Freeing China farmers from communes created wealth -- and new problems

May 29, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

GUANGHAN COUNTY, China -- After decades of tilling the earth with little to show for it, Wu Daifu is finally living up to the meaning of his name, "bringer of wealth."

But it is not in his fields of wheat, rice and rapeseed that this peasant-turned-entrepreneur finds the way to a better life.

Mr. Wu -- a shrewd 49-year-old who served 25 years as his district's Communist Party secretary -- has become a one-man capitalist conglomerate, relying much more on sideline enterprises than farming.

PD He earns more than $2,000 a year by hiring others to collect and

sell back to a paper mill its waste pulp. He makes another $2,000 by transporting goods in a 1-ton truck driven by his son.

He takes in a couple of hundred dollars from managing the local agricultural cooperative. His six slivers of farmland totaling less than 1 acre bring in a few hundred dollars more -- as well as more grain than his family of four can eat.

One man cannot adequately represent the profound changes that the 900 million inhabitants of rural China have undergone in the past 15 years. But Mr. Wu's diverse pursuits aptly reflect the energy unleashed with the dismantling of China's agricultural communes -- an historic move that officially began in this Sichuan Province county in 1978 and one that has brought once unimagined gains to the countryside.

Mr. Wu's collection of enterprises also illustrates the critical crossroads to which this revolution has brought many Chinese farmers. As he puts it: "Agriculture is the foundation of China. It must be maintained. But you can't get rich if you only rely on farming."

At least 60 million peasants, mostly in northwest and southwest China, remain mired below the Chinese poverty line, set at an annual per capita income of $55. But almost everywhere in rural China, the fruits of allowing farmers to work land individually under state contracts are abundantly evident in the form of new brick houses, bustling markets and bright clothes.

Feeding the masses

Perhaps never in human history have so many people improved their lives so fast. Grain production has increased by a third since 1980. Rural income has more than doubled. Rural savings have increased more than tenfold.

Almost 100 million peasants have moved into 18 million rural enterprises. Eighty-thousand country markets have sprung up. Much of rural China is urbanizing at an unprecedented rate, with villages turning into towns and towns into cities.

These changes help to explain the continued hold of the Communist Party on China. Political stability here directly depends on providing a rising standard of living to China's peasants and ensuring that they continue to produce enough food for the nation's 250 million urban residents.

But maintaining both the remarkable pace of this transformation and a sufficient food supply for 1.15 billion people may prove more daunting than the original freeing of farmers from China's failed experiment in radical socialism.

These new challenges involve a particularly Chinese calculus -- too many people, too little land, not enough investment, uneven political control and increasing economic deregulation:

* Grain production has reached record levels in recent years. But China's population grows by 15 million annually. Per capita grain supplies peaked in 1984, and a greater reliance on imports came in later years -- a dependence that is expected to increase in the 1990s.

* Twenty percent of China's grain crop is wasted every year because of poor distribution and storage. The state-controlled grain system -- with low prices to producers and subsidies to consumers -- devalues grain, thereby encouraging waste.

* Chinese leaders still assert, much as Mao Tse-tung did, that grain is the "key link." But less land is sown in grain every year, as farmers move to more lucrative, decontrolled crops. Moreover, China loses 500,000 acres of farmland annually to erosion and the phenomenal growth of rural industries and housing -- devastating losses for a nation feeding 22 percent of the world with 7 percent of the world's arable land.

* The growth of rural incomes -- now averaging $129 per person a year -- has stagnated since the mid-1980s. Higher production gluts markets in some grain-rich regions, depressing prices. Costs of necessities such as fertilizer are rising. Corrupt officials further deplete farmers' profits with dozens of illegal levies.

* State agricultural investment fell drastically in the 1980s. With land-use rights still uncertain, peasants have not plowed their rising savings back into the land. Collective irrigation systems -- perhaps the greatest achievement of China's communes and the lifeblood of Chinese agriculture -- have widely deteriorated.

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