Chinese farmers crippled by taxes

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The Independent Online
FARMER ZHANG surveyed the hillside. "The land is not good," he said. From the corn and millet grown on his family plot, Zhang last year earned just 500 yuan (pounds 38), nowhere near enough to keep his wife and seven- year-old son. And that was before the taxman came.

Stop almost any of the millions of peasants who scour China's cities for work and the chances are they are furious about taxes and corruption back home in the villages.

From his meagre income, 32-year-old Zhang had to pay almost 150 yuan in taxes, equal to 30 per cent of his pitiful funds. "It's heavy, and it's difficult for me to pay," he said.

About half went on national agriculture taxes, while the rest was imposed by the village head, including a "management" fee, agricultural fee, water tax and electricity fee. And where do the village taxes go? "I don't know. I've lived here 30 years and I have not seen any changes."

Official central government policy is that taxes on farmers should not exceed 5 per cent of income but even in Zhang's small village of 400 residents in Hebei province, just 120 miles north-west of Peking, regulations have little force against unscrupulous local leaders.

Year by year, China's peasants have become angrier at local officials illegally imposing high fees, taxes and duties. That fury exploded last month in Daolin, in southern Hunan province, when thousands of farmers marched on the local township offices in protest at excessive taxes and corruption, after one local peasant had poisoned himself because he was unable to pay. Another farmer died as police dispersed the demonstration. News of less tragic demonstrations comes weekly.

Sun, a 30-year-old farmer from Fucheng county, Hebei, was selling dates in a Peking market to make ends meet. "In the village, they charge fees for various reasons. To buy a car for the township leaders they will collect money from the villages, and they also collect money from us for building the office in the town.

"Last year, when the county cadres did not receive their due salary, they collected two yuan per tree from families who owned any tree in the village."

The problem is not new, but the downturn in the economy and decline in casual work because of soaring unemployment has brought inflamed rural resentments to the surface.

As long ago as March 1993, the then prime minister, Li Peng, warned in his annual state-of-the-nation speech that local governments "must take effective measures to correct the practices of imposing unreasonable service charges and collecting money for countless purposes". But nothing has changed.

The leadership in Peking is now terrified about the rising number of peasants taking direct action after losing patience with local officials.

An official edict published last week said that, in the countryside, the focus of security work this year should be "to dissolve destabilising factors". Authorities should curb the sale of fake seeds, fertiliser and pesticide, it added, and punish village bullies.

China's much-publicised village elections are supposed to impose some form of accountability on wayward village heads, but Zhang despaired of changing the system.

Not all villages are this bad. Indeed one of the problems in bringing justice to the countryside is the huge disparity between different places.

Just 15 miles away from Zhang's village, 47-year-old Farmer Zhao had the luck to be born into a community with much better land. He could afford a new brick house and schooling for his two teenaged children, and despite an annual household income of 10,000 yuan (pounds 750), did indeed pay total taxes of less than 5 per cent.

But for many of China's 800 million farmers, life is tough again after the relative boom of the 1980s.

A 44-year-old woman from Leting County, Hebei province, complained: "They tax everything, even products that do not make a profit. Take water melons, they still tax us on them although melons do not make money at all this year. Then there are taxes on cucumbers and tomatoes. We have five in our family and we hand in 700-800 yuan in tax from our annual income of 3,000-4,000 yuan."

Even farmers who have grasped the market economy are thwarted. Ren, from a town in Hebei's Chengde province, said he raised 10 pigs last year. "The baby pigs cost me 4,000 yuan at the beginning of the year, the feed cost 3,750 yuan. When I sold my pigs at market I got about 8,000 yuan. But for each pig slaughtered at the assigned place, I was charged more than 80 yuan tax regardless of its weight. If you raise pigs, you lose money!"