Econ-Atrocity: The Chinese Peasants Are Revolting

By Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, CPE Staff Economist

Most of the news we get about China has to do with the actions of the Chinese government or with broad economic trends. Only rarely, it seems, is there much reporting on the actions of Chinese people.

So the Washington Post and China correspondent Edward Cody deserve credit for a series of articles he’s written for the paper over the past year. Cody’s articles have described the struggles of Chinese factory workers and peasants as they face various abuses at the hands of factory owners and corrupt local officials (sometimes one and the same people). He reports that the Chinese government believes that the core cause for the increase in spontaneous mass protests across the country is growing economic inequality.

In the southern Fujian province, thousands of peasants have been protesting the seizure of their land, which is often converted to industrial use. Those Cody talked to have received hardly any compensation for the land, and they suspect that the local officials who should be distributing compensation payments have instead used the money to make investments in factories. Few of the peasants have been able to get jobs in the new factories, something that was promised when the land was seized.

In next-door Guangdong province, workers at shoe factories have staged spontaneous strikes, including one in which hundreds of workers ransacked company facilities. There have been numerous walkouts at the shoe manufacturers in the past couple years. The workers are angry about low wages, limited time off, and lack of communication with managers.

Farther north, in the town of Huaxi, villagers fed up with years of polluted air and water and stonewalling by government officials created a protest camp outside the gates to an industrial park. Despite a police raid to shut the camp down, the protesters increased in number. When a large force of police and civilian assistants returned on April 10th, some 20,000 villagers responded. A fierce street battle ensued and the police and city officials were forced to retreat from the town. The protest camp remained for another month and a half, until government officials agreed to shut down the industrial park. However, those suspected of being leaders of the protest movement remained on police wanted lists.

In the Anhui province, the beating of a young man by bodyguards of a businessman sparked a spontaneous riot in which approximately 10,000 city residents torched police cars, threw rocks at anti-riot troops and looted a grocery store after the owner was seen providing water to the police.

Though each of these was an isolated incident on its own, they are part of growing pattern of angry resistance by China’s poor–whether from peasant farms or sweatshop factories–to the Communist Party’s cozy alliance with capitalist business. A minister for public security in China estimated that 3.76 million people participated in what he termed “mass incidents” throughout the country during 2004, and that the frequency of these incidents has been increasing.

The government has become very concerned, both because this expression of people power threatens the stability of Communist Party control and because it could undermine the party’s goals for further economic development in the capitalist mold. The spread of cell phones and the internet are allowing unofficial news of resistance to reach a larger Chinese audience, despite the efforts of government censors in the official media. Even the state-run media has begun reporting that the root cause of the recent unrest is the widening gap between rich and poor in the country. Perhaps conveniently, these reports downplay the idea that protesting citizens could be angry about the political structure of one-party rule. After all, much of the economic development that has been part of China’s shift to capitalism and the growing rich-poor gap has relied on collusion between local government officials and private businessmen.


Articles by Edward Cody in the Washington Post:

“China’s Land Grabs Raise Specter of Popular Unrest; Peasants Resist Developers, Local Officials,” 10/5/04;

“In China, Workers Turn Tough; Spate of Walkouts May Signal New Era,” 11/27/04;

“For Chinese, Peasant Revolt Is Rare Victory; Farmers Beat Back Police In Battle Over Pollution,” 6/13/05;

“A Chinese Riot Rooted in Confusion; Lacking a Channel for Grievances, Garment Workers Opt to Strike,” 7/18/05;

“A Chinese City’s Rage At the Rich And Powerful; Beating of Student Sparks Riot, Looting,” 8/1/05;

“China Grows More Wary Over Rash Of Protests; Cell Phones, Internet Spread The Word, Magnify Fallout,” 8/10/05;

“China’s Rising Tide of Protest Sweeping Up Party Officials; Village Chiefs Share Anger Over Pollution,” 9/12/05;

“China Warns Gap Between Rich, Poor Is Feeding Unrest,” 9/22/05;

“China Promises Equitable Growth,” 10/1/05;

“China’s Party Leaders Draw Bead on Inequity,” 10/9/05;

“Beijing Pledges to Focus on Income Disparities,” 10/12/05.

(c) 2005 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.