HomeHistory Reform

CHAPTER SEVEN
REFORM


"DOWN TO THE HOUSEHOLD"

The major political and economic reform which defines the 1981-1993 period took place over two years: 1981-1982 when collectives were dismantled and agricultural production was given back to households to manage. These reforms are locally referred to as "down to the household" ( xiahu ) because they brought the family back as the basic production unit. Agricultural land was distributed to individuals on a relatively equal basis within village units and other communal assets were auctioned off. At the same time, markets were legalized and people were allowed to initiate their own private enterprises.

 

Kelliher (1992) has provided an excellent detailed account of the sense in which these policies of reform were led by the peasants rather than the government. He describes how farmers pushed the limits in their interpretation and application of each new policy, such that policy was always one step behind what was happening on the ground. The changes in policy, seen from this angle, were merely the official sanction of innovations already underway. His account fits well with what we heard, since, as I described in the last chapter, farmers felt that by 1976 the production team had played itself out and from that time they were already beginning to concentrate their energies on developing independent family side-lines.

 

The policies of reform fit with farmers' mood of that time and so even today moving production "down to the household" is seen as a good development by most rural and urban people alike. Villagers feel that individuals and families are more efficient organizers of production and so the reform brought increased wealth for all. Whereas life before the reforms was characterized by crude poverty and chronic shortage, life after reform brought unprecedented material abundance for the vast majority. There were great economic gains for everyone and opportunities were no longer denied those who had been discriminated against as "bad elements" in the Maoist years, a significant proportion of the total population in both rural and urban settings. In addition, for those who reached adulthood after 1949, 1981 was the threshold after which they had their first opportunities to pursue their own economic fortunes relatively free from political stigma . As one older man summed it up, "life for us really began at reform ( xiahu )."

 

The 1981 reform did, however, have some negative side-effects. While there is general satisfaction with the way in which the land was divided, there is less satisfaction over the distribution of other assets and it is implied that village officials had unfair advantages in this regard. More significantly, there is general agreement that as a result of the relaxing of central government control, crime, inflation, and official corruption are all on the rise. Health care and education are increasingly unaffordable for the rural poor, and it has become harder to organize those select projects that do best when many people cooperate or pool resources. Rural officials in particular complain that it is more difficult now to implement policies than during the command and control system of the cooperative period.

 

While many people think it would have been good to have retained a small collective source of income, Xiakou had few assets and these were sold to pay off the village's debt. There was a small hydro-electric power station, a primary school building, a small electric grain mill, and, of course, an assortment of tools. The hydro-electric station needed to be dismantled and sold to another location because after it was built, a larger station was constructed upstream by a neighboring village and so there was no longer enough water to run it. The village party secretary arranged for it to be sold to a somewhat distant village, and with the sale he was given the job of assembling and running it in the new location. Some people feel this was unfair--the equipment had been purchased at their expense, and so one person should not receive an extra advantage from its sale. The school was sold to become a private house, and the children of the village must now walk to Longxi to attend primary school. The grain mill was sold to what is now one of the wealthiest families in the village, who operate it for a fee paid by other villagers.

 

Although the sales of collective assets may have reduced the village debt, they did not liquidate it. Thus families who had a work point deficit (e.g. due to large numbers of children) started the period well behind families who had accumulated extra work points, which gave them credit. At the moment of the 1981 reform, credit-- or the lack of it-- was a crucial factor in a family's prospects for bettering their condition. In the above example, the family with credit earned from a surplus of work points was able to purchase the grain mill and thereby begin a process of capital accumulation by investing in income- generating items, in turn, a tractor and a truck. Not surprisingly, today they also own the only washing machine, sewing machine and colour television in the village.

 

This wealthiest family in the village today were also the wealthiest in the "Old Society," in fact, they are the son of the landlord and Pao Ge leader Yang Yunzhong, and the daughter of his lieutenant, Wu Wenbing. Many villagers take note of this phenomenon, and frequently observe that three decades of revolution have changed nothing: "the richest people now are the landlord and rich peasant families; the poorest are the former poor peasant families." They have two explanations for this. first, under the work point system, families who had been `hatted' as bad elements tended to earn more work points-- they had not lost points by attending as many meetings as those with good class backgrounds, they had been made to work hard to avoid criticism, and they were frequently given the most odious (and remunerative) jobs to do. Second, villagers point to a mentality, a kind of work ethic and ability to achieve that can be passed down within a family-- often through education, always through moral example.

