The New York Times

July 9, 2004

ExposÚ of Peasants' Plight Is Suppressed by China


HEFEI, China, July 5 - In their muckraking best seller about abuses against Chinese peasants, the husband-and-wife authors, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, told the stories of farmers who fought the system and lost.

The book, "An Investigation of China's Peasantry," describes how one farmer's long struggle against illegal taxes ended only when the police beat him to death with a mulberry club. It profiles a village activist who was jailed on a charge of instigating riots after he accused a local Communist Party boss of corruption.

Now, Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu say, it is their turn to be silenced.

Though their tautly written defense of China's 750 million peasants has become a sensation, their names have stopped appearing in the news media. Their publisher was ordered to cease printing at the peak of the book's popularity this spring, leaving the market to pirates who subsequently churned out millions of copies in violation of the copyright.

A ranking official sued sued the authors, accusing them of libel, in his home county court. In a country that does not protect a right to criticize those holding power, it is a case they say they are sure to lose.

Top Beijing leaders acknowledge that China's surging urban economy has done relatively little to benefit the two-thirds of the population living in rural areas. They have put forward new programs to reduce the widening gap between urban and rural living standards.

But the effort to quiet Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu makes it clear that officials will not tolerate writers who portray China's vast peasantry as an underclass or who assign blame for peasants' enduring poverty.

"We spoke up for powerless people, but we ourselves are powerless before these officials," Mr. Chen said in an interview near his home in Anhui Province. "The authorities will not allow peasants to have a voice."

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has ordered the government to address, in the latest slogan, "three peasant problems": farmers, villages and agriculture. But he and other officials rarely emphasize what many rural experts consider the biggest peasant problems: corruption and abuse of power.

"An Investigation of China's Peasantry" deals with little else. It praises the spirit of central government efforts to reduce the rural tax burden and raise farm incomes. But it shows how such policies are sooner or later undone by local party bosses determined to line their own pockets.

It also details how local officials deceive China's top leaders, including Jiang Zemin, the retired party chief who still leads the military, and Zhu Rongji, the retired prime minister. Even Mr. Wen, whom the authors credit with understanding rural problems better than other leaders, is portrayed as being unable to penetrate the local officials' Potemkin displays of fealty.

Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu shocked many urban readers with their tales of rural backwardness. But they appear to have misjudged how much shock the one-party system would accept.

"We had hoped that there would be some support for our work among central government officials," Mr. Chen said. "But it is really sensitive when you write that the general secretary of the Communist Party does not know what's happening in the country."

Mr. Chen, 61, and Ms. Wu, 41, were both born to peasant families. But they escaped the countryside at an early age and, like many professional writers in China, treated the hinterland as an abstraction. An earlier essay by Ms. Wu, titled "Cherishing a Faraway Place," recalled her rural upbringing and struck a bucolic tone about the simple, honest values of the peasantry.

She said her attitude changed in 2000. That year, when she gave birth to her son, she read that a peasant mother in rural Anhui had bled to death after delivering a child. A hospital had demanded a $360 cash advance to treat her, a sum far beyond her family's means.

Mr. Chen had written environmental tracts and novels about social upheaval. He and Ms. Wu agreed to work together to understand why rural policies had failed. Their book, which includes four extended tales of abuse, differed from other studies because it identified cases of malfeasance and named the political figures involved instead of blaming bad policies or generic corruption.

The book describes one farmer, named Ding Zuoming, and his decade-long campaign to enforce central government directives limiting taxes and fees. Although the Beijing authorities reviewed and approved his complaints, the local police found an excuse to arrest him, the book says. They beat him to death in custody.

The authors tell the story of Zhang Keli, described as an idealistic public official devoted to fighting poverty. Over time, he found that fellow village chiefs had found ways to enrich themselves and their relatives, even while they won promotions.

"He felt like he would be an idiot not to take his share," Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu wrote.

The book became an unexpected best seller earlier this year. Whether that was because it named names in exposÚs about the underside of China's boom or because its publication coincided with an effort by Mr. Wen to promote new rural policies is unclear.

Chen Xiwen, the deputy director of the Central Finance and Economics Leading Group, a high-level government policy-making committee, and the man considered China's foremost rural policy expert, said in a recent interview that he had bought two copies, one for the office and the other to keep at home.

"My impression is that the book shows how illegal fees and tax policies can lead to some terrible incidents, like injuries and even death," Mr. Chen said. "The main incidents to my knowledge are basically factual, and the central government has already done some reports on these matters."

Mr. Chen added a caveat, "If it were really as bad as they say, then every peasant would be protesting constantly."

Propaganda authorities evidently felt the book went too far. Even as a media frenzy built in March, the government-owned publisher got a verbal order to cease printing. Media coverage ended instantly. The authors estimate that the book has sold as many as 7 million copies, but they earned royalties on only the 200,000 legal copies sold before the ban.

More disconcerting to the authors, a disgruntled local official named in the book, Zhang Xide, filed a libel suit against them seeking $24,000 in damages. As Chinese officials rarely file court actions without the approval of superiors, Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu say they effectively face prosecution by Anhui Province.

They petitioned the court, in Mr. Zhang's home district, Fuyang County, where his son is a judge, to move the trial to a neutral location. The court rejected the request. Mr. Chen and Ms. Wu say peasants and local officials who cooperated with their book have declined to testify, perhaps because pressure has been put on them to stay silent.

"It is pure political revenge," Mr. Chen said. "The procedures are not legal. They are completely unfair."

He and Ms. Wu said they had been harassed occasionally by security agents and felt worried enough to send their son, now 4, to live with relatives.

The good news, they say, is that they now have a reputation as peasant champions and have collected enough material for three more books on rural woes, though they may have trouble finding a publisher.

They have also begun a new book on their uphill legal battle. The title: "Fighting for Peasants in Court."

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