Phone chats with Ma Guangchen can be jarring; a throw-back to another era of Chinese political awareness.
A 25-year-old university grad, he pipes along in the feral cadences of a country boy. But his polemics smack more of an agent provocateur. The first time I talked with him, in late 2004, he described what seemed like seeds of revolution, and laced his rhetoric with references to Marx, Engels and Weber. He had been furrowing through vegetable patches and chicken coops around his native village in Shandong, gathering evidence of commercial “cooperative” farming gone exploitatively wrong. His disillusionment with these newfangled schemes was such that he had left home for a desk job in Nanjiecun, a neo-Maoist company town in China’s poor central plain that wears its well-hyped Communism on the kitschy labelling of its products.
“In some ways,” he said during out first chat, “this is no different from the problems Marx saw in Germany.” Or that Mao Zedong saw here in China. The Chairman’s research rants on his native Hunan province four score ago helped convince his Communist Party cohorts that in China, a Marxist revolution would grow best not amongst the proletariat – then barely existent – but the peasantry. These days, a new breed of peasant advocates like Ma beg an obvious question: is another revolution was in store?
Unlikely. For a long time, in fact, it’s been fashionable to cast China’s rural future in calamitous brushstrokes. Against centuries of peasant rebellions, this comes instinctively. The city-countryside divide, it is often reported, has become a “ticking time bomb”. Arable land is shrinking to “crisis” levels. The Gini coefficient, a measurement of income disparity is well above the 40% experts deem “alarming”. Because of it, villages are perennial “tinderboxes”. Protests, riots and other “mass incidents”, while possibly down in number in the past year, are high-impact “flashpoints” and “lightning rods”. Some of the most violent, of late, have occured in the most developed rural belts. This conjures Gomorric prophesies of the next revolutionary wildfire – or Great Leap Forward. Allegory is all too easy with something so big. Melodrama serves a greater good.
The reality on the ground, however, appears far more disjointed and less dramatic. Slowly, yet relatively steadily, the lot of most peasants has improved over the past 25 years. The number mired in poverty has dwindled, by official standards, by over 90 percent. Peasants have lost socialist birthrights like basic health care and education, but gained personal rights to freer markets and movement. Sure, if the government expanded those rights, allowing them to sell land and settle properly in cities, they would no longer be second-class citizens; the government could shift reconsolidation of agriculture into overdrive. On a daily basis, the most fractious rifts are distinctly intra-rural: between those peasants who’ve made it – as officials, entrepreneurs and oftentimes both – and those who haven’t.
Sure, China’s “food security” – for generation of leaders who can still remember nationwide famine – is a perennial concern. But the biggest hang-up facing a rural overhaul, for Beijing, is really urban. China’s mushrooming megapolises and satellite towns do not have nearly enough work to absorb of the 800 million peasants (let alone schools or other facilities). Nearly a fifth of them make it out of the village today, and many still go back for harvest season – around half the rural population continues to works the land. China’s
Fortunately for Beijing, until cities are better ready for them, Chinese peasants are well-used to being, well, peasants. Over time, anyone’s sense of any imminent crisis tends to deaden. Mine has through hearing and watching Ma Guangchen.
Ma’s upbringing doesn’t exactly fit the part of activist. He’s the descendent of a line of ruling cadres in a large village outlying the city of Weifang. The area, beginning in the early 1990’s, was the birthplace of a new government initiative to chanyehua, or industrialize, farming. Out of individual family plots, which were de-collectivized early in the era after Mao, farmers and agribusinessmen in Weifang had been building new economies of scale. The mild climes, the mineral-rich yellow soil and proximity to South Korea and Japan were all on their side. Weifang and other parts of province are becoming to peaches, pumpkins and poultry what the export beacons of Zhejiang province are to socks, leather shoes and disposable lighters.
Before I met him, Ma had spent time as a volunteer at the James Yen Institute in Hebei province, which specializes in training farmers how to grow more efficiently and gain vital information over the Internet. Recently I asked the founder of the institute, a top expert on rural issues named Wen Tiejun, his memories of Ma. Wen called him a “radical.” But not the kind you might think. Ma’s radicalism is not as organizer but as an idealist, possibly even more dangerous in thoughts, if not deeds. For, two and a half years since our first conversation, where he invoked Marx and by extension, Mao, Ma’s still at his desk in Nanjiecun. He’s still thinking nationally while trying and hoping to act very, very locally.
Last month, I called him to hear his latest outlook. It was, as expected, grim.
He had his heart set on a newly enacted law to revive the use of so-called Farmers Professional Associations, the distant descendents of China’s traditional farming guilds that were formed in the 1980’s, but largely fell fallow in the 1990’s. Only 2 to 3 percent were really functioning as of 2004, scholars from China and the U.S. found in a study. FPAs would help farmers do such things as borrow and pool resources to build huge greenhouses. But plans to revive them have yet to take hold, alleges Ma. He blames grass-root officials, many of whom have gone into ag businesses themselves. “FPAs run completely counter to their interests.” Officialdom also has lingering apprehensions over encouraging farmers to organize. “At all levels of government, no one is publicizing the law,” says Ma. “Peasants don’t even know about it.”
Another sore point is village elections, begun in the late 1980’s. Today village committees remain the only echelon of government in China generally elected by plebiscite. But there are constant abuses. The richest peasants often win by buying votes with “red envelopes”. “Whoever has money will become the Party branch secretary,” says Ma. Victory is rewarded with the opportunity for corruption: the business and land deals that seal the villagers’ fate.
The end of farming taxes, while a watershed and short-term succor to peasant households, has not been a godsend. The nature of rural corruption has changed, argues Ma, while the fragility of social service programs hasn’t. Higher levels of government – Beijing and the provinces – have been picking up an increasing proportion of the rural tab in recent years. “But oftentimes money is not the problem anymore,” says Ma. “It’s how it’s used.”
Back home in Shandong recently, the city of Weifang disbursed the better portion of 800,000 RMB to build a new supermarket for farming supplies. It was to be built on unoccupied village land, meaning all of the villagers stood to profit. Instead, the current party secretary, a fowl trader (pun intended), convinced higher-level officials to build the market on his very own land. “Very undemocratic,” says Ma.
Local authorities also don’t have the tax revenue they used to depend on. That has forced them to abide by a tighter degree of discipline, but also to find more elaborate ways around it. “Originally, [officials] might simply divert or seize funds. But they’re methods have changed. Now they’re more likely to collude with one another.” He has also seen doctors dispatched to new state-run medical cooperatives go their separate ways, because they figured out they could be earning more as individual businessmen than salaried under the co-op.
Ma’s beefs go on and on and he continues to obsess over finding the economic model that can deliver prosperity to the peasantry. He’s no longer quite so hung up on political ideology. “Any model, communist or capitalist, can have big problems. We just have to worry about solving our concrete problems.” Currently, he believes, the late-Soviet commercial model of Yugoslavia would fit. (It’s that bad.) He has his own ideas. He’s written proposals dozens of articles long. One, not so pastoral, would subsidize peasant farmers to move into large apartment blocks, thus reducing land use in their villages. “But it’s just an idea. I’d have to find funding.”
He hadn’t given up on the doomsday rhetoric, if mainly for effect. “As long as the foundations of inequality aren’t fixed, economic and social crisis can occur at any time.” The revolution, comrades, is only a day away.