 

Significantly, this return to the status quo ante, to the class structure of Old Society, is not generally a great source of resentment; rather, it is broadly seen as the natural course of events-- not fatalistically, but in accordance with the principle of "hard work brings fortune" ( qinglao zefu ). For many farmers, this phrase sums up all that was best about the " xiahu " reforms of 1981. Farmers universally believe that their standard of living greatly improved in the 1980s, and they are happy with the reforms, despite increasing disparities in wealth among villagers in the period.

 

Many Western observers' accounts confirm that the reforms were broadly successful and welcomed by farmers. But after cresting in 1986-88, the gains from the xiahu reforms began to level off. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw first stagnation, then actual erosion of villagers' standard of living. A brief look at the course of dairy goat development in the village during this period shows this trend and some of the factors influencing it.

 

THE CASE OF DAIRY GOAT DEVELOPMENT

Dairy goats were first kept in Ya'an in 1983, when they were introduced from Shaanxi province. Their introduction was initiated by the local government to provide a new source of income for farmers while, at the same time, allowing a government-run food company to capitalize on an expanding urban milk market within China . During the 1980s, the dairy goat industry in Ya'an progressed well, adding an important new source of income to family budgets. After 1986, significant capital investments were made by the government and international donors which expanded and improved both the dairy herds and the milk powder processing plants. People in Xiakou remember the middle- and late-1980s as a time when corn harvests were good and dairying was lucrative. In the early and mid-1980s grass was a plentiful resource and there were subsidies for the purchase of feeds and so the goats brought new and welcome prosperity to Xiakou.

 

By the time we arrived in 1991, however, some significant problems were in evidence. Between 1987 and 1990, the number of goats in Xiakou village doubled. So many people were now keeping goats that collecting grass took more and more time and the quality of fodder was not what it had been. Subsidies which had in the past allowed farmers to buy corn during the shortfall at below market prices were now being phased out. In 1988 farmers who sold milk to the factory could buy corn at half price, in 1989 the reduction in price was 20%, and after 1991 the subsidy ended. Moreover, the price paid for milk had not risen for several years while the government had adopted a practice of deducting tax monies and other special fees directly from farmers' milk income, a practice the farmers did not appreciate. Making money from goats was becoming harder.

 

During the period we lived in the village, things were to get worse still for the dairy goat business. In 1992 the corn harvest in Xiakou was the poorest in many years and people estimated their corn yields were down one-third from what they had expected. This meant that the 1993 shortfalls would be larger than usual. Exacerbating this problem, the cost of grain began to rise precipitously in 1993 as the price of milk remained flat. Corn went from .32 yuan per jin in 1992 to .5 yuan per jin . If one deducts from the milk earnings the cost of corn at market price which the goat eats, then one sees that the real earnings from raising goats went down 16%. If four goats earned their owner 2 yuan a day of gross income in milk sales, the net profit, thus calculated, went from 1.2 yuan in 1992 a day to just 1 yuan per day in 1993.

 

The milk powder factories had troubles of their own during this same period, and as a result they delayed both the breeding season for the goats and the milk collection season. By encouraging the buck farmers to breed later in the year in 1992, they ensured less milk would be produced in the spring of 1993, milk they feared they could not manage. This they followed up by delaying by twenty days the date on which they began milk collection in 1993, creating a period during which some farmers had no market for their milk. Once the season did begin, it had to contend with worse than usual road conditions which periodically effected milk transport. When milk is not successfully delivered to the factory, the milk collector deducts the money he loses directly from farmers' incomes. If this was not enough, the factories were late with their payments to the farmers in June and July. June and July is the lean period for these farmers, the time before the harvest when they have to buy corn, fertilizer, and rice. In the summer of 1993, the township government made these problems clear to the city government. In a report written at this time, they stated that,

