In Face of Rural Unrest, China Rolls Out Reforms

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 28, 2006

BEIJING, Jan. 27 -- Faced with steadily increasing peasant unrest, the Communist Party has decreed extensive changes to improve the lot of farmers and stop rapid economic development from encroaching on their land.

The party declared rural reform a major goal of its new five-year economic program, which began this month. The government has also announced the abolition of an agricultural tax that is thousands of years old, free public school education for peasant children and new rural insurance to subsidize medical care for those among the country's 800 million farmers who cannot afford to see doctors.

The swift sequence of decisions reflected the depth of concern in the party and government as farmers outraged by land grabs and pollution increasingly rise up in violent protests that senior officials have said pose a threat to stability and continued economic growth. The Public Security Ministry estimated the number of riots and demonstrations at 87,000 during 2005, up more than 6 percent from 2004 and quadruple what it was a decade ago.

The violence is in part a reaction to an economic boom that has produced 9 percent annual growth in China but benefited mainly city dwellers.

Some Chinese officials have suggested strong repression is the best response. Wu Shuangzhan, commander of the paramilitary People's Armed Police, and Sui Mingtai, the force's political commissar, wrote a joint article early this month urging stepped-up training and preparation to put down the unrest. But the senior leadership, while not repudiating use of force, has emphasized solving farmers' underlying problems as the long-term solution.

Premier Wen Jiabao last month warned senior rural bureaucrats against making "a historical mistake" by failing to protect farmers and their lands, which he predicted would lead to more violence. In particular, he cautioned, towns should not violate the law in seizing land nor sell confiscated fields to businesses as a way to raise public funds.

"This is a key issue that affects the stability of the countryside and the society, and it must be clearly recognized by all levels of government and party committees," he said, according to a text of his speech published last week by the party's official People's Daily.

President Hu Jintao drove home the message Friday in an address to the Politburo, urging resolution of the "major contradictions and problems we are faced with" in the countryside. "If we cannot succeed in developing agriculture and rural areas while helping farmers improve their lives markedly, we will fail to reach the goal of building a comparatively prosperous society," he said, according to the official New China News Agency.

But the party's efforts to better manage tension between urban growth and squeezed farmlands repeatedly have faltered in the hybrid of socialism and capitalism that has developed here in 30 years of economic liberalization. In the new era, the Communist Party's main ideology has become growth, creating a natural and often corrupt alliance between officials and businessmen that leaves farmers with no advocate.

As a result, some Chinese analysts have pointed out, a genuine determination to protect farmers and their fields would require unflinching prosecution of city, county and village officials involved in illegal land confiscations and sales. There has been no sign that Wen and Hu have that in mind. In his speech, which was hailed as an unusually frank discussion of China's rural problems, Wen did not refer to the role of corruption in land confiscations, although farmers routinely cite it as a reason for their violent protests.

Elsewhere as well, party solidarity seems to have outweighed the desire to improve administration of the countryside. Last month, for example, a county party secretary who in August 2004 decried systemic corruption in Zhejiang province land dealings was sentenced to life in prison; on Tuesday, a journalist friend who helped him write his denunciation was sentenced to three years.

After a string of peasant riots, including one in which People's Armed Police opened fire and killed a number of people, the Guangdong provincial party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, last month issued what he called "three stern directives" threatening local officials with firing if they improperly seized fields. After another riot this month, he issued his warning again. But no firings have been announced.

Zhang, a member of the 24-member Politburo, recently was chastised by fellow senior leaders over the fatal Dec. 6 clash between rioters and police at Dongzhou, about 125 miles northeast of Hong Kong, according to Chinese journalists. His official report on the shootings, presented during an appearance in Beijing, was rejected, they said, and a central government team was sent to investigate and come up with its own report.

Despite speculation among analysts in Beijing, however, Zhang has not lost his position as party leader in Guangdong, the capital of China's assembly-line industry, or on the Politburo. His fate is considered particularly sensitive because former president Jiang Zemin, not Hu, was responsible for his ascension to the elite policymaking body.

Wang Yukai, deputy director of the prestigious National School of Administration and an expert on rural problems, said Hu's decision to focus now on improving farmers' lives represents a shift in the party's thinking. Previously, he recalled, the policy was to forge ahead with economic development with the hope that, as growth spread, farmers eventually would share more in the benefits along with their urban cousins.

"This is a big goal," he said. "It is not just a slogan for one day. It's a long process."

Getting rid of the agricultural tax has been especially well received among peasants, who from imperial times have had to fork over a percentage of their crops or earnings to local officials. Hu, in televised visits to farms around the country, has been shown reminding peasants of his decision, unfailingly generating happy smiles.

But Wang cautioned that such decisions announced in Beijing frequently do not fully apply in the towns, counties and villages where more than two-thirds of China's 1.3 billion people live.

For instance, a quarter of last year's government revenues in China went for the upkeep of the country's 6 million officials at all levels, he noted, including banquets, chauffeured cars and trips abroad as well as salaries. Seeing officials enjoying these perks at government expense frequently has contributed to peasants' anger and their feeling left out, he added.

At a briefing for senior officials in Hu's office, Wang said, he offered a 14-character formula for improving life in the countryside. "Strict discipline for officials" was at the top of the list.

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