China cracks down on secretive rural army of peasants

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FIRST IT was the mystical Falun Gong sect that raised Peking's ire and prompted a massive campaign of repression from China's central authorities. Now it's the turn of an obscure and secretive peasant "army" from the far west of the country.

China's police cracked down on the snappily named Southwestern Yangtze Column of the Anti-Corruption Army of the People Workers and Farmers, on 4 August and charged eight of the group's leaders with subverting the state.

Officials have refused to reveal further details of the previously unknown group, which may or may not be armed and has an unspecified number of members. In fact, its very existence only came to light yesterday, when one of the more outspoken of China's state newspapers reported the arrests that had taken place in the Chongqing municipality.

The official Yangcheng Evening News said that Yang Jiahua, a 52-year- old farmer, had set up the secret army in December 1998, with 20 others. He allegedly gave the body a structure that mirrored the ruling Communist Party, from a politburo down to a propaganda department.

Court officials in Chongqing said that two key members of the army remained at large, but the "illegal" group had been thoroughly smashed.

According to further information collected by Lu Siqing of the Hong Kong- based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China, the army revealed itself in early June and led a series of rallies in three counties and 13 townships in the Chongqing region.

At these rallies, the army distributed leaflets condemning the ruling Communist Party as "totally corrupt" and unfit to govern. It also called for the"counter-revolutionary verdict" on the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square to be overturned.

The authorities took no action against the army untilafter the 22 July crackdown on the Falun Gong - a group that claimed to have no political agenda but claimed to have more members in China than the Communist Party itself.

As with the Falun Gong, the army appeared to have a wide appeal as it spoke out against the rampant corruption that plagues China's officialdom. But unlike the quasi-religious group, the army was firmly rooted in the countryside.

As the Communist Party itself came to power on the back of a peasant uprising, it has learnt to be wary of rural unrest, even with groups such as the secret army, which may have counted its members in only the hundreds.

The Communist Party devoted much of its last full meeting to the countryside, where its grip is faltering as many peasants are overburdened by taxes and disgruntled at official corruption and the widespread circulation of fake seeds, fertiliser and pesticide. In addition, the income gap be- tween the nation's 900 million rural residents and their urban cousins is rising. In an indication of Peking's increasingly hard line in rural areas, nine farmers were recently sentenced to up to six years in prison for taking part, earlier this year, in one rural protest that involved some 10,000 people.

Yang Jiahua and his fellow detainees can expect prison terms of about 10 years if found guilty, and guilty verdicts make up more than 90 per cent of the criminal cases brought in China.

Chinese police have arrested 40 leading members of Protestant groups from two provinces in the latest detentions meant to crush popular clandestinechurches in central China. Among those taken in the raid was Wang Jincai, a leader of a controversial group known as the Shouters, the Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said. Mr Wang, who began preaching in the secret churches in the Eighties, finished serving a three year sentence in a labour camp only five days before the latest arrest, the centre added.