Violent local protests like this are convulsing the Chinese countryside with ever more frequencyand Beijing has so far proved unable to quell the unrest. By the central government's own count, there were 87,000 "public-order disturbances" in 2005, up from 10,000 in 1994. Most took place in out-of-the-way hamlets like Panlong, where peasants who were once the backbone of Communist Party support feel excluded from China's full-throttle economic development. The nation's 900 million farmers, who have few ways of controlling their fates legally or politically, have borne a disproportionate brunt of the side effects of China's glorious growth: environmental degradation that has left hundreds of millions without clean air and water; farmland converted into factories often without proper compensation to those who used to till the fields; and a hands-off approach by Beijing that has left each county free to pursue its own get-rich-quick schemes, sometimes resulting in officials lining their own pockets first. As a result, income disparity between the urban rich and the rural poor is at its widest since the People's Republic was founded in 1949. "What China has now is the worst of a planned economy and the worst of capitalism," says Christine Wong, a University of Washington professor who studies local governance in China. "The farmers are the ones who are losing out the most."
The pitchfork anger of peasants might not matter so much if revolution in China didn't have a history of springing from rural discontent. The Communist Party itself staked its legitimacy six decades ago on protecting the rights of farmers who joined its fight to overthrow the landlord class. Certainly, the current crop of communist leaders recognizes the danger of rural unrest sparking political mayhem, especially when cellphones and the Internet can connect citizens with the click of a button. This week's annual meeting of China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), will focus on how to fulfill President Hu Jintao's call to "build a harmonious society," in which no-holds-barred economic growth would be replaced with a more socially responsible form of development. Among other moves, the NPC is expected to authorize increased spending on education, health care and rural infrastructure. Hu underscored Beijing's concern in a landmark speech last month that linked the country's stability to building what he dubbed a "new socialist countryside." Before unveiling a plan for billions of dollars in central government aid for farmers, the President said: "If farmers are rich, then the country will be prosperous. If villages are stable, then the society will also be stable." The unstated subtext of Hu's speech was clear: Beijing fears it is losing control of its provincesand this had better stop.
De Gaulle may have complained about ruling a nation with 246 types of cheese, but China has nine provinces each with populations larger than that of modern-day Franceand many more that are far more fractious. A country that may appear to the rest of the world as monolithic has, through decades of Beijing-sanctioned decentralization, morphed into an unruly hodgepodge of provinces, autonomous regions, special administrative zones and mega-municipalities, all with their own entrenched bureaucracies and divergent goals. In a recent interview with the state-run China Youth Daily, even former Vice Education Minister Zhang Baoqing grumbled: "China's biggest problem is obstruction of government decrees. Things formulated in Zhongnanhai [the Beijing leadership compound] sometimes don't even make it out of Zhongnanhai. When we tried to solve the problem of loans for poor students, the lower levels didn't listen at all. If even this kind of policy can't be implemented, what more is there to say?" An extensive report on China released last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development struck a warning bell: "Unless coherent institutions and frameworks for [the central] government to transmit its decisions and policies to ... local municipalities are enhanced, China will find it hard to harness its strong growth of recent years and move to the next stage of development."
Beijing's tenuous grasp on its provinces is as much a function of history as of deliberate planning. When Deng Xiaoping unleashed the country's economic reforms in 1979, he loosened the Communist Party's control and allowed local governments to pursue their own economic models. The competition, he believed, would breed high growth ratesand he was right. But there were unintended consequences. Today, China is one of the only countries that puts the responsibility for funding health care, social security and education in local governments' hands. But many cash-strapped local officials have chronically underfunded such long-to-germinate human investment and focused instead on short-term, revenue-generating schemes. The situation is particularly critical in the countryside, where China's Ministry of Health admits that only 20% of the country's medical benefits go, even though nearly 70% of Chinese live in rural areas. Meanwhile, a much-vaunted central government initiative to provide each child with nine years of free education by 2000 quietly passed its deadline without success. Last month, the Education Ministry called for local governments to invest $12 billion in education over the next five years. But no details were provided on where the provinces would get the cash. In 2004, 305 counties spent no public money at all on either primary or secondary school funding, according to the Education Ministry.
The financial burden on farmers who don't have enough income to pay for basic services can be crushing. A Ministry of Health study found that 22% of indigent Chinese blamed illness or injury for driving them into poverty. Yet the central government, with its various overstaffed and squabbling ministries, has little ability to monitor how the provinceswith their own overstaffed and squabbling bureaucraciesspend their money on social services. Although well-meaning initiatives are regularly pumped out from Beijing, most are unfunded mandates from afar that are destined to be ignored. Others pass on a large part of the responsibility to localities, like a recent Beijing-designed health-care program that allows each county to design its own system, effectively creating 2,800 different health-care initiatives across the nation. "We talk to the central government, and it's clear they want to reverse these huge inequalities," says the University of Washington's Wong, who also works for the World Bank as a consultant on China. "But fixing the problem is like pushing a piece of string through five levels of government. I think many people in Beijing have come to the conclusion that they don't know how to fix this problem."