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Boom and gloom: The struggle for a country's soul

Continued from Page 1

The gap between rich and poor, between Mr. Zhang and Mrs. Xu, is growing wider every day. After the forced equality of the Maoist years, China has suddenly become one of the world's most unequal societies. Yet the peasant and the tycoon are united by their discontent with China's corruption and materialism.

“The future stability of China doesn't depend on wealth or poverty,” Mr. Zhang says. “It depends on whether China becomes a lawful country. We are forced to pay taxes to the government, but we have no right to supervise the government. We need free elections, so that we can supervise the government. Yet I don't see any chance of them allowing it. If there were free elections, it would jeopardize the privileges of many people who are parasites on the state.”

The same feeling of despair and cynicism is pervasive across rural China, where peasants are daily witnesses to the rampant corruption of the Communist Party. In rural Sichuan province, in the small village of Xinhua, each peasant has only one-eighteenth of a hectare of land – but everyone knows that the fields of the local Communist officials are twice as big. Nobody can obtain a marriage certificate or a building permit or restaurant licence without bribing an official.

The peasants are forced to pay a bewildering array of fees and taxes to the local officials, often without any real explanation. One tax requires each Xinhua labourer to give 50 yuan annually to the local government, but nobody is sure why. Each labourer was required to pay a further 65 yuan so that the village road could be paved, yet it remains a muddy trail today.

Xinhua is a rustic village of rice paddies and bamboo, where the old men play mahjong and the women carry their babies in straw baskets on their backs. It was given its optimistic name (meaning New China) after the Communist revolution. But in its rising anger over corruption and extortionate taxes, it is typical of the crisis that the Communist Party faces.

“We sometimes ask the officials how they spend this money, but their answers are always unclear,” says Huang Yuanping, a local peasant who has been a member of the Communist Party for 32 years. “If we get angry, they say: ‘What right do you have to ask these questions?' So we can't ever know. But we know the officials spend a lot of money on their meals. The common people are losing trust in the party. People tell me: ‘Your party is a false one.' I can't even respond, because I know that some of the local officials are doing wrong.”

Mr. Huang recalls how he attended Communist Party meetings in the village every month in the 1980s. But now the party is increasingly disorganized and unpopular. In the village, it only meets once or twice a year, and Mr. Huang hears people making bitter jokes about it.

“There's less support for the party than there was in the past,” he says. “People attack us, and I can understand why. The local officials have done many bad things and the image of the party has been seriously damaged. In the future, their behaviour could totally destroy the image of the party. There's a big difference between the propaganda of the central government and what we actually see from the local officials.”

Across China, rural taxes jumped by 800 per cent in the mid-1990s. By one count, 360 different types of taxes and fees have been imposed on peasants in the past decade. Rural taxes are three times higher than urban taxes, even though rural incomes are much smaller.

At the same time, peasants are losing their last resource – their farmland. An estimated 66 million peasants have become landless since the early 1990s because their land was seized for urban development, and the number of landless peasants is expected to reach 110 million within the next 25 years. In thousands of cases, the seizures were illegal, yet the developers escaped any punishment.

The average urban income in China today is six times higher than the average rural income – a bigger gulf than when the Communists took power in 1949, and one of the biggest such gaps in the world. Since the 1980s, Chinese inequality has increased at the fastest rate in the world. The gap is compounded by an unofficial apartheid system that makes it difficult or impossible for peasants to move to the cities.

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