The title’s sensationalist. The cover I quite like; it looks better somehow attached to a book than on a screen. Black for Africa and red for China is crude when I think about it; does fit the title though. The paper is atrocious, not much better than newsprint, grey, joyless, and floppy.
Howard French I’ve been reading as a blogger for nearly ten years (bloody hell how did that happen), since he was based in Shanghai as the New York Times bureau chief. He doesn’t blog so much anymore, and hasn’t been based in China for most of the time since I added him to my feed reader. I seem to be reading more Africa stuff lately, possibly arriving at that from one side via mediæval art and my interest in representation in the artworks, and from the other via China. Gordon Matthew’s Ghetto at the Center of the World, exploring the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong and the international trade with Africa by Africans run through there, as well as the large African community in Guangzhou are probably the most significant prior connections. Germany’s colonial history would be a third.
I was hoping for a substantial book, along the lines of Frank Dikotter say, rather than Susan Mann, and it is investigative journalism of a type. French spent a lot of time travelling back and forth across Africa, met and talked with a lot of people, both African and Chinese, but it’s more like a very long piece of journalism than a book, each chapter and section repeating the same structure, the same meetings of individuals, the same driving, the same observations. It tends towards a homogeneous and not so meaningful view of Chinese presence in Africa, despite that being not French’s aim.
Anyone who follows China or Africa even in passing in the usual sources like the NY Times will have their opinions and prejudices confirmed: corruption all over, racism, colonialism, environmental destruction, lack of legal transparency, fragile democracies or crypto-oligarchies, war and horror never too far. Even with the occasional positive or bright moments, the implicit future for most of sub-saharan Africa with China moving in isn’t a hopeful one. His discussion of China using migration to Africa and elsewhere as a means of dealing with its own population explosion and accompanying social and environmental issues is the one thing I’d read more of.
Ah, I’m not supposed to be reviewing here: why I’m reading it rather than what I thought afterwards. Maybe to say the subject of China in Africa—if it is indeed substantial—is one deserving solid works. This book is ok for a light Saturday afternoon read after finishing the weekend paper, but like newspapers it carries implicit bias, and whether it was in French’s preparation or writing it is limited in the diversity of subjects—either interviewed or discussed—the story builds itself on.
Avoiding bringing home my laptop means time for fun things like staring at walls, lying in bed, rolling over, looking out the window, reading, eating, eating, eating … and playing with camera phone.
Camera phone lives my phone that when I leave on for too long starts doing … odd things. Usually crash-y odd things while writing text messages, occasionally ugly-to-see odd things when the gui goes from expensive pixel design to jaggy blob land. Now I discovered beautiful art odd things when I take photos while it’s upset.
Naturally it doesn’t tell me it’s upset until they’re on my laptop and … the moment has passed. These were supposed to be me lying in bed, I have a collection of them from beds around the world. These are particularly memorable.
Periodically, I write about stuff in China that has little at first glance to do with making dance and art. Mostly my focus is centered on Guangdong as this is where I live when I am in China. My art is primarily concerned with the destitution of humanity, and I think there is little more destitute than for someone to have their entire life, history, home, means of eating and earning a living stolen from them by cadres who are no better than imperial thugs reigning over their personal fiefdoms. The Guardian had an excellent article this weekend on rural land-grabs and peasant protests, specifically in 云浮 Yunfu, 汕尾 Shanwei, and 太石 Taishi in Guangdong Province.
Among the most explosive books in recent years was an exposé of torture, murder and exploitation of peasants by brutal local officials. A Survey Of Chinese Peasants, by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, was quickly banned by the authorities, who feared it might spark unrest, but pirate copies continue to be widely circulated and an English version – retitled Will The Boat Sink The Water – has recently been published. The authors lay it out plainly: “It is safe to say that the edifice of China’s industry is built from the flesh and blood of toiling peasants and urban development was achieved through their pain and sacrifice.”
