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Many Chinese Farmers Suffer Abject Poverty - 2002-06-11


China is introducing sweeping rural tax reforms to reduce the burden on hundreds of millions of impoverished farmers. Beijing hopes the reforms will help curb widespread discontent in the countryside, which has caused some farmers to stage violent protests.

Zhang Dainu cannot remember the last time her family was out of debt. Ms. Zhang lives with her husband and four children in a packed dirt hut snuggled on the side of a mountain, hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest large town.

Ms. Zhang says she is in her early 40s, but deep lines in her face make her appear much older. She and her husband grow wheat and rice on a small plot of land here in Wenxian, an isolated county of Gansu Province in northwestern China. They eat everything they grow, and both work odd jobs to make enough money to put their children through school.

But Ms. Zhang says it is the taxes that crush them.

She says every year that she can remember, local officials have collected more than $150 from her family in educational, agricultural and miscellaneous taxes. That is almost three times the average yearly income for villagers in this area.

Ms. Zhang says she and her husband have to borrow money to pay their fees, then spend the rest of the year trying to dig themselves out of debt before the government collector comes around again.

Ms. Zhang's father-in-law, a white-bearded old man who calls himself Mr. Liu, walks into the hut.

Speaking to a visitor, Mr. Liu said it is good that you foreigners are interviewing us. Send the news to our government, he said, and then we will have enough food to eat.

The Chinese government has already gotten the message from countless other rural families across the country.

State media report that local officials collect $3.5 billion in illegal fees from farmers each year. Rural household taxes are supposed to be capped at 5 percent of a family's income. But farmers are routinely forced to hand over 20 percent of their income - and sometimes much more - to local governments.

The burdensome taxes, combined with stagnant rural incomes, have fueled sometimes violent unrest in the countryside.

In an attempt to restore stability, the government is introducing tax reforms in 10 provinces. Here in Wenxian, that means getting rid of all the miscellaneous fees and imposing a flat tax.

At this work meeting for village party secretaries in Wenxian, Dong Wenjun, a township official, urges cadres to spread the news about the tax reforms. "Let the people know how much the Chinese Communist Party cares about their welfare," said Ms. Dong.

A large red banner is draped on the cracked wall behind Ms. Dong, with the slogan, "Work to reduce farmer burdens. Give farmers more favorable treatment."

Wang Zhizhen, the head of Shangba village in Wenxian, explains the poverty that afflicts this region.

Mr. Wang said farmers here live in the mountains with few natural resources or access to roads. The average person makes little more than $55 a year. And for the last couple of years, drought has wiped out many of the crops.

To make matters worse, Mr. Wang said fee collection has not been regulated until now. So in the past, local officials sometimes forced farmers to pay more than they should. But Mr. Wang is unable to predict whether the tax reforms will improve living standards here. He said the only way for people to make ends meet is to find work off the land.

Yet even farmers with construction jobs say they struggle to survive. A middle-aged Wenxian resident, who asked that his name be withheld, works grinding stones to pave roads.

He said he gave up trying to make money from farming because he could only sell his vegetables 1.5 cents a kilo. After subtracting the price of fertilizer and water, he could not even cover his costs.

But the father of three children says he barely makes more than $1 a day with his construction job. One day's wage only covers the cost of an hour of electricity use at home. He also complained he pays more than $60 a year for his children's education taxes, and he sometimes does not get paid for his work.

The farmer rests his shovel on the pile of stones at his feet. He said everything is so expensive these days, he does not even want to step outside his home. This is no way to live, he said.

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