China's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) is the most important event in the country's history since the inception of its "open door" economic policy a quarter-century ago. Trade liberalization will benefit consumers, small entrepreneurs, and foreign investors. But for China's peasants, WTO membership appears to pose a direct and immediate threat to the tremendous gains made since Deng Xiaoping's agricultural reforms in the late 1970s.
The fear felt by China's peasants is understandable because it is deeply rooted in China's history and politics. Since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the peasantry has been the country's most under-represented and manipulated social group, bearing the brunt of the Communists' promotion of heavy industry. But WTO membership does not come at the expense of agriculture, for it promises to erode rather than reinforce the peasantry's legacy of discrimination and powerlessness.