30 years on, new reform plan could reverse rural revolution

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 October, 2008, 12:00am

A small riverside township in the eastern province of Anhui has become the recipient of intense media attention during the usually quiet 'golden week' holiday.

President Hu Jintao visited historic Xiaogang village where 30 years ago a secret land division agreement signed by 18 local farmers triggered rural, and later widespread, economic reform, which has transformed the country.

Three decades later, top leaders in Beijing found themselves battling negative effects of that reform, analysts say.

Now a buzz is growing for what is shaping up as another milestone moment when communist leaders meet next week for their plenary session to iron out a new rural reform plan, which could be seen as reversing what they did 30 years ago.

'In recent years, we peasants have become clearer that farming individually cannot bring us a prosperous life,' Yan Hongchang , a Xiaogang villager was quoted by Xinhua as saying. 'It's an inevitable trend to amass the land and combine production forces.'

Responding to market opportunities, the farmers are now, according to Guan Youjiang , head of the villagers' committee, 'trying to explore a new way of getting rich, just as we did 30 years ago'.

To such an end, Yan Jinchang , one of the 18 farmers who in November 1978 risked their lives to put their fingerprints on the secret agreement for a piece of farmland to cultivate on their own, has now let go of his parcel. His 0.13 hectares of farmland was leased to a Shanghai-based poultry company for an annual rent of 1,000 yuan (HK$1,125).

The Shanghai company later set up a pig-breeding farm after pooling 13.3 hectares of farmland in Xiaogang, and Mr Yan was one of the villagers who joined the farm on a monthly salary of 600 yuan.

The annual salary, plus rent and year-end dividends from the company, is much more than what he could get from an entire year of toiling over the same piece of land growing crops. Even a good harvest could only bring him 1,000 yuan a year.

In what would look like a throwback to the old days of collective farming, a great deal of land in Xiaogang village - about 60 per cent of the village's 133.3 hectares of farmland - has been rented out and assembled into larger patches to grow mushrooms, flowers and grapes and keep livestock.

Han Kang , a professor at National Institute of Administration, said China had entered a new stage of rural development that required consolidating the overly parcelled land resulting from the Household Responsibility System, which was initiated 30 years ago.

By putting individual households in charge of small and often scattered pieces of contracted farm land, the system reinstated farmers' incentives, which were sharply curtailed under collectivised farming.

The move also reduced the scale of agriculture and reduced levels of mechanisation, Professor Han said.

Critics even blamed the system for the widening urban-rural income gap - one of the biggest economic and social problems on the mainland. The country's farmers will be condemned to inefficient, low-tech, small-scale, traditional agricultural production if further reforms were not to be undertaken, they argue.

Xiaogang village is a case in point. The shortcomings of the Household Responsibility System, together with rapid urbanisation and policy changes in the 1980s unfavourable to the agricultural sector, led to its relapse into poverty in the 1990s.

Now, with a more flexible use of their land, Xiaogang is revitalised. Last year their per capita annual income reached 6,000 yuan, surpassing the national rural average of 4,140 yuan. Now they want the legal protection of a land lease.

The third meeting of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee elected last year, which convenes from October 9 to 12, will review the amendment to the land management law which would grant farmers more freedom to transfer their non-farming lands, Xinhua said.

'The meeting ... is shaping up to be another milestone in China's rural development,' said Professor Han.

Earning power

The rural average annual income last year on the mainland was 4,140 yuan

In a more flexible use of their land, the people of Xiaogang village managed to surpass that, earning: 6,000