Officials Blamed for Tax Riots

Local authorities in China squeeze textile workers for extra 'fees.'
2011-10-28
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Zhili residents riot in opposition to tax increases, Oct. 26, 2011.
Zhili residents riot in opposition to tax increases, Oct. 26, 2011.
Photo appears courtesy of Zhili residents

Workers in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang have hit out at excessive fees and fines heaped upon ordinary people by local officials, after the city was rocked by rioting over tax increases this week.

Textile workers in Zhejiang's Huzhou city took to the streets, torching cars and smashing government buildings, after the government announced a rise in local taxes.

""It was frightening, terrifying," said a Huzhou resident surnamed Wu following two days of intense unrest in her hometown. "All the factories are closed, and the schools have halted classes too."

Authorities sent large numbers of armed police into the city to quell the unrest, which was sparked by an announcement that a monthly tax on textile workers would rise from 250 yuan (U.S.$40) to 638 yuan (U.S$100) per person.

"There are a lot of armed police here now," Wu said. "They have arrested about 300 people, but there are still [rioters] on the street and they're surging over here, so I'm going to leave now."

'Random fees'

A second textile worker surnamed Zhou said that almost all of the families in Huzhou's Zhili township depend on the children's clothing industry for their livelihoods.

"Apart from the increase in taxes, there's also a lot of instances of miscellaneous expenses," Zhou said. "The local neighborhood committees and police take at least 100 yuan (U.S.$16) per person from us every quarter in 'fees.'"

"[They have said] something about a security management fee ... but there's not much profit in textiles these days, so we can't afford it," he said.

Zhejiang-based rights activist Zou Wei said official media are accusing a small number of people who 'didn't understand the actual situation' of inciting the rioters onto the streets of Zhili.

But he said the riots were an outpouring of popular resentment at official oppression of local residents.

"There are no checks and balances against the local government, and law enforcement agencies have become the tools of oppression," Zou said.

"The authorities are randomly taking fees from people and making existence harder and harder for small enterprises and sole traders," he said.

"Their existence is threatened, so they are forced to take to the streets in protest."

Vehicles smashed, burned

On Wednesday evening, around 1,000 migrant workers from Anhui province gathered outside the Huzhou municipal government in protest at what they called excessive tax hikes.

That night, around 40 vehicles were smashed, while a further 100 were smashed or torched on Thursday, residents said.

A Huzhou resident surnamed Xie said the authorities appear to have lost control of the city streets, and that many of the textile workers are now on strike.

"The place was alight, heated and lit up red with flames," Xie said. "They smashed cars and threatened to kill people."

"It was very frightening. None of us dare to go out," she said. "Pretty much all the factories are closed and they are sending in reinforcements, because they lost control of the situation."

Repeated calls to the Zhili township government offices during office hours on Thursday resulted in a busy signal.

However, an official who answered the phone at the Huzhou municipal police department said police were making arrests.

"We have sent people to deal with it," the officer said. "There are a lot of officers down there, and they are arresting people."

However, he declined to say how many people had been detained, or to comment on the damage caused by the riots.

Bloggers comment

Hangzhou-based rights activist Zan Aizong said official media were reporting that the city was under control following riots on Wednesday, and had omitted to mention Thursday's unrest.

"Mass incidents like this don't usually merit special reporting," Zan said. "They are usually limited to three lines of copy describing the event in a very boring style."

"They are trying to prevent the incident from escalating."

Zan said most people were getting the latest updates on the riots via the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo.

A keyword search on the site for "Huzhou" yielded more than 580,000 posts on Friday.

Many commenters were highly critical of the local government. "If the small and medium-sized enterprises are finding it tough, why are you raising taxes?" wrote user @CSF_cailao on Sina Weibo.

"This is down to the fact that the government there has managed things appallingly, and are utterly corrupt."

User @sijingcsshen wrote: "Authorities take heed: you should broadcast immediately to tell the armed police not to use violence. The government should immediately compromise and begin dialogue!"

"The Chinese government has too much power," added user @jiaoyinlideyingzi. "I truly believe that this is revolt in the face of oppression. I hope China doesn't turn into a second Libya."

Commenting on the official line on the protests, user @basanaxyz said: "Maybe the people on the streets don't know all the details of the situation, but I'm sure they know the effects on their livelihoods."

China already sees thousands of "mass incidents" across the country every year, according to official statistics. Many of these are protests or sit-ins linked to forced evictions, allegations of official wrongdoing, and disputes over rural land sales.

Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translation and additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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