The Chinese Peasants Study, Chapter 30

Quite a bit has been said about the book, The Chinese Peasants Study (see previous post).  In the west, the point of interest is probably about the fact that this is a so-called 'banned' book in China for which at least seven million copies circulate quite openly.  For example, my copy is picked up from a Guangzhou bookstore.  But how many westerners have actually read what is inside the book?

In that previous post, I had translated an interview with the two authors and I also translated what was regarded as the most notorious section of the book in which the village officials were compared to Japanese invaders.  But this is not necessarily representative of the entire book.

In the following, I have translated Chapter 30 of the book.  Now this is not necessarily representative of the entire book either.  But it is sufficiently different that I want to use it to make two points.

First, it should be clear from this chapter that the two authors are not firebrand dissidents who went for the jugular vein of the power structure and are now just waiting to be picked up for twenty years of hard labor reform in Beidahuang (北大荒).  They are moderate reformists who believe in the essential goodness of some members of the top echelon.  In this sense, they are like the petitioners who travel from their small peasant villages to seek justice up the ladder of the political hierarchy (village -> town -> city -> province -> central).  Chapter 30 is a glowing portrait of Wen Jiabao, who was just a central government offiical among many others at the time but who has since then ascended to the position of Premier.

Second, it should be clear that the Chinese Communist Party is not a monolithic structure of evil clones who think and act the same way.  Wen Jiabao's specialty seemed to be the surprise drop-in visits at unscheduled locations while avoiding the tours that local officials arranged for him.  If Wen Jiabao is as serious about peasant reform as the two authors believe he is, then the major obstacle is for Wen to overcome the bureaucracy that nominally works underneath him but which has other priorities of its own.

This would not be the first time in the history of the CCP.  Chairman Mao had his ideas of what the Cultural Revolution should be about, but the implementations by Lin Biao and then the Gang of Four were designed around their personal agenda, and then the various Red Guard factions had their own ideas about what it was all about.  Perhaps Mao really meant it when he said, "There is chaos under heaven and things could not be better" but this is no way to bring a country into prosperity.

The above problem is not unique to the CCP either.  For a recent example, see Ken Lay's so-called Sergeant Schultz defense in which he claims that his very good intentions were subverted by evil-doing Enron underlings such as Andy Fastrow.  As another example, see the CIA being blamed for persistently delivering the bad intelligence that led to the War in Iraq.  This last example can arguably be inverted as when the top decision-makers insisted on ignoring good intelligence and advice from the CIA to implement a pre-determined course of action.

Chapter 30  The Respected Leader

Wen Jiabao is obviously well aware of the phenomenon of faked reports from the lower echelon.  It can be said that Wen Jiabao is the person in the Chinese leadership who has done the most amount of research about the Anhui peasants.  At the same time, he is the person who gives the most headache to the local cadres who had to accompany him.  In order to understand the true conditions of the peasants and their villages, he tried to break through the "blockage" set up around him, and he put the fakers into disarray.

Before the May harvest of 1996, Wen Jiabao was still only a reserve member of the Central Politburo and an external secretary of the Central Secretariat.  He went to Anhui to inspect the work to alleviate poverty.  He stated clearly that (1) he did not want any reception or farewell partiess; (2) he did not want any banquets; (3) he did not want to travel with a large entourage.

The number of people who accompanied him could be counted with one hand: his secretary, his security advisor, a department head from the Central Secretariat, a department head from the Central Government's Peasant Working Group and a director from the Agricultural Department.

When they arrived, they got on two medium-sized buses with the Anhui provincial leadership and headed towards Dabieshan area.

They were going up the mountain road from Jinjiyuan to Huoshanyuan, and then Wen Jiabao pulled a surprise.  He told the driver, "I have to relieve myself."  So the driver stopped the car.

A lot of people on the bus thought that Wen was really going out to "relieve" himself.  Instead, when he got off the bus, he kept walking quickly down a path.

The Anhui provincial leaders on the other bus then realized that there was a small village just ahead and Wen was walking towards it.  They were surprised because this was not planned for the trip.  And this looked like a rather poor village.

So everybody got off the bus and followed quickly.

Then Wen Jiabao saw several peasants carrying some tree bark and he went up to ask, "What are you doing?"

A woman saw that the questioner looked fairly kind and spoke nicely.  Even though the man was dressed like a cadre, she did not know that this was a cadre from the central government.  So she answered casually, "We are in between seasons and we have no food, and there is nothing much to sell up here in the mountains.  The distributor store is buying tree barks to manufacture paper, so we went to get some tree barks to sell in order to buy something to eat."

Wen Jiabao then spoke to a young male and found out that he was a teacher.  So Wen asked him about his salary situation.  The teacher said sadly, "The village offers 50 yuan a month in living assistance, and that isn't even enough for food.  Even though this is supposed to be paid, they are behind in payment.  They will pay only after the new year.  Normally, I don't even have any money to buy food."

Wen Jiabao listened intently and nodded his head.

Then he walked about the village and studied the place carefully.  Afterwards, he got back on the bus.  When he arrived at Huoshanyuan, he ate a plain meal and then he listened to the report from the local officials.

The Secretary of Huoshanyuan was not aware that Wen Jiabao had made an unscheduled stop on the way over, so he just made his usual report.  He even said emotionally: "For the past few years, we have made great progress here at Huoshanyuan.  We have taken off the hat and put on a crown.  We have taken head off the hat of poverty and put on the crown of prosperity."  Then he reported on the place's gross product, the total food production statistics, the financial revenue and the increased income of the peasants in the way that he is very quite familiar with.  He cited all the relevant statistics.  But Wen Jiabao stopped him and asked:

"If your town is so good, you must be able to pay your wages on time?"

The Secretary replied with confidence: "We do not owe any worker a single cent!"

Then Wen Jiabao pointed to the name of the village that he had just stopped and visited.

The Secretary was shocked, but he pointed out immediately: "This is the poorest village amongst us."

Wen Jiabao said humorously, "I happened to have seen your poorest village?"

The Secretary realized that he was in trouble.  He sneaked a peek at the Anhui provincial leaders, and saw that they were all looking at him expressionlessly.  He began to sweat.

Wen Jiabao then said sternly: "Comrades, it is not that we don't believe your numbers.  We are more interested in seeing whether the standard of living has really improved for the peasants.  You are all still very young.  I hope that you can go and look inside the homes of the peasants.  It is not easy to get rid of poverty, especially since some of those who supposedly left poverty have fallen back into it."

It was on that same trip that Wen Jiabao wanted to see how the Lunghe flood affected the lives of the peasants.  The Xuchengyuan committee arranged a village that was relatively good for him to look at.  As soon as he saw the place, he discovered the problem: "This place was not flooded?"

The Xuchengyuan Secretary saw that he could not hide the truth, so he said, "No, this is not in the flood zone.  It is just on the edge."

"I want to see the flooded area.  I want to see the poorest village."

The Xuchengyuan Secretary was not mentally prepared, because none of the previous central government leaders or provincial leaders made such a request.  To arrange for the leaders to see an "image project" and to inspect a "point of light" was a never-changing rule.  So this Secretary said, "The road is blocked."

"If you say it is blocked, do you mean that this car cannot get through?"  Wen asked seriously.


"How far is it to walk there?"

The Secretary thought about it and said, "About 10 kilometers."

When Wen Jiabao heard that, he laughed and said: "That is not far.  Let us go now."  Then he acted as if he was going to roll up his trouser legs and start walking.

When the Secretary saw that Wen was determined to go, he said, "Let's get on the car.  We will drive as far as we can until the car can't move anymore.  Then we will get off and walk!"

So everyone got back into the car.

The Xuchengyuan Secretary said that the road was blocked because he did not want Wen Jiabao to see an incredibly poor place.  But he was a pragmatic person . When he saw that the provincial leaders also agreed to go and look, he did not insist that the road was blocked and it was necessary to walk for 10 kilometers.  So he directed the driver to go all the way into the village.

