China's Bitter Harvest

March 20, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Sun Staff Correspondent

XIAXI, China -- At first glance, this village in the Yangtze valley shows how 15 years of economic reforms have made China's 800 million peasants richer than ever.

Its residents enjoy rising incomes. Some have saved to build houses. Plans for a new technology park promise high-paying construction jobs for the village's young men.

But Xiaxi also shows why China is suffering its most serious agricultural crisis in decades. For like thousands of other villages, Xiaxi is losing its farmers to the cities and losing its arable land to development and neglect.

China, as a result, has suddenly become a major importer of grain, while its major cities have re-introduced rationing to cope with a grain shortfall. And this is a tremendous blow to a country that has prided itself on being able to feed 20 percent of the world's population despite having just 7 percent of the world's arable land.

The mood in rural areas is noticeably surly. Peasants have realized that China's 15-year economic boom has been built on their backs, and that the gulf in living standards between the cities and the countryside has widened.

The sullenness has set off alarm bells in Beijing. In recent weeks, officials have promised to increase investment in agriculture by lTC up to 25 percent. They also promised to make China self-sufficient in grain within five years, although grain imports are still rising.

According to Marc Blecher, a specialist in rural China at Oberlin College, the government's sense of urgency reflects anxieties in Beijing about future changes in the leadership. With patriarch Deng Xiaoping ailing, none of his potential successors wants to be accused of surrendering the Communist ideal of grain self-sufficiency or of allowing rural unrest to get out of hand, especially since the party is ultimately dependent on an army largely made up of peasant volunteers.

"There's a deep concern about instability in the countryside," Mr. Blecher said. "If they had a crisis and the army wasn't behind them, they'd be in real trouble."

President Jiang Zemin recently complained that the country's bureaucrats still favored industry over agriculture and that some of the world's most productive farmland was being lost to industrial parks.

This trend is nowhere more evident than in the region around Xiaxi. The Yangtze valley and China's southern coast account for 80 percent of the 1 million acres China lost last year to construction and natural disasters. Most of the disaster-related losses occurred because of dilapidated dikes and canals.

In Xiaxi, about 20 percent of the land suitable for cultivation lies fallow because peasants have left for better prospects in the city. Another 10 percent has been lost to construction of the peasants' new, larger homes.

Farmland has been swallowed by the technology park and by apartments for people fleeing the urban crush of nearby Nanjing. Tracts that once supported double-cropping of rice are now construction sites bustling with peasants who once tilled the land.

Guo Shengnan still farms. She is 53 and heads a household of six. She has 1 1/2 acres.

Mrs. Guo calculated the amount of rice she can grow and subtracted the amount she must sell to the government at below-market price. That leaves her family with $600 a year -- before buying pesticides, fertilizers and daily necessities.

"If you can get a job in the city, you're always better off," she said. "It's just not worth it to farm."

In 1978, the government of Mr. Deng began dismantling agricultural communes and allowing peasants to farm their own land. The reforms were intended to make the peasants wealthy -- and the policies did increase production and income, as shown by the new houses in Xiaxi.

But since then, reforms have favored the cities, leaving the peasants far behind. According to government statistics, city-dwellers earned 70 percent more than farmers in 1984; by last year, the gap had doubled.

"If you want to get rich, you shouldn't live in the countryside. The people in the city get all the advantages," said one of Mrs. Guo's elderly neighbors. "Here, we have to pay fees for this and that -- whatever they feel like. Whenever they need something, they charge us peasants a new tax."

In other parts of the country, the resentments have led to riots so large that the army has been sent in to restore government control.

The situation in Xiaxi is less volatile, but it shows the difficulties in trying to increase agricultural production. Besides the loss of land to construction, the town has also lost talented farmers. The one trained agronomist left the village last year to work in the city -- as have 45 percent of the agronomists nationwide and 100 million peasants.

Even those who stay, such as Zhou Erlian, want to leave for work other than farming. Mr. Zhou plans to drive a taxi bought with the family's savings and wants the family's middle-age women to do the farming.

"It's a good job, driving a taxi," said Mr. Zhou. "I won't be out in the fields growing rice."

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