 

prompt payment for milk is extremely important for farm families, for dairy goat husbandry, even for agricultural production. Some farmers say that the price of milk is low, they need money but cannot get any so why bother raising goats at all? At the same time, when milk funds are not disbursed properly this creates problems for the township government in collecting on the animal husbandry project's loans. In July, a township government team of officials visited families to collect loan payments. Some of the farmers said, "I can't get any milk money; you go ahead and take the goat away and just forget the loan. [We'll just call it even]. (Ya'an City Government 1993, p.2-3)

 

By the fall of 1993, the goat business had bottomed out and most families in the village had ceased to keep goats. The number of goats in the village went from 434 in 1992 to 150 in August of 1993. In the face of anticipated corn shortfalls, the rising price of corn, the low price of milk, delayed payments and continued deduction from milk incomes, many farmers in Xiakou simply sold off their goats in late 1992 and 1993. While these developments in the dairy goat business may have been part of a slow general trend of stagnation in the late 1980s and early nineties, it also needs to be placed in the context of the second wave of reforms that had taken place in early 1992.

 

 

THE SECOND WAVE OF REFORM

 

To understand the second wave of reforms and their impact on the farmers, it is necessary to take a closer look at institutional developments within the government in this period. When I first arrived in Ya'an in October of 1991, the memory of the 1989 protests was still very fresh and there was talk that recent policy innovations now had as their objective to improve opportunities for young people, for it was the disgruntled youth who had initiated the disturbances. In the government work-units in the towns, people acknowledged that it had been hard for the young people to compete with older officials and now it was time to do more to give them a chance.

 

In December of 1991 Deng Xiao Ping took his now-famous "southern tour" to investigate the effect of the more liberal policies being tested in the coastal "special economic zones" such as Shenzhen in Guangdong province. Deng concluded that these market reforms were beneficial to the Chinese economy and the benefits of this brand of "socialist-market economy" should be made more widespread. Following his conclusions the government issued an important "number two document" ( er hao wenjian ) of February 1992. This document opened the way for government work units to become financially more self-sufficient and even encouraged government employees to seek "second jobs." Its provisions also led to a restructuring of government to give more weight to township or zhen administrations and less to county levels. The effect was dramatic.

 

The opportunity to take second jobs and shift employees to the townships was seen to be one that would allow the young people in the offices, who had little work to do, to find a creative and constructive outlet for their energies. As government bureaus sought to become more self-sufficient they looked for ways to use their youthful labor to generate new revenues. The Ya'an County Bureau of Animal Husbandry, like many other bureaus all over Sichuan , looked to new investment opportunities in Hainan island, a new special economic zone in the South China Sea . The Bureau sought to buy land to set up a dairy farm where the young people would go to earn money urgently needed to fill the gap of declining funds from the central government. In practice, youth underemployment was not the sole motivation; swept up in the national craze to "do business" and make money while the making was good, nearly all the employees of government work units were eager to "jump into the sea" ( xia hai ) of bureaucratic capitalism.

 

In Ya'an, the Prefecture (the level above county) used the opportunity of restructuring to take over some of the tax base of the county government. The county government, as a result, had to decrease the incomes of its standard employees by 25%. This was somewhat compensated for, however, by allowing bureaus and individuals to engage in business to make money. The urgency with which this was pursued was fortified by rumors that service bureaus were to be eventually liquidated-- where there was a staff of 40, there would be a staff of five. Due to these two changes-- decreasing government salaries and the legalization of outside money-making pursuits-- the employees of the county government service bureaus (the forestry bureau, the bureau of animal husbandry, the bureau of agriculture etc.) transformed almost overnight, as most employees ceased to dedicate themselves to their former roles. On the one hand, offices were increasingly empty and people spent more of their office time drinking tea, chatting, reading the paper and even playing cards. On the other hand, small businesses run by the bureaus sprang up all over, but these businesses, in general, rather than increasing the productive base of the economy, worked to further divvy-up the existing market.

Work units commonly opened restaurants and convenience stores or even ran lotteries and slot-machines. Some (most notably the powerful army and security organs) invested in real-estate and built luxury hotels. Worse still, many work units sought to convert old networks and official powers into leveraged profit-making schemes. For example, the sanitation bureau required all local restaurants to start using disposable chopsticks which had to be purchased from their bureau. Others simply focused their efforts on expanding their revenue collection and system of fines. In one case, violence erupted between members of different work units, one a food factory, the other a department in charge of inspection, as the latter set up a road block in order to impose new fines on transport. Reports of abuses of power by the police were numerous.

