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Best Seller Provides Shocking Look into Lives of Chinese Farmers

Everyone in China knew that the country’s farmers were going through tough times, they did know just how tough.

In order to afford school, eleven-year-old Liu Xiaohuan (above), from Anhui, has to work for a brick production facility. Carrying 16 bricks weighing approximately 40 kilograms, Liu Xiaohuan has to walk a total of 140 meters, while earning only about 3.3 fen (~ 0.4 cent).

This is just one example of the many hardships faced by the farming communities today. Stories like this are beginning to gain more attention in various political and intellectual circles. “Three farming-related issues [1] [will be] the emphasis among all the most important government work [that will be done in the next five years]”, Premier Wen Jiabao announced in his government working report. It sounds like Wen has the determination to resolve these problems, but his focus is still unclear. Just what exactly are the “three farming-related issues”?

A Survey of Chinese Farmers, a new book that vividly describes the lives of farmers today, provides answers to this most pressing question. In the book, husband-wife authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao document numerous stories of farmers in rural Anhui Province suffering from poverty and injustices from abusive and supressive government officials.

At a time when people around the world were turning their eyes to the skyscrapers in the modern cities of Beijing and Shanghai, the release of the book this past Spring made quite a splash in society and shocked both the elite and public masses. The book soon claimed the best seller title after its debut with more than 100,000 copies flying off the shelves within a month in January!

Newspapers, journals and web sites were soon flooded with readers’ fervent comments.

“We have never felt such shock and pain!”

“We have been exposed to unbelievable poverty, crimes, miseries, helplessness, struggles and silence. We have never been so deeply touched and saddened.”

“As reporters, we have interviewed appealing farmers but could only give them helpless signs. Shame on us.”

The book boldly exposes the dark side of rural China which had largely been censored from media reports. The book unveils tragic stories of farmers being killed for exposing village cadres’ embezzlement, policemen beating farmers to death for protesting against heavy taxes and village cadres robbing farmers’ provisions.

In one account, a young farmer, Ding Zuoming, petitioned to audit the village account after suspecting that the village heads were embezzling the village members’ income. As a result, Ding was arrested and brutally beaten to death by local security personnel under the instruction of village leaders.
The brief benefit the farmers experienced from the economic reform in the early 1980s when the government contracted the land to them soon gave way to heavy taxes and inflation. Over the past 20 years, although the average income of farmers may have doubled or tripled, the heavy taxes imposed on them have increased nearly ten-fold. These increases have made it very difficult for many farmers to survive. It is now even more increasingly common to see disgruntled farmers clash with tax collectors, escalating their conflicts into bloody fights. Though police may be summoned to extinguish the conflict, it’s always the farmers who must suffer the consequences—sometimes paying for it with their own lives.

Implausible as it may sound for a poor, primitive village to become modernized overnight, continual attempts to realize this goal are continuing to be made by local officials trying to impress the top leaders of the central government by showing good results from new government policies. Farmers in “Xiao Gang village” of Fengyang county enjoyed such “prosperity” for three months when in 1998, Jiang Zemin, the then president, made an inspection trip to the village. The village, which couldn’t even afford to build a two-story house, was suddenly equipped with telephone lines and bathrooms in every house. All the homes were also repainted. The confused villagers soon found though, that their sudden fortune was but an illusion after the inspection was over.

The book lucidly depicts how the economic reform in the countryside has failed. After 20 years of stagnant “experimentation”, most Chinese farmers are still living in the most primitive conditions. In a country where 80% of its population (nearly 1 billion people) are composed of farmers, this issue can no longer be ignored.

Mr. Chen told Mingpao Newspaper that a conscientious writer or reporter would have no difficulty finding enough cases to expose the miseries and poverty of Chinese farmers. All it takes is a little more courage to risk reporting the actual facts.

In order to conduct the survey and write the report, Chen and his wife had to entrust their six-month-old son to a guardian. The project took them three years, to fifty counties in Anhui Province and all the 50,000 yuan left in their personal savings to finish the survey. Despite many difficulties, they persevered. To gain input from experts, they went to Beijing, where they were treated with disdain. However, they remained unwavering in their fearless mission to report farmers’ miseries and in publicizing names of involved government officials, from central government leaders to village officials.

The book’s highly acclaimed success, however, could do nothing to spare it’s life in the public domain. Revealing the dark side of the country is usually seen as an insult to authorities. The Propaganda Department inside the Communist Party of China suddenly prohibited further talk of the book just before the commencement of a new session of the National People’s Congress last March. The media’s silence on the topic immediately followed suit. The most popular website in China,, also withdrew the posting of the book and any webviewer’s comments. They are now facing a lawsuit of defamation by officials named in the book.
Wen’s promise is not novel in any way. The government has long been talking about improving farmers’ standard of living and varied “attempts” to resolve their problems but to no avail. In the end, talk is just “talk.” Concerned more with public image rather than true substance and action, not one government official has truly cared enough to really resolve the problem. Banning a book that provides the most honest look at the “three farming-related issues” will only deepen the distrust of the people upon the government—a serious problem Wen and his cohorts will have to eventually face.

[1]The three farming-related issues refer to issues of countryside, farmers and agriculture.
Levi Browde is a New York based commentator on China.