“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.