For practical purposes, the division splits the country in two parts. Each has different standards of living, social safety nets, laws and future prospects. If China's cities are a modern miracle of growth, development and urbanization, the lives of several hundred million rural peasants offer real examples of cradle-to-death toil, suffering, exploitation and oppression.
This is not solely Beijing's fault – it is often ruthless peasants in official positions who fleece their comrades of land and livelihood. What higher authorities are guilty of is negligence and trust in a bloated bureaucracy with no independent controls.
Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China's Peasants puts this reality in vivid relief. The book by husband and wife journalists Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao was originally published in Chinese as The Life of Chinese Peasants. It became a bestseller and attracted international attention before it was banned. An English translation by Zhu Hong was published this year.
With little in the way of subtlety, Chen and Wu present one case of oppression after another. They focus on specific anecdotal evidence. They name names. They barely look at the big picture, leaving academic perspectives on China's problems to a few pages at the end of the book. Rather, they let each tale of woe speak for itself.
There are virtually no happy endings and the oppressed occasionally become the oppressors.
The authors jump from one village to the next, one township to another, mostly across Anhui province. They stick to townships and counties, the two lowest of China's five levels of government, which are where most injustices tend to occur. The real-life protagonists are not particularly well educated and the villains' schemes to get rich on the back of the peasants are almost simplistic.
Through it all, despite paper pledges, letters and edicts, there is something callous in the approach by higher authorities – county, provincial and national – to those inequities. Even in the face of blatant injustices, they more likely than not tend to sweep aside the peasants, seemingly too concerned with bigger issues.
As the saying goes, the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. China's government has changed, its cities have grown and its economy is booming but local leaders still run their villages how they please. Chen and Wu's book points to that truth time and time again.
In one very small, light-hearted and telling story, a group of peasants complain about their village administration. Their leaders, they say, are eating and drinking at public expense, running up huge bills for the peasants to pay. They beg the county to investigate. It doesn't take long for them to return and beg the county to stop. The investigators are now also eating and drinking and the bills have only increased.
There are other tales. Tales of murder and psychotic abuses, tales that make a balanced reader wonder how several hundred million peasants continue to live with constant abuses and remain loyal to the government? (Not once do peasants interviewed talk of revolution or regime change; rather they look to Beijing for answers.)
In the end, the book goes back to the warning implicit in its title. It is a metaphor for the power of the peasants from Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong: "Water holds up the boat; water may also sink the boat."
Will the Boat Sink the Water raises many questions and issues. One rises above all others: why, with all their power and apparent willingness to help, do higher authorities let these injustices go on?
Stuck in the mud
China is big and change comes slowly but it has been almost three decades since reform and opening up began. Despite Beijing's calls for change, taxes at village level have increased tenfold. These are taxes on people who live near the poverty line, who cannot legally leave and are forced to follow the whims of local cadres and chiefs.
At one point, the authors list the fees imposed at various villages over and above the 269 taxes already levied on peasants. They include fees for "improving the township environment and striking down crime" and "village cadres' allowance for business trips and entertainment".
These fees are called "hitching a ride" and are collected regardless of droughts, poverty or legality.
In the end, the authors offer no easy solutions, beyond quickly touching on some academic theories. They stick to recording facts and anecdotes and note that, even when the peasants triumph over the cadres that stole from them, beat them and occasionally killed them, they sometimes turn oppressors themselves.
And Beijing? Well, Beijing is still far and the mountains are still high.
Will the Boat Sink the Water? by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, translated by Zhu Hong, published by PublicAffairs, US$25.00
The power of the peasants
The power of organization is considerable, and can be formidable when combined with political power. The sheer number of Chinese peasants could make them overwhelming, but they are scattered, and have no organizational resources to counter oppression. The rural cadres, on the other hand, are highly organized; they are the legal representatives of state power in the countryside…
? Deputy Village Chief Zhang Guiquan's education was barely equivalent to primary-school level, but relying on his power as village chief and the power of his clan – he had seven sons – he was able to control Zhang Village and act as the absolute tyrant of the area.