Peasant rebellion in China

Date Tue, 2 Mar 2004 14:40:30 EST

March 1, 2004 Monday


HEADLINE: Peasant Rebellion;
China's critical masses.

BYLINE: Jennifer Chou, The Weekly Standard


CHINA CENTRAL TELEVISION's "Economic Person of the Year" for 2003 is
Xiong Deming, a 42-year-old pig farmer from Sichuan Province. But Ms.
Xiong wasn't singled out for any entrepreneurial or agricultural
undertaking of her own. Rather, her 15 minutes of fame are the result
a chance encounter with Premier Wen Jiabao on October 24, when Wen was
visiting her village. Ms. Xiong told the premier that her
peasant-turned-worker husband was owed 2,240 yuan ($270) in back pay
work on a government-financed construction project in Yunyang
Prefecture. The premier promised to help. About six hours later,
husband received payment in full, albeit a year late.

The incident, first reported by China's official Xinhua News Agency,
triggered a deluge of stories in local newspapers about the plight of
the country's floating population of peasants roaming from city to city
looking for work. Official figures place their number at 94 million.
Special efforts to recover overdue wages on their behalf--a total of as
much as $40 billion, by some estimates--were a hot topic around the
Lunar New Year (January 22 this year), as migrants rely on their wages
for train fare back to their villages for family reunions.

There were almost daily media accounts of village or township chiefs'
recovering migrants' overdue wages from subcontractors and middlemen.
Several websites devoted to the subject are up and running, featuring
scholarly articles on the history of the rural exodus, as well as
sketches of the daily lives of migrant workers, who are the backbone,
but also the victims, of China's boom.

According to callers to Radio Free Asia's Mandarin-language hotlines,
however, all this is mostly hype. Skeptical of the reports in state
media, a Fujian listener said, "Only last week they reported 1.5
yuan had been recovered. But just now I heard on the news that fully
one-half of the 100 billion yuan owed to more than 90 million migrant
workers has been recovered. Are they saying they managed to collect
almost 50 billion yuan in a matter of days?" And a peasant from Anhui
Province working in Guangdong said, "I haven't seen a red cent!"

A glut of rural labor and growing urban prosperity are driving the
migration to China's cities that has been going on for 20 years. Some
independent economists believe the number of migrants could be as high
as 130 million. They come mainly from Anhui, Henan, Sichuan, Jiangxi,
Hunan, and Hubei provinces, and work mostly in construction and the
service sector. Thanks largely to their remittances home, rural incomes
tripled between 1989 and 2001.

For a long time, internal migration was limited by the household
registration system set up in the late 1950s. But in the mid-1980s,
large numbers of peasants started moving to cities without permission.
In 1993, the Beijing government relaxed the system, permitting millions
to enter and work in cities on a temporary basis. Then in 2003 the
government repealed a rule that allowed police to round up peasants
seeking employment in cities without temporary residence certificates.

While China continues to encourage such migration, it hasn't managed
the resulting challenges well. Defaults on payments owed migrant
are apparently common, especially in the construction industry, where
developers sometimes default on payments to subcontractors, who in turn
default on workers' pay. Sometimes crooked middlemen skip town, leaving
the workers in the lurch.

Poorly educated and low skilled, the migrants have little recourse.
"We're in no position to make demands," said a Shanxi listener. "If you
want to quit, go ahead. Nobody asked you to come here. If you are
looking for laborers, just go to the train station and wave your hand.
And they descend on you en masse."

This listener had once worked in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen.
After laboring for six months in construction and not getting paid,
returned to Shanxi Province. But what he earned from tilling the land
his village didn't even cover the agricultural taxes and fees imposed
local officials. So he quit farming and took a job in a coal mine. Last
year he survived an underground explosion that killed more than 30
miners. He said he would stick to mining, however, because "they
actually pay us here."

Several callers claimed that some migrants unable to recover back pay
had committed suicide. A Shenzhen journalist and a cadre in rural
Shandong corroborated this in separate interviews with RFA's Mandarin
Service. The cadre from Shandong disputed the official estimate that
average arrears are 1,000 yuan ($120) per worker. He believes the
figure is several times higher.

A Shanghai caller characterized the Lunar New Year as "a season of
misery" for migrants. Pointing a finger at the central government for
"abandoning the rural population," he asked, "Why are they treated so
badly? They are human beings too--each with two eyes, a nose, and flesh
and blood."

Former Premier Zhu Rongji once warned that China's economic growth
might be jeopardized if migrant workers weren't allowed to enjoy their
share. Two years in a row now, China's new leaders have spent the Lunar
New Year holiday visiting the rural poor. While their efforts to bond
with the masses have not gone unnoticed, the prevailing sentiment among
RFA-Mandarin callers is that the gesture may be too little, too late.
a 36-year-old salesman put it: "They do it because they feel a terrible
sense of crisis. The people and the ruling elite are now on opposite
sides. And the gap is getting wider and deeper."

Jennifer Chou is director of Radio Free Asia's Mandarin Service.

LOAD-DATE: February 25, 2004