Crackdown in Village Confirmed by China

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By John Pomfret

Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, April 26, 2001; Page A20

BEIJING, April 25 -- China today confirmed a bloody crackdown on a southern village involved in a tax dispute with the government last week and announced that two officials are under investigation for their roles in the confrontation.

A statement by the press office of the State Council, China's cabinet, said two farmers were killed, and 20 villagers and 23 security officers were injured during a clash in the village of Yuntang in Jiangxi province on April 15.

The statement said armed officers went to the village to arrest two "criminal suspects" when "some people instigated local residents who were not clear about the situation."

Witnesses in the village and neighboring communities said security forces from a local detachment of the People's Armed Police arrested 20 people during the clash, during which security forces opened fire on demonstrating farmers. The witnesses, speaking by telephone from Jiangxi, added that police imposed a cordon around the village and that about 1,000 officers remain in the area. Five more people were arrested Tuesday, they said.

Witnesses in the village and in neighboring communities said the crackdown was caused by a simmering tax dispute between the villagers and the township government. The witnesses said that for three years the villagers had either refused to pay taxes or fought with township authorities over high tax rates.

High taxes in rural areas are a major cause of unrest in China. While the central government acknowledges that high taxes, imposed by local officials, are a serious problem, Beijing has been unable to ease the burden on the farmers, Chinese government researchers say. The reason is that Beijing has taken a greater percent of local taxes since a major tax reform carried out in 1994-95 and left counties and townships to fend for themselves, the researchers say.

"If these areas want schools and hospitals and other services to work, they have to squeeze the farmers harder and harder," one researcher said. "At a certain point, the farmers break."

The situation in Yuntang was worsened by floods in 1998 that ravaged this village, local farmers said. Funds earmarked to rebuild the village's irrigation network were stolen by government officials, adding to Yuntang's miseries, the farmers said.

"Yuntang didn't get a penny of relief for the flood in 1998," said an 83-year-old resident of Yatang, a neighboring village.

That villager said the specific incident that sparked the clash involved a push by the township government to force Yuntang's residents to pay to build rice terraces. The farmers refused, he said, so hundreds of police were dispatched to the village , armed with guns and electric cattle prods, to force them to either pay up or work on the project themselves.

The villagers protested and security forces opened fire. Villagers fought back with bamboo polls and farm implements, witnesses said.

The government statement today said security forces succeeded in arresting two unnamed "criminal suspects." Witnesses said one of the men was Su Guosheng, a local leader.

Su had organized protests against the taxes, farmers said, and was regarded as a local hero.

"Of course, they want to arrest the people who stand up against their corruption," one woman, surnamed Zhang, said in a telephone interview. "These people are all very, very dirty."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company