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Chinese official's book exposes rural woes

Written by: Staff
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Beijing, Mar 27: China's rural bureaucrats have often been cast as corrupt and uncaring villains as discontent flared across the countryside, but a rare new expose by a local official offers a harshly candid defence of their ways.

Gu Wenfeng has written ''Extraordinary Confessions'', a memoir of his years as a rural township official and Communist Party boss in the central province of Henan, home to about 78 million often poor and restive farmers.

Chinese protesters often blame local officials for their woes and pin their hopes on national leaders, who have encouraged the impression that problems are the fault of underlings.

Premier Wen Jiabao said in mid-March that some local governments were behind rising rural unrest, violating laws and regulations and harming the public's interests in land requisition, housing demolitions and business restructuring.

But in his book, Gu describes with rare candour the pressures on rural officials caught between protesters and superiors more anxious to stifle embarrassing dissent than address grievances.

Above all, local officials must keep discontented farmers from reaching the capital, Beijing, where their complaints may stain their bosses' records and prospects -- even if stopping them means flouting the law, Gu writes.

''Obviously, keeping petitioners under iron-clad guard and inducing them to return were restrictions on their right to petition, which was in violation of state regulations. But at the grassroots we had no choice,'' Gu writes.

Gu's book is the latest of several controversial exposes of rural problems, including ''China Rural Investigation'', which was banned shortly after it appeared in 2004.

In his book, Gu describes a series of frantic chases to block protesters at railway and bus stations, mobilising dozens of officials whose pay may be docked if petitioners slip through.

PRESSURES

While Gu did not deny corruption and incompetence were part of rural China's woes, he said by telephone that the often contradictory pressures on local officials often made it difficult for them to effectively serve the public.

''Township officials have enormous responsibilities, but we often don't have the resources or legal powers to carry them out, and that's a key source of difficulties,'' Gu told Reuters.

Gu was an official in the provincial government before being seconded to rural posts as part of training over the past decade.

He said he had disguised the real names of people and places in his account, but most of it was based on his experiences in Hebi, a region of Henan about 520 km (320 miles) southwest of Beijing. Gu said that, before he worked in gritty rural China, he also believed corrupt or incompetent local officials were the root cause of the countryside's problems. Not now.

''Now there's a saying popular among local officials that superiors have thousands of threads but at the grassroots we have just one needle -- generally, people don't understand the difficulties we face.'' As well as demanding superiors, local officials face citizens who are increasingly aware of legal rights, and willing to relentlessly pursue their claims even when the law does not favour them, writes Gu. Officials have resorted to constant compromise and even cash payoffs to ease protests, he adds.

''Chairman Mao's words were right: the biggest problem of all is educating the farmers,'' he said by telephone. ''Farmers' awareness of their rights has risen, and that's a good thing, but they also treat officials as all-powerful and we're not.'' The contrary demands placed on local rural officials have encouraged corruption and abuses, said He Xuefeng, an expert on rural government at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in central China's Hubei province.

''Their image is very poor these days, but it's not a problem of character; it's a systemic problem,'' He told Reuters.

''The decline of government organisational capacity in the countryside means they're often out of touch with farmers, but also overloaded with targets and tasks from above,'' he said of officials.

Gu said he was heartened by Chinese leaders' promises to build a ''new socialist countryside'' that will raise farmers' incomes and improve schooling and health care. But so far the abolition of agricultural taxes -- welcomed by farmers -- has left local coffers even more straitened, he said.

''Now financial problems are widespread. Before we could take money from farmers, but with the abolition of agricultural taxes we don't have revenue to cover needs,'' said Gu, who will return to the provincial government after his stint as a rural official.

The rising legal awareness of China's farmers would continue testing officials' patience, he said.

''In the past, under a planned economy you could order farmers what to do. Not anymore. But local officials haven't kept up.''

REUTERS

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