ON THE FUYANG ROAD, China -- From a distance the peasants look like a straggly army, thousands of them spreading out into the fields along the road, loosely organized around red flags flapping from thin bamboo poles.
In the long light of a winter morning they trudge through the dirt, struggling to level the land that will become a highway leading to a boomtown 20 miles north. They could be a road crew in any developing country except that here in China they are acting out a milleniums-old ritual: putting in weeks of unpaid, forced work -- usually known as corvee labor.
This winter tradition is as unpopular as it is old. Over the centuries, forced peasant labor built the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, but also helped give rise to rebellions that toppled dynasties.
Now, just as in China's imperial past, the leaders who command these millions of laborers are sensing that they might be requiring too much of their subjects. With taxes up 60 percent over the past two years, demands on China's 850 million rural residents are fueling widespread unrest at a time when Beijing craves stability.
Anhui, for example, was one of six provinces recently singled out by the central government for its "chaotic" state of law and order.
In December, a charismatic cult leader was executed for illegally organizing a religious group. One of his prime recruiting groups: the overworked, impoverished peasants living near Fuyang.
China's government-run media regularly call for the burdens on peasants -- mainly taxes and corvee labor -- to be reduced. For several years, various organs have announced that certain taxes will be abolished and that local leaders must this time listen and stop pushing their people so hard. Each year, however, government figures show that the peasants' burdens remain the same or increase.
The government of Anhui recently asked its local organizations to lighten the burden on peasants. "Why?" asked an unusually blunt editorial in Anhui Daily, the official newspaper of one of China's poorest provinces.
According to the newspaper, the orders must always be repeated because local Communist Party bureaucrats simply ignore them. The officials, the editorial said, "are overanxious for quick [economic] results," ignoring the fact that "lightening the burden on peasants is not only an economic problem, it is a political problem concerning the social stability of rural areas."
It's easy to see both points of view in the ancient tug of war over the peasants' seemingly limitless supply of labor. For officials in charge of impoverished provinces such as Anhui, the peasantry seems like a tantalizing cornucopia of free labor that can be used to build up the country's infrastructure.
The highway to Fuyang, for example, will help connect the province's fastest-growing city to the economic heartland further south.
But plans drafted by faceless technocrats accountable to no one but unelected leaders are notoriously unpopular in any country, especially one with a famously stubborn and willful peasantry.
"How can this be of benefit to me?" asks Little Li, a 44-year-old farmer forced to spend a week building the road. "I've got work to do in my fields and instead am building a road in someone else's field."
Mr. Li and 70 of his fellow villagers were forced to work on the road as part of the four weeks of mandatory labor that they must provide the state each year. They traveled seven miles by bicycle to the site, pitched a tent and started working.
In the past, Mr. Li said, the labor tax was more acceptable because peasants had more free time in the winter. But economic reforms have given rise to a host of sideline occupations that keep peasants busy in the off-season, so the lost time is also lost income.
On top of that is the sense that the road will not be of direct benefit to the villagers, who say it is one thing to band together to repair dikes, irrigation canals or build a local school, but another to hike across the county for a project that will mostly benefit more prosperous city residents.
Peasants average 20 days of corvee labor a year, although in some areas the number of days can easily double that.
Other levies include direct central government taxes, local taxes and the grain peasants must give the central government under China's "contract-responsibility system," which generally lets peasants do what they want after fulfilling their duties and paying their taxes -- a far cry from the totalitarian past when the government tried to control all aspects of life.
Although peasants have been freed from 24-hour control, local officials have also been freed of Beijing's iron-fisted hold, allowing them to impose taxes almost at will. Fueled by increasing local levies, the official People's Daily reported that taxes on peasants increased 58 percent in 1994, the last year for which there are complete statistics.