When the provincial agricultural committee person Wu Jiaoyan told us about this story, he was terribly embarrassed.  He said, "When we heard the secretary say, 'We're here, let's get off' our brains were buzzing.  I thought, this secretary is dreadful.  He just said that the road to the village is impassable.  Couldn't he at least stop somewhere a bit further back so we can at least walk a few steps?  How can we just drive right into the village?  This was so embarrassing to the provincial leaders who are accompanying the central government leader.  I heard the vice-provincial governor said in front of me, 'If there is a crack in the ground, I would have ...'  We were so embarrassed when we got off the bus."

That was indeed a very poor village.  The houses didn't resemble houses.  They were dark and damp.  Because the houses were so dark, we can't even see anything in the middle of the day.  Actually, it did not matter if we could not see anything.  Many of the peasant homes had barren walls.  We went through half the village and we could not see anything valuable.

After seeing a few homes like these, Wen Jiabao's heart sank heavily.

On another occasion, Wen Jiabao went to Anhui to inspect the work on reform of the structure of the agricultural economy.  In Funanyuan, the officials arranged for him to look at Xiaozhenzhuang.  This is a newly constructed village.  There are two rows of houses arranged along a road.  The road in themiddle was wide.  Not only does the place look affluent, it is even impressive.  But when Wen Jiabao took a look after getting off the bus, he refused to even enter the village.

This caused the accompanying leaders to be very embarrassed.

Wu Jiaoyan had accompanied Wen Jiabao many times before to inspect places in Anhui and they knew each other well.  So he went up and broke the stalemate: "Since we have arrived here, let us go in and take a look."

"I won't look."  Wen Jiabao was stubborn.  "What am I supposed to look at?  It is just a few rich people who built some new houses."

The county leader explained: "There will be a forum ... the people are there already."

Wen Jiabao insisted: "I won't join the forum either."

The atmosphere became very embarrassing.

At that moment, two people who looked like peasants walked by.  Wen Jiabao walked up and asked: "Did you move here voluntarily?"

The loud reply: "Absolutely voluntarily!"

Wen Jiabao then asked thoughtfully: "How much does it cost to live in a house like this?"

"More than 20,000 RMB."

Wen Jiabao then looked at the village, which was quite deserted.  Then he looked at the two "peasants" carefully because he obviously realized something from the response.  He now asked: "What is your exact position in the village?"

The reply: "I am the Party branch secretary."

Wen Jiabao laughed and said: "Then let me ask you: why does this road have to so wide? why does it take up so much arable land?"

The Party branch secretary had no reply.

When they got back to Fuyangyuan, the city officials arranged for Wen Jiabao to stay at the International Hotel.  As soon as Wen Jiabao heard the name "International Hotel", he insisted that he would not stay there because he preferred a hostel instead.

At Wen Jiabao's insistence, they ended up in the city hostel known as the Yungzhou Guest House.  After dinner, Wen Jiabao did not want to rest and he asked two county officials to report on work progress.  So the Taihuoyuan Committee Secretary took out his previously prepared script and proceeded to read.  But Wen Jiabao asked him to stop: "Please don't read from a script, okay?"

Without the script, this Committee Secretary did not know what to say or not say.  He became confused and embarrassed.

Wen Jiabao shaked his head in disappointment and said: "I was really mad this afternoon.  In that village in Fuyangyuan, I did not see a common person.  I don't know what you want me to look at?  Last year, I was in Henan province and a county committee secretary also asked me to visit a village like that.  I did not see any peasants.  The road was even wider and the houses were prettier.  I asked the county committee secretary, 'What proportion of the houses in your county look like this?'  He hesitated and said, 'Perhaps twenty percent.'  I said, 'Fine, let us say twenty percent.  But what do the other eighty percent of the peasant villages look like?  I would like to learn about the conditions of the eighty percent of the peasant villages in your county.  Could you take me there to take a look?'  He immediately said that the roads were impassable and difficult to get to.  I said, 'If the cars can't go there, people can still walk there.  If so many peasants can walk there, why can't we talk there?  You lead the way.  I want to go and take a look!'"

At this point, he paused and his face took on a complicated expression.

The Anhui comrades knew what he meant.  To use the excuse that the roads are impassable to avoid showing the backwardness of the area under one's control was not just something done by the county committee secretary in Henan province.  It also happened in Xuzhengyuan in Anhui province.  To show off one's "accomplishments" and to "wine and dine" are acts of fakery that have spread like the plague across various places in China.

