Monday, September 7, 2009

Clean-up of Farmers' Burdens

"Reducing farmers' burdens" (cutting taxes and fees) has been one of the slogans guiding China's rural policy during this decade. This translated to one of the biggest tax-cut projects in history in the world's largest Communist nation. Of course, officials everywhere have a strong instinct to extract revenues, and the central government issued a document calling for local officials to clean up remaining pockets of rural fee-extraction. Like many other measures, this one seems tied to maintaining stability around the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Peoples' Republic on October 1.

First, some background: During the 1990s, China's policy was economic growth first and foremost, mostly focused on cities and industry. Government support for rural affairs was neglected and rural officials had free rein to buy cars, seize farmland for industrial parks, and build town squares, hotels and amusement parks with no customers in the name of rural development. By the end of the 1990s, stories of outrageous taxes and fees and exploitation began to multiply. It all came to a head with the publication of the wildly popular but now-banned book An Investigation of Chinese Peasants (Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha) which told heart-wrenching stories of peasants' exploitation by officials in Anhui Province and their powerlessness to appeal to higher authorities.

Around the year 2000, authorities began experimenting with reform of rural taxes. Between 2004 and 2006 the government eliminated the "agricultural tax" nationwide and sent a stern message that excessive fees should be eliminated. Rural officials claim farmers are happy and no longer pay any taxes. But the central government always has a hard time getting local officials to get on board with their policies.

A document featured by the Ministry of Agriculture's press office today indicates that there are lingering problems with rural taxes and fees. The State Council and seven other ministries (Agriculture, Finance, Education) and National Development Reform Commission jointly issued a notice on eliminating regional disparities in farmer burdens. According to the article, monitoring has shown farmers' burdens are declining, but in some regions farmers are still subject to unreasonable burdens.

Officials in each area are instructed to take special measures to address the problems, especially "chaotic" fees in family planning, funerals, permits for migrant workers to start businesses, and rural education fees. Measures should be taken within a year’s time through unified implementation by local government departments: agricultural, dispute settlement, finance, price, legal and other departments should strengthen supervision. They should standardize work on "one matter, one assessment," an approach to settlement of rural disputes over financial and other issues in villages.

Water fees are singled out for attention, a push that conflicts with economists' recommendations that water fees should be raised to encourage water conservation. Officials are instructed to quickly implement pilot projects on reducing the general burden of agricultural water burdens, clean up illegalities, eliminate unreasonable fees, reasonably determine the level of fees for agricultural water use.

Each province must choose some counties with relatively high farmer burdens to monitor and explore the establishment of a long-term supervision system and village-level welfare investment system to reduce the general burden on farmers throughout the province. Organize checks of farmer burden this year. By the end of the year, each province should start a one-time check of farmer burdens. The checks should be made at the county and township levels using a random sampling method recommended by the State Council.

Effectively strengthen work on farmers’ burden petitions around the period of the national day celebration (October 1), public region method, strengthen agreement on allocation. Repeated petitions from farmers where it’s difficult to find long-term solution should be tracked and proper solutions found. Each dispute settlement department should seriously consider its the responsibility to reduce peasant burdens in cases they investigate.

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