ON THE FUYANG ROAD, China -- From a distance the peasants look like a straggly army, thousands of them spreading out into the fields along the road, loosely organized around red flags flapping from thin bamboo poles.
In the long light of a winter morning they trudge through the dirt, struggling to level the land that will become a highway leading to a boomtown 20 miles north. They could be a road crew in any developing country except that here in China they are acting out a milleniums-old ritual: putting in weeks of unpaid, forced work -- usually known as corvee labor.
This winter tradition is as unpopular as it is old. Over the centuries, forced peasant labor built the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, but also helped give rise to rebellions that toppled dynasties.
Now, just as in China's imperial past, the leaders who command these millions of laborers are sensing that they might be requiring too much of their subjects. With taxes up 60 percent over the past two years, demands on China's 850 million rural residents are fueling widespread unrest at a time when Beijing craves stability.
Anhui, for example, was one of six provinces recently singled out by the central government for its "chaotic" state of law and order.
In December, a charismatic cult leader was executed for illegally organizing a religious group. One of his prime recruiting groups: the overworked, impoverished peasants living near Fuyang.
China's government-run media regularly call for the burdens on peasants -- mainly taxes and corvee labor -- to be reduced. For several years, various organs have announced that certain taxes will be abolished and that local leaders must this time listen and stop pushing their people so hard. Each year, however, government figures show that the peasants' burdens remain the same or increase.
The government of Anhui recently asked its local organizations to lighten the burden on peasants. "Why?" asked an unusually blunt editorial in Anhui Daily, the official newspaper of one of China's poorest provinces.
According to the newspaper, the orders must always be repeated because local Communist Party bureaucrats simply ignore them. The officials, the editorial said, "are overanxious for quick [economic] results," ignoring the fact that "lightening the burden on peasants is not only an economic problem, it is a political problem concerning the social stability of rural areas."
It's easy to see both points of view in the ancient tug of war over the peasants' seemingly limitless supply of labor. For officials in charge of impoverished provinces such as Anhui, the peasantry seems like a tantalizing cornucopia of free labor that can be used to build up the country's infrastructure.
The highway to Fuyang, for example, will help connect the province's fastest-growing city to the economic heartland further south.
But plans drafted by faceless technocrats accountable to no one but unelected leaders are notoriously unpopular in any country, especially one with a famously stubborn and willful peasantry.
"How can this be of benefit to me?" asks Little Li, a 44-year-old farmer forced to spend a week building the road. "I've got work to do in my fields and instead am building a road in someone else's field."
Mr. Li and 70 of his fellow villagers were forced to work on the road as part of the four weeks of mandatory labor that they must provide the state each year. They traveled seven miles by bicycle to the site, pitched a tent and started working.
In the past, Mr. Li said, the labor tax was more acceptable because peasants had more free time in the winter. But economic reforms have given rise to a host of sideline occupations that keep peasants busy in the off-season, so the lost time is also lost income.
On top of that is the sense that the road will not be of direct benefit to the villagers, who say it is one thing to band together to repair dikes, irrigation canals or build a local school, but another to hike across the county for a project that will mostly benefit more prosperous city residents.
Peasants average 20 days of corvee labor a year, although in some areas the number of days can easily double that.
Other levies include direct central government taxes, local taxes and the grain peasants must give the central government under China's "contract-responsibility system," which generally lets peasants do what they want after fulfilling their duties and paying their taxes -- a far cry from the totalitarian past when the government tried to control all aspects of life.
Although peasants have been freed from 24-hour control, local officials have also been freed of Beijing's iron-fisted hold, allowing them to impose taxes almost at will. Fueled by increasing local levies, the official People's Daily reported that taxes on peasants increased 58 percent in 1994, the last year for which there are complete statistics.
Officially, peasants pay no more than $9 in taxes on an average income of $189, but a survey by the Anhui People's Bank showed that illegal levies doubled that amount. Other estimates put the figure at 25 percent of peasants' net income, although government regulations say taxes shouldn't exceed 5 percent.
Peasants are easily victimized by local officials because they are ignorant of the central government's efforts to reduce their burden, says Mi Youlu, publisher of the magazine Rural Tribune. The magazine estimates that 68 percent of villagers are unaware of the government's official plan, which last year abolished 80 local taxes and levies.
Some counties have started issuing peasants a "burden card," which lists all the taxes and tasks they must perform each year. Once the duty is performed, they get a stamp, which is some protection against tax-hungry tyrants.
Blaming the peasants' high burden on local officials may miss the mark because many taxes are the result of central government policies, which have added new layers to China's ancient bureaucracy, said Wang Shan, a Beijing author who wrote a controversial book, "Viewing China With a Third Eye," that warned of rural unrest.
"At one local township government that I inspected, the number of cadres increased from seven just after liberation [in 1949] to 170! There are now eight divisions, in charge of water projects, security, family planning, electricity and so on," Mr. Wang said.
"The central government calls for these offices to be set up but then doesn't pay for them. The local governments have to solve the funding themselves. Where does the money come from? The peasants!"
Many rural residents find their burdens of taxes and forced labor especially onerous because they see their position slipping relative to city dwellers. Rural income has risen 5 percent each of the past two years, leaving rural per capita income at less than half the amount earned by urban residents.
The slow rise in rural income also makes it virtually impossible for the peasants' standard of living to reach the level projected under China's current economic plan. Incomes would have to increase by 10 percent to reach that level by 2000, as called for in the plan.
Last year, frustrated peasants in Anhui marched on the provincial capital of Hefei demanding that taxes be lowered. After milling around the capital for a few days, most went home, but not until they elected a few leaders to negotiate with provincial authorities.
At the end of negotiations in December, all of which were conducted in secret and not reported in the Chinese media, the government agreed to cut the peasants' burdens and so instructed local officials -- once again.
To date, however, taxes remain the same, the archaic system of corvee labor is still in place and rural grumblings seem set to stay a part of China's volatile political mix.