David Harrison on China: victims of the boom
The cities may be thriving but in the countryside 800m peasants struggle to survive. As pollution, migration and 'land grabs' threaten to destroy rural China, protests are growing. How much longer, asks David Harrison, can the people be ignored? Photograph by Ian Teh
A one-sided economic boom
In the hills north of Beijing there is a long banner at the roadside. It bellows out a slogan in huge Chinese characters: 'Everyone get involved to build a civilised society.' It is a very Communist message: don't think about yourself; work for the collective good. But 15 minutes after passing the banner, I am sitting in the two-room village home of a struggling peasant farmer who tells me how local Communist Party officials had been involved in building something else: their own bank balances.
'The last village leader was very corrupt,' says Chen Zhen Lu, 53, puffing on a cigarette and topping up his tea with hot water from a vacuum flask. 'The leader stole the money he was supposed to use to pay for the electric pump that brings water up from the well for us.'
Lu needs all the water he can get. Like many Chinese farmers he has been allocated just one mu (one-sixth of an acre) of land. He grows beans, corn and potatoes to eke out a living for himself, his wife, Qi, his 19-year-old daughter and his son, 15, in the village of Hei Wo, which lies in a picturesque valley. He works long days, 10 hours and more, but has little money. 'The leader kept the money for himself and his friends,' he says with resignation, leaning on a Formica-topped table in the living-room, which is also the family bedroom. Live wires hang from unpainted walls, white tape covers cracks in the ceiling and the dark, grim kitchen, visible through a doorway, looks like something from a Dickens novel.
'Two farmers went to the administration's offices and complained,' he continues. 'But they were just brushed away and nothing was done about it. It was terrible for our crops.' Lu gazes towards a jagged piece of broken mirror stuck on the wall. Below the mirror is a battered old television, a gift from his father. He has no phone and no running water and the lavatory is a shallow ditch shielded from the house by a crumbling wall.
'The authorities give us water from the well once every 10 days in winter and once a week in summer,' he says. 'Without that we have to rely even more on the rain for the crops. We catch it and keep it in containers, but it's really hard when you have a family and livestock.' With enough water, he says, a five-member family can make 5,000 to 6,000 yuan (£357 to £428) a year from one mu. Without enough water, they will make just 2,000 yuan (£142).
The paltry figures illustrate how one-sided China's dazzling economic boom has been: it has taken place largely in the cities. Hei Wo is only 60 miles from Beijing's shiny skyscrapers, shopping malls and luxury cars, but it feels like another world. It is typical of millions of Chinese villages. Two-thirds of China's 1.3 billion population - more than 800 million people - live in the countryside, but increasingly they feel left behind. The growing gap between the rich and poor is causing deep resentment.
Millions are voting with their feet. In recent years, the Chinese government has relaxed laws that allowed urban residents to travel but forced country people to stay where they were, a discrimination described as 'China's apartheid' and which many peasants defied. The result has been the greatest exodus of migrant workers ever seen. An estimated 200 million peasants have moved to the cities to seek their fortune, working in cafés, on building sites, anywhere they can find work. Their conditions are tough: they work long hours and sleep in dormitories or on camp sites. Fathers leave their wives and children behind; couples leave children in the care of grandparents, seeing them only once a year. Others leave their offspring to be looked after by a teenage sibling.
You see them arriving at Beijing and other city stations, their ruddy complexions betraying their rural roots, carrying huge holdalls and coloured plastic bags Once in the city, they find themselves treated like second-class citizens, looked down upon, and almost always denied urban residency, housing and schooling for their children. Many send money home to improve their rural houses and pay for their children's education. But millions who leave their villages to embark on this latter-day Long March never return. The result is that all over China there are villages with hardly anyone left: they are known as the 'ghost villages'.
'Who will grow our crops when we are gone?'
Hei Wo is not a ghost village yet, but it is well on the way to becoming one. House after house lies empty, abandoned and going to ruin. The village population has fallen from 160 to less than 100 in recent years and more are planning to leave. Most of those who remain are the old, infirm and the very young. Two-thirds are aged over 60. The able-bodied, the ambitious and those who believe there is no future in the Chinese countryside have almost all gone.
As Lu lights another cigarette, his son, Ying, a polite, gangly teenager, returns from his school in the next village, two miles away. I ask him what he wants to do when he is older. He replies without a second's hesitation: 'I want to go to college to study and then I want to go to Beijing and make money.' ?Would he be interested in taking over his father's small plot of land and growing vegetables? 'No, never,' he says.
His father chips in: 'We have a television now. My son can see what is happening in the cities and he wants to go there. Life is much harder in the countryside. I am the third generation of my family to farm here, but I don't think there will be a fourth. If the young people keep leaving, then the village will die.'
Farther up the hill, in a small, well-kept house, Wang Ru Lian, a diminutive, silver-haired 69-year-old, is sitting under a photograph of China's President Hu Jintao. Lian got married in the village in 1957 and has lived there ever since. But her five children left years ago and her six grandchildren, she accepts, will never want to live there. Lian and her 76-year-old husband, Tai Lian Qing, survive by growing corn and fruit, with help from family members who, at least, are regular visitors. 'At our age, we are lucky that they are,' she says.
