A new peasant revolution – is China learning from its past?

December 3, 2010 at 5:18 pm

By Thu-Trang Tran

“Every dynasty in China’s imperial history was destroyed by discontented peasants and drifters”

Tuesday 16 May marked the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Cultural Revolution. Forty years since China has emerged the world’s fourth largest economy and is predicted to be the world’s largest economy in 20 years.

Although the Chinese government may not wish to confront nor discuss the social unrest and violence of the Cultural Revolution, it seems the government is wary of history repeating itself. The government is concerned about the simmering social tension resulting from the widening wealth gap as the giant economy powers its way to the top spot. Over the years, the discontent of the farmers and migrant workers has started to manifest. In response the Chinese government recently launched a campaign to build a ‘new Socialist countryside’ with the aim of eliminating social inequality a key priority for the coming five years.

The class struggle continues…
China’s economy has been growing at a rate of about 10 percent a year for at least the past decade. The impressive pace of growth can easily be seen in the explosion of mega-metropolises the likes of Shanghai and Guangdong. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report projected that China will grow so fast that it could outstrip all developed nations by 2050 (based on purchasing power parity).

However, the fruits of such new market pragmatism have not been delivered to the rural population. In 2005, the per capita net income of Chinese farmers rose by 6.2 percent to 3,255 yuan (US$405), while the disposable income of urban dwellers rose by 9.6 percent to 10,493 yuan (US$1,304), 3.22 times over their rural counterparts. Furthermore, according to the China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the richest 10% of the country’s urban population control 45% of urban assets while the poorest 10% hold only 1.4%.

Another peasant uprising?
The 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution is a timely reminder of the possible violence and brutality that can descend upon a nation when the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ reaches its tipping point.

Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in response to the increasing capitalist trend and class struggle believing the Cultural Revolution would ultimately create a new society without gap between urban and rural regions. The result? The bourgeoisie were overthrown, millions forced into manual labour, tens of thousands executed, and the wealth gap continued to widen to date.

In China’s new economic revolution, there is no cult of Mao. However, class struggles remain and parallels may be drawn. The 21st century capitalists are the old bourgeoisie and intellectuals of the Cultural Revolution; corrupt Party officials are the old party enemies of Mao; and the farmers and workers are the old student Red Guards. If 800 million rural dwellers – that is 70% of the population – continue to be left out of the economic boom, then one can expect the worse unless actions are taken to temper their discontent.

In the last decade, two developments have exacerbated the tension between the city and the countryside: the urban shift and land grabs.

Impoverished rural dwellers are flocking to the country’s eastern cities seeking opportunities. Unfortunately, due to the hukou system of household registration (‘a system akin to South Africa’s apartheid’), rural dwellers are treated as second class citizens. Compared to their urban counterparts, they are deprived of the benefits of housing and schooling for their children and struggle to find employment, compounding the urban unemployment problem. Furthermore, the mass migration of abled-bodies to the cities means that there is lack of potential for productive growth in the rural region due to fewer workers being available.

The rural dwellers are also losing their precious farmland to corrupt officials and urban developers. Although such land is communally owned, for farmers, the land is a means of making their living. Farmers all over China now see ‘their’ land taken away, bought by developers from corrupt local government officers. Land on the outer-edge of the cities are then converted to McMansions or factories that earn millions for the developers and entrepreneurs. The money however, does not reach the hands of the farmers.

Unable to reap the rewards of economic growth that their privileged urban peers have reaped, and angered by the land grabs by officials, farmers are staging protests around the country and demanding government attention. In January 2006, the Ministry of Public Security announced that there were 87,000 such incidents in 2005, a 6.6 percent increase over the previous year. For example, in June last year, in the village of Dingzhou, local residents clashed violently with security officers over the local government’s seizure of land for a power plant and low compensation paid to residents.

It appears the government is taking heed of the social discontent and is responding with policy actions to relieve the social tensions.

One of the goals in China’s 11th five-year plan is to build a ‘new Socialist countryside’. The aim is to promote coordinated urban and rural development, to promote agricultural productivity, to deepen rural reform, to develop rural public services and to increase farmers’ income.

One recent policy announcement in favour of the rural dwellers is the proposed abolition of the hukou system in 11 of China’s 23 provinces, mainly along the developed eastern coast. The aim is to encourage a new influx of labour from poorer western regions and to stabilize the protests. However, there are concerns that such reform will strain the local cities’ resources and municipal governments may object the proposed change on such grounds.

Furthermore, as of March this year, the government has made plans to increase spending on rural health care and schools. The government aims to spend 4 percent of GDP on education (up from 2.7 percent) with the aim of improving rural schooling. Other measures include cutting basic agricultural taxes and increasing farm subsidies to support the farmers and close income disparity. In relation to land requisitions, Premier Wen Jiabao suggested more efforts would be made to protect farmers.

If one remembers that every dynasty in China’s imperial history was destroyed by discontented peasants and drifters, the threat of a ‘peasant uprising’ posed by the ever-widening wealth gap between urbanites and rural-dwellers is a real one and should not be underestimated. Therefore, any policies formalised at the National People’s Congress (China’s parliament) in March need to make real inroads in elevating the rural dwellers out of poverty and not be mere token policies.

Further readings:
BBC – Chinese communist revolution
Time Asia – The next cultural revolution
Voice of America – Rural revolt – growing unrest in China
Seeds of Revolt in Rural China: ‘Farmers’ Heroes’ give a voice to besieged taxpayers, By John Pomfret, The Washington Post, Tuesday 8 May 2001; Page A01
Transformation of rural China – by Jonathan Unger
Villagers and popular resistance in contemporary China – Lian Jiang Li & Kevin J. O’Brien

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