[Documents menu] Documents menu

Seeds of Revolt in Rural China: ‘Farmers' Heroes’ give a voice to besieged taxpayers

By John Pomfret, The Washington Post, Tuesday 8 May 2001; Page A01

HEBIAN TOWN, China—Zhao Shulan slid down low in the back seat of a taxi as it cruised past her village in the hills of central Sichuan. If they see me, they will arrest me, said the middle-aged kindergarten teacher.

Zhao has been on the lam for almost three years from authorities in Hebian, who are angered over her role in helping foment a revolt over what local peasants consider outrageous taxes. The village, between Chongqing and the provincial capital of Chengdu in central Sichuan province, is one of thousands where silent battles have been raging for the past decade between farmers and local government officials squeezing hard for more tax revenue.

For years, farmers could make do because economic reforms helped them earn princely sums selling vegetables in private markets or working in factories on the booming coast. Now, however, with an economic slowdown, rural incomes have gone flat. And in some parts, China's tax battles have reached the boiling point.

In recent months, a number of riots have erupted in the heartland of rice-and wheat-growing villages: twice in Jiangxi province, and several times in Hunan and Sichuan. Security forces killed two farmers and wounded 20 others during a clash April 15 in the Jiangxi village of Yuntang, China's State Council press office said.

The state-run press has coined a new term, farmers' heroes, for those leading the tax revolts. The growth in their numbers over recent years, said one monthly publication, was caused by the failure of local Communist Party officials to respond to farmers' needs.

Here in Hebian, a collection of villages scattered among rolling hills, rice fields and duck farms, Zhao and Wu Tianxiang, a former model laborer but now a fellow fugitive, have led local peasants in a five-year battle for tax relief, sometimes against government lawyers in court and sometimes against paramilitary toughs in the village square.

Don't worry, said Wu, a government-appointed legislator who sat in the front seat as Zhao cowered in the back, we'll protect you. A few weeks later, Wu was hauled in by the authorities, accused of belonging to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. He was released after police threatened to beat him if he continued his struggle, associates said.

Both activists have been forced to flee their villages because their lives have been threatened. They and other farmers' heroes have holed up in Chengdu, 150 miles northwest of here, where they meet at night in a bowling alley to discuss strategy. The night watchman there, a fugitive from another village tax revolt, helps them with their case.

These tax issues are not just isolated problems, said Tan Suyong, the night watchman. This is a problem all over Sichuan, all over China.

Taxes have been the cause of many a revolution, including, of course, the one that led to the founding of the United States. Failure to collect sufficient taxes has caused the downfall of Chinese dynasties, and the country's situation today is little different. China, which dreams of becoming strong enough to challenge U.S. power in Asia, will not get there without enough tax revenue. Nor will it be able to educate and care for its 300 million children under the age of 14 or its growing elderly population, which numbers about 100 million.

Tacitly acknowledging that its tax collection system was impoverishing the countryside, Beijing this year launched a sweeping overhaul, banning its two lowest levels of rural government, villages and townships, from levying such fees as pig and bamboo taxes and other charges often imposed at the whim of a township leader. Under the plan, announced in March during the annual meeting of the legislature, those taxes will now be folded into one charge, which will be collected by counties and will not exceed 5 percent of each household's income. The counties will turn that money over to Beijing, which will then redistribute it to townships and villages.

In announcing the plan, Premier Zhu Rongji pledged more than $2.5 billion to villages and townships to compensate them for budget shortfalls for road repairs, education, welfare and health.

But the plan, seen from this collection of picturesque villages, seems caught up in some of the problems that help define modern China: reluctance to reform the political system, government corruption and the fact that the Communist Party, after inaugurating rural reforms in 1978, has focused more on the educated elite of eastern cities than on farmers.

China's townships owe more than $36.5 billion in loans and other debts, because the central government distributes fewer funds to help them with basic government services, a senior Chinese researcher said. Primary education and health services are in deep decline in the countryside. Zhu's announcement of a $2.5 billion subsidy amounts to a drop in the ocean when compared with what the townships and villages really need, he said.

