The first half of the book is comprised of anecdotes from Anhui Province, showing episodes of the struggles of rural Chinese as they fought for justice against corrupt officialdom, while the second half using the anecdotes to make a broader argument about how to change conditions in rural China.
The entire book has the feeling of a morality play from an earlier period of Chinese history. The actors are the same — downtrodden peasants, the occasional righteous advocate within or outside the bureaucracy, corrupt taxmen and their goons, and the distant imperial government — but the setting is Mao’s New China, in which the peasants were to be liberated from oppression. Ultimately, Chen and Wu provide a glimpse at what lies behind the glittering skyscrapers hugging China’s coast and suggest that without rapid and systematic change, the entire growth process will come crashing to a halt.
The book is effective because it presents the problem from the bottom up. Rather than viewing political and economic change from the usual Beijing-centered perspective, Chen and Wu illustrate how the overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens interact with state and party. And it’s not pretty. The growth of the bureaucracy in China — thanks in no small part to the country’s having five layers of government — has given a class of knaves, thieves, and criminals extraordinary power over the lives of millions at the township and county levels. Not unlike the image of the state in Franz Kafka’s “The Great Wall of China,” the central state and party organs play a small role in the tale, a distant presence that has promulgated decrees that make defending rural Chinese from oppression state policy but has little ability to exert control over the officials responsible for executing the policy (who also happened to be the target of said policy).
Accordingly, rural “revolts” and unrest cannot necessarily be construed as being directed at Communist Party rule. In fact, in the anecdotes related by Chen and Wu, the peasants who raised concerns about excessive taxation and misrule by officials often have official party policy on their side; their desire is to see “the law” implemented. They seem to look to Beijing with hopeful, not accusatory, eyes.
It remains to be seen how long they will place their hope in the central government and the party’s senior officials.
Meanwhile, another problem briefly identified by Chen and Wu is that of rural migrants to the cities, who are second-class citizens at the very least, who enjoy few legal rights, who struggle to find work, and who have no access to public services. This is what prompts them to use the phrase “one country, two nations.” How long, they ask, can this system prevail, wherein urban Chinese, who have enjoyed a disproportionate share of economic growth, enjoy a set of privileges denied to hundreds of millions of rural Chinese (either still living in rural areas or having migrated to cities)?
The persistence of rural poverty does not, of course, diminish the impressive achievement that is China’s development since the late 1970s — but awareness of what remains to be done should temper more enthusiastic accounts of the rise of China.