At a moment when all eyes are turned towards Beijing for the Olympic ceremony, the fascination the Middle Kingdom has on imaginations must not hide the reality of daily lives that have been deeply disrupted since the reforms of the 80s. The dazzling economic development as well as the restructures carried out by a monolithic state have marginalized a part of the population and widened the gap of inequalities: workers and small employees are poorer while the peasants have been uprooted, and exploited and lost in cities prone to sprawling development.
A decade being attentive to China
For nearly ten years now Bertrand Meunier, a member of the Tendance Floue collective group and winner of numerous prizes (among them the international prize of the media in 2005 and the Niépce prize in 2007), has been interested by these social changes. And over that period he has returned to China regularly to witness, and show through images, the damage caused by the country's economic development, damage the central government succeeds more or less to hide. In a first phase he explored the workers' world and the post-Mao industrial areas; then he contributed, with journalist Pierre Haski, to unveil the scandal of contaminated blood in China. With Paysans ordinaires(Ordinary peasants), and supported by the musée Nicéphore Niépce, he questions the consequences of China's admission to the WTO for the rural and peasant worlds.
800 million losers
The future of the peasant world is at the heart of the Chinese issue. It represents nearly 800 million souls. And while they were at the origin of Mao's ascension to power, the peasants are the great losers of the reforms carried out by Deng Xiaoping to open the People's Republic of China to «modernization», that is, to capitalism. As they abandoned the land that could no longer feed them and migrated towards the wealthy cities to the East of the country (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc) with the aim of lessening their daily suffering, the peasants came to massively swell up the numbers of under-paid man labor. Their disillusion is total; their situation is yet more afflicting. But they are increasingly listened to, as they grow fed up -if not by food- with being rejected by the urban world. This population can now threaten the country's stability: indeed, 10 to 12 million peasants leave the countryside each year.
The dark destiny of the «Mingong»
Bertrand Meunier has covered the rural provinces of Sichuan to the West («China's grain reserve»), the provinces on the coast to the South of Beijing, from where the greatest number of migrants who go to Beijing are from, the Guandong to the South, as well as Henan and Shanxi, the very poor regions in the North and East of China. He went out to meet the peasants and encountered ordinary and warm persons. His report confirms the disappearance of traditional peasantry, men and women who have all been constrained at one moment or another to rent their arms to industry or construction sites in towns. Bertrand Meunier draws up an unaffected portrait of these «Mingong», this «floating population» of peasants-workers. His photographs demonstrate a daily, hopeless hardship, but they are also full of sensitivity. The explanation is never immediate; the image questions, makes one doubt. It shows a world that is more complex than one thinks. A world one never shows.
Illustration: © Bertrand Meunier - agence Tendance Floue / Musée Nicéphore Niépce
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