Chinese Farmers Escape Harvest Tax Paid for Centuries
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This fall for the first time in millennia Chinese peasants will not pay tax on their harvest. The tax was traditionally paid in tribute to the emperor of China. More recently it has been paid to the Communist Party. Revoking the tax is a bold move by Beijing and hugely symbolic as the government grapples with potentially de-stabilizing problems in the countryside which have persisted despite economic reform. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.
ROB GIFFORD reporting:
It was one thing that every Chinese peasant has always known. It is that he or she will always pay what's called gonlyon(ph). It's the tax on rice or wheat or corn or whatever they're growing that has always been given to the government. In recent years as so often in Chinese history, the burden of this tax has grown. Its abolition shows the Communist Party's particular sensitivity to unease in the countryside, says Richard Baum of UCLA.
Mr. RICHARD BAUM (UCLA): They've done it because there has been increasing peasant unrest in the last dozen years or so. It's been building at least since the early 1990s. And I think the regime feels vulnerable to peasant discontent.
GIFFORD: Another reason for dropping the tax, says Baum, is an urgent need to get more people back working the land. Much Chinese land is lying fallow and grain production has fallen. With taxes too high, many have given up on farming and headed for the cities.
(Soundbite of peasants)
GIFFORD: Peasants in tiny villages like Jang Dong Pang(ph) in the central province of Anhui have not had much to celebrate in recent years. After the initial successes of economic reform in the 1980s and early '90s, life in the countryside has become harder. Now people are relishing the savings they'll make on this fall's harvest.
JUNG(ph): (Chinese spoken)
GIFFORD: `Of course, we're happy. It's a great move,' says this man whose name is Jung. He says the tax used to add up to a quarter of his family's meager annual income of about 200 US dollars. In the next village with the cicadas in the trees drowning the sounds of the nearby road, there's a poster announcing another element of the campaign. A woman standing nearby holding her baby grandson explains.
JAO(ph): (Chinese spoken)
GIFFORD: `Not only are they abolishing the tax,' says the woman who says her name is Jao, `they're actually giving us money. There's a government supplement,' she says, `for every plot of land owned by every peasant.' Poster on the wall written and propagated by the local government confirms her claim. In interviews all across rural China this summer, peasants confirm that they did not pay agricultural tax in the spring nor will they pay in the fall and that they are receiving government supplements, but despite this major step, Richard Baum says rural issues will continue to cause problems for the government simply because of the numbers of people involved and the low productivity in rural areas.
Mr. BAUM: Well, if it weren't for an excess rural population of maybe two to 300 million people, China's current situation might not look so bad because the urban economy is growing, the industrial and secondary and tertiary sectors are growing, but the farm population acts like a great anchor on economic growth. And those particular chickens seem to be coming home to roost now. I'm just not sure that reducing the agricultural tax and indeed eliminating it as they're now doing is a final solution.
GIFFORD: For one thing, where's the money for local government now going to come from. Beijing will have to increase its rural funding to make up the shortfall and as the implementation of World Trade Organization agreements which will bring more competition from overseas in rural markets. The Communist Party came to power on the back of peasant discontent and knows very well how dangerous angry peasants can be, but in the next few years, it may have to take even more major steps to solve the country's rural problems.
Rob Gifford, NPR News, in Anhui, central China.
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