A book describing the systematic abuse of China's poorest peasants by local officials has increased political tensions ahead of this week's National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing.
The book, entitled The Situation of China's Peasants , is the product of three years' in-depth reportage by husband-and-wife team Chen Chuntao and Chen Guidi. Its grim portrayal of poverty, abuse, and official coverups has sent shockwaves through urban society, resulting in a storm of media coverage and Internet chatroom fervor.
"The entire road we have traveled of economic reform in the past 20 years has been on the back of China's peasants," co-author Chen Guidi told RFA's Mandarin service in a recent interview. He said the study — ; printed in the official literary magazine, Dangdai — ; had focused on a single province in eastern China. "Anhui is a fairly typical example of the problems besetting peasants nationwide," Chen said.
Chen Guidi — ; who with Chen Chuntao visited more than 50 villages in Anhui, interviewing thousands of farmers — ; says the book's impact also highlights the overall ignorance among educated urbanites about what life in China's countryside is really like. "Most people in the cities don't really understand the situation in the Chinese countryside," Chen told RFA.
The Chens spent U.S.$18,120 of family money to produce their 340,000-word opus, which was published in January 2004 by the People's Literature Publishing House in Beijing. The issue of Dangdai that carried the book ran an extra print run to cope with demand, and the book version sold more than 100,000 copies in January. Illegal copies have flourished throughout Internet chatrooms, generating emotional responses from readers, many of whom said they broke down in tears or shouted with rage at some passages.
"The changes in our country have really been very great. They may be surprised at what we have written because it simply hasn't occurred to them before," Chen said.
The book recounts a litany of other abuses, including illegal levying of fees and taxes, beatings to death, and other abuse both by local authorities and those in large cities, and poverty to a degree unimaginable by China's more prosperous urban residents.
In response, the Communist Party has begun once more to issue a rural policy paper, a tradition which has lapsed for the past 12 years of focusing on economic growth at all costs.
It has also called for publish discussion of the book and the sensitive topics it raises to cease during the NPC's annual meeting. Articles and chatroom posts referring to the book disappeared from major Chinese Web portal Sina a week before the NPC opened, although other sites had the topic still available to view Mar. 4.
Part of the problem lies with the fact that peasants are poorly represented, even within China's rudimentary parliamentary system, analysts have told RFA in recent interviews. There are very few representatives of the peasants in the NPC and in its sister organization, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Given that peasants are the largest section of China's population, numbering around 900 million, Beijing's leadership seems now to be remembering uncomfortably Mao Zedong's lesson that the key to revolution in China lies with its peasants.
A speech by Premier Wen Jiabao published just ahead of the NPC opening on Mar. 5 called for "more giving and less taking" when it came to the agricultural sector of the economy. It also said a "human-centered approach" should replace economic growth at the core of Communist Party policy.
"The human-centered approach means regarding the people's interests as the starting and base point in all work, and continually satisfying people's needs in many respects and promoting overall human development," Wen's speech said.
One of the most embarrassing aspect of the Chens' book for China's leaders is the way in which central leaders are shown as being repeatedly duped by local officials into thinking that all is running according to their directives. However, Wen is portrayed as a caring and conscientious leader who, during his time as vice-premier, used considerable guile to get at the true situation of local rural residents while on an official guided tour of Anhui.
In one anecdote, Wen is said to have been so dissatisfied at the official version of development in the area he was visiting, that he tricked his local minders during a memorable scene on a mountain road between stops on his pre-arranged itinerary.
"Wen Jiabao said that he wanted to stop 'for convenience,' and the driver pulled in. Everyone on the bus thought that he truly wanted to answer a call of nature. Who could have known that he would start walking at some speed along a small track? Then the Anhui provincial leaders sitting in the other bus realized that there was a small village up there...that looked extremely poverty-stricken," the book says, describing how Wen met people there with unpaid salaries and families who were too poor to buy grain, a far cry from the claims of local officials that they were building a "well-off society."
The same chapter details the story of a group of poor farmers who were repeatedly refused access to a higher-up official to present grievances, so they went and sold a pig — ; a huge sacrifice at their level of income — ; and made a visit to the local post office. Soon after, the official took delivery in his hotel room of a telegram several feet long detailing their concerns. "I have become too distant, too distant from them," the official lamented.