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China's Economic Miracle Comes at Great Cost to Farmers, Environment; Unrest Looms


China has become one of the world's economic powerhouses, but rapid growth has failed to reach most Chinese. The growing gap between the many poor and the wealthy few is feeding rising unrest, which is aggravated by rampant corruption, the lack of a social safety net and extensive environmental damage. China's communist leadership reported at least 87,000 uprisings last year, most of them in the countryside. Jianhe, a remote town in western China's Guizhou province, is one of thousands of places where corruption, poverty, and inequity caused anger to boil over into the type of violence that the Communist Party fears ultimately may loosen its iron grip on power.

Guizhou is one of the poorer western provinces of China. However, even here, there are modest signs of the development that characterize the country's boom.

Massive concrete highway bridges are going up in what - until a short time ago - were pristine thickly forested canyons where members of the ethnic minority Miao people made their home.

People here are proud of their traditional way of life, but many say they welcomed initial signs of progress and hoped they might benefit from the new wealth that lay before them.

Jianhe, on the banks of the Qingshui River, is a shabby town that will be flooded when a hydroelectric dam is completed, perhaps as early as the end of this year.

The impending move of Jianhe's entire population to a newly built city is on the mind of a Miao businessman who joins friends for a dish of fried beef and a game of Chinese chess. He says he saw new opportunities in going to a new location.

"Our county was too remote," he said. "Now, with the highways, the transportation will be better. The new place will be bigger."

He says people were looking forward to moving to a new town and leaving the squalor of their traditional wooden shacks for modern, more comfortable housing. However, he says reality has set in. Most now realize the government compensation money is not enough to sustain them. With no money and no farmland, he says, many are desperate.

"After we built the houses, we did not have any money left. We do not have money to spend now," he continued. "Even for those who got hefty compensation because they had bigger houses, they became poor now, after two years. Now people go to the cities to work to make money."

Others stayed a nd became angry at seeing their homes and livelihoods disappear, along with what environmentalists say are 5,000 hectares of oxygen-producing forests known here as "The Lungs of China."

The anger flared in 2004 when villagers began to suspect they were not getting their full compensation. They elected a committee to audit the local government's books. It seemed that through grassroots effort, the problem would be resolved. This woman's husband was one of the auditors.

"They spent one week auditing. They audited the old expenses and recent expenses. There were some funds especially for poorer families in the village, but all of the money was allocated to the families and relatives of the village chief and party secretary," he said. "There was also rice for the poorer people. The village chief and his wife used false names to claim the funds."

The villagers moved to impeach the village committee, which suspended the audit. Witnesses say thousands of villagers took to the streets, smashing police cars and surrounding the town government building.

Shortly after, security agents turned up to arrest the woman's husband and others who took part in the audit and move to oust the local officials.

"They put a black bag on my husband's head and threw him in the car. They arrested three people that day," the woman, too fearful to give her name, described the arrest.

She traveled to Beijing to petition the central government for her husband's release, but she says officials ignored her. Police have ordered her not to talk to reporters. Her husband remains in jail.

Li Baiguang, a Beijing legal scholar and peasant rights advocate, visited the area, where he met with farmers.

"We were prepared to give the farmers legal training and help them sue the local governments and fire the director of the township government and the director of the county government because they refused to give the rest of the compensation to the villagers," said Li.

He presented the case to authorities in Beijing, who summoned local officials to the capital, where they met with Li. The activist said they grudgingly handed over documents that suggested the developer had started building the dam before getting central government approval.

Li calls this an example of how local governments in China have ignored mandates from the central authorities, something he says lies at the root of much of the unrest in the countryside.

"Why is that? Because the local governments are not elected by the citizens or taxpayers. Since they are not elected and they are appointed, they do not have to be responsible to the taxpayers. They are only responsible to the party secretaries who appointed them," explained Li.

The revelation embarrassed local officials who responded by paying more compensation. But they also threatened the villagers, saying that anyone who petitioned further would be arrested.

A visit to the town finds people living in fear. The area is under surveillance, and police questioned people seen talking to this reporter, who was also detained and questioned for more than 10 hours.

Hou Wenzhuo is a U.S.-educated activist who started a group called the Empowerment Rights Institute in Beijing to help farmers know their rights. Hou was arrested while visiting Jianhe last October and has since gone into exile in the United States.

In the hours before her departure, she held a secret meeting at a temple park in Beijing, where an ancient bell tolled. She reflected on why she believes China's disenfranchised increasingly resort to violence.

"The Communist Party diligently and actively educated Chinese people that violence is right, and this was in our class books, in our history books, saying how great it was that the Chinese Communist Party took power by violent means. The Chinese [communists] taught people about class struggle, about class fight, and now they [people] see petitioners versus police as two different classes," she added.

In Jianhe, the wife of the imprisoned auditor sobs as she thinks of how she has lost her livelihood.

She says she has turned, despite police threats, to journalists to get the word out, but she says she has lost hope that it will do any good.

Democracy, she says, seemed to provide an answer, but she says the local officials' personal interests turned out to be more powerful than the collective will. She says she has simply had to "eat" her anger.

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