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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Will the Boat Sink the Water?’ Explores the Other China That News Accounts Neglect: Nation’s 900 Million Heavily Taxed Peasants

Posted by kinchendavid on August 25, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Water holds up the boat; water may also sink the boat – Emperor Taizong (600-649 C.E., Tang Dynasty)

Hinton, WV (HNN) – If you believe the mainstream media – and why should you be so foolish as to do that? – China will soon overtake the U.S. as a major military and economic super power. Just look at the gleaming cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, they tell us. Take a look at your local Wal-Mart: Just about everything there is made in China.

Chinese journalists Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi returned to Chen’s native province of Anhui, one of China’s poorest – and the setting for “The Good Earth” by West Virginia native Pearl Buck — to undertake a three-year survey of what had happened to the peasants there, asking the question: “Have the peasants been betrayed by the revolution undertaken in their name by Mao and his successors?”

The short answer is “YES” and the reportage in “Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants” (PublicAffairs, 256 pages, $25.00). Translated by Zhu Hong, with an introduction by former Washington Post Beijing Bureau Chief John Pomfret, the book is a masterpiece of investigative journalism. It’s as if Seymour Hersh’s wife were an investigative journalist as accomplished as Sy and accompanied her husband on their collaborative work.

Twenty years ago, when collective farms were being abandoned and a form of private ownership was adopted by the Beijing regime, there was hope that the heavy hand of Communism was coming to an end, the authors say. The reality is that the 900 million peasants of China – in a nation of 1.3 billion – are eking out a barely subsistence life on tiny plots that are heavily taxed by local Communist cadres – officials who are living the good life at the expense of the peasants, the authors say.

Just about anyone who can migrates to the cities to work in the factories that keep the Wal-Marts and the Target stores full of merchandise. They do this illegally, because freedom of movement – something taken for granted virtually everywhere else — is not permitted in China. Residence permits are required to live in the cities where the jobs are and they’re not usually granted to peasants from Hunan or Anhui provinces, to name just two.

The book was published by the state publishing company, The People’s Literature Publishing House, in December 2003 and was an immediate best-seller, with 250,000 copies sold – a remarkable achievement for a nonfiction book anywhere. This convinced the regime to suspend publication. Pirated editions appeared – more than 7 million of them, the authors note in a preface – and the resulting publicity brought major-league harassment to the couple.

The authors describe in great detail the corruption of the Chinese hinterland, how petty officials grow prosperous off the backs of the nation’s peasants. A student of the coalfields of West Virginia and Kentucky would recognize many of the elements Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi describe so well. The corruption of the officials brought to mind a book I recently read and reviewed called “Don’t Buy Another Vote: I Won’t Pay for a Landslide” that described the political corruption of West Virginia that persists up to this day.

In attempts to increase the tax base, ambitious county and township officials set up factories as varied as chemical, rubber and reed mats in rural areas. The authors describe several such efforts – all failures. The freeloading of the cadres is legendary, as the accounts by the authors of free meals and stiffed restaurant owners reveal. It would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that many of the peasants don’t get enough to eat.

Anyone who protested the burden of taxes on just about anything imaginable and many things that were unimaginable would be beaten, robbed, arrested, even killed, the authors point out, with many cases vividly described. Anyone complaining to higher authorities would find themselves harassed even more.

Much of this results from an overlay of Communism – not an efficient way of running a country in the first place – on the essential feudalism that has existed in China since the 15th Century, at least, the authors say. Before the Communists took power in 1949, the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek tolerated warlords and petty bureaucrats and not much has changed for the majority of China’s peasants, the authors say.

Both the authors spring from peasant backgrounds, so they know the territory: Wu Chuntao was born in 1963 in Hunan; Chen Guidi, her husband, was born in 1943 in Anhui. Wu and Chen are members and respected writers of the Hefei Literature Association. Mr. Chen received the Lu Xun Literature Achievement Award—one of the most important literary prizes in China. Both authors have received awards from the journal Contemporary Age for groundbreaking reportage, and “Will the Boat Sink the Water?” won the 2004 Lettre Ulysses Prize for the art of reportage.

Pomfret’s introduction is a valuable addition to the book, as is the authors’ preface that describes how the book came into being. There’s a timeline of Communist China and the book is indexed. It’s a breezy, journalistic book to read – and one that doesn’t spare the four-letter words. As Pomfret says, the book is “an important antidote to the boosterish pablum churned out by many China experts these days. It’s a street-level look at the downside, and the dark side, of China’s economic juggernaut.”

Publisher’s web site: http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com

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