Apr/May 2008

CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY

Two books examine China's peasantry and its role in the New Economy

Rosie Blau


This summer, the world will turn its eyes toward China to watch the Olympic flame take its first-ever journey to the People's Republic. Over the course of about two weeks in August, Beijing will present us with the greatest spectacle on earth. The makeover of the capital city will be complete: construction projects finished, buildings repainted, streets spotless, children smiling, and Communist Party officials happily applauding the dazzling sporting feats of the visiting nations.

As the world's media turn their gazes toward Beijing, we are sure also to hear about other aspects of the People's Republic. There will be murmurs—probably shouts—about China's lack of democracy and abuse of human rights. Someone will search out a collection of migrant workers or beggars who've been moved out of the capital to maintain Beijing's beauty. Someone will hunt down a dissident hiding out to escape imprisonment. And we will be overwhelmed, too, by numbers: the staggering and ongoing economic growth, the vast proportions of the world's plastics, steel, and cotton that are manufactured in China, the distance we have had to travel politically and culturally for this formerly isolationist nation to host such an event.

But what of the real China, beyond the facade and the numbers? Though Mao Zedong's Communist Party was established in the name of the nation's hundreds of millions of peasants, reality has cast this same group into poverty—and, for the most part, rendered them voiceless and without representation.

Two new books set out to get under the skin of China and introduce us to its peasants—still about 60 percent of its populace. In the first of these, The Corpse Walker, Liao Yiwu, a Sichuan journalist, gives us oral testimonies "from the bottom up." Liao grew up under the shadow of a father branded an "enemy of the people." As an adult, Liao was jailed for writing poems skeptical of the Communist Party—many of the interviews in this volume were conducted with fellow inmates. As Philip Gourevitch, editor of the Paris Review, says in his foreword, "Liao writes with the courage of a man who knows loss and doesn't fear it."

The Corpse Walker is a stunning book. When a version first appeared in China in 2001 under a pseudonym, it sold fast and was soon banned by the government. Through twenty-seven interviews conducted from 1990 to 2001, Liao brings us fascinating insights into the lives of all manner of workers, from the corpse walker of the title, who carries dead bodies back home to their families, to a street singer, a feng shui master, and a former landowner.

Migrant children playing with medical waste, Haikou.

One of the most striking accounts is that of the roughly seventy-year-old "Grandpa Zhou," who has handled human waste for most of his life. The public-restroom manager tells of his boredom during the Cultural Revolution, when scholars and professors were assigned to clean his toilets; and we hear about his hero, a restroom cleaner who was elected to the National People's Congress and had his photo taken with Mao. We also see something of the hidden China: fetuses abandoned in drains because abortion was too shameful; Liao's own admission that he first glimpsed female private parts and learned about sexual intercourse through a hole in the wall—he calls the restroom his "classroom."

The Corpse Walker is revealing as well in its incidental details: the man who was so poor he couldn't afford to buy pants for his three daughters; the musician who "truly believed that I deserved hundreds of slaps on my face" for pursuing the bourgeois goal of composing music; the street singer, whose first memory was of being on her mother's back, watching sausages shuttling back and forth on a conveyor belt.

Liao is no ordinary reporter. Recording such testimonies is a rare and brave feat in the world of Chinese journalism, but Liao is also keen to express his own opinions: "You look like an honest hick. How did you end up in this trade?" he asks a human trafficker. He concludes: "If I were the judge, I would first cut off your tongue as punishment. It deserves to be cut off."

This is an addictive book—as you finish one account, you are eager to start the next. If there is anything on which to fault Liao, it's that he could have asked more questions. These are recent interviews, yet only rarely does he ask how his subjects perceive the changes wrought by the "new," more open China. Occasionally, we do catch a glimpse: Huang Zhiyuan, a sixty-nine-year-old former village schoolteacher, for example, talks of the prospects of his former students. "No matter what they do," he says, "and how well they do, they share one common aspiration: to get the hell out of the countryside."

These many millions who've already left their rural homes are the subject of Floris-Jan van Luyn's A Floating City of Peasants: The Great Migration in Contemporary China. Van Luyn, a Dutch journalist who worked in China for six years, focuses on the more than 120 million migrant workers who now live in Chinese cities, mostly without legal residency or officially sanctioned jobs—what he refers to as "the flip side" of Chinese development.

A Floating City of Peasants goes straight to the heart of one of China's main problems: the urban-rural divide. Cities are increasingly dependent on migrant workers, and urbanization will have to keep pace if China's economy is to continue growing at its current rate. Yet peasants are routinely discriminated against in the city: Most are illegal residents with no access to the better-paid, more stable jobs and no right to treatment in urban hospitals. "I feel treated like a dog," says one worker. "I may look like a country bumpkin, but I'm not stupid."

We hear from some peasants who've made it, such as twenty-eight-year-old Wang Yingmin. He lives in the special economic zone of Shenzhen, rides a shiny motorcycle, has two cell phones, and eats out nearly every night. His two older brothers, older sister, and father now also live in Shenzhen, all at his expense, he says. Only his younger sister has stayed in the countryside, to watch over the parental house and land.

But the story of Chunming is more typical. He ran away from home at fourteen—he'd never been farther than the bamboo hedges around his village; he had never even seen a train. But he stole money from his parents and made his way nineteen hundred miles to Beijing: "I wanted to work, earn money, become rich." He ran into a fellow villager, who took him along to the city's garbage dumps. The first week, he was constantly sick, but like everyone else, he got used to the smell. For seven years, he lived off trash; he found stereos, comic books, teacups, a door to sleep on—but he didn't find his fortune. He joined the army but left after two years. But when van Luyn meets him, now twenty-three and jobless, Chunming is still optimistic about his future in the city—the opportunities remain greater than in his home village, he says.

Like Liao, van Luyn presents the bigger story through the lives of individual peasants. He writes well and has a good eye for the telling detail, complemented by excellent photos. But at times, this book feels like a series of linked magazine articles, rather than offering the deeper analysis and broader conclusions we might desire from such a book.

Van Luyn does well to make sense of the befuddling statistics we hear about China, however, and presents them in terms of real lives. He comments that during the ten days of the last census, in 2000, while the census takers were out doing their work, another half million Chinese children were born. And he reminds us why the peasant migration is so politically sensitive and is distorting the social and cultural life of China—more than half of all migrants are men under age twenty-five.

Van Luyn also calculates the narrow margins that propel peasants toward the cities. One woman he meets, Li Suzhen, had only four years of schooling because of the Cultural Revolution. To give her children the chance of something better, she has left them to nanny another child in Shanghai. Her city job pays fifty yuan a month more than she was earning before. "Fifty yuan?" the author writes. "Did Suzhen leave her family for an extra $6.20?"

In Maoist China, van Luyn remarks, everyone looked the same, dressing like peasants in simple blue, black, or gray work clothes. Now, city dwellers have moved on to tailored suits, fashion trends, and colorful clothing: "Only the peasants have remained drab and threadbare." Yet theirs is as much the story of this country as the gleaming towers and glossy paint that the government of China wants the world to see. For there was one crucial thing that Mao did get right: The history of China will always be bound up with the fortunes of its peasant population.

Rosie Blau is the books editor of the Financial Times.

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