Farmers' incomes are growing almost three times more slowly than urban incomes, Chinese statistics show. However, taxes on rural communities are growing faster than those in the cities, leading to an increasing gap between the haves in the urban areas and the have-nots on the farm. Programs to ease the rural tax burden are coming up against serious opposition from officials in counties and towns who are already being asked to make do with less revenue.

Beijing also wants to better educate its 700 million farmers about their rights, but it is wary of empowering them with the means to defend themselves in court.

Last July 29, for example, a government-run magazine in Jiangxi published a handbook on rural taxes that included public statements, collected from official newspapers, on how much should be paid, and what was legal and what was not. Farmers flocked to buy it, and within 12 days, the handbook had sold 12,000 copies. But local governments complained that it would cause instability; 10 days after it was published, provincial officials banned it.

In mid-August, 20,000 farmers from five Jiangxi villages rioted against tax burdens, citing the handbook as their inspiration. Police were dispatched province-wide to buy it back, offering several dollars more than the selling price. Gui Xiaoqi, who ran Commentaries for Rural Development, the magazine that published the handbook, was removed from his post.

Trouble has also come to lawyers who support farmers' causes. In 1999, authorities in the northern province of Shaanxi sentenced Ma Wenlin to five years in jail for representing 5,000 farmers fighting both high taxes and government officials who beat the farmers if they did not pay. Despite a petition drive that collected 20,000 signatures for his release, Ma is still in jail.

Zhao's campaign began Dec. 30, 1996, when the local Communist Party secretary came to her house demanding money. She and her husband owed about $40 in back taxes, a large sum in this region, where farmers are lucky if they end the year with a $100 profit. Zhao asked the party secretary how he had spent the other tax money. He told her she did not have the right to know, then dispatched local thugs hired by the police to remove the TV set and other valuables from her house. And a tax revolt was born.

Zhao said she discovered that hundreds of other families in her area were also being squeezed. By the time she and other organizers had finished, 2,164 families had united in China's biggest administrative lawsuit against the government since 1985, when people were first allowed to sue.

According to official statistics, an average farmer in Hebian takes in about $125 a year from his crops. Costs for fertilizer, pesticide, seeds and other incidentals average $81, leaving an income of about $44. Under Chinese law, taxes on farmers should not exceed 5 percent of income, so the average tax in Hebian should be about $2. In reality, however, before the tax revolt began, farmers were paying $36 on average, leaving themselves $8 a year, official statistics showed. And local government officials added other taxes and fees.

In addition, taxes have increased each year because government officials are obligated by Beijing to show an increase in local incomes as proof that reform policies are succeeding, according to Sichuan provincial government officials. Last year, Hebian's authorities reported farmer incomes went up 10 percent, although they actually were stagnant. That means that this year, taxes are going up 10 percent, although there is no more money to pay.

The story of Wuda, one of the villages that make up the town of Hebian, illustrates the point. Recently, more than 100 villagers surrounded a visitor in a bamboo grove next to a duck pond and spent several hours recounting their troubles with local authorities over taxes. One family said they were chased into the hills by police enforcers who then ransacked their house, taking a TV, doors, beds, wardrobes and other pieces of furniture in lieu of payment.

Another man recalled being handcuffed to his bed and beaten by toughs demanding payment. Another said government-backed thugs chased his brother out of town; he has not been back in a year. The leader of the village said its tax quota this year jumped 60 percent even though there was no increase whatsoever in local incomes.

Zhao, Wu and others have had a difficult time getting a hearing in court. Their lawyers were scared off by the police, and local authorities erected barricades to block them from going to court. They have gotten no press since 1998 when Southern Weekend, a crusading weekly based in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, highlighted their plight.

Zhao and others have journeyed to Beijing to seek help, to no avail. When Sichuan provincial authorities dispatched a team to Hebian to investigate their claims, Zhao said local officials warned the farmers not to interfere, disguised themselves as farmers and told the investigators there was no problem.

But Zhao and Wu say they are not giving up. And like many farmers' heroes, they still express faith in Beijing to solve their local problems.

We have the support of the people here, said Wu, who said he has been a Communist Party member since 1954. And the support of the people is what the Communist Party is all about. These local officials don't believe in communism, they just want power and money. But Beijing understands, and we will continue to fight until Beijing hears our call.