Chinese peasants slain amid tax dispute

2 killed, 17 wounded as police raid village

April 18, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Two farmers were slain and at least 17 wounded this week when police opened fire on angry peasants in a dawn raid in central China's Jiangxi Province in a battle over high taxes, according to villagers and officials.

In phone interviews yesterday, residents of Yunxing village said the violence began Sunday morning when at least 600 police armed with rifles, pistols, electric batons, riot shields and wooden boards entered the village and began arresting farmers.

As villagers came out of their homes to help neighbors, police fired at their feet and legs. When farmers tried to defend themselves with bamboo poles and fists, officers responded by shooting them in the chest, villagers said.

"I was shocked," said Yu Xinhua, 46, who was shot in the right leg while running away and spoke by phone last night from a Jiangxi hospital. "I felt really furious."

Villagers attributed the violence to a three-year dispute with officials over high taxes, which they said threatened to bankrupt them. The raid came a day after police arrested villager Su Guosheng, who had helped organize opposition to high taxes and led a campaign to alert the central government to abuses and suspected corruption by local officials.

In recent years, rural officials have levied crippling fees and taxes on Chinese farmers, sparking riots and raising fears of political instability in China's countryside where the vast majority of the nation's 1.3 billion people live.

Chinese government officials did not confirm Sunday's violence. A woman at the Yujiang County party secretary's office said the incident was being investigated, but said she had no further information.

Emergency room nurses at two hospitals in the nearby city of Yingtan said they had admitted people with gunshot wounds on Sunday, but did not give details. Gunshot wounds are rare in China, an authoritarian state whose government forbids citizens from owning handguns.

The clash in Yunxing village marks at least the second time in nine months that communities in Jiangxi Province have erupted in violence. Last August, more than 10,000 peasants surrounded a town hall, demanding a cut in taxes and fees they said were devouring their earnings. The protest spread to other towns, where farmers shattered windows and attacked officials' homes.

At a news conference last month, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji pledged to crack down on rampant fees and subsidize the loss to local coffers with $2.4 billion to $3.6 billion from the central government.

Residents in Yunxing say Sunday's raid began while stars were still visible in the sky. Members of China's People's Armed Police, who are charged with controlling domestic unrest, marched into the village with local police shouting, "One-two, one-two."

As police began to arrest residents, villagers shouted for help. Yu Xingqian, a 22-year-old butcher, had risen early to slaughter some pigs that morning, family members said in a telephone interview. When he heard the commotion, he opened the iron gate of his courtyard home. Police opened fire and shot him through the heart, his family said.

"Killing you common people is just like shooting birds," Yu's cousin, Yu Xinfu, recalled one People's Armed Police officer as saying.

After Yu Xingqian fell, villagers loaded his body on a bamboo bed and tried to carry him out of town to a hospital. Police refused to let them go to prevent the body from being used as evidence, Yu Xinfu said. Police also blocked access to the village to keep outsiders from entering.

Villager Dong E, 31, mourned Yu Xingqian's death yesterday.

"When he's on the bus, he will give his seat to the old people and young people," she said. "Everybody in the village praises him for his kindness."

Police initially refused to let villagers take the wounded to hospitals, but eventually relented.

"Some villagers knelt down to beg them," Yu Xinfu said.

A 38-year-old driver named Yu Xinguang was also shot to death, villagers said. Another villager, Yu Chengsheng, suffered a bullet wound to the lung and is paralyzed, according to a provincial official who requested anonymity.

Clashes between farmers and police are increasingly common in China, but the description by villagers of what happened in Yunxing seems particularly brutal. The provincial official said he thought police must have lost their heads in the melee.

"They shot whomever they saw," the official said.

Sunday's violence culminated years of conflict between the community and government officials. Yunxing is a wheat-growing village of 1,400 to 1,500 people. Residents say that for the past three years they have refused to pay local officials an agricultural tax of $36 for each fifth of an acre they farm.

Families, which generally receive a fifth of an acre per person, say they earn no more than $82 annually from each parcel. If households paid the taxes along with the $24 per parcel in fertilizer and irrigation fees, they would earn just $22 a year for each plot.

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