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A single spark starts a prairie fire


Dr Yu Jianrong is a researcher at the Rural Development Centre of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

When a ‘task force’ of over 30 police officers, tax officials and township cadres arrived in Luhuatan Township to arrest Mao Mingda for ‘organzing mass refusals to pay slaughter tax’, they soon found themselves surrounded by a crowd of local farmers. Fifteen police officers and officials were injured in the subsequent assault and the angry crowd stripped another ten naked. The stand-off lasted until midday, with the task force only getting out when the police released Mao Mingda.

Such examples of rural resistance in China are rising. Many are sparked by farmers protecting their spokespeople. When around 100 police officers in Yizhang County came to Suyuan town to arrest activist Zhou Binghui, they were spotted by villagers who – by blowing whistles and beating gongs – quickly assembled a crowd over 2,000 strong, which surrounded the officers. Over 1,000 people pursued them back to the government compound where they smashed up offices and officials’ homes.

These large-scale incidences of farmer resistance – which began in the 1990s – are unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic. Even during periods of great hardship for China’s farmers (such as the Great Leap Forward in 1958-62), direct resistance was extremely rare. The reasons for these incidents are complex. Just as the peasants’ movements led by the Communist Party in the early decades of the last century were mainly concentrated in Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi, the most significant rural unrest is again occurring in these areas. My investigations and research are mainly on the situation in Hunan province in Central China, where farmers throughout have risen en masse – on two occasions with more than 10,000 people. These incidents share some common characteristics.

First, the reasons for the unrest are transparent. Some happen because violence or deaths occur during tax collection. Some happen because farmers feel their tax and fee burden is too heavy and they petition higher authorities, which then sparks conflict with local government. Some happen when irregularities occur during village elections, spurring farmers to demand democratic rights. And some happen because farmers take collective action against corruption by local cadres.

Second, there is an increased level of organization.

Anatomy of resistance

Small numbers of people enlightened on farmers’ rights issues seek out like-minded people in their community. They spread the message by promoting Party and Government documents on reducing farmers’ burdens. Once they have a base of mass support and have established a degree of organization, they go on to organize mass actions in response to some specific incident that serves as the spark.

These spontaneously established villagers’ organizations have names like ‘Burden Reduction Group’, ‘Committee for Reducing Burdens’ or ‘Burden Reduction Monitoring Group’. It is rare to see clear documentation of any organization: most work by word of mouth and prohibit any written records. Nor do they assign any specific posts to members and are especially careful to avoid appointing formal leaders.

A new set of farmers’ leaders with a strong popular appeal is emerging. They are usually 30-45 years old and have middle school or better education, and they tend to be from better-off families. The majority are former soldiers or have worked away from home. Some are Party members or village cadres.

The intensity of resistance is steadily increasing, with a tendency to more violence. In the early 1990s, the main form that farmers’ protests took was jointly signed letters or delegations to complain to higher authorities. After 1995, demonstrations took place. In some cases the State sent in the army. An incident in Ningxiang (near Hunan’s provincial capital) was sparked off when the local ‘burden reduction representatives’ organized farmers to take part in a widely publicized ‘mass meeting for the reduction of burdens and against corruption’ in the local government office compound. The Government mobilized over a thousand police officers in an attempt to stop the meeting, setting up a roadblock on the main road leading to the government offices. It ended in violent clashes with the farmers, including deaths and injuries after the police used tear gas.

Unrest is infectious: incidents in one place can easily spread to others. After clashes between officials and farmers in Qidong in 1996, higher levels of government were forced to repay extra education fees collected from farmers. The news of Qidong farmers’ success spread rapidly to other townships, sparking violent incidents involving thousands of farmers. Five township Party and Government offices were attacked. In all, 79 cadres were either personally assaulted or had their homes attacked.

The problems of China’s farmers were the focus for concern throughout the 20th century. Both the Rural Reconstruction Movement of Nationalist-era intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, and the peasant revolution led by the Communist Party, proceeded under the banner of resolving these problems. Yet for a long time after the Communist Party’s seizure of power the problems of farmers were not a matter for general concern, even in the days of the so-called Three Years of Natural Disasters – the official euphemism for the famines following the Great Leap Forward when great numbers of farmers starved to death.

Farmers’ problems did not attract real attention until the 1980s, after land reforms implemented in response to the rural famines meant that farmers were at least able to fill their bellies. Why the delay? I believe the main reason is that a serious and visible political crisis then emerged in rural areas. It is a crisis with many roots. First, there has been an increase in the relative poverty of farmers. Second, the State, regional government, grassroots government in rural areas, the employees of the latter and farmers themselves have all become separate independent interest groups, and conflicts of interest are coming to the surface. This is seen most clearly in the increase in the tax and fees burden on farmers. Since the 1990s, China has seen a general financial crisis for both county and township level government, which ultimately has been passed on to farmers in the shape of various taxes, fees and apportioned charges.

Another factor is the overall weakening of state power. The State, in order to strengthen its control over rural society, has made great efforts to extend administrative power in rural areas, establishing an excessively large corps of township cadres. Yet the State does not take responsibility for paying their expenses. Its attempt to strengthen the machinery of political power is counterproductive since an expanded apparatus of power will engage in new levels of plundering in order to obtain the resources it needs for operation.

Farmers lack their own grassroots organizations and political representatives, and there are almost no meaningful formal intermediaries between farmers and the Government. Yet various informal organizations have now appeared. These include farmers’ self-defence associations in areas where public order is breaking down, mutual aid farming organizations and clan organizations. Most numerous are secret societies.

A voice for farmers

An ideology of opposition to the system has formed. It is now commonly accepted that farmers have been the victims of long-term systemic expropriation, and this has been expressed in terms such as ‘second class citizenship’ and ‘new serfdom’. Intellectuals have offered numerous solutions. Of these, the majority favour ‘treating farmers as citizens’ in the sense that farmers living in the countryside ought to be treated the same as urban residents. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this because there is indeed a polarization between town and country in China. But for the broad mass of workers living in towns even the few pitiful welfare benefits they once enjoyed have long since been reformed out of existence. It is only a privileged minority who can lay claim to more. In this sense it can be said that China does not have an identifiable group of citizens sharing common interests and aspirations: just its poor and downtrodden workers and the privileged with the money and the power. There is no enjoyment of the benefits of citizenship, just the enjoyment of privilege.

In addition, while academics deserve our respect, their thinking is still underpinned by the attitude of an intellectual élite prescribing for society. The proposals they make still exclude farmers as social actors in their own right. Farmers should be allowed to speak for themselves. As a priority, a mechanism for the political representation of farmers should be established. This means mobilizing farmers, setting up genuine farmer organizations, and creating and nurturing in the countryside forces capable of conducting an effective struggle against vested interests.

  • This article was abridged from a longer essay, translated by Jim Weldon, which has been published in China Development Brief – an excellent source of information, analysis and debate about social development in China. Tel: +86 10 6401 0440 or web:
  • New Internationalist issue 371 magazine cover This article is from the September 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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