Tax revolt in China becomes way of life Fees increase yearly, villagers say, and so do corrupt officials

November 11, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YULIN, China -- The final straw for many villagers in this region came in the early summer, when local officials demanded the equivalent of $10,000 in taxes for a new irrigation system.

The village in north-central Shaanxi Province had already been assessed a one-time irrigation tax of $25,000, so no one could figure out how officials could need more money so soon. The answer quickly leaked out: Nearly half the original levy had been squandered by corrupt bureaucrats on banquets and junkets.

What happened next was China's version of a tax revolt, a six-week-long rebellion the likes of which occurs across rural China dozens of times each year -- usually without the outside world knowing about it.

And, as is usually the case, the government won, although not before villagers managed to underscore the precarious position of China's 800 million rural residents, who are being hit this year by rising taxes and the reappearance of IOUs in lieu of payment for their grain.

Inhabitants of the community of 1,200 near the town of Yulin tell what happenned. Their story is confirmed by local newspaper accounts and interviews with local officials.

Peasants blocked the road when the tax collectors came in June, forcing them to retreat.

"Taxes are as numerous as hairs on a cow," explained a local farmer, Wang Delin. "Every year there are more and every year the officials live better."

Undeterred by the peasants' opposition, officials from the provincial government returned the next month. Forewarned, villagers blocked the main road into their community, forced the officials out of their car, burned the car and drove the officials out of town with clubs. No one was seriously injured.

The officials' third try, however, was too much for the villagers.

Accompanied by four armed soldiers, four officials drove up in army jeeps, parked at the edge of town and strode up the main road. A group of peasants armed with clubs confronted them but quickly abandoned plans to fight.

Unwilling to get into a battle with the People's Liberation Army and fed assurances that corruption charges would be investigated, they handed over the tax money the next day.

"The arm can never be stronger than the leg," Wang said. "We're just villagers and they're big officials. When they come with guns, what can we do?"

That question is being asked during this year's autumn harvest in many of China's 1 million villages. Much attention has been focused on the growing number of unemployed factory workers in China's big cities and the potential they pose for civil unrest. But China's 800 million peasants -- once the bedrock of Communist power -- are angry at having to turn over an ever-increasing slice of their income.

Nonpayment of taxes is a growing concern among government officials.

"Hundreds, probably thousands of villages across the country are refusing to pay taxes," said an economist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, who would speak only on condition he not be named. "The situation is becoming more and more common."

Many peasants are unwilling to pay taxes because they feel they are excessive and arbitrary -- an assessment shared by many officials in the central government. But while Beijing has officially called for taxes to be reduced, local officials continue to add new taxes every year.

"This problem [of illegal taxes] has not yet been basically solved and it remains quite serious in some areas," Vice Premier Jiang Chunyun said late last month in a call for lower peasant taxes.

Figuring out a peasant's tax burden is complicated because it varies enormously from village to village.

Officially, peasants are not supposed to pay more than 5 percent of their income in taxes, but the reality is closer to 25 percent, according to Chinese scholars. Although this may be low compared to many industrial countries, taxes are not designed to cover the cost of health care, a pension plan or unemployment insurance.

Most taxes are users' fees. Peasants near Yulin, for example, tick off a bewildering list of taxes: village tax, agricultural tax, general education tax, school repair fee, market management fee, head tax, hygiene fee, irrigation tax and 20 days of unpaid labor a year for government projects. All that's not to mention special levies, such as the second irrigation fee that caused the furor.

"If you're poor, you can't afford schooling for your child," lamented a 24-year-old mother with a 4-year-old son. "I hope he can go to university, but middle school is more realistic."

Twenty years ago, before economic reforms and decentralized power, taxes were few and stayed the same from year to year.

"Our burden just goes up and up, yet we aren't better off than we were a few years ago," said Wan Ronglai, a peasant from the Yulin area. "How can we pay for more if we aren't making more?"

Local officials defend the taxes, saying many are the indirect result of central government policies.

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