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Date Posted: 20:54 31/01/2005

Improving the rural masses

The government has moved on, but rural problems remain severe

MOSTLY THROUGH necessity, China's peasantry used to be regarded as the backbone of the Chinese Communist Revolution, and as such, quickly became the primary target of decades of harebrained Maoist social engineering. The very ignorance of the vast proportion of the rural masses was hailed by the old Chairman himself as a cause for celebration, a 'blank slate' or 'uncarved block' upon which he could scrawl his various political fantasies about the primacy of the will over concrete economic realities. Compare and contrast them with the 'stinking ninth class' of intellectuals, who had - through education - become so polluted by bourgeois concerns that they were, in many cases, the very embodiment of the 'antagonistic contradictions' that threatened the new political order.

And so, along came the collectivized farms, the communes and the backyard steel furnaces, with which China was supposedly going to overtake the western world in a long 'great leap' towards the End of History.

However, with the rural masses quite unable to reify Mao's dreams, the vast majority of Party leaders chose to take refuge in a surreal metaworld of fake figures and fake grain yields, and the reality on the ground was ignored in favour of a sort of idealized Platonic peasantry, the representatives of which could be seen in countless propaganda posters, beaming with delight at the bounteousness of the harvests or the benevolence of the Party.

On the ground, of course, was mass famine, and the sort of squalor and obscenity that famine invariably brings - families grubbing around and fighting over strips of tree bark and bowls of grass soup, the acts of infanticide and cannibalism. To be the centre of the revolution was not, by any means, a happy experience. At least the stinking ninth class still, for the most part, got fed.

After a brief period at the forefront of the economic reforms promoted by Deng Xiaoping - the virtual privatization of farmland among them - the peasantry was left almost for dead. The cities entered a period of unprecedented economic growth, but apart from a few exceptions in the Yangtze River delta, the farms dropped steadily behind. Falling off the political radar did lead to a general improvement in standards of living, but not by much, and mistreatment at the hands of tinpot local Party chiefs continued, as the authors of the Investigation into the Chinese Peasantry explained.

This time, instead of living the lies they led during the Great Leap Forward, the central government had actually managed to create an alternative world in the glittering figments of prosperity along the eastern seaboard - Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou - but they meant little more than the End of the Rainbow for the vast majority of the population.

If you believe the new leadership, however (and Running Dog sees no reason why one should not), the peasants are once again at the centre of the Chinese Communist Party's plans for the future. Instead of being the blank slate on which the leadership inscribe their ideas, or mere fodder for the thousands of new factories and coal mines emerging throughout the country, the peasantry will finally be given a stake in national economic growth. The government will improve their education and welfare, their mobility and their income. The government will build roads and hospitals and schools. The government will industrialize and urbanize and civilize the farmsteads in order to fulfil a set of ambitious economic and social targets -

Well, that's the idea anyway. One does not doubt that the Chinese government wants to make its citizens rich. After all, it will stop them rioting. Whether there are any short-term solutions to the various problems surrounding almost 800 million chronically underemployed rural people, and whether it is possible to break the old development pattern, skewed as it is towards the rich eastern coast, is another matter. Streams of farmers are now appearing in the cities, emboldened by a relaxation in the hukou registration system and by the growing demand for labour, but the regions they leave behind remain largely unchanged. While there are enough rags-to-riches stories to keep all China's Panglosses in work for decades, for the majority of the population, enrichment is a painfully slow process.

The first policy document of the year, released today, deals specifically with the peasant problem. The document, entitled 'Certain policies and ideas concerning the strengthening of agricultural work and increasing overall agricultural production', claims that 2004 was a good year for China's rural sector, with an important turn for the better in food production, an increase in rural incomes, and rural reform continuing at a rapid pace. However, the agricultural sector is still the weakest link in China's economy, the document says, and the weakness of investment and infrastructure has not changed at all. The development of the rural economy and society has made no progress, and remains 'obviously backward'. One wonders if the vague proposals to 'deepen countryside reform' will make any inroads into the problems. There is also a commitment to support the construction of microprojects designed to improve rural infrastructure.

In any case, rural incomes - readers will be glad to hear - were up by more than 300 RMB (US$36) last year, according to a press conference held by the State Council news office this morning. However, Chen Xiwen, the head of something called the central finance leadership group, announced that while incomes rose, the rise was 'fundamentally insecure', and was partly attributable to temporary factors such as high food prices and good weather. Furthermore, in the last few years, total arable land has been shrinking, and water supply equipment at many farms was becoming obsolete and falling into a state of disrepair. Scientific research into agriculture is not substantial enough, and the promotion of technology has not been particularly successful. Food production is actually down compared to the 1990s, and if it is not strengthened over the next few years, China could face a national food supply crisis, the official pointed out.

Food crises are nothing new in Chinese history. Still, even the most diehard opponents of the current political scene must at the very least concede that the country is now capable of feeding itself, and that far from endorsing the perverse Maoist pleasure in the malleability of rural idiots, the leaders are now talking about bringing education and opportunity to the countryside, at whatever cost. But such statements of intent mean nothing by themselves, and we will have to wait and see whether or not the Communist government can fulfil even some of its pledges and thus keep a whole range of explosive social and demographic forces in check. The challenges are unprecedented.

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