china’s rural divide

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.

中国农民调查 An Investigation of China’s Peasantry

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.