“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.
Zhao’s journey from his boyhood village in Hunan to self-styled public intellectual in Beijing mirrors the new breed of nongmin. The 35 year-old says he experienced his first discrimination toward nongmin when he left home to work in a nearby city. “There are millions of us. We work the hardest, yet have the least resources,'” Zhao says, adding that he gradually came to the conclusion that the problem is rooted in the hukou system that separates nongmin and nongmingong (migrant workers) from the urban population. The system also deprives such workers of equal rights.
In 2007, after Zhao moved to Beijing, he started to attend lectures and made friends with academics and rights activists. Two years later, he launched the China Farmers’ Association. “I’ve long wanted to establish an organization that we farmers can call our own and can turn to for help,” he says.
Technologically savvy, Zhao placed a public notice on the internet calling for fellow nongmin to join him. Three days after he filed his application with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, he was arrested, harshly interrogated and had his application rejected. But his organization continues to send out his articles to people on his mailing list – a list that has grown from a few dozen to 500, which is the most his email server will allow him to send out.
Zhao’s example is far from being an isolated one. Pei Fugui, a 58-year-old farmer from Lucun on the southwestern outskirts of Beijing, says he has lost his faith in shangfang, a petition system that is supposed to allow people to bring their grievances to the authorities. But although Pei says he has grown frustrated with the system, he still goes out of his way to help petitioners, including by providing them with a bed for a symbolic five yuan, helping them to organize their materials and advising them which ministry to approach.
“Shangfang is like kowtowing in front of the Buddha – it just doesn’t work,” he says. “I keep telling people to take the matter into their own hands.”
The fact that the number of so-called mass incidents spiraled to more than 100,000 by some estimates in 2011 suggests that plenty of people are doing just that. Such figures also raise an important question: are things getting worse, or are farmers simply more willing now to fight for what they believe in – and entitled to?
Certainly there’s growing awareness – and frustration – with official land grabs that fail to give rural owners adequate compensation. The Wukan villagers, for example, claimed local officials pocketed RMB 1 billion ($156 million) by selling their land to a Hong Kong property developer. The problem is that such land grabs aren’t just about corruption – there’s a bigger issue of property law, which grants the state ownership and means farmers are typically only paid a tiny percentage of the land's market value.
I admit I was relieved – delighted even – by the ultimately soft approach the authorities took in both the Wukan and Wuhan cases, perhaps in recognition of the legitimacy of the nongmin’s rising demands for rights and equality. But a soft approach isn’t enough – our leaders must listen to the farmers, open up more channels for them to express their grievances, and gradually allow some kind of independent labor union (or at least collective bargaining mechanism) to help ease future conflicts.
Ultimately, China’s leaders will have to grant the same rights to those who make iPhones as they do to those who use them. And they must be mindful not to provoke the bulls. After all, there are millions of them out there.
Zhang Lijia is a Beijing-based writer and author of ‘Socialism is Great!’ Her articles have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times and Newsweek, among other publications.