Browning-Day Interview (7-06-2013)
Q: For some, the word "peasant" might seem archaic or even pejorative. It conjures images of the Middle Ages in the West. Also, some people might think it is strange for China, which has grown so much economically in recent years, to have a group or class of people labeled as peasants. What do you think of this term? Is it a problem of translation?
A: There is a problem of translation. But it is also more than that. Some China scholars, namely Myron Cohen and Charles Hayford, have criticized the use of the term “peasant” as pejorative. And certainly in China the term “nongmin” is often used as an insult. They, instead, substitute the term “farmer.” I don’t think that “farmer” is any less political, however, nor does it have fewer problematic connotations. Furthermore, not all people called “peasants” in China farm or primarily make their living from farming—the meaning of “peasant” goes beyond farming. Other terms, such as “rural residents,” are awkward. But more importantly, I don’t follow Cohen and Hayford because I don’t agree with their general narrative, or don’t think it goes deep enough. They basically argue that the term is pejoratively used by intellectuals to construct a hierarchical relationship, and that this form of discrimination is largely responsible for the inferior position of peasants/farmers within Chinese society. While intellectuals, especially for example during the May Fourth period, certainly do construct such a hierarchy, I don’t think that is the main process that places peasants in an inferior position. I think it detracts from a more important political-economic or structural relationship that places the countryside in an inferior position, both within developmentalist socialism and capitalism; although, clearly there were very important differences between the two periods. Of course intellectuals are reacting against the particular politicization of the term “peasant” during the Maoist period—and the degradation of the position of the intellectual—and for scholars in the West, against the politicization of “peasant studies” from the 1960s into the 1970s. Focusing on the term “peasants” as a form of intellectual discrimination flattens the history of the changing position of peasants within the political and economic structure of China during the twentieth century. Instead we should look at the peasant narratives of Chinese intellectuals as being bound up with the changing structure of the Chinese political-economy. In China, both liberal intellectuals and those who view themselves as more pro-peasant, with a focus on economic inequality, use the term nongmin. A few, such as the liberal historian Qin Hui, attempt to make the distinction between peasant and farmer as social statuses that don’t even map onto the rural sphere clearly, but to do so Qin has to make use of English language categories. Nonetheless, neither the narratives of liberals nor those of intellectuals leaning to the left are really understandable unless we go beyond the question of the tendencies of intellectuals and others within society to discriminate against peasants.
Q: Although it might be a broad question, how has the peasant's status in China changed over the years since 1978?
A: Clearly with the end of the revolutionary period in the 1970s—a period of politicization of the peasant that began in the last decade of the Qing, beginning with Liu Shipei’s writing on peasant revolution, and continued down to the 1970s—the political position of the peasant within society falls. Throughout the 20th century, however, there has always been a dual image of the peasant. On the one side, peasants were conservative and backwards, often responsible for China’s troubles. On the other side, peasants were revolutionary, had the power to transform China, and were central to an effective politics. How these two images of the peasant were brought together in political narratives always related to the changing political economy of the time, and helped shape the contemporary political position of the peasant. In the early 1980s, this dual image was reversed from the revolutionary period—although even during that time the image of the peasant was always contested—transformed to make the landowning peasant progressive and a peasantry that held land in common conservative. Thus in the 1980s the image of the peasant was bifurcated between a conservative peasantry that was dependent on the state and its potential self liberation through the household responsibility system, which returned the productive control of the land to the peasant family. This bifurcated image of the peasant played a big role in 1980s’ propaganda for the reform movement, and it became the basis for the liberal understanding of the peasant that followed in the 1990s and on to the present. In the 1990s, however, growing inequality and a crisis in the countryside helped to generate a left-leaning critique of this liberal narrative of the peasant. This new left politics has led to a new pro-peasant political activism, the most well organized component of which is known as New Rural Reconstruction, and a new movement for building peasant cooperatives. These politics of the late 1990s also helped shape new government policies that aimed, in part, at aiding the peasantry.
Q: What has the government done, if anything, to improve peasants' lives? Do you see the recent investment in central and western parts of the country as any help?