 

The money to fund the investments in stores and businesses came from whatever funds the local government had access to in a rather unregulated way, and much of this money did find its way to Hainan where it was lost in risky ventures. An article in the China Daily told how China exhibited a rare case in which rising interest rates were showing little effect on rates of spending-- a phenomenon no doubt caused by the level at which people were spending other people's money with minimal accountability. As lower levels of government had to compete more vigorously for scarce funds from the provincial government, use of gifts to win favor of patrons in the provincial bureaus expanded and became the mode to gain access to program funds from higher up the government ladder. It was said that the county had issued a new document condoning the use of gifts to win favor among those with power. At a state-run hotel where officials frequently ate, the ordering switched from a selection of set menus to a la carte ordering, leaving no limits on how much money might be spent at banquets. Worsening corruption had profound effects on infrastructure developments, as the size of kickbacks became the determining factor in the award of building contracts. The fast and unregulated pace of these developments led to a severe credit squeeze by the end of 1993 and the cycle of spending has resulted in severe inflationary pressures.

 

Pam was attached to a county bureau, and at the outset, as she watched these developments, it was hard for her to fathom just how these events were going to effect farmers, although she anticipated that they would. In time, the impact became clear. Since 1992, inflation in Ya'an has been severe and basic commodities on which farmers depend, for example fertilizer and grain, are becoming more costly as incomes have remained relatively unchanged. Meanwhile, in the cities and towns electronic merchandise, foreign cars, and expensive restaurants-- the loot of government corruption-- are plainly visible for farmers to see, and further fuel farmers' rising expectations for material wealth and frustration at their loss of social standing.

 

Farmers see the contradictions clearly and there have been many tax revolts and uprisings in Sichuan in this period of growing discontent. For example, in early 1992 there was national attention in the press expressing concern over the fact that farmers in some parts of Sichuan farmers were being given IOUs ( bai tiaozi ) instead of cash payments for their grain crops. The international press became alerted when farmers in Ren Shou county in Sichuan rioted because they were angry at all the ad hoc fees being collected in connection with a new highway built through that area. On the east side of Ya'an, farmers held a high county official hostage for twelve hours because they were suspicious about what had been done with a collective fund of money that came from the sale of their lands for a factory development project. In Xiakou I was asked if it was true that officials were "selling the downtown to foreigners" a rumor based on the fact that some Japanese were negotiating the possible purchase of one of Ya'an's central parks for private development. Land deals became one characteristic way in which officials could reap short-term profits from the resources they had at hand.

 

The political and economic changes that ensued from Deng's Southern Tour have directly effected agricultural production and marketing in rural Ya'an County. With the changeover in local township personnel, part of the general bureaucratic restructuring initiated by the shifting winds, there was a period of adjustment during which local infrastructure was poorly maintained--the township failed to pay for routine repair of irrigation canals. As a result, leakages made for water shortages when the rice shoots were planted and localized soil erosion on hillsides below the canal. As the deregulation of public funds resulted in a severe banking crisis, farmers' loans were called in and many farmers have found themselves strapped for cash. Reorientation of government-owned factories interrupted the supply and effected the quality of basic inputs such as fertilizer and seed.

 

Particularly important for the farmers in Xiakou, the local milk powder factories were unable to raise the price they pay for milk to keep pace with the rising cost of production and many farmers opted to get out of dairy farming altogether. This was a particularly painful development since farmers have relied on this milk money to purchase their basic rice rations and fertilizer. The township government report that was cited in the discussion of dairy goat farming above, explicitly drew a connection between the nationally famous case of the IOUs and the case of the delayed milk payments in Ya'an, when it wrote:

 

Through television, radio, newspapers, and other channels, all the dairy farmers fully understand the central government policy forbidding the use of IOUs ( bai tiaozi ) in lieu of payment for farm goods, and they detest the IOUs given them for their milk production. Although the township government has many times brought this problem to the attention of the relevant government organs, and made it known to the food products factory, this involves problems the township government is unable to resolve itself. Thus we request an appropriate solution from the city party committee and the city government.

