Will the Boat Sink the Water? A book review

Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants is my chosen read of the summer. Although it was written in 2006 and most of the events of the book take place in the 1990s, it is ever more relevant today in the wake of the Arab Spring and most currently, the riots in the UK. Clearly, there is a movement taking place across the globe that points to the inequities that exist and the people are saying, We have had enough.

The book is banned in China, but continues to be circulated in the book black market. Written by journalists Chen Guidi and his spouse Wu Chuntao, the book is not simply a testament to the strength and tenacity of the characters in the book, but also the authors themselves.

It is well in line with the belief of globalization studies that the cosmopolitan centers of the world, be it London, Tokyo, Shanghai, or New York, have much more in common with one another than they do with the rural areas that make up the rest of their respective countries. Although there is poverty (and at unacceptable levels) in these urban enclaves, the widespread nature of poverty in the surrounding rural areas is unmatched. For example, the experience of a family living in New Hampshire will be vastly different than someone living in Mississippi. Likewise, a family living in Shanghai will experience something entirely differently than a family living in Anhui province. This is where the majority of the book takes place – in rural, ‘backwater,’ painfully disadvantaged Anhui province in China. Each chapter deals with an increasingly horrific case of corruption and the systemic exploitation of China’s farming population.

Prior to reading, it will be helpful to brush up a little on how China’s government works. (Here is an excellent primer on China’s leadership at the different levels). In short, effectively only nine people control all the decisions in China regarding the army, the party, and the state. Chen and Wu illustrate how the suppression of China’s farming population starts at the village level and moves all the way up to the food chain to Beijing.

The first chapter details the 1993 case of Ding Zuoming, a farmer in Luying Village in Lixin County. A relatively learned scholar, having been one of the only few in his village to obtain his high school diploma, he was witness to the injustices done to his fellow villagers. The average earnings of the village at the time were approximately 400 RMB a month (about $50 USD), but taxes amounted to approximately 100 RMB. The Deputy Village Chief, Ding Yanle, was accused of skimming almost 9000 RMB from village reserve funds, and in total embezzled more than 40,000 RMB by scrapping village improvement projects, thus putting the money for these community endeavors directly into his pocket. Many of the villagers, who had to subsist in a farming area beset by frequent flooding, had to rely on other methods of making money, particularly in the form of selling blood for illegal transfusions. Enraged by these conditions and mobilized by the news that Beijing had passed a decree that not more than 5% of rural earnings be taxed, Ding Zuoming rallied the villagers and petitioned the Deputy Chief office to release the village accounting records for audit. When these demands were not met, they petitioned the township office, then when that was ignored, the county seat office.

An order was passed down to the county head and Deputy Village Chiefs to audit the books. Naturally, this reflected badly on their leadership and meant that the higher ups questioned their ability to maintain control of their area. The head of township security summoned Ding to his office and ordered his three cronies to beat him with clubs and bamboo poles. In a chilling passage, Chen and Wu reveal the content of the office’s internal report:

But [Ding] would still not give in. Glaring at Ji, Zhao, and Wang, he shouted at the top of his voice, “True, I accused the village cadres. They are bleeding the peasants. It’s against Party policy. Kill me, but I won’t give in. If you kill me, my ghost will haunt you all!” Ji looked up and met Ding Zuoming’s bloodshot eyes and the piece of wood slipped from his hand. This enraged Wang, who screamed hysterically, “You spineless bastard! Afraid of him! How dare he talk big in this place!” Goaded, Ji picked up the stump and went after Ding again. – page 16

Ding was later released and was taken to the county hospital by his family, where he later died of internal wounds.

News of what happened quickly spread throughout the county and reached the village. Although the government banned any reporting on it, news of it leaked through an industrious reporter from the Anhui branch of the Xinhua news agency. Later the news report was amended to depict the events as a mere village squabble caused by personal conflict.

Although the party officials of the village and the county were punished for their actions – the man who ordered the beating was executed and the others were imprisoned for life – these punishments merely reflect the Chinese government’s refusal to admit that these problems exist system wide and are a result of the tightly knit and secretive processes that the government benefits from. China’s continuing crackdown on ‘corruption’ is simply an attempt to assure their population and the rest of the world that the government itself isn’t corruption, that is just a ‘few bad apples’ who are taking advantage of an otherwise infallible system. Clearly, this is not the case. In a heartbreaking paragraph, Chen and Wu describe a man named Wang Junbin who initially started a trek to Beijing to air the injustices suffered by his fellow villagers, only later to find out that years later, he had been promoted to Village Party Secretary and was now carrying out the same practices that he had once rallied against.

Unfortunately, things have not changed almost thirty years later. With recent strict prohibitions regarding taxes and fees, villages and counties are being squeezed even more and village income is dropping dramatically. Few in rural China have a choice – many have left their villages and farms and now are part of China’s ever growing ‘floating’ migrant population that move between larger cities looking for work. As of early 2011, China’s floating population numbers 221 million. The younger generation refuses to return to their villages, choosing the lesser of the two evils by working in China’s massive service and manufacturing industries. These people, too, are marginalized in the major cities – Chen and Wu describe them as the ‘untouchables’ of the urban social classes. Throughout history, China’s revolutions have always started with the grievances of the peasantry. It remains to be seen if this will also be the case when China’s rural and migrant population decide once and for all that they have nothing to lose.

There has been talk ever since the Arab Spring of revolution in China – China had its own Jasmine Revolution in early 2011 but much like the events of the book, seem to be frustratingly at an impasse. As the world’s factory floor, China has much to lose if they see revolution. This book serves as a sobering reminder that injustices are everywhere, and they occur mostly under the guise of ‘modernization.’ The final chapter calls for reform that would overhaul the bipolarity of the systems that deal with the rural and the urban. Chen and Wu quote economics scholar Wu Jinglian: “In a word, we always hope for some shattering event, but now I feel that if we can make progress step by step, we should consider ourselves lucky.” (page 219) As a final word, a passage from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is used: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the epoch of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”


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