PEKING DAYS: Citizens mass to overthrow king rat

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The invitation was hard to ignore. The fax from the Peking Patriotic Sanitation Campaign Committee welcomed observers to view the city's "mass rat-killing activity". As it was official rat-killing week in Peking, an upstanding citizen knew where duty lay.

Participants gathered early yesterday with Zhang Xizeng, vice-director of the committee; he was on hand to explain the finer points of rat extermination. He did not have statistics on the rat population of Peking because "rats don't have to register like Chinese people do", but the city's "rat density" was below 1 per cent. This meant if one placed 100 traps for 24 hours, one rat would be caught, he explained.

Peking's citizens have been mobilized against their rodent foes. In East District, there have been public viewings of the propaganda videotape, Rat Killing in Chinese Cities, and leaders of work units and enterprises have signed a "1996 winter rat-killing affidavit".

An inspection of 436 work units, 120 neighbourhood committees, and 12,311 rooms found the local rat density at a worrying 9.43 per cent. So, like everywhere across Peking, teams have been out in force, laying poison and traps at all the rats' favourite haunts - street markets, grocery stores, food-processing factories and sewers. Some 100 tons of rat poison will be laid in the city this week.

Communist China has a tradition of mass campaigns against small creatures. In the Forties, China's four "demons" were deemed to be the rat, sparrow, fly and mosquito. The most destructive mission was the slaughter of sparrows in 1958, at the start of the disastrous Great Leap Forward.

Chairman Mao ordered the country's population to strike up a cacophony of sound, beating cymbals and saucepans, to keep the birds from settling. Exhausted, the sparrows fell dead to the ground. Mao had blamed the sparrows for eating grain, but ignored the fact that they mostly ate flies and grubs. The result was a plague of insects.

These days the cockroach has replaced the sparrow in the "demons" line- up. In recent mass campaigns, material as well as patriotic incentives are employed. Earlier this year in Shenzhen, the booming economic zone next to Hong Kong, the authorities offered a 5 yuan (40p) reward for every rat-tail handed in. Professional rat-catching gangs set themselves up, and were soon feuding over the bounties. With rat-like cunning, it did not take long before dead rats were being shipped from the countryside into the city in order to claim the rewards. In the north-east city of Shenyang this spring, 400,000 rats were wiped out with an offer of just 1 yuan per tail.

This year's anti-rat campaign in Peking is "large-scale" compared to the city's recent annual blitzes, but Mr Zhang said that no money was on offer."It is not because the density of rats increases dramatically. It is because during the last two years, a lot of old buildings were knocked down, and this destroyed the habitat of the rats so they have no place to live."

Decisive action is needed because, Mr Zhang said, we are at the point in a 10-year cycle when rats are breeding heavily.

At the Liangshifa grocery store, a red and yellow banner hung across the entrance yesterday read "Everybody participate in killing rats". Inside the shop, an assistant said that the poison had been mixed with milk powder, apples and sausage "so it is more delicious for the rats".