Monday, August 30, 2010

Though I am Gone

I read a very sad blog article from McClathy's bureau chief, Tom Lasseter, last week:
I wasn't sure why at first, but this moment lingered longer than the rest: Wang Jingyao sat at a small breakfast table in his apartment and stared at me for several seconds. Two small plastic fans whirled next to the wall. There was a bouquet of fake flowers, a collection of cookie tins, and some old apples in a bowl.

We'd been talking for a while and sipping tea, working our way slowly to the subject of his wife, who was mercilessly beaten to death during the Cultural Revolution. I thought that Wang, 89, was just gathering his thoughts. The old man, wearing shorts and a white T-shirt, was in fact thinking over a question before asking it.

He'd been the central character in a 2006 documentary about the murder of his wife, Bian Zhongyun. It is a powerful piece of film in which Wang repeatedly looks straight into the camera's eye and talks plainly about Bian, a mother of four, being bludgeoned by teenage girls until she died in a mess of her own blood, urine and excrement in 1966.

So now he had a question for me: "How much influence has this movie had in America?"

Read On

The first ten sections of the movie, Though I am Gone, can be seen here. I'll go ahead and embed the first one if anyone care to begin viewing (the movie is in Mandarin but has English subtitles):

Several of the books I've read in recent weeks have delved into these dark chapters of contemporary Chinese history. All of the information I've taken in, including this movie above, has been eye-opening and disturbing.

I love China. I'm fascinated by the country. I'm trying my best to wrap my mind around the Leninist-capitalist amalgamation that is every day wielding more power across the globe. But aside from macro-economic and geo-political trends that I enjoy following, I also am trying to understand the people and culture of China better.

My wife is Chinese. I lived in China for more than three years. I met scores of wonderful people in China who have affected me greatly. I've invested a lot of time, energy, and, honestly, my heart into the country. It is very possible that Qian and I would want to live in China again in the future.

All of these stories on recent Chinese history, such as the one above, strike very close to home for me.

When my parents were being moved by speeches from Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, witnessing men land on the moon, and listening to Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, my wife's parents were living through the insanity of Maoist China.

Now, nearly a half-century later, a decade into the twenty-first century, Qian's parents are the ones living in the country who's economy is developing at unprecedented rates while my parents' country is the one stagnating (more than just economically). My parents dream of retirement. Qian's parents (who are a few years younger than my parents) are about to start their pensions.

The world is a crazy place. Looking at China as an American can be strange. I apologize if this blog is often contradictory, rambling, and/or nonsensical. I'm just trying my best to make sense of it all.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kansas City and China

I came across a hilarious quote while reading The China Fantasy the other day:
"With God's help, we will lift Shanghai up until it is just like Kansas City."
- Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska during the era of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist China (in the 1940s).
It's funny how misguided people often sound after history plays out.

Photo of Kansas City from

Photo of Shanghai from

While talking about Kansas City, my hometown, I'm going to feature an article I found while searching for information on that quote from Senator Wherry. From
Missouri and China do not ordinarily go together in people's minds. One tends to think of China as most closely tied to parts of the U.S. that either sit by the Pacific (like California) or were early magnets of Chinese migration (like New York)-and neither is true of the Show Me State. Still, dig around a bit and a host of connections between Missouri and the Middle Kingdom emerge. Some are merely interesting historical tidbits. For example, the fact that a nephew of the Chinese emperor attended the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, or the fact that the plane that launched the missiles that hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 set off for Serbia from a Missouri airfield. Other China-Missouri links are more significant, such as that a native of the Show Me State, Harry S. Truman, was President when Chinese and American forces fought each other in Korea. Still others are just bizarre. In this category, I would put the presence of the “New Shanghai Theater,” which hosts year-round performances by the Acrobats of China performing group, in Branson, Missouri (aka the “Las Vegas of the Ozarks”). And the infamous 1940 statement by a U.S. Senator that has often been quoted in the past to epitomize a certain kind of recurrent American hubris concerning nation-building projects: “with God's help we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”

Probably the single most intriguing connection between the two places, though, is a literary one, which was brought to my mind by the recent announcement that a National Book Award nomination had gone to Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present. Peter Hessler, the author of this elegantly written book, which mixes elements of travelogue and memoir with reportage and political analysis, grew up in Columbia, Missouri-and he is just the latest in a long line of writers with ties to that state to emerge as an influential shaper of American images of China. The originator of the lineage can even be said to be none other than Mark Twain, the first Show Me State citizen to gain global renown as an author. Though he never made it to China on his travels, Twain was fascinated by the country, and he wrote everything from an epistolary tale about a Chinese immigrant (“Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again”), to a newspaper editorial denouncing the “unequal treaties” that the West had forced upon the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the mid-1800s, to essays sympathetic to the anti-Christian Boxer insurgents (since, in his mind, any foes of missionaries couldn't be all bad).

