Grass People of China

There is no secret that in today’s Chinese bureaucracy, corruption is the rule, not the exception. When a senior official falls from grace, he is transformed from a tiger into a roach overnight. The vast majority of victims who suffered at the hands of corruption, the “grass people” in China, cannot effect change. The corrupt officials can only be taken down by the powerful hands at the higher places.

A famous Tang poem, Grass, symbolizes the commoners throughout Chinese history:

Far far across the plain, spreads the grass

One year to another, it withers and returns

Never extinguished, by the prairie fires,

With spring wind, it leaps back to life


China has its unique challenges as the country with 1.35 billion people, roughly 20 percent of the world’s population. Of this great mass of humanity, more than 99 percent people have no political power, their voting rights a mere sham, for they can only vote for the preselected candidates. They are essentially the subjects to be ruled. Many writers and intellectuals have been so demasculinized and even bought off they are widely regarded as eunuchs, merely a channel of propaganda for the Communist Party.

The “grass people” are not all economically disadvantaged people. An increasing number of them are middle-class and have good jobs, and their living standards have risen significantly in recent years. They have much to be grateful for, compared to their parents’ generation. Among them are successful entrepreneurs, real estate moguls, doctors, teachers, entertainers, with more opportunities than ever. Yet, they are still grass people without voting power or representation in the court.

For example, when an ordinary family’s house is in the way of project development with government backing, they are forced to move with little compensation. It is not a matter of choice, and any resistance will be swiftly vanquished. 

The grass is not always greener on the other side, so to speak. I have three high school friends, the talented men who became officials. They all went to prison on the corruption charges. We had studied together for six years, from age twelve to eighteen, in a class of twenty-three students at the most prestigious public school in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province. I couldn’t imagine how the once innocent boys, who had been like my brothers, became white-collar criminals.

Mr. Z, my former classmate, confided in me. “It is a difficult life, when you have to deal with briberies.” If you refuse the money, you fail to cultivate work relationships and cannot operate on your own. You’ll lose your job anyway. If you take the money, and somehow you cannot make everyone happy, in Chinese terms, “Keeping the perfect balance like holding up a bowl of water,” sooner or later you’d be denounced and sent to jail.

It is a dangerous profession. Many Chinese officials have sent their wives, children, and savings, overseas for safekeeping, while they weather the storms at home. They become so-called “naked officials.”

Grass people of all social and economic classes share a certain equality and egalitarianism. They have a collective voice, one that is neglected but never silent. They are in good company. They live like the prairie grass, with freedom, grace, and short splendor, and take root in the beautiful, irresistible, and fertile land abound with opportunities spilled over from the powerful few.

In the spring of 1989, the university students in China took a historical opportunity to rally the mass and demand for democratic reforms. The world heard their voices, before the movement was crushed on the dawn of June 4th. China moved on, buried the inconvenient past (thanks to its censorship and propaganda machines), and braced itself for astounding economic growth, coupled with system-wide corruption and unprecedented pollution that is affecting the whole world.

As a witness and participant, I experienced the hope, joy, and heartbreak of the 1989 student movement. For many years I couldn’t hear of any criticism for the students’ “foolhardy” optimism. Where was hope, if grass people couldn’t even dream of changing a society doomed to corruption, nepotism, and injustice? Should we all close our eyes and make money like robots?

While I was writing my novel Living Treasures, I learned about Chen Guangchen, a civil rights activist who worked on human rights issues in rural China. Blind from an early age and self-taught in the law, Chen is a “barefoot lawyer” who advocates for women’s rights, land rights, and the welfare of the poor. In 2005, Chen organized a landmark class action lawsuit against authorities in Linyi, Shandong province, for the excessive enforcement of the one-child policy.

He would be a role model to my heroine, Gu Bao. In my novel, Bao is more mature and confident than the average students in the 1989 democracy movement. With her brave action she offers a constructive critique: the student movement that began in Tiananmen Square shouldn’t have ended it there. People could take it further by doing grassroots work and helping the downtrodden peasants. To make a real change, even a small one, you cannot expect it to be passed down from the government, but rather, it needs to start with you and your actions. The victory isn’t measured by the talks in Tiananmen Square but in every action you do, every person you help, and every sacrifice you make for the common good.

Chen Guangchen believes that even small actions undertaken in defense of human rights can have a large impact, because “Every person has infinite strength. Every action has an important impact. We must believe in the value of our own actions.”

In the end, grass people are like the turtle in the race. You can come out ahead when timing is right and you are persistent and never give up. Political purges may remove the once powerful enemies but will never eradicate many corrupt officials in China. You can strive to live with dignity and honor in an unjust society. Some may choose to emigrate to a foreign country and become grass people in their host country. After all, the “grass people” is always present even in the most advanced democracy.

“People are like grass;

their beauty is like a flower in the field.

The grass withers and the flower fades.

But the word of the Lord remains forever.”

1 Peter 1:24