 

The problem was indeed not just a local problem that the township could resolve for itself, but reflected much broader trends, as the reference to the national policy forbidding the use of IOUs illustrates. This report also demonstrates how the changing political climate resulted in conflicts between different local government bodies as they jockeyed to maintain control of resources. It is interesting to note that in this case the interests of the township government, more than the other bureaucratic bodies involved, remained closely aligned to interests of the farmers. Nevertheless, in this report the township was also asserting its own right to control more of the milk revenues. In the end, the case study of dairy goat farming shows that in this climate of competition and conflict among government bodies, it is the farmers who are 'squeezed' as a vital source of revenue.

 

By 1995 the price paid for milk had risen slightly. In addition, the EEC terminated gifts of milk products to China which had been made from the stockpiles of surplus European production, improving the market for Ya'an's milk powder. Those who held onto goats were able to get some advantage from this turn of events.

This cycle of decline and redress underlines an important point about problems due to government mismanagement. While serious problems do arise in many fields of government management, once the problems and contradictions emerge clearly, there usually is corrective action taken. For example, when the problem of the IOUs emerged, a major campaign was launched by the central government to "lighten the burden of the peasant" ( jian qing nongmin de fudan ). Thus the trend toward corruption in the post-reform era is not so much a linear progression as it is fits and starts, and it is still anybody's guess how effective the government will be in ultimately keeping the problems within the bounds of acceptability.

Nevertheless, as the backdrop for this thesis, the important point remains that whereas city people, and officials in particular, were able to realize significant profits from the reforms, rural people saw this new wealth as beyond their reach. In a town near Xiakou, some men began to wear their hair in the fashion of the Qing Dynasty, in queues. We asked a brother of one of these men why the return to the old fashion. He answered that it was because time these days appeared to be going backward. He added that for people in their situation to participate in the new wealth was like the "eight immortals crossing the ocean," it required supernatural powers.

 

One evening we sat with a family watching a television programme which profiled how one initially poor village successfully developed their economy. It began with pictures of a quiet hamlet in a rice-growing region, it then showed them developing a few small sideline enterprises and ended with footage of a large bustling factory which now assures everyone in the town a high living standard. At the outset the village looked like one the people in Xiakou might identify with; by the end it might have seemed as far from their reality as the moon, and yet it was being put forward as a model for people like them to emulate. At the end of the program, the woman announcer said to her audience "that ends our report, good night"; our host stood up and with barely restrained disgust answered "good night" as he blackened the TV.

 

In the countryside, such attitudes of helplessness, frustration, or cynicism were more typical of older people than younger people. The changes seemed to be effecting the rural youth differently from the old and the women differently from the men. As a result of the reforms, there was a building boom. The luxury buildings going up in cities and towns all over the province required building stone, and some local men were able to make good money by working in the marble quarries 100 or more kilometers distant. Working at those locations put a greater distance between men and their families. At the same time, the accelerated quarrying of local stone made people guess that in the near future there would be no more stone to harvest locally and the men would regularly be forced to travel further and further away in order to tap remaining resources in more remote areas of the province. Young men often liked working away, but many of the married men said they preferred to be closer to home. Opportunities for women remained very limited. There are almost no jobs available to women, and the few I heard of paid miserably low wages (around 50 Yuan per month). As men join the labor market, and are frequently absent, more of the burden of agricultural production falls on women. Typically, men return to the farms for planting and harvesting, but most farm work is done by women. Animal husbandry, especially raising goats, provides an income to farming women, but inflation and low milk prices have combined to erode these earnings, and depleted fodder resources further diminish returns.

 

 

CREDIT CRISIS

 

The impact of the second wave of reforms on the lives of the farmers in Xiakou is most vividly demonstrated by an event that took place in July of 1993 when many local farmers had their old debts called in. That week prices for grain and pork had again taken a sharp rise. A young man from the village found this understandable-- as he rationalized "this is the market economy." His father did not agree. Instability was not a good sign as he saw it; it meant the government was not in control ( guojia bu guan ). At this same time, milk payments were already three months behind and a rumour circulated that they would not be forthcoming until the end of the milk season in the fall. The money did come before that time, but the rumor reflected their (not unfounded) belief that their money had been taken by others to invest and do business, and their continued annoyance at the deductions made for spoilage when the road had problems.