That evening, Wen Jiabao spoke at length in an open manner:  "I have been to the Fuyang district several times.  Compared to before, I can see a lot of progress.  The lives of the peasants have changed a lot, but it is still short of the requirements of a prosperous materialistic and spiritual culture.  There are also a lot of inequalities within this district.  There are some very good villages, there a lot of ordinary villages but there are still many poor villages.  Take this village: there are rich families, there are a lot of ordinary families and there are some hardship families.  I feel that our peasants know to be content --- they eat a few bowls of white rice without much food, they live this way, they don't have too many complaints about the government or the party, they are very steady.  I believe that our peasants know a lot.  But the more they are like that, cadres like us feel our responsibilities are heavier.  Our unavoidable responsibility is to make the peasants prosper as quickly as possible."

He said: "Concerning the peasant policies, I have come to Anhui to listen to your opinions.  There are many comrades who are familiar with the situation and are willing to express their opinions.  I always learn something each time that I come.  Many of my policy thinking came to me when I just stop and get off the car.  The things that the locals prepare for me to see are more conventional and more developed 'points of light.'  I am not saying that they are not real, but they are not typical.  Therefore, I like to go and look around.  My investigations are very simple.  I just drive and enter a village.  Sometimes, I speak to the people for an hour.  I can also speak to the peasants for a full day.  The longest time was at Tialing when I sat on the bed and spoke to the peasants about the relationship of the land, the distribution and the people.  It is difficult to understand these things without sitting down to talk.  Even so, I don't think I understand one-tenth of what is going on in the peasant villages.  There is still so much that I don't understand.  I do know that the situation in the peasant villages is not good.  We need to discover, study and solve the problems.  So I hope that we can speak openly today in this forum and talk about the situations as they exist."

Wen Jiabao grew up on an ordinary street in the old city of Tianjin.  He came from a family of five who lived in a house with an area of 21 square meters.  Therefore, he can feel the sentiments of the common people.  He likes to go deep to the base.  Of the more than 2,000 counties in China, he has visited more than 1,800 of them.  This must be the highest figure among the central government leaders.

That day, Wen said with emotion: "The policies of our party should be to look after the majority of the people.  I hope to see the majority of the people.  If the peasant villages are all doing well, then there is no need for people like us.  At Fongshan in suburban Beijing, I found that many peasants were still watching 9" black-and-white television sets.  Is your place better than suburban Beijing?  The Communist Party members must care about the welfare of the majority of the people, not just a minority of people!"

He emphasized again: "Let me repeat myself.  I am here to investigate.  I am not here as a tourist.  Please don't show me your 'points of light'!"

Fuyangyuan Committee Secretary Wang Huazhong is an exceedingly smart person.  He left the meeting immediately and he told the people in Yungshangyuan to cancel the planned trip next day to visit Xiaozhangzhuang (listed among the top 500 environmentally best places in the world) and Beilihe.  He also gave instructions to immediately withdraw the fancy dining sets and kitchen staff borrowed from the Fuyang Hotel.

And here is another thought.  Wen Jiabao is not an official who was directly elected by a democratic process in China.  Yet, after you read through this chapter, you will have to ask yourself if a person as described was democratically electable.  

In the west, the comparable figures are President George W. Bush of the United States, Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.  All of these people were directly elected.  But do you see anyone of these people visiting 1,800+ of the 2,000 counties in the country to figure what was really happening to the peasants?  These people are elected because they are good at getting elected; when elected, they are good at trying to be re-elected.  I assert that any of these people would be disastrous in the leadership position of China for the purpose of solving this massive peasant problem.  

Yes, China has its serious problems.  But it is a long stretch to say that the solution is a western-style democracy.  Yes, that may be a nice thing to have, but it does not guarantee that those problems will be automatically solved as a result.  China will have to solve its problems in its own way.

For anyone who believes that democracy is the solution to the peasant problem, you better figure out this is guaranteed as a result of direct elections.  And your plan had better be more than a schedule of "good-things-will-happen" wishful thinking.

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