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.


Anonymous said...

"If you drive a car, I'll tax the street,
If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I'll tax the heat,
If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet."
-The Beatles, "Taxman"

Taxation has been a timeless tool for creating wealth for nothing when abused.

You've mentioned Out of Mao's Shadow twice now, so I best read it and add WTBSTW to the list as well.

Great stuff these last two entries Mark. I've heard the podcast making the rounds around the blogosphere that want to proclaim the death of the English language China blog, and I can't help reading entries like these last two and think how out of touch that is. To me it sounds like a bunch of disgruntled teenagers who are pissed off that their favorite underground band has gone mainstream. Your blog and so many other new ones show that while there are certainly more channels available, there is still a lot of quality out there and the English language China blog is quite alive and well!

Mark said...

Out of Mao's Shadow is simply a must-read. I've been recommending it to people as "the one book anyone and everyone should read on China."

I also heard the podcast you're referring to.

I won't say they sound like teenagers. Mostly because the dudes on that podcast are seriously legit China-hands with more knowledge of China in one of their pinkies than I have between my ears. And I'm not just saying that to be humble. I believe it. I have a lot of respect for those guys/gals and am gaining immense perspective/knowledge from their weekly podcasts.

Saying that, they did come off a bit like codgers reminiscing about "the good old days" when the China blogosphere was easier to navigate and more tight-knit. I think that at least a couple of them had a sense of humor about sounding crumudgeonly though.

I also think that Twitter has a lot to do with any shift away from blogs that has occurred. I'm finally "getting" Twitter. It's only taken me a year plus. A lot of the link sharing and back-and-forth that blogs had had a monopoly on are now being done on Twitter.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I probably worded that poorly, I think your take is more appropriate. I wasn't just referring to the guys on the podcast but to the other old school bloggers who posted entries echoing the sentiments of the podcast as well.

Their credentials go without saying to anyone who has followed the China blog scene and I would also concur that their China knowledge dwarfs my own and really, just about everyone else's as well. I also feel though that a lot of them have lost their passion for blogging and it kinda shows.

These bloggers are the pioneers and I think its a disservice to all the new bloggers out there for them to proclaim that blogging is dead just because its not like the "good ole days". I don't really think the new crop is "late to the party", but rather the party is just getting started. Sure, as the party gets crowded it becomes a bit more impersonal, but really, a small handful of people isn't much of a party.

I suppose Twitter is useful for sharing links and small bits of information and soundbites, but I find it hard to believe that its a substitute for the richer content and commentary that the blogging platform allows.

Ramesh said...

Completely and totally agree with Hopfrog on China blogs. I don't think they are dying at all - one look at this blog is enough to dispel all such thoughts. And there are a few similar ones still around.The quality of the blog is not necessarily measured by number of comments or number of readers - a quality blog with a readership of 1 is still a quality blog.

Your book reviews are spot on Mark. I've read a couple of books after you have reviewed them and I've been captivated by them. The two in this post will be top of the "to buy" list. Much easier now that I am in India , instead of having to go to Hong Kong as I used to do before to buy books.

andy said...

Great post Mark.

Where there is power, there is abuse.

My first thought was how that extortion has built modern China as it is known.

It doesn't have to be taxes America, wealth is built off of the working class. There's a guy at the top, who is supported by everyone below him. It can be an amicable relationship, but given the US's suppressed minimum wage, lax labor law and the supervision thereof, and the obvious skew of power/ability of the wealthy- this relationship isn't working out so hot.

It goes on from there.

great post.

Anonymous said...

"There's a guy at the top, who is supported by everyone below him", "obvious skew of power/ability of the wealthy- this relationship isn't working out so hot"... I'll give you a perfect example of how out of control this has gotten.

We calculated our CEO's total compensation from the prior year ($98 million) and equated it to an hourly wage for a 40 hour work week. It comes out to $47,000 per hour! Now that in itself is pretty obscene, but wait there's more. I work at the company's flagship property and in the past 3 years I do not need any hands to count how many times he was seen on property by me or anyone else I work with.... its 0!

Where did I see him though? We saw him courtside at the Celtics (part owner) games on TV during the NBA postseason. Honestly no one can figure out what the guy does other than put out a weekly email. The company went private and was bought out by a hedge fund management group that he is affiliated with so there is no accountability to shareholders.

No one is going to be hosting a badminton tournament in his honor anytime soon. Good CEO's certainly deserve their place at the top of the pyramid and the payscale, but the number of bad CEO's out there right now and the amounts of money they are making is astounding.

Off tangent I know, but I'll try and bring it full circle here. Its refreshing to hear that China appears to have learned from the mistakes of its past and WTBSTW has played a role in that. I just hate seeing American start making the same mistakes that China is working hard to correct. I think as China watchers we all know how much farther China still has to go, but I agree with your assessment in this post, China does appear to be heading in the right direction.... slooooowly.

Mark said...

@Hopfrog - I agree with you that the podcast stems a lot from their own moving away from blogging and not necessarily China blogs in general losing luster. I'm more in line with your thinking that the party's just starting as opposed to it somehow ending.

I also think the title of the podcast, "Death of the China Blog," didn't exactly describe what they talked about. Sure, they talked about some decline in the good ol' boy network, but they also threw out at least fifty China blogs worth reading. The title of the podcast is provocative has people talking at least!

@Ramesh - I agree with your take on blogs and their reach. When I was in China, one of my friends and I had a discussion about blogging and he said that it'd be really cool to affect one person's thoughts through writing. I know my blog isn't the most trafficked or highest quality or ground breaking one around, but I've met some great people doing it and have learned tons along the way. Can't argue with that!

I'm glad to hear that you've enjoyed a recommendation or two of mine. I've just been reading so many great books that I want to share with others.

Saying that, I finally read a China book that I didn't like! My first negative book review will be coming up in the next few weeks.

@Andy - Thanks for the props on the post. I agree with you that the structure of the US has its own set of problems. And it doesn't seem to me like it's ever going to get any better.

@Hopfrog (again) - That's a messed up story about your CEO!

China is doing things better. But sloooowly. The whole real estate grab thing going on across the country is affecting lots and lots of people in terrible ways. I have no doubt that there could be a WTBSTW?-style book written about that phenomenon in the 2000s (which I'm sure there is already).