Life in the village has improved in recent years, she says. The changes have been significant, but they cannot compare to the phenomenal transformation taking place in China's cities. The best recent improvement was two years ago, when the mud track that ran through the village was turned into a concrete road. It was part of a huge government programme that has seen more roads paved in the past few years than in the previous 50.
The road made a big difference but it still takes Lian and Qing half a day on their donkey cart - and a whole day in winter - to reach the nearest shop, 10 miles away, and more than two hours to reach the hospital, five miles away. 'It is hard living out here, but it's better than it used to be,' says Lian. 'When I first moved to the village, our houses were made of mud, sticks and grass. At least now we have bricks. I can remember people dying of starvation in the 1960s and others eating grass to survive.' Lian lists more recent milestones in the village: the year of the television, the year of the phone, the year of the road?… like a modern zodiac replacing the year of the pig, the rat and the dog.
She admits, however, that she is worried that so many young people are leaving the village. 'Who will grow our crops when we are gone?' she asks. 'There are so many opportunities in the cities these days. It wasn't like that when I was young. It's easy to see why young people want to leave. But if it carries on like this there will be nobody left.'
On the other side of the village I meet a farmer who is doing better than most of his neighbours. Chen Zhen Quan, aged 64, and his wife, Rong, 59, breed pigs and have more than 40 chickens and hundreds of fruit trees. He says proudly that he makes in one month what 20 years ago he made in a year. 'Poor today is not the same as poor back then,' he says. 'Today, most people in China have enough to eat. We are a long way behind the cities, but we have managed OK, because my family is still here and we work hard.'
Quan is also concerned about the number of people leaving the village. But he has another, bigger fear - that corrupt local officials will seize the farmers' land, sell it to property developers and pocket the proceeds, offering risible, if any, compensation. 'I have heard rumours that this is being planned,' he says. 'It would be a disaster for me and many others. We saw what happened with the water-pump money, so we do not feel very secure about our future.'
His daughter-in-law, Diao Hon Mei, 29, a mother of two toddlers, says the local government officials should keep the developers away. She wants to stay in the village and help it to prosper. 'This is a beautiful area and the village has great potential,' she says. 'We can make much better use of it. We could produce more food. And there are plants in the hills that could be used to make medicine. Plus it's a great place for children. We just need to be left alone to get on with it.'
But her father-in-law's fears are not fanciful. 'Land grabs' have been taking place on an enormous scale all over China and especially in rural areas near big cities where land is more highly prized. The arable land is increasingly being used to build houses for China's growing, affluent and powerful middle class, who want to escape the cities and settle down in big houses with garages. Others want a place to go with their families at weekends. In Shanghai, China's most densely populated city, it is estimated that five million people will go on the 'Short March' to the suburbs, known as 'satellite cities', in the next 10 years. It is ironic that while rural residents are fleeing for the cities, city people are taking over swathes of the countryside.
Nearly 20 million acres have been taken for houses, factories and roads in the past 20 years. Local officials are seizing the land because, in a one-party state with little scrutiny, accountability or transparency, they can. The Chinese Communist Party has fewer than 75 million members today, about five per cent of the population. But in rural areas party members are still a powerful elite. Some officials do pay proper compensation for land they seize, but many do not, and they are getting rich at the farmers' expense. In January, a government directive reminded city-dwellers that they were not allowed to buy village properties. But little action has been taken to stop them or the corrupt local officials.
The country's leaders face a dilemma: they are reluctant to frustrate the emerging urban middle classes' desire for new homes, because their entrepreneurial skills are fuelling China's rapid growth. But they are also concerned that the drift from the countryside and the loss of agricultural land will threaten China's ability to produce enough food to feed its population. This is a serious concern in a country where memories of starvation are still fresh in the minds of millions of older people such as Lian.
Myth of the 'rich peasant'
At the heart of the problem is the question of ownership. China's economic reforms have favoured city residents: they can buy and sell homes and companies, and start businesses with minimal state involvement. But farmers cannot buy and sell their land because it belongs to 'the collective', which effectively means local officials. This gives the officials enormous power, which many of them are prepared to abuse, appropriating land, selling it to developers, and pocketing huge sums. Some argue that they are making money for the villages, the 'collective', but farmers given meagre compensation for their land are furious. Some are in despair. The suicide rate among rural women is three times the urban rate and one of the world's highest. Those who kill themselves are mostly young, uneducated, poor women who drink readily available pesticides for a quick death.
It will be a brave leader who tampers with land ownership in China, yet many experts believe it holds the key to a thriving rural economy and is necessary to stop rising discontent. Some academics have called openly for farmers to be allowed to buy and sell land. But so far, despite the Government's headlong rush to embrace 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' - what the rest of the world calls capitalism - there is no sign that that change is imminent.
