Wu Chuntao & Chen Guidi

Authors, China's Peasants: An Investigation

The world only sees one side of China these days -- the affluent side. If it's not the swanky skyscrapers of Shanghai, then it's the boulevards of Beijing clogged with Mercedes-Benz and BMW sedans or the gleaming TVs and refrigerators exported by the factories of Shenzhen. Indeed, for many a foreign visitor -- or even China's city dwellers -- it's easy to forget that 900 million Chinese live under often harsh conditions in rural areas or toil away inside those same export factories.

Now two dedicated authors are determined to expose that truth. Working in the largely agricultural eastern province of Anhui, Chen Guidi, 61, and his wife, Wu Chuntao, 41, have written China's Peasants: An Investigation. Published in January, the 460-page volume reveals in unsparing detail the daily lives of struggling Chinese country dwellers. With incomes less than one- third the city average of $1,000 a year, rural Chinese are forced to endure corrupt officials and onerous taxes that make it impossible for them to make a living in agriculture. They also face an expensive health-care system and often can't afford to educate their children.

Chen and Wu are no strangers to China's harsh realities. Born to farm families, they escaped the countryside by becoming successful writers in Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui. But on research trips, they were shocked at how far rural China had fallen behind the cities. In 2000, two events motivated the couple to act: Their son was born, and a whistle-blowing local official wrote an open letter to then-premier Zhu Rongji about high rural taxes. "We wanted our book to be one that would reveal the true conditions of China's countryside," recalls Chen. So during the next three years, the couple invested their savings of $7,000 and began traveling across Anhui -- sometimes on the run from angry officials determined to hide the crushing poverty under their jurisdiction.

By late February, one-and-a-half months after China's Peasants was released, it had sold 150,000 copies and spawned copycat books and articles. Initially, Beijing lauded the authors for their effort. Then the central government abruptly changed its view. The result: China's Peasants was banned in late February. Even so, some 7 million copies have been sold -- some online, others in bookshops, and some by vendors in pedestrian underpasses.

Now, Chen and Wu are working on their next exposé of conditions in the provinces across China. Will they profit from it? "We don't care," declares Chen. "We want to let city dwellers know the true situation of China's rural population." This star couple aims to keep writing.

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