Yu Jianrong (于建嵘): Maintaining a Baseline of Social Stability (Part 2 )

Dr. Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), chairman of the Social Issues Research Center of the Rural Development Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences, delivered a speech entitled “Maintaining a Baseline of Social Stability” before the Beijing Lawyers Association on December 26, 2009. This is the 2nd part of the CDT translation, Part I is here.

I previously wrote a book entitled Organized Peasant Resistance in Contemporary China which discusses the problems currently faced by China’s rural farmers. For this book, I investigated rural farmers in Hunan and wrote about rural China before 2004. I wanted to answer the question: What had occurred in rural China before 2004? The conclusion I came up with was that before 2004, rural China was mainly characterized by fights over taxes. (PowerPoint slide) This is a picture of me taken in 2002 while conducting investigation in rural Hunan. At the time [the government] was saying that it would resolutely strike at those lawbreakers who “refused to pay grain,” those who fought against taxes and those who refused to make “reasonable payments to the state.” Everyone knows that “refusal to pay grain” refers to not paying the agricultural tax in grain. “Fighting against taxes” refers to not paying the national tax or the local tax. “Refusal to make reasonable payments to the state” refers to the refusal to pay variously named non-tax fees. The latter two we refer to in short as the problem of taxes and fees.

(PowerPoint slide) This is a video I took in 2002 in rural Jiangxi. This is the government announcing “One cannot refuse to pay the National Agricultural Tax.” (PowerPoint slide) on December 22, 2002, when I was conducting investigation in rural Hunan, I took a photograph of this picture. What does it say? This group of rural farmers is organizing a farmers’ association. When Mao Zedong organized the first farmers’ association he did so not far from here. This area produced a great man named Xia Minghan. He said, death doesn’t matter; as long as the cause is just, you can kill me, Xia Minghan, and there will be others to take my place. All the rural farmers in this area say the same thing: death doesn’t matter; as long as the cause is just, you can kill me, so and so, and there will be others to take my place. When I was there I asked them, Why do you want to organize a farmers’ association? They told me that organizing a farmers’ association was so that they could fight to the end against local corrupt and greedy officials. At the time I was completely shocked. Upon returning I wrote a report to the central government. The title of the report was “Rural Farmers Have Organized Resistance and the Resulting Political Danger.” I suggested, “Of all things, what one should worry about are civil liberties; of all things, what one should fear is civil angst.” When all these rural farmers feel such angst because of local corrupt and greedy officials, you have to consider where the risk to your political power lies.

After [my] report came out, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences reported [my findings] in the form of an urgent report to the central government. Later, the central government took an extremely important action; on March 5, 2004, Wen Jiabao announced before the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress that the agricultural tax would be abolished. When this was announced all the representatives of the National People’s Congress stood up and applauded him.

The abolition of agricultural taxes and fees in fact had a lot to do with the rural farmers in Hunan at that time. (PowerPoint slide) This person is named Peng Rongjun; he is the leader of the farmers’ association organized at that time. On December 6th, 2008, he was listed as one of ten “peasant heroes” in the thirty years of reform and opening up. Today I want to say something, which is that changes in China’s political landscape do not necessarily happen because the central government’s political views have changed. Political changes don’t necessarily happen because the leaders love and cherish the people; rather, they primarily happen because of social pressure. At the time, the central government considered that under this kind of social pressure, and considering the difference between the revenue gained from exacting the agricultural tax versus its cost, that it was better to give up the agricultural tax. The central government made this decision only after taking into account political and economic considerations. At the time the agricultural tax was abolished, many people thought that China’s rural problems were solved. Let me tell you that they were not resolved and that the situation immediately changed. (PowerPoint slide) These are statistics from the central government’s “Focus Issue Call Center.” Every day there are many people who call the “Focus Issue Call Center” to complain. They have people hired especially to record these complaints. I have an agreement with [the call center] in which they allow me to enter what’s called their top-secret system. Upon entering the system I know how many people today are accusing whom, what kinds of lawsuits are being initiated, what problems are occurring etc. Every month I provide [the call center] with two reports telling it what China’s focus problems have been recently. According to my observations of the “Focus Issue Call Center” telephone data, since June 2004, land conflicts have become the focal problem of rural China.

Let’s first analyze the characteristics of rural land conflicts. On September 2, 2004, I published an investigative report in the Southern Weekend in which I stated that land problems had already become China’s focal problem.

