BORDER REGION SOCIETY
18. Death and Taxes
|DURING the summer and autumn of 1941,
while walking through Honan and Hupeh provinces, from the Yellow River to
the Yangtze River, I witnessed the beginnings of that catastrophic famine
which has been described in an earlier chapter of this book. It was depressing
to walk along the road day after day and see desolate land, fallow fields
and empty houses, tumbling with decay. Since, in many places, there had,
as yet, been no severe drought, I was puzzled to know why the fields had
been abandoned. Then peasants told me they had left their ancestral plots
because Kuomintang tax collectors and requisition agents for Chiang Kai-shek's
armies were demanding more grain from them than the land could possibly
produce. Why work, when not only all the fruits of their labor would be
taken from them, but when they would be beaten or imprisoned for not being
able to produce the required taxes?
I was ashamed to go from one Kuomintang general to another, eating special delicacies from their well-laid tables, while peasants were scraping the fields outside the yamens for roots and wild grass to stuff into their griping stomachs. But I was more than ashamed - I was overcome with a feeling of loathing - when I learned that these same generals and the Kuomintang officials were buying up land from starving farmers for arrears in taxes and were holding it to wait tenants and rainy days.
As I walked along the road, each day, some peasant would come to my cart crying a new tale of woe and each night some county magistrate would steal quietly into my room and implore me to do something - "for God's sake do something!" - before it was too late and they all starved to death. Well, I tried.
In keeping with promises I made, when I returned to Chungking, shortly before Pearl Harbor, I wrote a story describing the terrible conditions that I had seen with my own eyes, hoping thereby to call these conditions to the attention of the outside world and force Chiang Kai-shek, through either shame or policy, to do something for the lot of his hapless subjects. Much to my disgust, but not surprise, the director of the foreign publicity board, having declared that he had contrary information from missionaries in the interior (who no doubt were not starving), completely censored my dispatch. Yet, from this famine I was supposed to have conjured up out of my imagination, several million farmers died.
| What killed those vast numbers of men
and women? You will say drought and crop failure, but none of Chiang Kai-shek's
officers, landlords or tax collectors died from want of food, nor did the
people to the north, in the Liberated Areas where the climate and lack of
rain were the same, die in any corresponding numbers. What was the difference?
Why did one set of people starve and not another?
The people of Chiang Kai-shek's part of Honan did not die because God sent no rain; they died because of the greed of the men who governed them. Literally, they were taxed to death.
I used to wonder why these people did not revolt. Why didn't they storm into the cities, break open the granaries and take out the food that had been robbed from them by a soldier with a gun or a tax collector with a weighing scale? They were not apathetic; they did not want to die; but since they were going to die anyway, why did they not go down fighting, why did they not rebel against their feudal lords and masters? Well, the answer is, they did. In 1942, when the Japanese invaded northern Honan, thousands of farmers turned on the soldiers of General Tang Eng-po and quite understandably joined hands with the national enemy of China. And after all, why not: could the Japanese be worse than the army of Chiang Kai-shek?
| Perhaps this incident was in the mind
of the Peiping professor who, in 1947, warned Chiang Kai-shek that Louis
XVI was brought down by a corrupt and vicious tax system. "Unless you
reform the tax system," prophesied the professor, "a French Revolution
will come to China."
There was only one mistake in that professor's remark: the revolution was not about to come to China; it had already come. And partly, it had come because heavy taxes had crushed the peasant to earth so that he was ready to listen to the first one who would lift the terrible burden from his back and let him stand erect again.
| Intolerable taxes are nothing new in
China. They have existed ever since the Manchus were overthrown and the
warlords began to feed their armies with grain taken from the peasant at
the point of a gun. But even these crude knights of violence pale into amateur
insignificance before the regime of Chiang Kai-shek which has probably squeezed
more wealth out of China's farmers than any ruler in Cathay's long and tortuous
Although of recent years, the professional apologists of Chiang Kai-shek have been blaming high taxes on the Japanese war, it is curious to note that the Kuomintang government, almost from the day it took power, has been taxing the people out of all proportion to what they can stand.
Even in the so-called halcyon days of Chiang Kai-shek's regime, from 1929 to 1933, there were, according to official investigations, 188 different kinds of taxes to which the Chinese peasantry had to submit. In 1932, when Chiang was supposedly bringing a new and better regime to China, the rate of the land tax in most of the country was four times what it was in the United States.
Far worse than the formal land tax, however, were the surtaxes which were usually ten times the principal tax. In the days of the decadent Manchus, the surtax had never exceeded one-twelfth of the land tax, yet in the days of Chiang's prosperity it was ten times!
Such hitherto unheard-of exploitation of the peasantry, of course,
reached even more unprecedented heights during the war against Japan.
In order to carry on that struggle, his paper money having become worthless,
Chiang was forced to abandon money taxation and to demand the farmer's
grain by a tax in kind.
The end of the war against Japan, however, brought no relief to the
hard-pressed cultivator. Although the Kuomintang government formally exempted
peasants in the hinterland and in the areas recovered from Japan from
taxes for one year, the farmers actually were forced to donate much more
money and grain in special taxes.
| The burden of these requisitions
for the last quarter-century in China has really been staggering. Because
of lack of funds, squeeze among officers, arrears in pay and plain greed,
many Chinese troops depended on requisitions to get their food, clothing,
housing and a fat bank account. Grain, cattle, carts, homes, money and even
human beings have all been grist for the army officers' mill. Such exploitation
of the peasantry, however, was not realized without the co-operation of
Chiang's officials and the local gentry. As a matter of fact, requisitions
have been an institution through which the officials could rob the people
and enrich themselves. They did this principally by adding to the requisitions
at the time of collection. Thus, an assessment of five catties of flour
became eight; five catties of hay, ten; four carts, fifteen; sixty transport
carriers, ninety; and one thousand dollars requisitioned by officers was
raised to fifteen hundred by gentry and officials. Thus, war, for the officials,
was always the swiftest and straightest road to riches.
In 1947, behind the Kuomintang lines in Anyang County in Honan Province, I discovered that requisitions by Chiang's officers, co-operating with the gentry, were often over one thousand times the land tax. But such figures are only academic; for I found requisitions were so bad that often farmers not only lost all their land, grain and clothing, but also had to hand over their children as slaves and their wives as servants and concubines to the tax collectors and requisition officers.
The Kuomintang's taxation-unto-death is ancient history now. But did the Reds bring anything better?