Widespread Discontent in the Rural Areas of China
Widespread Discontent in the Rural Areas of China

It is not so well known, but alongside China's booming economy has come much strife especially in the countryside. The growing internal unrest in China was discussed in a Congressional hearing at Washington' Capitol on Wednesday, Feb 2.

This panel was one of several hearings sponsored by the U.S.-China Commission regarding major challenges facing the Chinese leadership. The violence, “spontaneous” riots, injuries and deaths is extensive and undeniable. China's Minister of Public security acknowledged last month that 2005 had 87,000 “incidents” of unrest involving 15 or more people, which was a 6.5% increase from 2004. “This means on any given day, the state is having to deal with 240 or more uprisings or incidents of unrest someplace in the country,” said Joshua Muldavin, presently a professor from Sarah Lawrence College and who spent 8 years of his life in rural China.

The number of incidents reported by the Chinese government is increasing too. In 1993, the number was 8,700. Hence, 2005 represents a ten-fold increase. However, precisely what the numbers measure is unclear. Albert Keidel, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he had not seen any report giving a breakdown of these incidents by “nature, cause, location, violence level or ultimate resolution.” Nevertheless, with the limited information available, most of which is anecdotal, three China experts attempted to explain to the Commission why there has been so much internal unrest, especially in the rural areas where 800 million peasants reside.

Professor Muldavin testimony focused on a recent uprising and deaths in southern China's rapidly growing Guangdong Province, which he says is “symptomatic of deep structural social and environmental problems that challenge the Chinese state and its chosen development path.” It was reported in the Western media that as many as twenty protesting villagers were killed by police over a dispute of the government seizing peasant land for a power plant. Muldavin explained that peasants in Dongzhou, Guangdong blocked access to the power plant last December “only after years of petitions and peaceful protests had failed to get them promised compensation for their lost lands.”

Professor Muldavin explained that “Peasant land loss is a time bomb.” Land seized from peasants for the sake of development of new industries and infrastructure, “reduces their minimal subsistence base, leaving them with what is called 'two-mouth' lands that won't feed a family of five, thus forcing members of many households to join China's 200 million migrants in search of work across the country…” Dr. Muldavin's own research found that some households have lost even these small subsistence lands, joining the nearly 70 million landless peasants.

“Peasants are losing their land to roads, power plants, dams, factories, waste dumps, and housing projects … Compensation for land seizures is minimal and not nearly enough to replace lost subsistence in a rural society without [welfare]. Muldavin believes that these circumstances coupled with unresponsive local governments, force residents to take desperate means to try to protect themselves. In general, Professor Muldavin believes that China's rapid growth has a down side that the West doesn't see in the rural hinterlands. In this dynamic, “The state has lost much of its legitimacy with the country's majority, and is now challenged by [various] forms of resistance.”

Another side of rural unrest stems from the environmental pollution, for example, the recent much publicized incident in Heilongjiang province in the northeast. Muldavin recalled the time he spent in the 1980s along the banks of the Songhua River when he drank purple contaminated well water in a village with no other water source than the one polluted by a small local factory. “The choice for the peasants was to drink the water or leave and join the 200 million peasants searching for work in China's cities.

Muldavin concluded that the country's phenomenal growth has been achieved through “ravaging of the rural resource base.” He called for the international community to bring pressure on China to condemn “China's socially and ecologically destructive industrial platform.” He criticizes the tendency to raise a protest over some toxic news event or point to some corrupt local officials when it is the whole industrial system of China that is “exceptionally unregulated.”

Dr. Keidel was more tentative and less sweeping in his assessments as to the causes of China's internal unrest. He thought it likely that the rapid growth of “incidents” in 2004, reported by the regime, correlated with the year's “especially rapid growth…” and “electrical power shortages” accompanied by the need for more power so that “the nature and pace of this boom activity triggered widespread discontent.”

He elaborated on many forms of social unrest with an economic basis. Dr. Keidel said that “workers frequently take the law into their own hands to protest layoffs and unpaid wages. For example, in November 2004, workers at a factory in southern China took their bosses hostage over unpaid back wages…”

Keidel doesn't see the urgency of the government to act to relieve the disproportionate burden in the rural areas that Dr. Muldavin spoke about. He thinks the government will respond as best it can on a case-by-case basis, and respond less harshly in some places while in other places, will act with overwhelming force, depending on how best to diffuse the particular crisis. He expected media coverage will continue to restrict information about the extent and seriousness of incidents, and that the central government will reign in local officials to keep things under control.

David Welker, from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said that when China was contemplating joining the WTO, the nature of “reforms” necessary was discussed and even debated within the Chinese Communist Party. However, this internal debate was “stifled by the Jiang [Zemin] clique” and it was decided to “plow forward with wrenching economic displacements under one-party administrative and legal structure that has no real mechanism to listening to the ever growing voices of the displaced.” He observed that the enrichment through corruption was the single most important factor in keeping party members loyal to the present policies.

Welker believes the lack of trade unions in China has left the people vulnerable to 20th century issues like child labor and the absence of workplace safety. “There is no reason to believe in the benevolence of the [Chinese Communist Party] to step in and relieve basic labor deficiencies,” or see the Party enforce minimum wage or maximum working hours laws.

The Commission's three Annual Reports to Congress, transcripts of its public hearings, research papers, trade and economic related data, and translations of relevant Chinese-language materials are available online at www.uscc.gov.

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