 

At this time, as is normal, several families in Xiakou had sizeable debts at the local credit union ranging from several hundred to several thousand yuan. As a result of the financial speculations that mushroomed after the "number two document" of 1992, a major campaign was emerging to tighten credit and call in loans. All the families in the township who had outstanding debts were called to a meeting in the old theatre in Longxi on July 9th. In Xiakou's second team, this meant the representatives from five families went to town that rainy morning. On the way some of them chatted about the state of the provincial banking system, how the banks were empty because the officials had used the money to do business. They talked about the unfairness of a system where now some people who were well connected could obtain great loans of tens of thousands of yuan, while others could get nothing; about how this never would have happened in Mao's time because then the government had money. They also chatted about the new activities and events taking place at the old Chuan Zhu temple. At the bottom of the hill before entering the township, some of them went into the temple to "ask the god to protect us."

 

In Longxi, uniformed police lined the street in front of the theatre in an unusual display of official authority. In the old building of damp walls and peeling paint a small turnout of rag-tag farmers gathered to hear the words of a policeman of the county court. The rain had made the turnout for the meeting quite small-- they had expected one hundred people but only thirty or forty came-- so the speaker, with some of his entourage, came down off the podium and sat among the farmers in order to address them. The speaker was young and clean-cut and he spoke well, in a way that showed, as one farmer later commented, "he understood the concerns of the farmers." The official explained that,

 

Our job is to protect the government law and our power is great. We are even above the public security bureau. We protect the law and this should be to protect you. We help you when you have a problem, when you are a victim. Now you may have seen the newspaper and heard the radio that there is a problem, that the banks have no money. You may have seen in the cities people who now have used the government's money to buy a car or motorcycle, build a house and fill it with electronic gadgets. This is "looting" ( fa guo lan cai ). Yes, I will use that word, that is what it is and we are now catching these people and taking away their things. From the province, to the counties, to the townships, we are doing this work at every level now. We are catching these people.

 

You people here have also got government money and you must pay it back. You understand this is the law. If a father raises a child and the child has money and has fun but does not take care of his old parents, we, the court, will protect these old people and make the son take care of them ( yao guan ). Now you all have gotten a loan from the government when you had troubles and needed help. When you needed the help, the money was there for you. Now you have to pay it back.

 

This is what we want to let everyone know. We have come to collect this money. We are working with the local people and we will be here three days. We can smell who has money and who does not, so people should come forth. There are cases where the father has no money, but the children have money, and this we will find. If not, we take down houses, take away tractors...

 

We are working for the court and our job is to serve the people, not to be against you. So you have three days while we are here to pay. Go home, borrow money from your friends and relatives so you can pay. If you do this by the end of July 11, then there will be no additional fee. After that we have to add for the costs of our work. Help us spread our message. Some of your villages are far away and people could not come today so help us to tell them.

 

You have heard that today's policy is to "lighten the load of the peasants." This concerns taxes and costs. What we are talking about here today does not go against that policy. It is a separate issue. This is money you have borrowed, money you used when you needed it, and now you must pay it back. This is basic law. Also things are being done to lighten the load.

 

It should be pointed out that at this time many people in China felt that the legal system is in need of reform, although the term "human rights" is not the term used to express this opinion. "Human rights" is seen to be a tool for the imposition of Western interests on the Chinese state and is associated with issues like "prison labor," which Chinese do not see as wrong, and with the Tibet question which, again, most Chinese see very differently from most Westerners. There is even general support for the birth control policies in China as a necessary means of coping with the high population density which is seen to negatively effect the quality of life. The problem, as many Chinese see it, is that the exercise of legal authority is too often arbitrary and cases are decided by who one knows and what influence one has rather than by the merits of a case. Nevertheless, if a crime is committed, they do feel punishment should be strict and there is widespread appreciation for the idea that government should be strong in this matter.

