So while New Year revellers in Shanghai were partying at various locations around the city last night (or laid up in bed with a festive bout of the ‘flu, in Shanghaiist’s case), Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao headed for the hills to spend the evening eating jiaozi and niangao with two farming families. Hu made his way to a small village near Yanan, in Shaanxi province, where, amongst other things, he joined villagers in a popular rural folk dance. He told his host, farmer Kang Haifa, that China’s goal is “to build a new, socialist countryside, to ensure that farmers become richer quicker”. Premier Wen, in Guozhuang village, Shandong province, handed over a sum of money to farmer Guo Xuchen, whose wife has been sick for many years, leaving the family in a state of perpetual financial difficulty. A carefully coordinated media exercise, in both cases, but nonetheless a significant one for the fact that the focus was firmly on the plight of China’s farmers. In fact for the past three spring festival celebrations, China’s leaders have spent their time in farming communities. With the 74,000 cases of social unrest in China cited for 2004 giving way to 87,000 for 2005, many of those instances involving farmers being coerced off their land with minimum compensation, the government faces the problem of an increasingly restless rural population.
The situation constitutes an unquantifiable menace — where might this resentment lead, and in what way might it manifest itself? Can China’s seemingly unassailable economic might really be threatened by the proverbial “masses”? By farmers wielding picks and shovels? The problem has been granted increasing attention by the foreign press over the past year, with one of the most vivid reports compiled by the BBC showing footage of Braveheart-like scenes as an army of angry farmers swept across a field to meet a mass of hired “thugs” whose job was to intimidate them from their land on behalf of developers. But for now, answers are thin on the ground as to the genuine potential impact of this unrest. Regardless, the government is taking no chances. In a key speech made at the end of December 2005, Wen Jiabao pledged to promote compulsory education in rural areas, deepen institutional reform at town-level, provide subsidized medical care and social security for rural residents, and most importantly, curb illegal farmland acquisition. So long as these are not empty promises, the government may stave off what might otherwise be a year of the angry dog. However, if the legions of dogs due to be abandoned in China early on the in the new year were to organize themselves and rise up against their human oppressors, the country may face an entirely different problem altogether. Ah — hold that thought….
Chinese premier leaps to defence of farmers (Scotsman)
In face of rural unrest, China rolls out reforms (Washington Post)