A daring experiment that reaped rewards

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 November, 2008, 12:00am

Wang Yuzhao , 82, witnessed first hand the daring experiment by Xiaogang villagers 30 years ago and gave his support to their new system of land division.

The former head of a university in Anhui was party secretary of Chuzhou prefecture, which holds jurisdiction over Xiaogang village, when the farmers could no longer bear their oppressive poverty and risked their lives to divide land up among themselves in 1978.

Mr Wang, who went on to become Anhui governor from 1983-87, said farmers in the prefecture had tried other, less aggressive, methods to reduce poverty since 1977.

One was grouping families into small teams and dividing land among them in the hope that this would give a greater incentive to produce larger harvests than working in communes.

But none of the experiments was successful until Xiaogang farmers took the lead to divide land among households.

The result was stunning.

'During my first visit to Xiaogang there were no men there, as they were all out begging,' Mr Wang said. 'But when I went there again, I was stunned by the bountiful harvest and I decided to support them.'

Mr Wang said he resisted intensive opposition from other Anhui officials and gave permission to Xiaogang farmers to experiment with da bao gan - contracting land to households - for three years.

Wan Li , party secretary of Anhui at the time, played a crucial role in legalising the experiment.

'He said in a meeting that da bao gan was a baby that had been born and that we should give it a household registration certificate.'

Mr Wang said farmers throughout the province rushed to contract land - originally collectively farmed in communes - to individual households.

But other provincial leaders launched fierce attacks against the experiment during a national meeting in 1980. The experiment nevertheless won the support of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and was enshrined in government documents in 1980 and 1981, including the first No1 Document on rural policies.

By 1983, most farmland nationwide was contracted to individual households, although it remained collectively owned.

Mr Wang said the Xiaogang experiment was merely a rectification of the mistakes made in the era of rural communes. He said farmers' lives would have been better if land had not been taken away from them after the first land reform in the 1950s.

However, Mr Wang, who was promoted to central government think-tanks as a rural policy adviser in the late 1980s, insisted land privatisation was not feasible in China as landless farmers might lose all means of social security. But he said China was two decades late in using the surplus in the cities to support rural development, and the rural-urban divide would have been much smaller if the government had started subsidising farmers in the 1980s.