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Plight of Chinese farmer

The Straits Times, 5 September 2000

A letter to Cabinet says he has to pay a variety of fees while his produce is sold at prices lower than that guaranteed by the government

HONGKONG -- Last week, 20,000 farmers in Jiangxi province clashed with police to protest against unreasonable levies.

While news reports tend to focus on the violence, little has been known about the plight of the farmers.

A letter by Mr Li Changping, party secretary of Qipan township in central Hubei province, afforded a glimpse into the average farmer's life.

In the letter published in Nanfang Weekly on Aug 24, Mr Li described to the State Council, China's Cabinet, the heavy burdens shouldered by farmers in Qipan -- a township with a population of 40,000.

In addition to the basic 200 yuan (S$41) per hectare land fee which every farmer must pay, each household pays a variety of fees for family members that can amount to several thousand yuan a year -- an astronomical sum for farmers whose annual net income might not exceed 1,000 yuan a year.

The party secretary said the result was that 80 per cent of the farmers were in debt, reported the South China Morning Post.

But from the local government's viewpoint, the fees they charged represented crucial income because they, too, were in deep financial trouble.

According to Mr Li, 90 per cent of the administrative units under his government spent more than they collected. They together faced a deficit of no less than four million yuan each year and had already borrowed eight million yuan.

At the village level, the financial distress was as serious. Debts grew at a pace of 100,000 yuan to 150,000 yuan each year.

Why the heavy borrowing? According to Mr Li, the township government in Qipan needs to raise 10 million yuan a year just to pay for wages, interest on its debts and the daily running of the place.

And this did not include any budget for building new bridges or installing new electricity cables.

A bloated bureaucracy is partly to blame.

Some of the government's so-called relief measures were beyond the reach of most villages because the annual interest on loans was 18 per cent.

Even though the central government has vowed to pay them above market prices, farmers have difficulties selling their crops to the authorities.

Mr Li revealed that procurement agents rarely paid farmers the full prices guaranteed by the government and often charged them storage fees in buying harvests.

Most serious of all was that despite complaints by farmers, local officials rarely admitted in their reports to superiors that anything was amiss.