View From The Village


new internationalist
issue 170 - April 1987

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View from the village
China's peasants have lived through some of the most profound
social changes in human history. The power of individual landowners
was replaced after the Revolution by a unique communal system;
now that too has been dismantled. Here NI picks out the key features
of China's changing rural landscape. Illustration by Peter Wingham.


Since 1980 the Rural People's Communes have been dissolved. Officially the land is still owned by the collective but peasant families and individuals now work the land under contracts of 15 years or longer which can be inherited. They are even allowed to employ other people to work on their land - something unthinkable in Mao's time when it would have been seen as exploitation. Some employ others to do all their agricultural work and spend their time on more lucrative commercial activities - rearing pigs perhaps - or owning small factories.

In practice the land has often been divided into the thinnest of strips. This allows each contractor a share of good and poorer land as well as access to road. But it has many negative results: the land is more difficult to work, mechanization is currently impossible and irrigation water and fertilizer leak on to neighbours' plots. This causes frequent disputes.


The reforms since 1980 have produced better harvests. This is partly because of the 'responsibility system', by which individuals can keep the financial rewards gained by their own labour. But this appeal to self-interest is not the only reason. The much-increased use of chemical fertilizers and the higher prices the Government has paid for grain have also helped.

But there is more money around, even if it is much less equally distributed than in the past. Much of the extra earnings has been spent on improving houses - ostentatious house-building would have been frowned upon during the Cultural Revolution. Yet most are still built in the traditional style around a courtyard - even if they are now often adorned by a television aerial. Televisions are usually the first buy of any family with some spare cash.

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Traditional open markets where families sell surplus produce were banned for much of the Cultural Revolution - though by no means for all of the Maoist years. Now they have reappeared, though they are often wasteful of the time of so many people with so little to sell. But they seem to have raised morale, as visible proof of independent effort. The markets have also helped give the Chinese diet more variety - though production of staple grains such as rice has suffered somewhat as more and more peasants have chosen to diversify into cash crops such as cotton and tobacco.


[image, unknown] Just as mechanization is more difficult now that the land is no longer worked communally, so many of the old communal resources are either rusting unused or else not being maintained. Tractors appear increasingly on the roads, used more as lorries hauling goods for entrepreneurs than as agricultural tools.

Under the commune system any surplus labour was channelled into building resources that benefitted the whole community - irrigation systems and roads, for example. But now that surplus time is spent making money through other activities the infrastructure is running down. The State may have to find another way of caring for communal resources if China's agricultural health is not to suffer.


[image, unknown] Most clinics and schools were, like the irrigation systems, built up during the Cultural Revolution. This was because the whole community's labour and savings could be channelled into such projects. Now the communal clinic is no longer supported and doctors - whether 'barefoot' or more highly trained - are expected to set up in business privately. This may satisfy those on higher incomes but the poor are starting to leave wounds and illnesses untreated because they cannot afford to pay.

Schools, too, are finding they have fewer pupils - and not just because of the 'one-child policy', which has had much less effect in the countryside than in the towns. Families are encouraging children to work at home, in the fields or workshops so as to boost incomes; and teachers have left because their salary is no longer paid by the collective.

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