 

On the way back home, indeed, many of the villagers complained that some people would not be under pressure to pay back. Those who had kin in the local credit office, for example, had not bothered to even come. They noted that "all you have to do is look at Chinese history and you will know that this matter of connections has always been a major problem." Most of those who went did pay back at least some of the money they owed. I heard later that one family from a neighboring village who were quite wealthy and did not pay were evicted from their home, but to the time of this writing, my understanding is that the pressure has continued and has effected some of the poorest families in the village. One man had to sell his only pig to pay back taxes, meaning he had little meat this past winter and little manure this spring.

 

 

HEALTH AND EDUCATION

 

Many locals complain that it is now increasingly difficult to afford to send any of their children to high school. Education is viewed as a key means to improve one's position in society, but it is also valued for its own sake. They are proud of what education they have, but many feel they would like more. They are grateful for the new window on the world television provides. Very many of them, aware of how the affairs of the nation and the world have effected their own lives, take a lively and intelligent interest in national and international politics, asking questions about the shifting balance of power in the United Nations or the presidential elections in America. Although education is highly valued by young and old alike, in the four teams of Xiakou, there were less than five children currently attending high school. While education was very nearly free in production team times, in 1993 they calculated that it costs 100 yuan a year for primary school and much more for middle and upper school. (In 2005 that price had risen to 1000 yuan). Add to that the substantial ways in which the young people contribute to family earnings by cutting goat and pig grass and other household activities, and the poor quality of preparation local schools provide, and one sees why so few families are able to make the investment in education.

 

Zhang Caofu, the local barefoot vet, in addition to having his own farming responsibilities, travels on foot to the scattered villages of the township helping farmers with their livestock, and, at the same time, treating human patients with twisted or broken limbs. He is public-spirited and demonstrates concern for the well-being of the poor members of his community. One day I heard him remarking that today you have to pay to go to school; you need money and many peasants cannot afford it. He compared this to collective times when he felt that education was very cheap and if one had ability one could study. He feels what is needed today is a return to a system of merit determined by tests. To the point that some say money is a reflection of ability, he countered that money means the father has ability and does not reflect on the son. "This system is not just bad for the peasants; it is bad for the country."

 

Zhang Caofu then talked about the rising cost of health-care. A woman he knows just spent 600 yuan for five days in the hospital for a bad back. Recently he has three or four people coming to him every day with broken bones and other problems since he is more affordable than the hospital. Hospital costs reflected the inflationary trends apparent in other sectors of the economy and the increasing unaffordability of health care was a frequent topic of conversation. Farmers complain that doctors, like other people in the new economic climate, were only interested in making money and not afraid to turn away sick people who could not pay. It was also observed that while Mao had banished the god of diseases from China , he was now returning. Tuberculosis in particular was felt to be more common again, and there were dark rumors of cholera and leprosy.

 

"PUBLIC MORALITY"

 

Doctors were not singled out for criticism. Observations about the over-riding importance of money in today's society are part of the villagers' more general discourse concerning "public morality" ( gonggong daode ). Many people in Xiakou are worried that the material prosperity sweeping the country has its price in the breakdown of public order and social harmony. They point to a rise in crime-- from infamous acts of armed robbery on trains and long distance buses to what they perceive as a rise in petty thievery in their own community-- as a function of rising expectations and a free-wheeling economy. They deeply resent the official corruption they see all around them. Most of all, they fear a society where money replaces loyalty, filial piety, reciprocity, trust and respect as the glue of social relations. A typical criticism of the new political and economic climate is that, "before people counted and now it is only money that counts."

 

The word most frequently used to describe this sense of social decay is " wai ," literally, "crooked", but used in such expressions as `fake/counterfeit' goods ( wai huo ) or `his character is rotten to the core' ( ta de xingge wai de hen ). When today's society is described as wai there is a specific association with the traditional idiom: "when the main beam is not straight, the lintel is crooked" ( shang liang bu zheng, xia liang wai ), meaning that when high officials are not upright ( bu zheng ) the people will be corrupt, lawless, "crooked" ( wai ). Indeed, many farmers openly say that the main source of the general disintegration of social relations lies in the breakdown in the crucial relation between the villagers and government officials.

