Harried village officials fall into triad web
Josephine Ma in Beijing
Triad organisations in the countryside have become so powerful that they have taken control of many local governments.
Earlier this year, officials and rural researchers were shocked when a Hunan court convicted 40 village chiefs and party secretaries in Hunan's Hengyang city of corruption after finding they were triad members.
The case has been highlighted in government circulars, serving as a warning to officials on the growing reach of triads in village administrations.
It is an open secret that what happened in Hengyang is only the tip of the iceberg as township governments increasingly develop a reliance on local crime syndicates.
One major reason for the rise of rural gangs is the need for the township and village governments to collect taxes and fees from farmers.
After taxation reform in 1994, the salaries of township and village cadres, as well as funding for grassroots education and rural infrastructure, have been sourced mainly from payments collected from farmers. Rural officials have been able to flout the orders of the central Government, which set limits on the payments, and impose extortionate fees and taxes to support ever-expanding budgets.
Collecting payments from the disgruntled farmers has become a dangerous task for local officials and clashes between farmers and officials have been common in many areas.
The tension has given rise to the need to hire local gangsters to carry out tax and fee collection or to confiscate land from farmers wanted for sale to entrepreneurs.
Squads of informal police were set up as overstretched police forces found themselves unable to cope with issues arising from enforcement of collection of disputed fees.
Some township governments have simply appointed chiefs of local gangs to head the village governments.
'A township chief told me he had to appoint a gangster as a village chief, otherwise he could not control that area,' a rural researcher said.
Another reason for the rise of triads in the countryside is the heavy financial burden faced by township and village governments in trying to raise enough money to pay for the salaries of bloated bureaucracies.
As a former township chief in Hubei province pointed out, the most important task for a township chief was to raise enough money to pay the salaries of local officials.
Many township and village governments are now heavily in debt and when the fund-raising channels are exhausted, some township chiefs turn to local loansharks - often operated by local gangs - to borrow money.
The outstanding loans of each township could amount to millions of yuan and township governments either give gangsters free land contracts or provide them or their relatives with governments jobs in return.
The mutual reliance between rural governments and triads has not only jeopardised law and order in the countryside, but made village elections more vulnerable to manipulation by officials and local gangs, experts say.
The penetration of local gangsters into the rank and file of local governments has also eroded the legitimacy of grassroots governments in the eyes of villagers and aggravated the tension between cadres and villagers.
But another rural researcher said villagers sometimes accepted local gangsters as their chiefs since they felt the need to have powerful men to protect their interests.
'It is very complicated. Farmers are not dumb and sometimes they need strong people to help them fight against the Government,' he said. 'Sometimes the gangster-turned-village chief ends up clashing with the township government since he has to protect the interests of the villagers and his own.'
Experts say unless real measures are taken to cut payrolls in rural bureaucracies, farmers have only a slim chance to escape extortionate fees.