The massacre of peasants in Dongzhou, in Guangdong Province happened earlier this month, when I was having blog problems and I haven’t written about it here. Along with the Taishi village mess, and several other events in recent weeks, to me it represents an escalation in the repression and enforcing of complete control by the central dictatorship and regional rural mafia-style groups. 中国数字时代 China Digital Times put up a translation of a commentary on the Donghzhou massacre that 梁京 Liang Jing gave on Radio Free Asia and appeared on 新世纪网 New Century Net, 从太石村到东洲坑——更危险的一步 From Taishi village to Dongzhou–a step into danger.
Hu Jintao evidently realized that if he did not place pressure on the regional mafias, the sound of gunfire might quickly break out all round the country, and be beyond recall. He therefore directed a shut-down regarding the situation regarding the shooting of the Dongzhou villagers. But, how was the resistance to their defence of their rights to be conveyed to the world? After several days of silence, Hu finally decided to support the local power and influence groups, defame the peasants defending their rights, and slander the resisting disadvantaged as rioters. Hu Jintao has poured a basin of cold water on the land-losing peasants who are fighting to defend their rights all around the PRC, and has taken a yet more dangerous step towards social upheaval.
The authors of the book 中国农民调查 An Investigation of China’s Peasantry on the appalling lives and working conditions of China’s peasants have won the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. The book is currently banned in China, though easily available through the usual black-market outlets across the country, and the authors are currently spending much time in a courtroom defending themselves against one of the odious, corrupt parochial cadres who are the reason the book was written in the first place. The 50 000 euros they have won is about 515 000 rmb, more than what the average peasant would earn in a lifetime.
The first prize, worth 50,000 euro, was given to the Chinese authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao for their unprecedented and controversial book Survey of Chinese Peasants, (People’s Literature Publication Company, Beijing 2003, Chinese). The explosive text is the first thorough investigation into the economic, social and political conditions of the approximately 900 million Chinese peasants, which are almost unknown in the West. It describes the problems of despotism, of arbitrariness, of corruption, of violence which sometimes extends to murder, and lawlessness, along with unjust taxation, from which a large part of the rural population suffers. The book also shows how China’s enforced industrialisation is built largely upon the impoverishment of the Chinese peasantry. This book, compiled with immense courage despite enormous personal risk, swiftly became a best-seller in China. Several million copies were sold before the book was withdrawn from sale in governmental bookshops following an official directive, and now it is only obtainable in pirate form.
The Economist published a fairly detailed article on the state of the environment in China, the levels of continuing degradation and pollution, and the various measures that trying to deal with it. One case study is in Guangdong Province, where the extremes go from murderous to state-of-the art.
Plugging a cigarette into his mouth, He Shouming runs a nicotine-stained fingernail down a list of registered deaths in Shangba, dubbed ‘cancer village’ by the locals. The Communist Party official in this cluster of tiny hamlets of 3,300 people in northern Guangdong province, he concludes that almost half the 11 deaths among his neighbours this year, and 14 of the 31 last year, were due to cancer.
Mr He blames Dabaoshan, a nearby mineral mine owned by the Guangdong provincial government, and a host of smaller private mines for spewing toxic waste into the local rivers, raising lead levels to 44 times permitted rates. Walking around the village, the water in the streams is indeed an alarming rust-red. A rice farmer complains of itchy legs from the paddies, and his wife needs a new kettle each month because the water corrodes metal. “Put a duck in this water and it would die in two days,” declares Mr He.
Poisons from the mines are also killing the village’s economy, which depends on clean water to irrigate its crops, says Mr He. Rice yields are one-third of the national average and nobody wants to buy the crop. Annual incomes here have been stuck at less than 1,500 yuan ($180) per person for a decade, almost three times lower than the average in Guangdong province. The solution to Shangba’s nightmare would be a local reservoir, but that idea was abandoned after various tiers of government squabbled over the 8.4m yuan cost.
Some 200km (124 miles) farther south and several decades into the future sits the Taihe landfill plant. Built for 540m yuan by Onyx, a waste-management company that is part of Veolia, a French utility, it has handled all of Guangzhou city’s solid waste for the past two years. Each hour 140 trucks snake into the site, bringing 7,000 tonnes of rubbish a day from the 9.9m inhabitants of Guangdong’s capital. In October delegates from 300 other municipalities will visit Taihe, promoted by central government as a role model of technology.
