HONG KONG — Last March 8, the Chinese government executed a former vice governor of the southeast province of Jiangxi, in the hope that this would demonstrate its determination to act against corrupt and oppressive officials.
Yet in the last two weeks of August, as many as 20,000 farmers in southern Jiangxi staged a small but significant uprising against corrupt and oppressive officials, who obviously had not gotten the message that Beijing was trying to send with the execution.
The farmers evidently went on the rampage, starting around August 13, against what they feel is excessive local taxation, in addition to the provincial and national taxes that must be paid.
One flareup by a group of about 2,000 farmers quickly snowballed into further outbursts in small towns and villages around Fengcheng, a city in central Jiangxi. As they trashed government offices and looted the houses of the wealthy in various towns, the brief peasant uprising illustrated some of the fault lines crisscrossing the communist structure, and what is wrong with China generally.
First, China’s muzzled press and half-muzzled Internet did not serve to warn the government that trouble was brewing, or to air the peasants’ grievances after the trouble was finally suppressed by increased security forces (as it appears to have been). Predictably, the Chinese media have yet to report the revolt at all, while, as far as is known, the Internet in China did no better.
A human-rights organization in Hong Kong, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy in China, first drew attention to the troubles in the town of Yuandu, by which time the violent discontent had spread to other neighboring towns as well. At that point, reporters outside China were able to confirm the outbreak of disturbances with some officials contacted by phone.
But even now, it is impossible to ascertain full details of precisely what happened. Given the controlled media, and the system’s constant pressure toward sycophancy, this lack of precise knowledge may be as true of Beijing as it is of the outside world.
Second, the incident would appear to confirms that Beijing’s orders are often ignored by provincial and local officials. The taxes to which the rioting farmers objected were local ones. Fearing the spread of unrest, Beijing has told officials to avoid charging excessive local tax rates. In this part of Jiangxi, as elsewhere, local officials have obviously not complied with Beijing’s directive. But, in their defense, local officials claim that the trouble stems from their need to meet Beijing’s tax impositions at a time when the rural tax base is shriveling.
Third, the brittle situation in the countryside stems in part from the fact that, while the Chinese economy is flourishing in the large urban areas, it is stagnating in many rural areas. Peasants did well in the early days of China’s economic reform. They have not done so well since. Increased production has led to declining grain prices. They may do even less well if China’s accession to the World Trade Organization leads to a rapid increase in imports of cheaper grain and other primary products.
Local officials in Yuandu went on taxing the farmers even as their incomes declined, to the point where the burden became intolerable and the infuriated farmers took the law into their own hands.
Fourth, China’s economic growth has sparked an ethos of “keeping up with the Wongs,” which often acts to perpetuate corrupt or oppressive practices. Jiangxi officials did not always measure their local taxation rates against the farmers’ ability to pay. Instead, they sought the funds for adding perks (like an imported car or an ostentatious house) to their official status. More broadly, the growing gap between rich and poor can also serve to stimulate rioting, especially as the well-off are frequently government or party officials.
Fifth, as the government seeks to control information and to suppress all dissent, sporadic uprisings such as this become almost inevitable. The farmers have no other recourse but to turn to mindless violence to express their very real discontents and grievances.
Last year, when a farmer in central Human Province refused to pay exorbitant taxes, officials threatened to retaliate by destroying his home. Faced with this threat, the farmer committed suicide. Police had to battle roughly 10,000 outraged farmers before order was restored.
Sixth, the system of village elections that China has instituted, to great fanfare from abroad, does not serve to channel frustrations into less violent protest. Overwhelmingly, the village elections merely serve to ratify Communist Party officials in their positions and do not present the farmers with any real choice.
As in Jiangxi and elsewhere, on other occasions, the government structure is only responsive when police reinforcements have to be rushed in to restore order after trouble has broken out. It evidently took between five and seven days to bring a deteriorating situation back under control in Jiangxi. Scattered reports indicate that the security presence around Yuandu is still heavy. Police reinforcements even had to be rushed in from nearby Fujian Province.
There is a strong historical irony in the situation as, once again, history repeats itself. In the 1930s, it was the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek that was rushing reinforcements into Jiangxi as the Communists’ Jiangxi soviet sought to take advantage of peasant discontent with official corruption.
Visitors to southern Jiangxi say it is still a relatively poor area. It was from southern Jiangxi that the Chinese Communist Party set out in 1934 on its fabled Long March to a new base in Yenan in northwest China.
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