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April 6, 2006

Getting a Piece of the Pie


by Sascha Matuszak

The absolute reversal of the 1949 Communist Revolution is both a path to a glorious future and a treacherous road toward disintegration.

The triumph of the worker/peasant rebellion over China's oppressive class structure soon became a fulfillment of George Orwell's grim prophecy in his book 1984; fortunately, reason prevailed after the death of Mao "Big Brother" Zedong, and China's ancient class system slowly reinstated itself as the driving social system of the land, while retaining the label "Party" in favor of the obsolete "Emperor."

All was well.

The insane tyranny of a peasant-backed dictator morphed with lightning speed into an industrious tyranny of an ambition-backed Party. The people rejoiced, for industry and ambition brought untold masses out of the throes of poverty and wiped away the stigma of backwardness from a proud nation.

The Present accelerated to accommodate the pent-up desires of a people long suppressed, but History refused to disappear – in a nation in which the word for "day before yesterday" is "day in front," how could it? This dichotomy produces wide boulevards made into deep valleys by soaring glass and concrete, traversed by rickshaws and BMWs, men and women in Mao-era blue and Burberry, bamboo-stick-toting porters and investment bankers.

This land of opposites and extremes has seen its share of peasant rebellions throughout the ages, and they invariably come on the heels of foreign invasion, natural disaster, or tightly gripped, prolonged prosperity.

The Communist dream of destroying History forever envisioned a world without foreign invasion – due to the spread of Utopia – and devoid of the grip of landlords and nobles. Perhaps killing religion helped minimize the psychological effect of natural disasters, thought to herald the end of an Age in traditional China.

The Communist Dream gave way to Dreams of Red Mansions, in which every Chinese, with enough hard work and dedication, sacrifice and suffering, could break the chains of class and move up in what was once a closed and strict society. In the early days, this brought a bit of euphoria, and although History did not die, it was forgotten. The rush for riches eclipsed any thoughts of consequence. Before anyone could blink, the internal conditions that helped bring on China's most recent peasant rebellion resurfaced and diffused over the land.

But in an age of the Accelerated Now, what once took hundreds of years for the rulers to grasp in ancient China took but 20 this time around.

"The Empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide."

Avoiding Disintegration

The first step in bringing the peasants into the fold was to show them the might of the New God – urbanization, modernization, and industrialization were the horsemen that brought the Word to those unfortunates Mao had failed.

New classes were created out of this meeting of the old and new religions: migrant workers, the sweatshop woman, prostitutes and pimps, speculators and investors, corrupt and benevolent officials.

New problems arose: displaced and disenfranchised groups of farmers wandering the streets, back wages, disease, environmental destruction, oppression, rebellion.

"Hmm," thought the leaders. "Some things never change, and some things do."

The second step was to let white people in and see what they could do. They were buying all of the goods and investing in big projects, so maybe they had an idea for how to tackle this issue as well.

The NGOs flourished, and aid rolled in from abroad. The success of foreign NGOs is a debatable topic, given accusations of political aims, under-funded and ill-tailored projects, and the creation of a new avenue for corruption. But the major success has been the progress of local scientists, experts, and policymakers who now have access to the lessons of the already industrialized past.

The third step involves macro-policy designed to supplement the work of foreign and domestic actors working from the bottom up. Over the past 10 years, the Party has slowly phased out and abolished the burden of taxation that forced the farmer away from his home and into the turbulent seas of urban China. Additionally, land-ownership and self-governance were taken off of the pariah list and allowed to grow under the supervision of the Party.

Most importantly, but also viewed with the most skepticism by Chinese, is the abolition of education fees for rural and poor students. Like many of the macro-policy dictates that come from the center, this one will most likely be a slave of local interpretation and implementation. Schools are big money for the Chinese big bosses. Ask any cabbie, and he'll tell you tuition is what breaks his back…

"How can I raise a child in this situation?" they ask when speaking of education.

Another diktat from on high involves environmental accountability when building dams, factories, roads, etc., heralded by the December 2004 onslaught by China's State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), which forced 30-odd big bosses to scatter looking for the bribes and connections necessary to keep their billion-dollar projects online.

In the complex arena of rural development, many of the actors have forgotten that the Chinese farmer is quite resilient and resourceful when allowed to be. Below is an example of what can happen when competent people are freed from their fetters.

The Nong Jia Le

Sichuan holds claim to being the source of the nong jia le (bed and breakfast, Chinese-style). Sichuanese are noted for their love of leisure and the abundant resources they have at their disposal to augment any leisure activities.

In a small county west of the capital Chengdu called Pixian, a group of farmers moved from their traditional crops of rice, lettuce, and rapeseed and began catering to the growing class of people with money to spare, a car, and a love for leisure. At first, they sold flowers: lilies, orchids, chrysanthemums, lilacs, plum and peach trees, roses… the air grew heavy with pollen and the fragrant clouds of blossoming flowers.

The farmers used traditional methods (and eschewed the use of chemicals) to attract customers from the bustling city with the lure of the lost and the newly attainable: The middle classes' realization of the red mansion.

Soon, plots of land expanded to include not only greenhouses but country-style restaurants and inns to accommodate the visitors from the capital, other provinces, the eastern seaboard, and eventually from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Japan and Korea.

Local governments had central mandates to facilitate any bank loans necessary to support this development, which also replaced the income slashed by the abolition of many traditional taxes, and a guaranteed seal of approval from a zealous network of domestic and foreign environmental organizations seeking allies and examples.

Farmers and entrepreneurs drew on managerial and technical know-how gathered over the past 20 years and played to the new consciousness of the educated classes – a consciousness fueled, again, by a dream of red mansions and the gardens that surrounded them – to build an efficient, sustainable, and ecologically sound operation in the western suburbs of Chengdu.

Whether or not Pixian did indeed invent this model, the whole province is now dotted with nong jia le: perched on the Taoist mountains of Qing Cheng Shan and the Buddhist mountain Emei Shan, amid the peach trees of Longchuan, the bamboo seas [.pdf] of Yibin, and the hot springs buried in the hills.

Now on the east side of Chengdu, a 4.8km2 nong jia le complex has buggy carts for tired visitors, a lake, dozens of inns and restaurants to choose from, and a huge flower-selling industry centered around projects designed for export. These projects are required to sell shares to the original inhabitants, and every local can invest in any project.

Many problems are solved with this particular model, which has at its heart the benefit of the local farmer. Mr. Ma, one of the original five farmers to move into the nong jia le business in Pixian county, now has three red mansions – one for each of his sons.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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