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It Is High Time to Advocate "The Theory of Farmers' Rights"


Zhao Shukai, Development Research Center of the State Council

The Central Conference on Rural Work 2013 put forward the important formulation of "respecting initiatives of farmers and grassroots units". In the public eyes farmers are politically conservative. Such assumption is conclusive in classical theories. In China, since 1950s the theoretical assumption that farmers are conservative has been a political presumption and intrinsic basis for the government to formulate national policies. Thus, when policy measures were confronted by farmers' non-cooperation or resistance, farmers would be criticized or censured by government-led mass media and would be coerced to accept instruction in actual work. Such censure and coercion have long been a major attitude in dealing with the relation between farmers and the government.

However, as we can see, challenges posed by the actual process of reform have almost overturned such traditional theoretical assumption. At least, farmers are not described in general as conservative or backward. Given the great changes in China since the outset of reform and viewing from the economic perspective, the household contract responsibility system is initiated by farmers; viewing from the political perspective, direct election in villages is launched by farmers; and viewing from the social perspective, farmers' appeals are strong and forceful and a new coordination mechanism of interests is developing amidst farmers' contending endeavour. Farmers' arduous efforts and outstanding performances with respect to challenging old systems, solving new problems, and establishing new mechanisms have been displayed in various aspects in present China. Farmers have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate tremendous potential to create history and propel China's reform. Hence, farmers are no longer passive forces during social changes but dynamic forces that make a difference.

At present, China's policy making and academic research need to adjust basic approaches toward observing farmers, rather than holding either advanced or backward views toward farmers as well as other social groups. Rights, including economic, social, and political rights, may be a more desirable perspective to view the picture. In other words, it does not matter whether farmers are advanced or backward; what matters is whether farmers should enjoy such rights. The fundamental problem with respect to farmers' claim for land, participation in public affairs, and equal sharing of government services and social welfare is whether farmers should enjoy such rights. In fact, no advanced or backward judgment should be involved. In recent years, China's farmers have claimed their own rights and become an effective force to challenge established systems and mechanisms, or rather a driving force for reform. This should be an important angle to observe and ponder over issues relating to farmers. In this respect, traditional theory on farmers' conservativeness calls for theoretical review and criticism. In a sense, China's reform is farmer-based reform and farmers in China are experiencing and performing reform.

During the actual course of reform, farmers' internal relations with China's reform are mainly reflected in the following aspects: farmers' relation with high-level politics, with primary-level governments, with village self-governance, with village construction, and with social stability. In other words, in the current stage of China's modernization, the government should properly handle its relation with farmers, make solid efforts in this respect and conduct penetrating and powerful institutional innovation. Research on relation between farmers and the government should not simply focus on conclusions or views but on full presentation and free discussion of relevant questions. For quite some time, many people thought that some great theories or great minds would basically solve major issues regarding the future development of China and even mankind. However, things are not that simple. The process of development and reform over decades of years has indicated that many so-called witty thoughts and wise people are not reliable. Though their historical contributions must be respected, the idea that a certain theoretical framework could solve the essential problems in social development is just too naïve. In nature, to enshrine certain leaders, ideas, or theories is to fool the public. Addressing existing problems to realize promising future development rely fundamentally on the people's own wisdom and choices, and more free exploration, and more creation, which are conducive to effectively instigating questions facing reform and development, rather than on self-claimed clever individuals or theories. Only by letting thought breaking through the cage and breaking up monopoly of ideas or theories can we effectively get solutions to the problems arising from reform and development. Such exploration should not be a privilege but a right of all to participate in pilot practice, think independently, and express opinions freely.

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