Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China's Peasants

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9781586483586: Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China's Peasants

The Chinese economic miracle is happening despite, not because of, China's 900 million peasants. They are missing from the portraits of booming Shanghai, or Beijing. Many of China's underclass live under a feudalistic system unchanged since the fifteenth century. They are truly the voiceless in modern China. They are also, perhaps, the reason that China will not be able to make the great social and economic leap forward, because if it is to leap it must carry the 900 million with it. Chinese journalists Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi returned to Wu's home province of Anhui, one of China's poorest, to undertake a three-year survey of what had happened to the peasants there, asking the question: Have the peasants been betrayed by the revolution undertaken in their name by Mao and his successors? The result is a brilliant narrative of life among the 900 million, and a vivid portrait of the petty dictators that run China's villages and counties and the consequences of their bullying despotism on the people they administer. Told principally through four dramatic narratives of paricular Anhui people, Will the Boat Sink the Water? gives voice to the unheard masses and looks beneath the gloss of the new China to find the truth of daily life for its vast population of rural poor.

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About the Author:

Wu Chuntao was born in the Hunan province of China in 1963. Her husband, Chen Guidi, was born in 1943 in the Chinese province of Anhui. Both come from peasant families. Wu and Chen are members and respected writers of the Hefei Literature Association.Mr. Chen received the Lu Xun Literature Achievement Award—one of the most important literary prizes in China. Both authors have received awards from the journal Contemporary Age for groundbreaking reportage.

From The Washington Post:

"A revolution is not a dinner party," Mao Zedong wrote back in 1927, in a famous report on the condition of peasants in China's Hunan province. Eight decades later, two Chinese journalists have shown that the Chinese revolution is, in fact, a dinner party -- one that rural Communist Party chiefs are enjoying at the expense of China's peasants.

To explore how the bulk of China's population, which lives in rural areas, has been faring during the country's miraculous spurt of economic growth, the husband-and-wife team of Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi traveled to 50 villages in Wu's impoverished home province of Anhui. The answer: not well. Local Communist Party chiefs have been enriching themselves by raiding village treasuries and imposing all sorts of taxes on rural Chinese, who still make up two-thirds of China's population. Citizens protest at their own peril; those who challenge local officials risk arrest or physical attack.

Scant surprise, then, that this exposé created a sensation in China. It sold an estimated 150,000 copies, plus 10 million more in black-market editions (at least according to its U.S. publisher). You might expect the government to have been galvanized into action by such a book, and it was, after a fashion. After initially allowing circulation of the book, Beijing recognized the volume's explosive impact, changed gears and banned it, thus continuing a tradition of pretending problems don't exist or blaming them on the messengers.

Yet the crisis in China's countryside is real, and Chen and Wu's superb shoe-leather reporting puts real faces to it. They introduce martyrs such as Ding Zuoming. Inspired in 1993 by the party's new policies limiting agricultural taxes to no more than 5 percent of a person's income from the previous year, Ding noted that people in his village were paying five times that limit. He challenged the village party boss over such exploitation, but got nowhere and appealed to higher-level party officials. He was then summoned to the local security office, where he was beaten to death.

The book also describes villains such as Zhang Guiquan, a deputy village chief who organized the murder of the members of an audit committee, and Gao Xuewen, who ordered the arrest of more than half of the 100 people in his village. They had protested when he struck an elderly woman who had questioned the government's double taxation of her house.

The problems of corruption and exploitation extend beyond these local tyrants, encompassing township, county and provincial officials who are too frightened, lazy or corrupt to do anything about them. As the Chinese saying goes, "Heaven is high and the emperor far away." The villagers of Anhui have been encouraged to question local authority by Beijing's pronouncements about rooting out corruption and pursuing grievances through the courts. But enlisting Beijing's help against a corrupt local party apparatus is difficult -- and in the meantime, the peasants remain vulnerable to retribution from vengeful local officials.

The plight of China's peasants isn't new, of course. They have never fared well, despite Mao's rhetoric about their centrality to his theory of revolution. The communist leader's "Great Leap Forward" (as his disastrous economic program of the late 1950s and early '60s was known) sapped the countryside of capital and even of farm implements for the sake of greater industrial production; it caused a famine that took the lives of an estimated 30 million Chinese. Later, the Cultural Revolution saddled peasants with people from the cities, whom the regime sent "down" to the countryside to learn new, proper values. And the current era of economic reform has layered on new rural bureaucrats and taxes while booming cities such as Shenzhen prosper.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao claim to be worried about inequality between China's wealthy coastal areas and its largely rural interior provinces. In March, Wen said rural taxes would be eliminated and promised that spending on rural areas would rise. If Hu and Wen really wanted to stop corruption from stifling growth in the countryside, they'd assign this book to party cadres instead of banning it.

Reviewed by Steven Mufson
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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