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Rural Reforms Offer Hope To Farmers

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/08/10; August 10, 2003.]

Friday, August 8, 2003 EDITORIAL/LEADER
South China Morning Post

Ambitious new reforms to slash the number of township officials and transform the rural bureaucracy represent the boldest attempt yet by the central government to secure a better deal, and the chance of a better life, for China's long-suffering farmers. A pilot scheme expected to be put in place later this year will see township governments scrapped and replaced by representative offices of the higher-level county government. The implications are far-reaching and could result in millions of cadres losing their jobs.

The reforms are the latest strategy adopted by Beijing in the battle to overcome a problem which, for centuries, has brought misery to the mainland's farmers - that of local officials squeezing them for money.

In recent years it has seen an escalation in the number of violent clashes between farmers and officials and has become a source of social instability.

This is not the first attempt to improve the lot of the farmers and cut back the size of the bureaucracy. Farmers used to be charged a variety of fees that could be levied for almost anything from building roads or slaughtering pigs, to providing education. The system was widely abused as officials used their power to try to maximise their income.

From March 2000, the old fees have gradually been abolished and replaced with standardised taxes. Steps have also been taken to reduce the size of the bureaucracy by merging townships. There has been some decline in the imposts on farmers but officials have proven adept at getting round the new measures. The number of cadres has continued to grow, thanks to nepotism and corruption.

The problem is that since tax reforms in 1994 township governments have had to raise funds themselves to meet expenses, including the wages of officials. With township enterprises collapsing, many have been left with little option but to fleece the farmers. The latest reforms will go to the heart of the problem by removing an entire layer of rural government, thereby effectively abolishing the officials who rely on farmers for their income. This radical approach is a welcome sign of the central government's determination to tackle the mainland's rural problems. The reforms are gradually to be extended nationwide. This will require considerable resolve as the plan will meet with fierce resistance from the rural cadres who face unemployment.

Tackling the growing wealth gap between rich urban areas and poor rural provinces is one of the toughest challenges the new leadership faces.

Urbanisation of rural areas and proposals to make it easier for job-seekers from the countryside to move to the cities form part of this strategy. None of these measures is easy to implement. The new reforms of the bureaucracy will be no exception. But it is vital that they succeed.

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