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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La longue marche des paysans chinois

by Dominique Bari

The Long March of the Chinese Peasants

Translated by Ann Drummond

Translated Thursday 23 March 2006, by Ann Drummond

China: The annual session of parliament stresses the inequalities between cities and countryside.

At the end of almost three decades of economic reforms, questions are increasingly being asked of the Chinese authorities about the nature and purpose of the economic growth which, while admittedly booming, is deeply non-egalitarian. The annual session of the National People’s Congress which opened yesterday in Beijing was set to be the forum for debates which have been taking place for several months in Chinese institutions and society about the economic reforms and the formulation of new priorities.

Presenting the government’s annual accounts, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao also referred to the resulting imbalances, from which the countryside is suffering particularly, but also whole sections of the urban population faced with rising unemployment, the consequences of education which is no longer free, and social conditions which are under threat. Setting a target of "around 8%" for the growth in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006, Wen Jiabao has promised an improvement in its distribution, so that "the whole population can share in the fruits of reform and development".

In 2005, the theoretical journal of the Chinese Communist party, the Study Times, identified "fifteen serious divisions at the heart of Chinese society which are causing tensions." One of the most significant of these is the disparity in the rise in income of urban and rural inhabitants. According to the Study Times, in 1985 the differential between the two was in a ratio of 1: 2.75, rising to 1: 3.23 in 2003. According to international standards, the journal goes on to elaborate, there are still 100 million people living in poverty in China, and it also notes that "half of rural dwellers do not have access to clean drinking water." Sanitation and medical services are out of date. Rural dwellers do not enjoy the same benefits, so the peasants are paying out of their own pockets for road construction and works to install water systems and public lighting facilities.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that of the number of disputes officially recorded in 2005, a large majority involved protests by peasants. A number of these related to the improper acquisition of land, often linked to corruption among local party cadres. So last year the province of Guandong, with a population of 78 million and at the centre of China’s dazzling growth, was the focal point of several protests linked to expropriations, as was the case in Taishi and Dongzhou, which were sometimes brutally suppressed.

The Eleventh 5-Year Plan (2006-2010) sees the development of the countryside once again becoming a major priority for the government, while for 2006 a package of 339.7 billion yuans (about 40 billion euros) has been set aside to support agriculture. As Wen Jiabao explained, it is a question of building "a new socialist countryside" for the 750 million rural inhabitants in China. Equally, an effort must be made to modernize social services and education in rural communities. "The guiding principle should be that industry supports agriculture and that the cities help the countryside" explained the Prime Minister, in the hope that "this policy will stimulate domestic demand and consumption in rural areas". This aim goes hand in hand with "growth which is less oriented towards exports and instead sustained by domestic consumption which also creates less pollution."

Wen painted a picture of an economy experiencing rapid growth but threatened by over-investment, over-production and poor governance. "Excessive production is an increasingly serious issue, as prices fall and stocks mount. Business profits are declining, and losses are increasing, as are the financial risks" he warned, indulging in an implicit criticism of the more open policies of former management. "Some deep rooted disputes have built up over the years and have still to be resolved. We cannot shut our eyes to the new problems which have emerged."

Dominique Bari

First published on 6th March 2006.

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