  First, the parties to the conflict [rural farmers and the government] have undergone changes [since the time when conflicts were primarily about taxes and fees]. (PowerPoint slide) This is a post-Cultural Revolution incident of a provincial party committee secretary being surrounded and trapped by a group of people. The Sichuan Province Party Committee Secretary at the time wanted to go and see and what it was that was going on. He didn’t think that the rural farmers would recognize him. In order to save himself he had to deploy the armed police. If you take a look at this picture, what kind of people of do you notice here? Old people, old women. When I investigated Chinese rural farmers’ fight against taxes, I discovered a woman. Her father had been beaten to death and she was the only child in her family; therefore, she fought against taxes. Moreover, with land conflicts involving rural farmers, you discover that on the frontline there are a great number of women and older women. What is the reason for this? There are two. When I visit [elderly women] they tell me: first, since we are elderly we want to leave a piece of land for generations of children and grandchildren. Second, local officials don’t dare take any measures against us old folks. That is why I once wrote an article saying that these women are a form of soft power. You can’t just say that these are a bunch of old people; the local governments are definitely afraid of them. Local governments are not afraid of young people standing there; it doesn’t matter if you drag them around a little bit, but these old people, if you start to drag them around then they might end up in the hospital.
Second, the object to which complaints are directed at has also changed. During the period in which rural farmers fought against taxes, they mostly directed their complaints at county and village governments. However, in the case of land conflicts involving rural farmers, complaints are directed at the city and provincial governments, and even all the way up to the central government.

Next, areas [of conflict] have also changed. Areas in which rural farmers fought against taxes were primarily in Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Sichuan, areas where the economy was relatively backward. In contrast, land conflicts involving rural farmers have primarily been in Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, and Hebei, areas in which the economy is more developed. Places where rural farmers fought against taxes were primarily villages in remote areas. In contrast, land conflicts involving rural farmers occur on the outskirts of cities.

Finally, the method [of protest] has also changed. When rural farmers fought against taxes their most important method [of protest] was that you couldn’t find them, you simply couldn’t see them. In contrast, with land conflicts involving rural farmers, they will proactively walk right up in front of you.
When rural farmers fought against taxes, the central government had an express policy forbidding the use of the police to collect the taxes and fees. With land conflicts involving rural farmers, although the central government does not have an express policy saying that police force can be used, local governments, often in the name of so-called “key social projects,” etc., will deploy large amounts of police force including the deployment of special forces and armed police. Therefore, between rural farmers’ refusal to pay taxes and rural farmers’ opposition to land expropriation, the possibility for violence is very different. In addition, the possibility for external forces becoming involved [in the conflict] is also very different.  

When rural farmers fought against taxes and fees, it was very rare that external forces would become involved. However, with land conflicts involving rural farmers there is a huge of amount of involvement from external forces. These forces primarily include two groups: lawyers and the mafia. I have analyzed two reasons why a large number of lawyers become involved. First, in recent years citizens’ education has improved, rights awareness has increased, and there has been a vast growth in the number of public-minded intellectuals and public interest lawyers. They have become involved in land conflicts that concern rural farmers. Second, when rural farmers fought against taxes and fees, if you went and represented them in their lawsuit you wouldn’t have much income. However, in land conflicts that involve rural farmers, you may gain a huge economic benefit [from your representation]. I don’t think that [becoming involved because of] economic benefit is wrong, but the reality is that the reason many lawyers become involved in land conflicts involving rural farmers is because these rural land cases have the possibility of producing relatively large lawyers’ fees.

Another aspect is that the involvement of the mafia in land conflicts affecting rural farmers is also quite serious. Today in China, eighty or ninety percent of land cases have the mafia in the background. Currently there is nothing the mafia doesn’t dare to do, even the actual gunning down of rural farmers. The most serious cases are like the June 2005 Dingzhou incident. The Dingzhou City Party Committee Secretary, who has been sentenced to prison, sent the mafia to snatch up rural famers’ land. I visited him and said: It’s not easy to become a municipal Communist Party committee secretary; [to gain this position] you may have needed to invite guests [to lavish banquets], present gifts, use the back door; I don’t know how many things you must have done to become a municipal Party committee secretary—and yet how could you [waste all this effort] by sending the mafia to snatch rural farmers’ land? This is how this municipal Party committee secretary answered me: He said, I’ve been wronged. I didn’t organize the mafia, and I didn’t want the mafia to go [take the land]. It was just that this company said to me, “You in the government can’t resolve this problem; is it okay if we try something?” At the time, all I said in response was “go ahead.” How could I have imagined that that he would actually go and use the mafia to hit these rural farmers. This municipal Party committee secretary just said this one sentence, “go ahead.” I discovered that this sentence should not have been spoken, once spoken the resulting mess was huge.

[To be continued]

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.