Issue 2, June 2008
Rural populations make up approximately 60% of China’s 1.3 billion people, and generally earn an average of 30% less than their urban counterparts. The estimated 750 million peasants who farm the land are among its most impoverished. China, with 20% of the world’s population, sits on only about 7% of the world’s arable land, and suffers from a widespread lack of water. Thus farming is difficult, and becomes increasingly so as the pace of environmental degradation rises. National Geographic Magazine estimates that since 1949, China has lost 20% of its arable land to desertification caused by environmental degradatio from overfarming, overgrazing, and deforestation. Nearly one million acres of grassland disappear every year in northern China. Peasant farmers, once the strength of the country under Mao, now often barely manage a subsistence farming existence. As China’s food needs grow, the ability to produce food for the population declines, despite innovations in farming techniques.
China’s enormous pollution problem extends beyond the urban smog. In fact, rural populations often suffer more from the environmental damage in China today. Chemical plants and overuse of the fertilizers they produce pollute groundwater and rivers, making drinking water unsafe for large percentages of China’s rural populations. Coal-fired plants, widely acknowledged to be the worst perpetrators of carbon dioxide emissions, sicken entire towns and villages. Coal miners, another sector of China’s large rural population, suffer sickness, injuries, and death in numbers dwarfing those in any other country. Last year, the Chinese State Administration of Work Safety reported that China produced 35% of the world’s coal and suffered 80% of reported global mining accidents. Many more accidents go unreported due to media censoring; when they are reported, public reaction looks nothing like the outrage that accompanies news of mining accidents in other industrialized nations.
As the CCP tries to unite the vast swaths of Chinese rural provinces with each other and with urban areas, investments in infrastructure have spiked throughout the countryside. New highways, railroads, and dams have displaced an estimated 40 million peasants over the modernization period. Large scale dam building not only displaces millions, it can further destroy remaining farmland through both floods and the diversion of critical water sources. The Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric construction project in the world, provides an illustration of the negative effects these dam building projects can cause.
In general, rural village life in China resembles that in the world’s poorest nations. Most citizens live on less than $1 per day and have no access to affordable health care. The “iron rice bowl,” a term widely used to describe the cradle to grave basic subsistence assistance provided by the government in Mao’s era, has largely been dismantled. As a result, the incidence of rural protests against corrupt local CCP officials and private companies has risen dramatically. The Chinese government has acknowledged that an average of 200 rural protests occur every day over lack of basic welfare services, environmental issues, displacement, and corruption. The fact that these protests are largely short-term, issue-specific, and relatively isolated is of some comfort to the CCP. As in the cities, the disgruntled and exploited are consumed with everyday subsistence and the formation of a mass protest movement is unlikely.
However, it was the peasants who made up Mao’s revolutionary vanguard, a fact that the CCP also remembers and takes into account. In 2006, the Party undertook a major reform effort to address the concerns of China’s rural populations. The reviled agriculture tax system was largely abolished and very public measures were taken to discipline corrupt local CCP officials. The current Five Year Economic Plan focuses on bringing back basic services to rural populations and addressing the pollution and attendant health problems they face. But, as Howard French reports, many rural Chinese have little hope that these policies of the central government will make any difference in the bowels of China’s rural villages. One resident said to French of the impending reforms, “Ordinary people don’t get any benefits from poverty alleviation programs. How could relief money get into our hands? It goes first toward relieving the local officials who get rich on the tragedies of the nation.” Another said, “We grow just enough food for ourselves to eat, with no surplus grain. We don’t have to pay the grain tax anymore, but our lives aren’t much better.”
Further, the enormous cultural upheaval caused by migration to the cities - both voluntary and forced - intensifies these conditions. It seems clear to most experts that much of the progress being made in industry has not helped, and in many cases has actually harmed, rural populations. You can see this in the recent spate of media stories about entire villages poisoned by chemical pollution, decimated by the flight of the young and healthy to the cities in the form of migrant labor, and ruined in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters. Two stories, one from the 1990s and one from 2008, illustrate the vagaries of modern life in rural China.
In the 1990s, local government officials realized the lucrative potential of impoverished rural populations in a particularly exploitive way: citizens of the province of Henan, desperate for supplemental sources of income, were paid to donate blood that was then sold in the blood and plasma markets in China and around the world. Untrained medical personnel devised a mechanism for removing donors’ blood, spinning out the valuable plasma in a common machine and returning the blood to the donor. Along with unsanitary procedures for needles and other medical equipment, this provided the perfect vehicle for rapid and efficient transmission of the HIV/AIDS virus among the unsuspecting donors. An epidemic ensued in the following years and was largely covered up by corrupt local Party officials. When the scandal leaked out years later, the central CCP did finally begin to provide medical services, but the effects linger, as numerous Western journalists have reported recently.
Another example of the struggles faced by China’s rural populations is unfolding today in the aftermath of the May 2008 earthquake that devastated Sichuan province. As is now revealed, Sichuan province years ago experienced general neglect in the form of criminally lax building standards for schools and other public buildings; this is thought to be a result of corruption among local officials and builders. With the death toll now reaching 70,000 (and still growing) from the recent earthquake, much of which is children, questions are now being asked about corruption and marginalization of the country’s rural areas. These questions are primarily surfacing among Western news outlets, since the CCP forbids this type of discourse in the press. Experts estimate that up to 20 million migrant laborers come from Sichuan Province, and the sight of parents returning to their villages in search of their (often only) children among the rubble is a potent image to illustrate the hardship of rural life in modern China.