By Eva Cheng
The Chinese government has ordered a crackdown on "chaos" in rural areas, where shrinking income, high inflation, food shortages, back-breaking taxes and rampant corruption have set public resentment bubbling.
Emergency paramilitary squads, from the People's Armed Police (PAP), were sent to at least six provinces last month to restore "social order" following small-scale armed clashes recently and major riots in 1993. The provinces are Hebei, Hubei and Yunnan, where confrontations were reported to have taken place, and Anhui, Shaanxi and Jilin.
Xinhua, China's official newsagency, said the units were to "forcefully rectify villages where the conditions of social order are chaotic" and to "assiduously strengthen foundation work in grassroots" party cells. Domestic media quoted senior PAP officers as saying the move was to "safeguard national stability and economic construction".
Bonuses, benefits and promotion prospects of PAP ranks would be linked directly to their performance in the campaign, according to Xinhua. PAP were reported to have engaged in small-scale armed clashes in recent months with rural "underground" forces to which disgruntled farmers were said to have been recruited.
It is not uncommon for officials to seize by force produce from farmers who refuse to sell to the state because of low procurement prices, many of which remain long unpaid. Many opted to sell in the free market, to make up for heavy taxes and what appears to be an endless chain of ad hoc fundraising.
A village in Shandong was reported to have levied each villager 120 yuan on top of regular taxes in 1991 to cover 130 items. Those extra payments accounted for 65% of the net income of that village, an increase of 18.3% since 1989.
Farmers from at least two Shandong counties protested against such heavy levies in 1993, with several thousands involved in some actions.
More than 10,000 farmers from five counties took to the streets in Sichuan in June 1993 in a similar protest after eight leaders were arrested in earlier actions. Those levies were waived and the leaders were released after Beijing's intervention.
Another indication that rural chaos is spreading is that grain coupons — a means of food rationing and price control — have been reintroduced in a number of provinces. This is evidence that food shortages and high inflation have become barely bearable in the urban areas. It is a significant setback to China's decade-long push to deregulate prices.
But even the official Economic Daily questions the benefits of the move for the urban poor. It confirms, however, that bureaucrats have benefited at the expense of the state coffer by selling subsidised grains to private dealers instead of to the urban poor.
"State grain dealers make little profit so they prefer to sell to speculators at a higher price", the newspaper says.
While shrinking farmland is a major longer-term food problem for China, it is not the cause of immediate shortages, except in Sichuan, where a shortfall was officially confirmed. Supplies are still plentiful in the free market for a high price. But given the significant share of food in the spending of urban families, high grain prices have fuelled inflation.