Read Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China's Peasants Online

Authors: Chen Guidi,Wu Chuntao

Tags: #Business & Money, #Economics, #Economic Conditions, #History, #Asia, #China, #Politics & Social Sciences, #Politics & Government, #Ideologies & Doctrines, #Communism & Socialism, #International & World Politics, #Asian, #Specific Topics, #Political Economy, #Social Sciences, #Human Geography, #Poverty, #Specific Demographics, #Ethnic Studies, #Special Groups

Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China's Peasants (28 page)

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  1. deficit; more income, more spending.” Yet this policy had the effect of encouraging officials at county and township levels to squeeze the rural economy and exploit the peasants in order to run their own bureaucracies. The peasants’ burden began to spiral out of control.

    According to statistics released by the state for the year 1995, taxation on rural products increased by 19.9 percent over the previous year; payment of local “reserve funds” for various causes grew by 48.3 percent; and the payment of fines, fees, charges, and contributions to public projects grew by 52.22 percent. The tax burden of one third of the peasant population nationwide far exceeded 5 percent of their annual income from the previous year—the designated limit for taxation of peasant households. The popular saying goes: “So many hands left and right, all stretched out for the peasant’s mite.”

    In 1996, the Central Committee and State Council issued another joint document, titled “Decision Regarding the Relief of Peasants’ Burdens,” which was widely publicized as the “Number 13 Circular.” The “Number 13 Circular” announced disciplinary measures to be taken against officials at various levels in cases of major incidents of tax extortion resulting in death; of retaliation against peasants for making complaints; of failure to report incidents arising out of excessive taxation; or of minimizing damage in such reports. The Party requested that the “Number 13 Circular” be made known to every tier of the government and publicized to every peasant household. It also called for legislation for supervising the measures taken to relieve the peasants’ burden. To ensure that the “Number 13 Circular” was observed, a central joint inspection team made up of personnel from the various ministries and the media was sent out to the provinces of Henan, Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, and Shanxi to ensure that the “Number 13 Circular” was duly publicized and the relief policies implemented. These were unprecedented measures to enforce Party policy—yet precisely during

    a vicious circle

    this period the peasants’ tax burden broke the record. According to official statistics, from 1991 to 1993, income from agricultural taxes was only 2.2 percent of the national tax income, but in 1996—the year the “Number 13 Circular” was issued and implemented—the percentage jumped to 5.3 percent, more than double the figure for the previous years.

    Figures for 1997 were no better. The price of agricultural products fell steeply in Anhui as for the whole country, and so did the rate of growth in peasant income. Increases in productivity did not bring comparable increases in earnings, but the fees, charges, and taxes levied by local governments continued to grow. According to official statistics, peasants’ average yearly income from 1994 to 1997 was only 1.91 percent more than it had been in 1993—but the tax burden for 1997 was nine times the average of the previous four years.

    To look at the problem from another angle: during the early years of reform, at the beginning of the eighties, the cost for planting one
    mu
    (approximately one and a half acres) of land was 10 yuan, and peasants paid their taxes automatically, without any prodding from local cadres. Nowadays, however, the cost for planting the same piece of land was at least one hundred yuan, in some cases running to two to three hundred. The resulting taxes and fees obviously exceeded the peasants’ ability to pay. To deal with the problem, local administrations would send out “shock teams” of tax collectors to enforce payment. When the peasants could not come up with the cash, the shock teams would take away their pigs, or make off with a piece of furniture or machinery. When this still didn’t work, violence was the answer: beatings, arrests, detention, and other dictato-rial measures. Hostility between peasants and administration was acute; peasants’ appeals, petitions, and demonstrations became the order of the day. It was just such a situation that

    will the boat sink the water
    ?

    touched off the mass arrests in Gao Village, when a convoy of armed police and officials descended on a group of totally unarmed peasants during a noon break (see chapter 3, “The Long and the Short of the Antitax Uprising”).

    By 1998, the situation was so bad that the Central Committee and the State Council felt obliged to send out another directive, instructing officials at all levels to take seriously the letters of complaints and personal appeals coming from peasants. They were cautioned to listen to the voice of the masses, nip any potential problems in the bud, and limit unrest to local levels. In spite of these repeated orders and directives, six violent incidents similar to the Zhang Village tragedy erupted simultaneously in six different provinces in that same year.

