China’s Angry Bulls
Image Credit: Flickr / Wootang01

China’s Angry Bulls


“A Chinese farmer is like a gentle bull that can endure a lot,” activist Chen Guangcheng told me back in 2002, in the wake of a riot in his home province of Shandong. “But when it’s provoked, it will get angry and charge.”

Recent events, including in the village of Wukan, in southern China, have proven his point. Angry over corrupt local officials and land appropriations, hundreds of villagers staged a series of protests that reached a head in December as the local authorities attempted to crack down on dissent. The intense standoff was only ended after top provincial leaders agreed to some of the villagers’ demands.

I found it exhilarating to watch the protesting farmers as it reminded me of the riot that I reported on in 2002. Back then, the local authorities had set up a special court to collect overdue taxes. When one man refused to comply, he was beaten unconscious, prompting the enraged villagers to literally take up their shovels to challenge their abusive bosses. With the help of two “barefoot” lawyers in the region (essentially peasants who had taught themselves a bit of law) the villagers sued the officials. They won a partial victory by getting their hospital bills paid for.  

A decade later, thanks in part to better education, greater mobility and easier access to modern communications, it’s clear that Chinese peasant farmers and migrant workers are increasingly conscious of their rights. Indeed, in the middle of the unfolding Wukan drama, the de facto head of the uprising told the New York Times: “I do believe that this country is ruled by the law.” Rights, it seems, were very much on the minds of the villagers – especially those that had travelled to other parts of China.

And Wukan wasn’t the end of it. Last month saw a wave protests across several provinces in China, according to Hong Kong-based China Workers’ Info. Just four days into the New Year, hundreds of workers stormed a courthouse in Shuangliu county, Sichuan Province, in protest over unpaid wages. Later, 300 workers from Foxconn in Wuhan, Hubei Province, staged a protest during which they threatened to kill themselves if their demands for a fair salary when being transferred weren’t met (that standoff was resolved peacefully thanks to the intervention of Wuhan’s mayor).

The rebellious employees have mostly been rural workers, who are hired because they are cheaper to employ than their urban cousins. But many of these young people are now better educated than those from their parents’ generation – more worldly, and more aware of their rights.

“Generally, people become more rights conscious as the society progresses. And nongmin (peasants) are no exception,” Zhao Fengsheng, the founder of China’s Farmer’s Association, tells me.

Fu Man-chu : National Systems Implementation
February 13, 2012 at 22:41

Not as difficult as one might thinks. The standard political and administrative modus operandi, fine tuned through experience and is acceptable to the public, is always to provide a grace period for ID cards for example, to be issued and completed, before any implementation of the ID system requirement.

billy andersson
February 13, 2012 at 01:07

CCP fears the farmers and know their strength therefore kept them poor and uneducated. However when they rise as they have done plenty of time in history, overthrowing emperors, it will trigger all elements persecuted minorities, religious followers, democracy supporters, and all other who are fed up with the corruption, the oppression and waiting for the first pocket of fire to blow it into a wild fire.
CCP will fall when 農人rise. And the worlds economy will experience a 地震, high on the richter scale.

Frankie Fook-lun Leung
February 12, 2012 at 15:46

China’s judicial system fails completely to provide a platform or channel for the aggrieved individuals to seek justice. The government doesn’t understand that a fair adjudication of disputes is like a safety valve for the citizens to air their grievances and get justice. One is disappointed no institutional mechanism is available for the common folks to bring their dispute to get a result they deem fair and just. Corruption is only one facet of all these problems.

First Advisor
February 11, 2012 at 16:18

The State Council has already announced, as part of the present five-year plan, a new identification system to replace the hukou system. The major obstruction is the massive logistical and practical difficulties of such a change, for the entire 1.3 billion population of China. India’s new identification system, begun in 2009, has just this month completed new ID cards for 133 million people, 11 percent of India’s population. In three years. New identification for the Chinese people will almost certainly take longer than that. The central government hasn’t even decided on a format for the new system yet, a horrendous task in itself. Changing the ID system for a giant nation is not a simple or easy chore. A time period of 20 years to accomplish the work is a reasonable estimate. The most likely result will be a relaxing of the rules sooner, a possibility the State Council has already announced is being considered. All educated people already know these facts, naturally. Anyone who doesn’t know them is uneducated, and an uneducated opinion isn’t worth very much.

February 11, 2012 at 15:48

CCP is rotten. Chinese people deserve a better government. Stay strong the people of China.

Hu YuShin
February 11, 2012 at 03:52

“It’s time, Chinese people!
The square belongs to everyone
the feet are yours
it’s time to use your feet and take to the square to make a choice.”

Zhu Yufu

February 10, 2012 at 12:11

Good article. Highly relevant and pertinent. More of such articles should be published to give a real picture of China. Give people the freedom to lynch the corrupt and crooked officials and cadres. They are a blight on society’s enlightened social mores.

And Beijing MUST repeal the “Hukou” system completely. It is incredibly stupid to discriminate your own people into first and second class status. Human dignity, pride and liberty comes before anything else. Chinese bureaucrats should uphold these oonstitutionally defined rights instead of dishonoring the Constitution and preserving an outdated discriminatory system instead. They should find other ways to solve the problems of overcrowding, congestion, housing, and other amenities instead of taking the easy irresponsible way out by deferring to convenience.

No other country have such a stupid and demeaning system. Their government would face immediate uprising and unrest. Beijing should be thankful the Chinese have not been demonstrative so far to date. So, Beijing, give this immediate priority.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief