Book Reviews

Will the Boat Sink the Water?

Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao. Public Affairs Ltd, 2006, 219 pp. ISBN: 13-978-1-58648-418-7; ISBN:10-1-58648-418-4; First Edition, soft cover.

Reviewed by Brad Burgess

As I draft this review, I sit in the center of Beijing the day before the closing ceremony of the 2008 Olympics. Getting caught up in Olympic fervor in Beijing is not optional; it just happens. As the world’s spotlight shines upon this city of nearly 17 million, stories of all different shades and tastes have emerged in the world media, both positive and negative. Beijing is home to nearly five million migrants, or in official Chinese language, the “floating population.” Because so many of the Olympic’s venues were built by these migrants, hundreds of news stories have emerged, focusing upon their lives and personal perspectives of the Olympics. Especially, because many migrants had been asked to go home to take a break just prior to the Olympics, foreign journalists have a sudden renewed interest in covering their stories.

Indeed, one of the issues concerning migrants—or, rural Chinese—today in China is a lack of information. Outsiders simply do not know where to turn for reliable and consistent information. Most of the information about modern China focuses upon the urban areas. When outsiders want to learn about rural people and activity in China, they typically rely on foreign news reports, which are often negative, or domestic news reports, which are not very in-depth.

This dilemma leads to a superficial and unbalanced understanding of situations that are far from our own lives.

Hence, while in-depth analysis focusing on the “human” story is lacking, certain books stand out as key points of reference. Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China’s Peasants is one such masterpiece that enjoys the status of being banned in China. According to the authors, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, in the preface, a mere two months after being published in China in December 2003, the books were removed from the shelves and banned. Indeed, part of the scandal and popularity could be due to what the authors say: “City people know about as much about the peasants as they know about the man on the moon” (XI, preface). As an eye-opening exposé of corruption, scandal and injustice in China’s countryside—all while naming names—it is certainly understandable why the book drew attention from the public and the leadership. The authors have both enjoyed glory and suffered for their work. They have been interviewed by countless Chinese media as well as foreign media. On the other hand, they have been sued by one of the officials they criticize in the book and persecuted.

The authors, both from the poor countryside, present six stories from Chen Guidi’s home province, Anhui. Anhui is one of China’s poorest provinces and an especially rich source of migrant work for China’s richest nearby city, Shanghai. Although separate, the six brief stories all have some undergirding themes in common.

The rural poor reacting to unfair taxation. Thematically, most of these brief stories are related to poor villagers reacting and fighting unjust taxation. Much of the research taken for this book was done during a time when China’s central government, the State Council, was taking formal measures to relieve the peasants’ “burden of excessive taxation.” China’s central government has for quite a long time noticed the plight of the urban-rural gap in living standards. Systemically, China’s government can be commended for taking steps to improve and relieve the tax burdens borne by the rural people. The problem lies not in the law, but in the implementation. Throughout the book, the source of tension came from “the most educated” peasants who learned that the taxes they paid were illegal and excessive. Typically, these peasants would refuse to pay, citing the new national laws. Local leadership would arrest or abuse these people on trumped-up charges, which would escalate the problem, creating rifts between the villagers and the local leadership.

Fighting city hall. In several cases, the rural victims of abuse and excessive taxation would take the cases into their own hands after being snubbed by their own local authorities. Typically, after being brushed off by the local party leadership, peasants would go the next step up to the township or county officialwho may have been informed ahead of time. Either this more senior official would believe the story of the official below, or would be working with him to maintain the status quo. In some cases, some peasants went all the way to Beijing to plead with the senior leadership about their plight. Perhaps surprisingly, they would get a listening ear from someone at the top, who would issue a demand for those lower down the chain of command to take care of the problem. However, upon return to the hometown, often the demands would be ignored and the peasants would be further harassed for going over the local leaders’ heads. This issue leads into the third theme below.

Unprecedented bureaucracy. In modern China, it is often understood by scholars that it is not that China lacks law but that it lacks systematic accountability and an ability to carry out regulations and policies that are created from upper government. Interestingly, in addition to reporting stories of personal triumphs and failures of peasants, the authors engage the reader in an analysis of the systemic problems in China concerning administration. For example, they researched over 200 countries and learned that “twenty-five countries have two levels of governmentsixty-seven countries, including the United States of America, Japan, Canada and Australia, have three layers of governmentbut our country (China) has set up five layers of government: central, provincial, municipal, county, township” (page 173). Additionally, the level of government employees at the county and township levels “increased by a factor of ten” (page 172) throughout the 1980s into the 1990s. In essence, the very structure of China’s government bureaucracy makes it very difficult to “streamline” policy and get things done efficiently and in a fashion that central government wishes. This dynamic was played out throughout the book. Therefore, no matter what the good intentions of the central government, ensuring follow-up is highly difficult.

A Meritocracy?

The final story “A Search for a Way Out” was very interesting in that it highlighted how officials are rewarded by meeting certain quotas. Looking closer, this merit-based approach to government promotions encourages corrupt officials to cook the books and falsify how much the land under their rule is producing. The reason this is so critical is that this leads to inflated taxes for those districts, based according to assumed higher production. Therefore, an area could actually be very poor. On the books, it is considered better than reality and therefore taxed at a higher rate, which gets borne by the peasants. Meanwhile, the official responsible for fudging the figures is praised and rewarded for increasing productivity. The illustration here is refreshing in how one man “fought the system” and decided to report the figures truthfully and faced much criticism from his colleagues. He simply could not allow the peasants to bear more pressure. In the end, he was rewarded for his honesty by an equally just senior official that was moved by his truthfulness.

These “novellas” of the difficulties peasants face in agriculture and poor rural parts of China are not as depressing as it may seem. They are certainly enlightening, and the reader easily sympathizes with the peasants, feeling righteous anger with the rampant corruption and inefficient system. But, these are also tales of the triumph and strength of will—of down-trodden people fighting what seem to be insurmountable battles with those in power and many of them winning.

Image credit: Chinese Neighbour – Mr Zhang by rentonr, on Flickr.

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Brad Burgess

Brad Burgess is a public relations consultant and freelance writer. He has been based in China for over six years and is fluent in Mandarin. He can be reached at burgess.bradATgmail.comView Full Bio