    “It’s Fine to Have a Policy, But Who Will Carry It Out?”

    China’s reform was first tried out in rural Anhui, and many top people emerged through that great experiment—people who were familiar with rural conditions, cared for the peasants, and were not afraid to speak their minds.

    Lu Zixiu was such a person. During the late seventies, he distinguished himself by promoting so-called “household contracts,” one of the important aspects of the economic reform being tried out in rural Anhui.* When we met him on a June day in 2001, he had already retired from his position as deputy chair of the Anhui People’s Congress, but had never stopped concerning himself with rural issues.

    * Under the “household-contract responsibility system,” each household was given a piece of land to farm and was allowed to retain whatever was left after selling to the state a fixed proportion of what they had produced, at state-determined prices, or by simply paying a tax in cash.

    a vicious circle

    Lu described for us a meeting that he had once attended. The Anhui provincial leadership had called the meeting of provincial and prefectural Party leaders, and the topic of the day was an overview of how the Central Committee’s directives about relieving the peasants’ burden had been implemented throughout the province. At the meeting, some of the attendees started to air their own tales of woe, the difficulties they were encoun-tering in their domains. Lu did not like what he was hearing; he was very familiar with these municipal and prefecture leaders and had no scruples about giving them a tongue lashing.

    Since the meeting was held in Fuyang Prefecture, Lu Zixiu started with the Party secretary of the prefecture. Calling him unceremoniously by name,* he launched his interrogation aggressively: “You there, Wang Huaizhong, you answer only to your provincial superiors sitting over there, hey? You don’t answer to the peasants? You don’t give a damn how they can manage to support your fancy projects? You set yourself up to create a ‘dairy’ county, but all your ‘dairy farms’ are lined along the highways for show! At one of your ‘on-site’ meetings, you rent cows at great expense to make an impression! Is this how you spend the peasants’ hard-earned pennies?”

    Before the man could respond, Lu turned to the party secretary of Chuzhou Prefecture: “And you, Zhang Chunsheng, how do you handle your subordinates? Tell us, how do you evaluate performances? Those bullies who extort payments and force peasants into committing suicide, you just move them to another cushy spot, hey, so long as they can come up with the dough!”

    Next he asked the Party secretary of Bengbu: “And you, Fang Yiben, Huaiyuan County is under your jurisdiction. Accusations and complaints are piling up by the day . . . Have

    * Failing to use the Party secretary’s title—“calling unceremoniously by name”—implies an inappropriate familiarity, an intended show of disrespect.

    will the boat sink the water
    ?

    you done anything about it? Are you trying to win the champi-onship for highest volume of peasants’ complaints?

    Then he pointed a finger at the Party secretary of Chaohu Prefecture: “You, Hu Jiduo, do you mean to say that you can’t pave a highway without screwing the peasants? That highway should be paid for by the state! But you don’t give a damn for the highway. You are paving credit for yourself, for the eyes of your bosses! Am I right?”

    According to Lu’s account to us, he made a round of all of the officials at the meeting and ended by saying: “I’d like to address this to our comrades: we see the high-rises, but do we care who built them? We see the highways, but do we know who paved them? Right now with the reform, the peasants are just beginning to see a turnaround in their lives. But we can’t wait to pounce on them to empty their pockets! Give them a break, for heaven’s sake!” He recalled the early years of rural reform: “During the ‘household-contract’ movement, the working principle was ‘pay the state in full, reserve what is necessary for the collective, and the rest is yours to keep.’ And it worked! Now, however, all the advantages of the contract system are slipping away, quietly stolen from the peasants by government taxes at every level. The peasants have no rights at all. You can do whatever you like with them. Why don’t we try to look at things from the peasants’ point of view?”

    The Party secretary of Liu-An Prefecture put in a word: “At least we don’t have a problem with excessive taxes—” Before the words were out of his mouth, Lu Zixiu cut him short: “Don’t talk to me about your taxes—I have a bunch of letters on my desk! Your peasants have barely planted a tree in the ground before your local cadres knock on their doors for taxes on the produce!” The complacent Party secretary was effectively shut up.

BOOK: Will the Boat Sink the Water?: The Life of China's Peasants
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