Of Rice And Riches
issue 170 - April 1987
Of rice and riches
Peasants being encouraged to set up in business and even
to 'get rich' - it's all a long way from Maoism. But how do the
reforms affect the lives of ordinary people? Stephen Endicott
has seen what five years' worth of changes have
meant to the village of MaGaoqiao.
I recently returned to MaGaoqiao village for the third time. This community of 2,000 people is on the western Sichuan plain about 70 kilometers north-west of Chengdu. It is not open to foreigners and a special travel permit has to be obtained from the Public Security Office.
As one approaches MaGaoqiao on foot from the distance of the railway embankment, the scene has a steady, ancient rhythm. Children cut grass for pig fodder, slow-moving buffaloes graze by the roadside, women wash clothes in a spring-fed stream, a blue-clad peasant with a wide straw hat is repairing an irrigation ditch and a village tractor driver hauls in a load of coal. Scattered clusters of farmhouses, the village office, school and clinic, all shaded by bamboo groves and stands of eucalyptus, appear to float in the surrounding paddy fields, small islands in a mirage of light green during the early summer season.
But remarkable changes have taken place since my first stay here in 1981. At that time the village was known as Number Eight Brigade of Lianglukou People's Commune; the people worked in collective groups called production teams and were proud of the co-operative medical clinic, the school, the electrified grain-processing mill, the big tractors, the methane-gas pits and other achievements created by the collective.
By the time I went back in 1983 there had been a startling reversal. The signboard of the commune had been taken down while the brigade had reverted to the name it had before the land reform of 1952: MaGaoqiao village. People no longer worked in collective groups for work points - instead family households contracted land from the production team. Under this system each family works the land, fulfills its obligations to the State and to the collective and then keeps the rest.
The tractors and buffaloes had been sold off to individuals; even the co-operative medical clinic had been abandoned and was contracted to the barefoot doctor who ran it as a business operation. People were encouraged to take up sideline commercial activities, start taxi or bus services, or raise poultry, pigs and rabbits for the markets. Now the subject on everyone's lips was the 'ten thousand yuan' households, the families who had found a lucrative speciality and were reportedly making themselves rich.
There were signs of a new prosperity. A large chart running the length of a room in the village headquarters listed the names of 50 newly prosperous families along with their incomes for the previous year. About 20 per cent of families had built new brick-and-tile houses, there were more bicycles and even some television sets. The Party secretary dismissed the former commune structure as 'an empty framework', a remark that would have been unthinkable two years earlier.
Why, I wondered, did the Communist Party, which had worked so hard for a generation to weld individual peasant families into co-operatives, now seem intent on doing the opposite? Conversations with local people yielded no clear answers; they had not made up their minds about the new policies. It was a time of tentativeness and experimentation, of 'suck it and see'.
One of the Party's aims was to check the abuses of bureaucrats in the countryside, one of the preoccupations which had led Mao to launch his ill-fated Cultural Revolution 20 years earlier. Now that the peasants have more control over their time and labour the role of cadres or Party officials has diminished accordingly. In one of the production teams at MaGaoqiao, for example, the number of cadres was reduced from 25 to 3 as a result of the devolution of crop management from the collective to the household.
Another aim was to increase the productivity of farm work so as to raise living standards. On average a farm labourer only requires 150 days to cultivate a basic crop, which leaves 200 days of free time each year. Mao had dealt with this by mobilizing the spare labour to 'transform the rivers and mountains' of China. But after the most obvious transformations of nature - building reservoirs, field reconstruction, tractor roads - had been accomplished this system too often became wasteful and was increasingly resented by the villagers.
It was time for a change. The reformers grouped around Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, hold that the self-directed pursuit of wealth must be allowed more scope. As long as conditions of relative scarcity continue to exist, they argue, small-scale capitalist activities and markets should be permitted, even encouraged, so as to develop production. This, they say, is the way to capture the 200 free days of the peasants for economic development
When I returned to MaGaoqiao in 1986 I found the short-term results of the reforms dramatic. The village continues to prosper. Partly this is because the State has raised the price it pays for grain and cash crops: rice now fetches 72 per cent more than it did seven years ago. But in addition there are increased supplies of chemical fertilizer and better hybrid seeds which have led to record yields. The per-capita annual income has doubled since the reforms were instituted and almost half the families have built new homes. It is hard to argue with success like this.
