment to helping the rural poor
lies in Beijing's willingness to go a step further
and allow privatization of farmland. At present,
farmers can only lease land for 25-30 years.
Last year, the Chinese government recorded
87,000 protests, demonstrations and other "mass
incidents", a 6% increase from 2004. In this
year's "new socialist countryside", despite the
fresh infusion of money, one can expect more.
Kent Ewing is a teacher and
writer at Hong Kong International School. He can
be reached at [email protected].
(Additional reporting by Antoaneta Bezlova
of Inter Press Service.)