Smart cards record each truck’s load, since Onyx charges by weight. Unrippable German fabric lines the crater into which the waste is dumped, stopping leachate, a toxic black liquid, from leaking into the groundwater, as it does at almost all Chinese-run sites. Most landfill in China is wet (solid rubbish, such as old TVs, is scavenged), and the Taihe plant collects a full 1,300 tonnes of the black liquid daily. Chemical and filtration systems to neutralise it are its biggest cost. Expensive too is the extraction equipment to gather another by-product, methane gas, which Onyx plans to feed into generators that will supply electricity to the local grid. Finally, the waste is topped off with plastic caps, deodorised and landscaped, while a crystal-clear fountain at the entrance tinkles with the cleaned-up leachate.
The extremes represented by Shangba and Taihe explain why it is difficult to get an accurate picture of China’s pollution. In a country where data are untrustworthy, corruption rife and the business climate for foreigners unpredictable, neither the cause of Shangba’s problems nor the smooth efficiency of Taihe are necessarily what they seem. As with many other aspects of China’s economic development, rapid progress and bold experiments in some areas are balanced by bureaucratic rigidity and stagnation in others.
The New York Times is running a series of articles, The Great Divide, on the widening gap between the affluent urban residents and the rural poor who increasingly are unable to have any part of the wealth and opportunity. The first lengthy article focusses on the suicide of a student too poor to afford to continue his education, and the failure of the government to care for the most disadvantaged in society.
China has the world’s fastest-growing economy but is one of its most unequal societies. The benefits of growth have been bestowed mainly on urban residents and government and party officials. In the past five years, the income divide between the urban rich and the rural poor has widened so sharply that some studies now compare China’s social cleavage unfavorably with Africa’s poorest nations.
For the Communist leaders whose main claim to legitimacy is creating prosperity, the skewed distribution of wealth has already begun to alienate the country’s 750 million peasants, historically a bellwether of stability.
The countryside simmers with unrest. Farmers flock to the cities to find work. The poor demand social, economic and political benefits that the Communist Party has been reluctant to deliver.
To its credit, the Chinese government invigorated the economy and lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty over the past quarter century. Few would argue that Chinese lived better when officials still adhered to a rigid idea of socialist equality.
But in recent years, officials have devoted the nation’s wealth to building urban manufacturing and financial centers, often ignoring peasants. Farmers cannot own the land they work and are often left with nothing when the government seizes their fields for factories or malls. Many cannot afford basic services, like high school.
A couple of months ago, everyone was amazed that a book which chronicled the shitty lives, abuse and endemic corruption of peasant farmers had been published in China. Now, the book has unsurprisingly been banned, media coverage ceased and the authors are facing a libel suit by a local official who didn’t come off looking too good. The New York Times ran this excellent piece on the book 中国农民调查 Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha – An Investigation of China’s Peasantry, and the husband-and-wife authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has ordered the government to address, in the latest slogan, “three peasant problems”: farmers, villages and agriculture. But he and other officials rarely emphasize what many rural experts consider the biggest peasant problems: corruption and abuse of power.
“An Investigation of China’s Peasantry” deals with little else. It praises the spirit of central government efforts to reduce the rural tax burden and raise farm incomes. But it shows how such policies are sooner or later undone by local party bosses determined to line their own pockets.
It also details how local officials deceive China’s top leaders, including Jiang Zemin, the retired party chief who still leads the military, and Zhu Rongji, the retired prime minister. Even Mr. Wen, whom the authors credit with understanding rural problems better than other leaders, is portrayed as being unable to penetrate the local officials’ Potemkin displays of fealty.
Propaganda authorities evidently felt the book went too far. Even as a media frenzy built in March, the government-owned publisher got a verbal order to cease printing. Media coverage ended instantly. The authors estimate that the book has sold as many as 7 million copies, but they earned royalties on only the 200,000 legal copies sold before the ban.
More disconcerting to the authors, a disgruntled local official named in the book, Zhang Xide, filed a libel suit against them seeking $24,000 in damages. As Chinese officials rarely file court actions without the approval of superiors, Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu say they effectively face prosecution by Anhui Province.