But along with the dismantling of the People's Communes and a weakening of collective responsibility has come some polarization between the stronger and the weaker households - and the re-emergence of exploitation as the more successful individuals hire the labour of their neighbours. It has even been agreed, after much debate in the Communist Party's central committee, that party members may hire others to work for them provided the number is not too great. Is a new rich peasant class appearing as Mao Zedong feared?
Certainly the Western media (and some socialists as well) have concluded that capitalism is returning to China under Deng Xiaoping. Articles confidently report that, ten years after his death, the Chinese people are happy to forget about Mao.
But after my most recent visit to China I interpret things differently. This time there was a subtle change in the atmosphere. Nobody talks about the 'ten thousand yuan households' any longer. The Party now believes this was going too far because so few households had been able to reach that standard. Quite a few of those who tried had gone bankrupt. Individuals can still get loans to promote their businesses. But now the emphasis is on building small co-operatives and collective enterprises.
'This is the way to common prosperity and to help the poor,' the Party secretary in the village told me. The financial power of the State through grants and loans is going to collectively-owned organizations rather than to private individuals as before. So now the village has decided to join with a local factory to build a small steel-rolling mill. Already over 30 young villagers from the poorest families have found permanent jobs there and more are promised.
Local party leaders claim that they can influence the future economic direction in favour of socialist forms by relying on voluntary, democratic participation in building village co-operatives. And from what I saw in 1986 they are working in this spirit.
So in the midst of all these reconsiderations and reforms what is Mao Zedong's standing with ordinary people now? It will always be possible to find people who dislike him, especially those who were the targets of the mass movements he initiated. But while the Western correspondents were busy reviewing 'the dark legacy of Mao' last year, Chinese correspondents went to interview some of the tens of thousands of ordinary people who file past his frozen body each week in Beijing.
Said one worker. 'Mao was groping his way. Socialism is a new thing and has no precedent to follow. We support Deng and his policies but that does not mean we will forget Chairman Mao. Without the solid foundation he helped us lay down how could we have built such a nice building?"1
Why are the correspondents of the Western newspapers unable to find anyone who says things like that?
It would be difficult for any outsider to know for certain what ordinary people in the countryside think about the new and rapid changes. But one experience I had leads me to guess that different reckonings, different longings, stir in those little houses among the bamboo groves in Western Sichuan. In one home that I visited an ancestral shrine had been re-established in the living room. It paid homage to the family forebears going back to the ancient state of Lu, and gave thanks to the Goddess of Mercy for good fortune. This family had built itself a new brick-and-tile courtyard.
Their neighbour still lived in a pounded-earth, thatched house. On his wall were large portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin. When he noticed me looking at them he said, 'And I used to have a picture of Mao Zedong up there too but one day when I was out doing field work some son of a bitch came in and tore it down. What a pity! You can't get those pictures any more.'
Stephen Endicott is Associate Professor of History at York University in Ontario.
1. Beijing Review, 8 September 1986.
If it's printed it seems true. But you might be
Editor: You start with a description of a rural scene which is very different from the rest of the article. Was this a calculated attempt to seduce the reader into absorbing the information about 'production teams' and 'methane-gas pits'?
Endicott: When approaching an unfamiliar scene the observer tries to detect that which is enduring and that which is in flux. Initial impressions are real but they are usually misleading because reality is more complex. The purpose of my introduction is not to mislead the readers but to let them know how I felt on first approaching the village, to give a sense of what seems enduring as a base from which to understand the dialectics of change.
Editor: The implication of your piece is that MaGaoqiao can serve as a barometer of what is going on in rural China. But it is one village in a country of 716,000 villages. Isn't it little more than a journalistic trick to take it as typical?
Endicott: To gain a thorough critical understanding of what is going on in the Chinese countryside there is no substitute for on-the-spot investigation at the micro level. Mao Zedong called it 'dissecting a sparrow' and recommended it for anyone wishing to conduct rural surveys. All I would claim is that my report is a barometer for Sichuan province. But then Sichuan province, with 110 million people, is no small sparrow. And it was chosen by the national Government as a place to lead the way in the current reform of agriculture.
Editor: By ending with a nice anecdote about the resurgence of ancient superstitions and the discarding of Mao, aren't you falling into the same trap as the Western correspondents you criticize - allowing readers to think that the current reforms mean China has 'seen the light'?
Endicott: No. I presume that any Western person interested in China, whatever their political bent, would not regard the return of superstitious habits as progress. At the same time the anecdote indicates the existence of a measure of personal choice in the village that an outsider might be surprised to discover. I though it significant as reflecting an outgoing struggle in the village over what people ought to believe.