« More Wal-Mart | Main | Can't Go Home Again »

Monday, August 28, 2006

Will the Boat Sink the Water?

When I post things about the economic, political, and social conditions in China, I'm often not sure I know enough to frame the article properly, i.e. whether it's an accurate description of China, an exaggerated account from some group for political purposes, a government controlled message, or what, and it makes it hard to evaluate what is written. I've never been there, only read and talked to people about it, so I have to trust I've chosen credible sources and rely on what I read and what people tell me. Because of that uncertainty, sometimes I just post things and hope to learn from the comments. What's your reaction? How general and accurate is this rather pessimistic description of life and the potential for progress in rural China?:

Tales from China’s farming frontline, by Richard McGregor, Book Review, Financial Times:

Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants By Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao translated by Zhu Hong Public Affairs, Perseus Books, New York

China’s national audit office announced a new code of conduct after a macabre incident last week, when one of its auditors died of “excessive drinking and eating” at banquets hosted by the local electricity bureau whose books he was screening. ... At first glance, this tragicomic scandal has little to do with China’s long-suffering farmers...

Chen and Wu’s book is a graphic exposé of the deprivations of rural communities, told through three years of research in Anhui, one of China’s poorest and most populous provinces. A series of hair-raising case studies features a cast of brutal, bullying officials who enrich themselves by stealing land and grain, and imposing ever more ridiculous taxes on already impoverished citizens. ...

Every tax must be paid down to the last penny. People who resist are beaten, arrested and imprisoned, sometimes for months without charge. One psychotic official, who was made village chief while on probation for embezzlement and rape, savagely murders a group of peasants who refused to bend to his will.

Villagers take their complaints to the police and to more senior levels of government... Some even make the expensive, risky journey to Beijing to petition, in time-honoured fashion, the imperial centre. Their efforts have little impact, which underlines the central point of the book.

The horrors of the countryside are not new in China; nor are promises from on high to remedy them. But as with the drunken accountant partying himself to death on the tab of his audit target, the real failure is the absence of accountability.

In Chen and Wu’s story, Beijing comes across as a centre of relatively enlightened officialdom, struggling not just to impose its will on the rowdy countryside but even to find out what is happening there in the first place.

China’s leaders have long acknowledged the deprivation of rural communities. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the present leadership duo, have made the issue a priority of their administration, abolishing with a flourish all agricultural taxes.

In this respect, Chen and Wu’s tales from the farming frontline are singularly on-message. But the accountability issue perhaps also explains how reaction to the book played out in Beijing in late 2003, when it was published in Chinese to great acclaim and then peremptorily banned.

After all, accountability cuts both ways. If local officials were to be held to independently enforced standards of governance and elections, the same strictures should surely apply to the higher-ups in Beijing.

China’s policymakers, however, need much more than just a dose of democracy to manage the immense challenges of the countryside. How, for example, do you peacefully and equitably move hundreds of millions of rural residents off the land and into cities, which is what China will have to do over coming decades?

About two-thirds of China’s 1.3bn people live in rural communities but for decades they have effectively been treated as second-class citizens, with their rights to move to urban areas sharply curtailed.

Then there is the issue of land ownership. Unlike in the cities, farmers cannot buy or sell their properties, only lease them. But officials can capitalise the value of rural land if they rezone it for commercial use, giving them a huge financial incentive to drive farmers from their properties.

Chen and Wu focus on another, less talked-about cause of the farmers’ woes – the multiple levels of government. They show how the decision to create township governments in the 1980s and give them the power to raise taxes has bred bloated and viciously self-interested bureaucracies.

Telling the truth about such injustices in all their horror is still not easy in today’s China. Chen and Wu recount the tale of one upright official who delivers bad news up the line about the parlous state of the local economy only to be consistently rebuffed.

Most grassroots officials survive and prosper by painting a rosy picture. They have a simple, survivalist credo – “No lies, nothing accomplished”. Chen and Wu express little optimism that the incentives that foster such chicanery will change in the near future.

    Posted by on Monday, August 28, 2006 at 04:44 PM in China, Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (18)


    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Will the Boat Sink the Water?:


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.