On a trip home late last year to the rural Chinese village of my childhood, I found my brother tying a military knife under his belt as he was leaving the house. I asked why he needed a knife, and he replied, “It is not as safe here as before.”
The peaceful and idyllic village I grew up in, like many of China’s rural towns, has been brought to ruins by the breakdown of traditional social norms that followed decades of failed policies and neglect by the state. Many of my contemporary fellow villagers would prefer to go back to the old days.
Nostalgia in China may sound strange to people whose image of the country’s recent history is colored by memories of Mao’s disastrous policies, which in the years following the Communist revolution in 1949 brought economic disaster, starvation and mass death. But my generation, which came of age after the Great Famine and at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, missed the worst of the misery. And in typical Chinese fashion, my elders preferred not to talk about the bad days.
My childhood came at a unique moment for China. We were still living traditional village lives, having left the horrors of Mao behind, but not yet in the thick of the capitalist frenzy. Families were strong, crime was unheard of and the landscape was pristine. We didn’t mind being poor — in my third and fourth years at primary school in the early-’70s, the whole school did not have textbooks — because we didn’t know what we were missing. We lived in peaceful, tight-knit communities.
But China’s traditional social fabric has become shredded — and the disintegration is most obvious in the countryside, where families are falling apart, crime is soaring and the environment is killing people. Many villagers who were happy to have the state retreat from their private lives in recent decades are now crying for government intervention. Something has to be done to rebuild China’s languishing village life.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the communes were split up into family farms, prompting a surge of productivity and more freedom for rural residents. Peasants suddenly had the power to decide what crops to grow, how to grow them and how to sell their harvests and other products. Many farmers decided to leave the land to work in factories in the boomtowns along the southeast coast, bringing home money as well as fresh knowledge from the outside world. Many brought back much-needed skills to build their own businesses. This golden era was celebrated as the triumph of Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberation.
The period of renaissance in the countryside ended in the mid-to-late 1990s. Reckless growth of bank credit powered by the central bank’s printing press caused years of double-digit inflation that quickly eroded the incomes in the countryside and helped widen gaps between rural villages and the cities. Average monthly wages in the cities surged from a few hundred yuan two decades ago to about 4,000 yuan ($650) today, while incomes in the countryside lagged far behind.
More important, following the government’s privatization of state housing, urban housing prices grew exponentially, five-to-six-fold in many cases, while the value of rural homes rose little by comparison. Too many rural residents have missed out on China’s property boom, contributing to the wealth gap between the cities and the countryside.
Local governments have done little to help. As more and more farmers flocked to factories in coastal cities, layers of local government were neglected and decayed. Factories eventually emerged in towns near rural villages, sucking the lakes dry and poisoning the rivers and the air. Experts estimate China has more than 450 cancer villages, towns where cancer cases cluster at much higher than average rates. Villagers have paid a steep price. Some residents of my village have died of unknown ills in their 40s and 50s.
The state of my family’s home village of Jingmen, Hubei Province, is common across China. Its roads are no longer usable as they have not been maintained for over a decade. The community buildings have been torn down; the last time I was there I only saw dust and broken tiles all around.
Rural families are suffering. The suicide rate in the countryside is three times as high as in the cities, according to reports from 2011. My uncle, who had been living in a makeshift shack after his grown children kicked him out of their house, hanged himself four years ago, never having recovered from the death of his wife two years earlier.
It is common for both parents to leave their small children at home in the village while they go to work in factories elsewhere. Some 60 million children suffer this fate; most are left in the care of their grandparents, but more than 3 percent — millions of children — are left to live on their own. Children who stay behind often have to cope with loneliness (not many have siblings) and helplessness. Some reports say that sexual abuse of left-behind children is on the rise.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of rural children are dropping out of school. One study suggests there are at least 20 million school dropouts in rural areas, or 1 in 10 young villagers. The primary school that I attended in the 1970s was dismembered a decade ago, due to dwindling numbers of students. As a result, young kids in the village have to travel along more than five miles of mud roads each day to go to school.
In many cases, men go to jobs in the cities while their wives stay behind with the children in the village. They get to see each other only a few days a year. Distance, emotional stress and financial frustration tear families apart.
According to the journal Learning Weekly, China’s rural divorce rate surged fourfold between 1979 and 2009. Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore-based newspaper, and numerous government publications have reported that many parts of rural China have become anarchic, with rising crime rates and election fraud.
Beijing’s effort to decentralize the country’s governance over the past few decades has played a major role in this social decay. The elections of village heads are often rigged and corruption is rampant. The retreat of the state has left a dangerous power vacuum, and many villagers have been left to fend for themselves. There is a lot of talk of mafia-like groups wielding power behind the scenes.
Crime, rare in the Communist era, is increasing. Statistics are hard to come by — even the police do not publish them. In the countryside, only the most extreme crimes get reported, but even some horrific cases are ignored. Several years ago, my cousin was almost beaten to death by a fellow villager and his relatives in a conflict over an extramarital affair. My sister reported the brutality to the police but they never followed up.
In the old days, officials at the village and townships had the mandate and resources to mediate disputes, including domestic violence. The police would patrol even the most remote villages. Today the police seem to stay in cities, and village heads don’t have the resources to intervene in social issues. The abolition of an “agriculture tax” about a decade ago has added to the budget constraints of local governments.
While the government is still obsessed with economic growth rates, the country’s inequality and a damaged environment — especially in the villages — are much bigger challenges. Whatever libertarians say about the undesirable consequences of the state, many rural Chinese, particularly the poor like my relatives and fellow villagers, want more government intervention. Farmers are forming petition groups in various places, demanding the government intervene in land disputes, pollution and election fraud.
The misery in the Chinese countryside is severe but fixable. The government and the public must come out from the shadows and prioritize the rebuilding of village life. The state has the financial resources and expertise to do something. It just needs the will.
Joe Zhang, a former manager at the People’s Bank of China, is the author of Party Man, Company Man: Is China’s State Capitalism Doomed?