The current system is a legacy of the communes established by Mao in the 1950s, after he came to power in the 1949 Communist Revolution. In those heady days the peasant was king. Mao's Workers' and Peasants' Red Army of China - the name was later shortened to Red Army - was made up mostly of impoverished country-dwellers. Mao himself came from a peasant family, in Hunan province, albeit a relatively prosperous one.
One of the Great Helmsman's favourite slogans was 'Land to the Tiller', though he never actually gave land to the farmers. What he did was to carve up the countryside into huge areas that would be worked by thousands of families, or communes, to fulfil state quotas of basic foods - and provide a network of social support - in an attempt to eradicate starvation. The system enjoyed some success, but in the late 1950s the Great Leap Forward, a disastrously over-ambitious attempt at rapid industrialisation, saw starvation return with a vengeance. No one knows how many millions died.
The primacy of the peasant was further underlined by Mao during the 10-year Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966, when Mao's Red Guards ordered 'intellectuals' and 'counter-revolutionaries' to the countryside to work. Mao had decreed that it was only by living and working with the peasants that 'bourgeois' people and 'capitalist roaders' could rediscover their revolutionary zeal.
The peasant farmers remained desperately poor until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping introduced the Household Responsibility System. Inspired by rebellious villagers in Anhui province in 1978, the system allowed individual households to contract a plot of land and sell any surplus they made, after reaching state quotas, in 'free markets' in towns and cities. It was a good time for farmers. When I lived in Beijing in 1983-4, I saw farmers streaming into the city with horses and carts, hand-held carts and even bicycles piled implausibly high with cabbages, apples, lettuce and other produce. The state-controlled media was full of stories about peasants who were 'getting rich', building new houses or adding floors to existing ones. There was even the odd story about a farmer so successful that he had bought a car.
But the economic growth slowed dramatically in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, when the reforms were concentrated on the cities, sparking the biggest construction boom the world has ever known and prompting the exodus from the countryside. Today, farmers sign 30-year leases for the right to farm a plot. In March, the government gave them the right to renew their leases automatically, but they are still banned from owning land.
Ignore the peasant farmers at your peril
With land grabs continuing apace the peasants' anger is growing. In 2006, Zhang Xinbao, the Land Ministry's director of law enforcement, said there had been more than a million cases of illegal land use in the previous six years. The exact scale of the problem is unclear, but that figure is much higher today.
Protests have been staged in many parts of the country as farmers fight to stop the bulldozers churning up their land. Hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested and some have been killed in clashes with both police and gangs of thugs brought in by developers. In April, Chinese police killed two and wounded more than 20 protesters during a conflict over land between villagers and employees of a gold mine in Yunnan province. In December farmers' leaders representing 40,000 peasants in 72 villages called for a 'fight to the death' to stop corrupt officials seizing their land, and they demanded the right to negotiate their own price for land taken from them. Chen Sizhong, who farms cotton and corn on one-and-a-half acres of leased land and who circulated the letter in Huayin village, was arrested and charged with 'attempting to overthrow state power', a crime that carries a life sentence. 'We are peasants,' he said. 'All we want is to get our land back.'
The growing demonstrations have made the authorities nervous and many of the farmers' leaders have been arrested. Two protesters in Heilongjiang province were sent to labour camps in January. The injustices have prompted hundreds of farmers to resort to an ancient Chinese practice: travelling to Beijing to appeal directly to the government as 'petitioners'. Mostly their appeals for justice have been ignored.
The villagers of Hei Wo have so far not been affected by another huge problem causing fear and resentment in the Chinese countryside: pollution. The Chinese government's legitimacy is based primarily on China's growing economy. For years, pollution has been a secondary consideration and environmental concerns have not been allowed to halt China's development. But many peasant farmers are angry that factories, as with houses and roads, are spreading into the countryside and polluting their fields, rivers and lungs.
Political protests have been muted in China since the crushing of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when hundreds of demonstrators were killed as Chinese soldiers opened fire on their own people. But environmental campaigners have emerged as the new dissidents, and today just as the pro-democracy activists had been, they are arrested and jailed, kept under house arrest and followed by plain-clothes police.
One campaigner, Wu Lihong, was jailed for three years last year for fraud and blackmail. His wife, Xu Jiehua, says his only 'crime' was to campaign against pollution at Tai Lake, in the Yangtze delta, on the border of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, China's third largest freshwater lake. Soon after his arrest, toxic algae produced by the human and industrial waste that had poured into the lake led to two million people having their water supplies cut off.
Such environmental disasters are adding to the simmering discontent in rural areas. The government, fearing the fall-out from factory closures and job losses, continues to put economic prosperity before the environment, and there is little pressure on companies to 'go green' in the immediate future.
'The peasants feel neglected,' a Chinese lawyer told me. 'They want to be part of the boom, but instead their land is being stolen or polluted. In China, you ignore the peasant farmers at your peril. There are a lot of them and they have a history of taking action. The situation is volatile. It may not be long before it explodes.'