The highpoint of China-writing by people with ties to Missouri came a bit later than Twain's day, in the early-to-mid 1900s. This was when Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, both Missouri-born journalists, published famous books on the Chinese Revolution. The influence of Snow's Red Star Over China (1936), the book through which many Americans got their first close look at the previously mysterious figure of Mao (presented there as a very sympathetic, indeed heroic figure), is hard to overstate. Smedley never wrote a book that had as big an impact, but her writings introduced American readers to new topics, such as the role that women played in the Chinese Revolution, and her Battle Hymn of China (1941) was one of the most widely read accounts of the country published in the United States during World War II.

Read On
I'm not sure if I've talked about it much on this blog, but the reason that I ended up going to China is the Kansas City/Xi'an's sister-city organization. A group of people in Kansas City and a group of people in Xi'an have a relationship and work together to promote friendship between the US and China. Hardly anyone in either city has even heard of their sister city, but there are groups of people passionate about the relationship on each side. When I was looking for an opportunity to go abroad back in 2005 after graduating from college - I was looking at Japan, Taiwan, and Chile - I was introduced to someone in the friendship organization.

The foundation of the KC/Xi'an connection is largely based upon Edgar Snow who is mentioned in the article above (the geography of KC and Xi'an is quite similar too... gateways to the west). Snow was born in Kansas City and ended up spending a significant amount of his later life in China. He's most famous for his book - Red Star Over China - where he embedded himself with the Communist rebels in northern Shaanxi Province (Xi'an's province) in the mid-1930s.

I read Red Star Over China years ago. I wrote a review of the book on my old blog here. The book is a bit tedious at times, but it's something someone interested in China should read.

Overall, Snow's legacy is not a positive one. He's credited for deepening our understanding of Mao in Red Star Over China. But he was used badly by Mao throughout much of his life. I blasted Snow in a recent post for the things he wrote about the Great Leap Forward. He really was a pawn being played by Mao at that time.

Conceding that I, and many others, have major problems with Snow and his work, I do appreciate Snow's life. Growing up in Missouri in the early-1900s and then going to China during a tumultuous time in its history, Snow's life was a unique one.

I know it's not the same at all, but I like to think that the journey I took to China has at least some elements of his adventure. I also appreciate Peter Hessler's story (a writer who I have the utmost respect for), which took him from Columbia, Missouri to China. I take pride in the fact that middle-America, my home, has such a strong legacy in the Middle Kingdom.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Breaking the Gridlock

I work at a reverse-logistics company. I'm learning a lot about the trucking industry and moving freight. It's a whole different world than anything I'd ever been exposed to before. I'm really liking it.

I sent out an email to my boss and colleagues the other day about this following story. We all got a kick out of it.

From Bloomberg:

Aug. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Chinese demand for coal to produce electricity for the world’s fastest-growing major economy is creating traffic jams lasting as long as nine days on roads connecting mines in the nation’s hinterland to its eastern ports.

Thousands of trucks were stuck along the Beijing-Tibet Expressway for as many as nine days, China Business News reported today. The blockage, which began to ease yesterday, was created by a surge in trucks carrying coal from the province of Inner Mongolia, the newspaper reported. Road maintenance since Aug. 19 has been a major cause of the congestion, the Global Times newspaper said today.

Inner Mongolia passed Shanxi province last year to become China’s biggest coal supplier after the government closed mines on safety concerns following a series of deadly accidents in Shanxi. A dearth of railway capacity connecting Inner Mongolia to port cities such as Caofeidian, Qinhuangdao and Tianjin, where coal is shipped to power plants in southern China, has forced suppliers to rely on trucks.

“The situation may ease in three or four years, when rail capacity from Inner Mongolia to Caofeidian gets upgraded and the new rail line to Liaoning province starts,” David Fang, a director at the China Coal Transport and Distribution Association, said by telephone today.

Read On

A traffic jam that is 62 miles long and has already spanned nine days. Only in China.

This story of the "expressway" outside of Beijing being plugged up is coupled nicely with this one I found on Beijing's city traffic from China Daily:

Image from

BEIJING - Average driving speeds in the Chinese capital will likely drop below 15 km per hour in five years if the number of vehicles continues increasing while no further measures are taken, said a Beijing transport official here on Monday.

Guo Jifu, head of the Beijing Transportation Research Center, made the remark at a symposium to discuss the city's traffic problems.

