Local officials use regulations, policies to exploit poor villagers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2007, 12:00am

When winter arrived at Xizhuang village in western Shanxi, 40-year-old farmer Ma Geping jumped on his motorbike and went up Qinglong Mountain to dig up some coal.

Villagers have used the coal for winter heating for hundreds of years and the fuel is so abundant on the mountain that diggers only need to remove a few shovelfuls of ground to get access to it.

But their life is not as easy as before. Resource protection policies from Beijing have become excuses for lower-level officials to exploit the poorest farmers, the villagers say.

When Mr Ma loaded his coal on the back of the motorbike and headed back home, he was stopped at the foot of the peak by seven men, three in uniform, and a road block.

'They punched me twice in the chest, pushed me off the motorbike and kicked me three times without saying anything,' he said.

One of the men, he recognised as Yang Hongyu , director of the Zuomu township resources office.

'I asked him why [they were beating me up] and he said I was stealing,' Mr Ma said.

The officials took him to the township headquarters, confiscated his vehicle and told him to pay a 3,000 yuan fine to get it back. 'I told them the bike was not worth so much. They lowered the price to 1,000 yuan.'

Mr Ma spent a month raising the money from friends and relatives but he retrieved his bike without a receipt. It will take a long time to repay the debt. He earns less than 2,000 yuan a year selling wheat and corn and has two children going to school.

The officials have caught other villagers so he does not go up to the mountain to look for coal anymore.

He also does not have money to buy from coal suppliers. The price of the fuel has soared in recent years to more than 300 yuan a tonne. To survive the winter his family needs more than two tonnes to heat the boiler. 'Our straw can last a month,' Mr Ma said.

But the county officials' appetite for taxation is not limited to coal. They have targeted all kinds of resources, including paving stones.

Liu Guangyao , a Longma villager who tried to open a chicken farm, said county officials extorted a 500-yuan resources tax from him when they caught him carting some paving stones with his three-wheel motorcycle for the farm yard.

'They drove me out of the chicken business by inspecting me every month, asking for money each time they came,' Mr Liu said.

Local corruption is forcing some villagers to risk their life to make a living. Liu Zhigang , a Xizhuang villager who drives trucks for a coal mine, says the vehicle is designed to transport up to 10 tonnes, but he carries up to three times that amount.

'I know the risk and I don't want to overload so much,' Mr Liu, 20, said. 'But the fees are so high. We have to overload.'

The tax collected by the county government is three times higher than the amount endorsed by the central government, which appears on the receipt given to the drivers, he said.