A: Some of this investment has helped peasants for sure. The rural crisis of the late 1990s, which brought stagnation and even decline in peasant incomes, was brought to an end. Government policies played a role in that. A major shift came beginning around 2003. There is more central-state investment in education and rural healthcare. There are state subsidies for grain production. And, famously, the agricultural tax has been eliminated. It is questionable, however, whether central state transfer payments will really make up the loss of local state revenues. And, if not, will local states simply continue to extract various fees from peasants. This could hurt poorer areas more than wealthy ones. It seems, for example, that much of the money for projects such as the “New Socialist Countryside” end up in more well off areas, as villages and townships need to put in some of their own money to get the central state funding for those projects. Counties, which control much of that funding, also seem to gain power in the process. In richer areas closer to cities, local governments are still extracting rural surplus by requisitioning and selling farm land. While much of the rural protest of the 1990s concerned taxation, more now concerns control of land. Furthermore, the state has been trying to find ways to allow capital to invest more in agricultural enterprises. Peasant resistance to land privatization has slowed this to a certain extent. And the state and capital have developed other methods of rural extraction, such as the use of specialized coops and dragon-head enterprises to vertically integrate peasant production into the capitalist market. To what extent this will lead to class differentiation among the peasantry is an open question.
Q: I know in your past work, and especially in your book, you have spent a lot of time examining how intellectuals have interpreted, discussed and debated the role of the peasant in the development of China. In general, how do these break down?
A: Well in my book, The Peasant in Postsocialist China: History, Politics, and Capitalism, I focus a lot on the 1990s split in the liberal consensus, which emerged in intellectual circles in the 1980s, between liberals and the new left. I argue that the position of the peasant within Chinese history and politics plays a big role in the differentiation of political stances of Chinese intellectuals in the 1990s. The liberal political narrative viewed the peasant as in need of liberation from dependency on the state to become independent citizens or citizen farmers, often romanticizing the American citizen farmer. This primarily depended on peasants gaining private property rights over their land. The market would liberate the peasantry, in other words. Increasing inequality within Chinese society, however, led some intellectuals, who came to be known as the new left, to critique the idea that the solution to Chinese problems lay in expanding and deepening the force of the capitalist market in Chinese society. That new politics was not Marxist so much as Polanyian. Focusing on the countryside, many of these new left—or critical—intellectuals saw in the countryside in the early to mid 1990s a possibility of a different path for China than that of the capitalist West. They tended to stress economic democracy and institutional creativity against the liberal call for private property rights. Many of these left-leaning intellectuals tended to be critical of 1980s intellectuals and liberals for focusing so heavily on American institutions and Western social science models, and, in a move I find quite interesting, began to look again at the work and activities of people in the global south or third world.
Q: What solutions or programs have intellectuals proposed or instituted to help ease the peasantry's situation? What sort of things are being done? Do you see any hope?
A: Well as I mentioned above, liberals view the development of rights consciousness, legal private property rights to the land, and the extension of the market as solutions to rural problems, as the state is seen as the biggest roadblock to rural development. Those on the left instead see the dominance of the market as a negative force, and instead look to cooperative social relations, whether as economic cooperatives or simply other forms of social cooperation, as a way of mediating the relationship between the market and the rural sphere. In a sense, those on the left attempt to give some autonomy to the rural sphere, whereas liberals look for further integration. For those on the left, the social and cultural atomization of the peasantry under the force of the market must be overcome through an active creation of cooperative relationships—old peoples’ associations, village dance troupes, economic cooperatives, etc.. Liberals look to the market and political democracy as the sphere in which peasants can come together beyond the control of the state.
Q: What do you think of the current intellectual environment in China, especially in the wake last years Bo Xilai scandal, and how it might relate to the status of the peasant?
A: I haven’t been to China in a couple of years, and I hope to get back there later this year. But I think the focus on the peasant as waned somewhat clearly. And there is a fear that some of the space for social experimentation has been narrowed more recently. Added to that, the left in China seems to be becoming more and more nationalist, with the narrative of a big market attacking and exploiting a weak rural sphere being linked metaphorically to Western capital attacking and exploiting China. Defending the rural sphere is thus a nationalist project. I think that narrative obscures how capitalism operates in China and globally.
Q: On a completely different note, I want to ask you to name a book about China that has influenced you or your work?
A: One book! I refuse. The work of Arif Dirlik has been very influential on me and on my book project. I highly recommend his After the Revolution: Waking to Global Capitalism (1994) and Global Modernity in the Age of Global Capitalism (2007), which helped me enormously to think about the broader context of the changes going on in China and the world as well as the politics of conceptualizing those changes. My adviser Gail Hershatter’s The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past (2011) is a great book on the rural sphere and part of an interesting trend of China historians writing about the post-1949 period and specifically on the 1950s. The most influential book on me from my undergrad years was William Hinton’s Fanshen—no other book made the possibilities of revolution as clear to me.