He said the number of vehicles on the road increased by 1,900 per day on average in the first half year. If the growth rate continued, the total number of vehicles would hit 7 million by 2015.

He warned that the city's road networks could only accommodate 6.7 million vehicles, given the current ban keeping private cars off the road one work-day a week in the urban areas remained.

Read On
As a caveat, I heard a report this morning on NPR from Louisa Lim saying that car sales (as well as real estate) are way down over the past few months. So some of the projections on this article from China Daily may not come to fruition. But there is no denying that China's car industry has been BOOMING and will continue to grow at incredible rates into the future. And the trucking industry, highlighted by that traffic jam up above in the first article, shows just how many semi-trucks are moving freight on China's roads.

Last year, China committed a ton of its stimulus money to infrastructure. It's obvious that China is in desperate need for better roads, rails, and other means of transportation that will allow its economy to continue on the pace it's been, and will continue, growing.

Money spent on infrastructure in China is money well-spent. There have already been massive improvements - I could see them with my own eyes in the 3.5 years I spent in Xi'an from '06 to '09 - but there still need to be a lot more money invested.

As the foundation of China's transportation, and, thus, economic backbone, gets stronger, China's growth will continue to be pace ahead of the rest of the world's well into the future.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hungry Ghosts by Jasper Becker

The last chapter of the book I reviewed a few days ago, The Party, is about the Chinese Communist Party and its history. In that chapter, Richard McGregor profiles the journalist, Yang Jisheng.

In 2008, Yang published a phone book-sized tome, Tombstone, about the Great Leap Forward, the most lethal famine in the history of the world that took place in China from 1958 to 1962. Yang, a Party member and reporter for Xinhua News, wrote the book from the inside. He navigated his way through secret archives and records across the country that had been locked away for decades. A snippet of Yang's story can be read here.

Tombstone can be purchased in Hong Kong and abroad, but was banned immediately in mainland China. The history of the Great Leap Forward remains something that Chinese people are not allowed to explore.

China's most horrific famine has, of course, been written about in English. After finishing The Party, I picked up a book I've heard recommended on the history of the Great Leap Forward - Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine by Jasper Becker.

Hungry Ghosts is not for the faint of heart. A book about the downfall of an entire country and the deaths of 35 million people is not a light read. Becker paints a haunting picture of a nation completely destroyed from the top-down.

The book is split into three parts: the political foundation and lead up to the famine, anecdotal accounts of the famine as it was occurring, and then the aftermath, big-picture recount, of what happened.

I'm going to highlight a few of the things that stood out to me most in the book.

Chairman Mao in the mid-1950s wanted to transform China from a poor agrarian nation into an industrial powerhouse. Mao proposed that China, if it followed his ideas, worked hard, and sacrificed for a couple years, would pass the United States and Great Britain in steel and food production in less than a decade.

Mao used many of Stalin's ideas as the foundation of his plan. I found the part of the book discussing the "science" borrowed from the Soviet Union that Mao employed to be absolutely terrifying. From page 61 of the book:
Marxism claims, above all, to be a "scientific" philosophy, one which applies the principles of science to politics and society. In like manner, Mao believed, modern science could transform the lives of those millions of ignorant peasants sunk in the mire of centuries of feudal superstition. There was no time to wait for them to become convinced, they would have to be forcibly dragged into the twentieth century. Everything connected with traditional beliefs was smashed in the Great Leap Forward (although many observers tend to assume that this happened later, in the Cultural Revolution) but, ironically, what Mao put in place of these beliefs was a pseudo-science, a fantasy that could not be validated by science, or stand up to rational examination, and more than could the peasant superstitions which the Party ridiculed.

Kang Sheng, Mao's loyal henchman, exemplified this casual approach to facts: "We should be like Marx, entitled to talk nonsense," he told everyone, and he toured the country lecturing about the need to add imagination to science. "What is science," he asked teachers in Zhengzhou, Henan province, in 1958. "Science is simply acting daringly. There is nothing mysterious about it."


All over China in 1958, the Party created thousands of new colleges, universities and research institutes, while real scientists were imprisoned or sent to do manual labor. In their place, thousands of untrained peasants carried out "scientific research." Many kind of miracles were announced but the Great Leap Forward was above all about creating huge increases in grain and steel production. There were the "two generals" that Mao said would modernize China.
The results of this new "science" were unbelievable. Things such as "close planting" and "deep plowing" were promoted to revolutionize agriculture. "Close planting" was, literally, throwing more seeds down on the same area of land to have more "dense" crops. "Deep plowing" was plowing the land up to ten feet deep in the attempt to unlock the land's potential. These "agricultural advancements" were, obviously, nonsense. Such techniques were were wasteful and went against how Chinese peasants had toiled the land for millenia. The result of adopting such ideas was a collapse in output.

