Sunday, July 16, 2006

China's peasants

China's peasants have lived difficult lives for centuries. Mao treated them as a source of surplus to fund his revolutionary armies and, of course, to provide cannon fodder. He also used their existence as an input into the set of ideological lies that helped him grab power.

I have been reading Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntad's, Will The Boat Sink the Water? which provides a peasant-level view of life in China over recent years. It describes a set of incidents where innocent Chinese peasants were persecuted - and in some cases murdered - by local officials who were often little more than thugs. It also describes the courage and ingenuity of the very poor people in China's countryside in seeking to ensure justice is done.

The book sees China's peasants as largely left behind by the Chinese miracle of glittering Shanghai sky-scrapers. Indeed the authors see the modernisation that is occurring as funded by the tax surpluses extracted from the sweat and blood of the peasants. The peasants, as their reward, are being cheated, lied to and deceived by local officials of the Communist Party. If anything it is only the central party organisation that gives them a glimmer of hope in their search for justice from corrupt dishonest local officials.

There are no grand theories in this book - just truth by vignette - a series of true stories of aching injustice to those at the bottom of China's class-based society. The book was banned by the government just two months after it was published - it was amazing to me it was not banned immediately.

There is interesting economics here. An essential part of the story is the way corrupt taxes are levied, phony agricultural targets are met during droughts and how free labour movements are restricted within China to the disadvantage of its poorest. The role of auditing and accountability become issues of major social importance. Many of the agricultural reforms designed to boost productivity are being undone by corrupt taxes that wipe out peasant incentives.

The book is well worth reading as an alternative to the standard eulogistic views on the development prospects of China.


conrad said...

Weren't you just complaining about truth by vignette with respect to a seminar a few months ago ?

Rather than finding the worst of the worst in China, a better way to look at it is whether more than 1/5th of the world's problems are located in China and what the government is trying to do about those problems (the central government now takes no tax from farmers at all -- a very good move). The fact that there are corrupt officials etc. in a country of 1.2 billion is of course no surprise to anyone, particularily given year zero for China was about 1970.

I also fail to see how China would develop if it didn't restrict the movement of people -- the cities and SEZs would simply be swamped to the point where development would be extremely difficult. A better comparison of whether the policies have worked is to compare the average life of a peasant in, say, India versus China, and see who is better off.

hc said...

I don't think it is a matter of finding the worst about China but simply getting the viewpoint of two people who originated from the class of 900 million Chinese peasants. Ex patriate Chinese in Australia tell me the story is broadly correct.

It is 'truth by vignette' in the sense that it involves several case studies from villages in one of the poorest provinces in China.

I'd be interested in knowing how much taxes are still being collected. In the book the central government repeatedly sought to restrict tax collections and repeatedly failed.