In the absolute must-read, Out of Mao's Shadow, Philip P. Pan wrote a chapter about the authors of the run-away best seller, 中国农民调查, or the English title, Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China's Peasants by husband and wife Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao. Pan wrote about the controversy the book caused and the libel suit that the husband and wife were charged with from one of the government officials described in their investigation. Pan, a Chinese-American journalist for the Washington Post, actually dressed up as a peasant and attended parts of their trial.
"Water holds up the boat;
water may also sink the boat."
- Emperor Taizong (600 - 649, Tang Dynasty)
Will the Boat Sink the Water? (I'm just going to refer to it as WTBSTW? from now on) was a hugely influential book in China earlier this decade. The book investigates the horrors that were thrust upon the people of Anhui Province over several years from the mid-1990s to the early-2000s. Initially, the book was published and accepted by censors. It got too big though. Censors got antsy and banned the book. In response, a huge black market was created. It's impossible to say how many counterfeit books were actually sold, but I've seen estimates that WTBSTW? sold between seven and ten million copies in China.
Seeing how much I was moved by Pan's description of the authors and the stir that this book caused, it was a no-brainer that I'd pick up WTBSTW? The book lived up to the hype I'd created for it in my head. WTBSTW? is shocking. There were parts of the book that were hard for me to read. Saying that, it is captivating and is a book that should be part of a person interested in China's library.
To write their book, Chen and Wu traveled to rural backwaters in Anhui Province where China's economic boom is being felt indirectly through migrant labor, as opposed to the riches that urban dwellers are enjoying, and chronicled the stories of peasants who have been tortured, cheated, and crushed by local government officials. The stories they uncovered are gruesome and incredibly violent. There were several instances where I could not believe that I was reading about something that had happened in such recent history. Some of the incidents described sounded like Cultural Revolution madness transplanted into the 1990s.
Most of the violence directed towards the peasants is in the name of taxes. Taxes. Taxes. Taxes for everything. Fees for killing farm animals. Fees for keeping them alive. Peasants featured in the book were exploited and taken advantage in almost every way imaginable. All the while, the local officials lived lives of, relative, luxury and ease.
There are a couple excepts of WTBSTW? that I want to highlight:
In ten years, between 1990 and 2000, the total of all the taxes that the state had extracted from the peasants had increased by a factor of five, from over 8.7 billion yuan to over 46.5 billion yuan. By 2000, the peasants' tax burden averaged 146 yuan per head, six times the average urban resident's tax burden of merely 37 yuan per head. Yet city dwellers' income was on average six times the peasants' income! This in itself is already a grave injustice, but over and above regular taxation, the peasants had to suffer further extortion for village reserves and fees for social services.I think it's fair to say that Chinese peasants were "squeezed" during the 1990s. As many parts of of China were coming out of a long economic slumber, millions upon millions of peasants had their throats stepped on by local cadres.
Here is another interesting section:
"In the past," he (Lu Zixiu, an activist featured in the book) said, "Mao Zedong said that 'a serious problem is educating the peasants.' I would rather say that the serious problem today is ensuring the interests of the peasants. If the peasants' interests are over-looked, agricultural growth, social development, and political stability are just empty words." He went on to quote Lenin: "Lenin warned that 'capitalism is cropping up among us every moment, every day.' But what's wrong with that? Isn't it better than feudalism cropping up among us every moment, every day?"China's leadership appears to have learned many of the lessons hammered home in WTBSTW? and its popularity. Most of the events in this book took place before the year 2000 and the current regime in China headed by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, which began in 2002. Things have changed. The New York Times Book Review of WTBSTW? touches on this:
Lu summed up his views by quoting Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. "Over a thousand years ago, Emperor Taizong said, ' Water holds up the boat; water can also sink the boat.' Water here refers to the peasants. Emperor Taizong realized the importance of the peasantry. Each and every dynasty understood full well the importance of the peasantry, but once they are in power, they turn around and exploit the peasantry, even suppress the peasantry. Using history as a mirror, the Chinese Communist Party is faced with the same problem."
The book also predates the accession of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen, who have made rural problems a priority. The authors get some credit for that policy shift. But today the book’s focus on excessive taxes feels dated. Mr. Wen abolished the main agricultural tax, freeing peasants of formal taxation for the first time in two millenniums.This book should be read more as a snapshot of a historical period as opposed to a picture of present-day China. I totally agree with the last paragraph in that review though. Despite cleaning up the tax system, there is a lot of discontent in China's countryside still today. The tens of thousands of protests a year that occur there are a symptom of such problems. Although not an exact description of what's going on in China right now, WTBSTW? shows the other side of the coin from the China that most westerners with experience in China are familiar with.
Taxes, however, were a symptom. No sooner had the tax burden eased than a new and arguably greater abuse has riled the countryside: rural land grabs by local officials eager to cash in on the real estate boom. Mr. Chen’s and Ms. Wu’s work will not be obsolete soon.
Read the whole review