That's not to say there was no output from the farms though. Crop yields were down, but Chinese farmers were able to grow things during the Great Leap Forward. Instead of allowing the farmers who grew the crops to eat what they'd grown though, Mao, in an effort to show how well his policies were working to leaders in the USSR and other countries, exported large amounts of what had been sown. Millions of Chinese peasants swelled from edema and died in unthinkable numbers because Mao both refused to believe his policies weren't working and labelled anyone who said otherwise an enemy of the state.

The accounts Becker writes about of what was happening "on the ground" during this time are hard to read. Cannibalism was rampant, gulag-style prison camps for "opportunist rightists" were ubiquitous, and masses of people simply dropped down dead in the fields due to the disastrous social experiment being put forth from Beijing.

Becker, decades after the famine, traveled to many of the worst-hit parts of China in the 1980s and 1990s and transcribes several of the interviews he conducted with people who lived though the hell of the Great Leap Forward. He also quotes liberally from memoirs of people who experienced the famine and later wrote about the horrific events.

In the later section of the book recounting how the famine was allowed to happen, Becker has a chapter called "The Western Failure." In that chapter, Becker examines many of the useful idiots and fellow travelers who wrote for their western publications that Mao's "grand social experiment" was working.

One of the most guilty of these foreign correspondents is a writer from Kansas City: Edgar Snow. Snow's most famous work is Red Star Over China. In that book, Snow profiles a young Mao Zedong in the 1930s at the communist base of Yan'an in northern Shaanxi Province. Snow, at that time, introduced the world to the people who would eventually become the leadership of China.

Being a Kansas Citian who's spent a significant amount of time in Shaanxi Province myself, I'm particularly interested in Snow's role in Chinese history.

Becker quotes Snow from his 1960 book, The Other Side of the River: Red China Today, on p. 291 of Hungry Ghosts:
Throughout 1959-62 many Western press editorials and headlines referred to "mass starvation" in China and continued to cite no supporting facts. As far as I know, no report by any non-communist visitor to China provided an authenticated instance of starvation during this period.

I assert that I saw no starving people in China, nothing that looked like old-time famine (and only one beggar, among flood refugees in Shenyang) and that the best Western intelligence on China was well aware of this. Isolated instances of starvation due to neglect or failure of the rationing system were possible. Considerable malnutrition undoubtedly existed. Mass starvation? No.
It's clear in hindsight that Mao had Snow wrapped around his finger. Snow was not shown what was really going on in China on his tour. Unfortunately, Snow didn't have the wherewithal to know he was being duped by Mao. Snow failed miserably in not recognizing the famine and historians, rightly, view Snow in a profoundly negative light.

After finishing Hungry Ghosts, there is no doubt that the Great Leap Forward was an avoidable, man-made fiasco. The initial explanation of the famine - "three years of natural disasters" - has been proven false. Becker's book shows that the blame lies solely with Mao. He refused to believe that his ideas could not be bearing fruit and stuck with his maniacal plan for far too long.

I've been recommending books left and right here on my blog the past few months. Hungry Ghosts is another book that has greatly deepened my understanding of China. I recommend it, but only to people willing to delve into the insanity of the Great Leap Forward. It is not an easy or enjoyable read.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Real Estate Music Video

I heard an interesting piece on Public Radio International's The World this evening about young people's frustrations with China's real estate market. You can listen to the story here. The story is a bit sensationalistic - the comments of people wanting blood and to go out with a bang and Andy Xie's comments - but I still appreciated it.

Here is the music video that is discussed in the radio piece (it's in Chinese):

This music video reminds me a lot of the show I reviewed a couple months ago - 蜗居 - although this video is significantly more blunt.

I've talked many times over the past couple years about China's real estate market. I've been much gloomier about it in the past than I am now. Prices are still outrageous in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, but things appear to be calming down a bit. And in places like my old home Xi'an, prices aren't that insane (relatively speaking).

Things are still out-of-whack and will continue to be so throughout much of the country even if prices don't go higher. I think there is a lot of truth to the messages of 蜗居 and this music video. The masses cannot afford housing in many urban centers and rich people are buying multiple apartments and leaving some empty. This is very tough for young men wanting to marry (owning an apartment is a prerequisite for marriage), for couples wanting to settle down, and scores of other people.

