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Chen Guidi & Wu Chuntao

4 minute read
Susan Jakes

The title of Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao’s book contains three words: China, Peasants and Investigation. They appearsix Chinese charactersin black boldface against a bright yellow jacket, making the book look as if it belongs atop a signpost, warning of danger ahead. Inside, the husband-and-wife team give a grim account of life in China’s countryside. China is an agricultural country, they begin, piling up tales of villages ravaged by poverty and graft, farmers murdered for trying to defend themselves against corrupt leaders, and a nave and impotent central government in Beijing, whose attempts to help the rural poor were too often ignored or deliberately thwarted by local strongmen.When it hit China’s bookstores in January 2004, An Investigation of China’s Peasants became a sensation. Parts of the tome had appeared two months earlier in the magazine Dangdai, selling 100,000 copies. The book itself sold nearly twice that in less than two months. Two years of trudging through Chen’s native Anhui province, where the authors make their home, had unearthed misery we could never have imagined, says Wu. The book recounts cases of injustice overlooked or deemed too sensitive by China’s mainstream presslike a peasant tortured to death in police custody for protesting unfair taxes. This book is an alarm bell, wrote a reviewer from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It’s not just about the peasants; it’s about our whole country, our whole society.Because China’s leaders themselves have ranked rural problems among the nation’s most pressing issues, many intellectuals believed a book so critical could only have been published with official approval. But the unfiltered muck that Chen and Wu dredged up proved too controversial for the authorities. Less than two months after its publication, without explaining why, officials in Beijing pulled the tract off bookstore shelves and ordered its publisher to stop printing.By then, though, the yellow book was unstoppable. Pirated copiesmore than 8 million, estimates Chenpopped up in street-side stalls and underground walkways. Electronic versions circulated on the Internet. The couple’s tiny apartment in Hefei filled up with fan mail. The authors won overseas literary prizes like Germany’s Lettre Ulysses Award, and next spring an English translation will be published in the U.S., Canada and Australia.Last year, Zhang Xide, a local Communist Party boss portrayed as a tyrant in the book, sued the authors for libel. Prominent lawyers from Beijing jockeyed to serve on their defense team, even as Chinese journalists, among the crowds in the courthouse, were ordered not to print their stories. During a lively four-day trial in August 2004, peasants who had fled to other parts of the country returned home to testify on Chen and Wu’s behalf. The court has yet to rule.Chen and Wu met at a writers’ workshop in Beijing in 1991. Chen, then 49, was already a playwright and novelist of some prominence, with broad shoulders and the carriage of a stage actor, but Wu, 20 years his junior, was not impressed. She stood up in front of 100 people and told me my novels stunk, Chen recalls. She said my women characters weren’t credible. Soon after, the two wed and took up a Chinese genre of reportage that embellishes journalism with literary flourishes. Both had been born to peasant families and felt called to examine the poverty they had escaped. When a new policy alleviating rural taxes was announced in 2001, they decided to see for themselves whether it worked. They put on simple clothes, left their newborn son with relatives, and spent their $7,000 of savings on their research.The couple is working on a sequel. Visiting Sanqing, an Anhui village where the two reported a tax-extortion scandal but where rural taxes have now been abolished as elsewhere throughout China, Chen reminisces with a peasant about how much has changed. Yang Shanglu, a round-faced rice farmer whom Chen and Wu profiled, recalls the days when he had to pay nearly half of his yearly income of $85 in illegal taxes to local officials. That’s all finished, Yang grins, thumbing through a copy of the book to point out where his story appears. Some things have improved, nods Chen, but there’s still so much more to report. We’ll write what we ought to write.

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