But I'm becoming convinced that things will cool down and that a popped real estate market isn't going to mean the same thing to China as it has to the US. China's economy is still going to be strong, the country will continue to grow, and people's lives will continue to improve even if real estate is no longer seen as a hot speculative investment. I'm beginning to agree with what author Zachary Karabell told me last year, "a popped real estate bubble in China isn't going to be derailing."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

China's New Tomorrowland

I wrote a short overview of Chongqing a few weeks ago. Chongqing is at the very top of the list of incredible places in China. Foreign Policy just put up a stunning photo exploration of the city that is, "growing faster than mapmakers and even government officials can track." Go check out the photos. Try to wrap your mind around this model of the city that is already "hopelessly out-of-date."

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Party

The Chinese blogosphere has been a buzz recently with reviews of the new book - The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor. The book has been getting very favorable reviews (and has already been banned in China). I just finished the book and agree with what most everyone else is saying; The Party is a great read.

Richard McGregor was the Financial Times' China bureau chief for most of the past decade. The goal of his book is to give his reader a vivid picture of the shadowy organization behind the scenes in almost every facet of Chinese life. The Party is an ambitious project. Getting a meaningful picture of the CCP as a foreign journalist is nearly an impossible task.

McGregor writes about this difficulty in the prologue:
An old adage in journalism, that the best story is often the one staring you in the face, holds true in China. The problem in writing about the Party, though, is that, much as the Party might be staring you in the face, you can't easily glare back. The Party and its functions are generally masked or dressed up in other guises. When it interacts with the outside world, the Party is careful to keep a low profile. Sometimes, you can't see the Party at all, which makes the job of reporting how China is governed maddeningly difficult.
McGregor succeeds in his gargantuan task of painting a picture of the Party for his readers. So much useful and little-known information is highlighted. I have a much deeper perspective and knowledge of China after finishing The Party.

The book is broken down into eight chapters and shows how the Party dominates every aspects of Chinese society. I took notes as I was reading. There are dozens of things that I'd like to talk about from this book. But I'm going to limit my thoughts to a couple.

Chapter three in the book is titled, "The Keeper of the Files: The Party and Personnel." The chapter paints a picture of the CCP's "Central Organization Department." From p. 69 in the book:
The party body with ultimate power over personnel, the Central Organization Department, is without a doubt the largest and most powerful human resources body in the world. Barely heard of outside China and little known inside the country itself, beyond official circles, its reach extends into every department of state. Much like the Party itself, the department is a fearsome, secretive hulk, struggling to adapt to a vastly more complex world which has grown up around it in the last three decades.
Delving into the Party's inner political structure that is still largely based on a Leninist-Soviet structure and seeing how they run 10%-GDP-growth-a-year-China is fascinating stuff. McGregor highlights the rotating of CEOs at large Chinese companies to keep them in their place, the administering of personality and lie detector tests for potential cadres, and the myriad of other techniques the Party uses to make sure that their strangle-hold on power remains strong.

Chapter five in the book is titled, "The Shanghai Gang: The Party and Corruption." The "Pearl of the Orient" is painted in a light that I was ignorantly unaware of. From p. 150:
Streams of foreign visitors have been dazzled by the view of Pudong, usually while clikning glasses on the terraces of the upmarket eateries housed in the colonial-era buildings that line the riverfront strip opposite, known as the Bund. The image this view conveyed - that Shanghai had returned to its entrepreneurial heyday - was far from reality. Unlike southern China and the Yangtze delta region, where Deng's policies had bred a risk-taking, private economy, Shanghai was developed as a socialist showcase. Few visitors admiring the skyscrapers realized that most of them had been built by city government companies. Far from being the free-wheeling market place that many visitors believed, Shanghai represented the Party's ideal, a a kind of Singapore-on-steroids, a combination of commercial prosperity and state control.
Deng Xiaoping had chosen southern China instead of Shanghai as the place to build up China's market economy. Things opened up in Shanghai in the early 1990s and the past twenty years has seen the metropolis turn into a major powerhouse. McGregor shows that Shanghai is a different sort of economic center than what most think when they see the glass skyscrapers though.

I would love to go on and continue to highlight more passages of the book. All eight chapters are worthwhile. But I'll just refer you to the book instead.

I'll leave with one final thought. McGregor has an over-arching theme that he comes back to over and over again: the most important thing to the Chinese Communist Party is the Chinese Communist Party. Staying in control of China is the organization's one and only objective. Economic growth, developing the military, carefully-crafted nationalism - everything stoked by the Party, really - is to ensure that it stays in power. Seeing the many positive things going on in China, I often forget this. McGregor has reminded me in a very convincing and scathing fashion of what's going on though.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Will the Boat Sink the Water?

"Water holds up the boat;
water may also sink the boat."
- Emperor Taizong (600 - 649, Tang Dynasty)
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.

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?"

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."
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:
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.

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
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.