 

Their understanding and expression of this idea has a strong historical dimension. Thus observations about today's crooked society are often linked to statements about the past: "it's worse today than it was under the Nationalists" or "it wasn't like this in Chairman Mao's day." Even the rumors, noted above, about the reappearance of pestilent diseases have very strong moral and historical resonance. In stories of the Old Society, leprosy is used almost metaphorically to link physical and moral putrefaction. Cholera is linked to the historical memory of the great epidemic that swept through Sichuan (especially the capital of Chengdu ) in the last, corruption-ridden years of Nationalist rule. Different age groups have different historical associations, but the assessment that the reforms of this period brought both prosperity and a crisis of public morality is nearly universal among villagers, young and old.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Given the fragility of the agricultural economy and the importance of the role of the state in the post-reform economy as described in Chapter Two, it is not surprising that the impact of the second wave of reforms was cause for considerable concern in the countryside. This concern was not directly focused on the policies of the second wave per se ; the events of this period were seen simply as an amplification of the basic problems that have been present since reform ( xiahu ) began and even of problems, such as corruption, that are of perennial concern in China. It is thus no wonder that in this period of transformation, farmers have been interested in reflecting back on their history in order to better understand the changes that are taking place, and their own ideals for where they might be going.

 

 

see Nolan (1988)

In Xiakou there were eight bad elements, four in team two. In addition, the children of bad elements were affected by their parents' label.

For example, Nolan (1988), Howard (1988). Early, tentatively critical assessments can be found in Perry and Wong (1985), especially Hartford (1985), but the most important dissent is Hinton (1991).

This decline in farmers' standard of living is, in many ways, an echo of the "peasant immiseration" trend during the first decades of this century described by Fei Xiaotong (Fei 1953). Then, as now, local elites (today's party cadres) turned their attention and energies away from the countryside and toward the material lures of the cities, especially the coastal cities, resulting in "social erosion" and a moribund rural economy. Eastman's (1988, p.94) description of that earlier period of treaty ports, imperialism, and rural de-gentrification could also describe the Sichuan bureaucracy's investment in coastal Hainan province today-- and its consequences: "This drain of the nation's wealth from the countryside to the treaty ports had incalculable consequences, depressing the rural areas and skewing the nation's financial and industrial development in favor of the foreign-dominated cities along the eastern seaboard, rather than investing in home areas, where the sense of insecurity was chronic."

I witnessed several livestock projects that demonstrated a similar characteristic form. A new industry develops around a given animal (fur rodents, fur rabbits, bears farmed for gallbladder juice, and specialty breeds of chicken are just some examples) and there is much money to be made by those who get in early--not just from the regular productive capacity of the animal but also, in pyramid fashion, from selling breeding animals to new farmers who want to get in on the business. The cycle of expansion then outstrips the demand for the animals' product and those who have bought animals at inflated prices take a loss. In some cases the whole market is based almost exclusively on hype, and in some cases the hype has been built up intentionally by government officials who can thus capitalize on their networks. In other cases a more stable enterprise may develop. Given the investment in milk processing factories and the demand for milk in China, I believe the goats will remain relatively important in the Ya'an economy for some time.

see (Scott 1976)

Madsen (1984, p. 241-243, 263) blames the "individualist ethic" and "utilitarian mode of moral discourse" in Post-Mao China for the decline in public morality, increase in crime, and "breakdown of commitment to the local community." The idea of "public morality" is an indigenous category.

In this light, one can understand why during this same period there was a revival in Maoist icons. Chairman Mao is still widely appreciated in the countryside for his attention to farmers' well-being and for his ability to control crime and corruption.

The same metaphorical use of disease can be seen in Chiang Kai-shek's war-time assertion that the Japanese were only "a disease of the skin," and therefore less threatening than the Communists, who were "a disease of the heart."

The same metaphorical use of disease can be seen in Chiang Kai-shek's war-time assertion that the Japanese were only "a disease of the skin," and therefore less threatening than the Communists, who were "a disease of the heart."

About This Essay


The Reform Period in Ya'an

This essay is based on recollections of life in Xiakou village during the 1980s and early 1990s, a period that included decollectivization and local experience of the transition to a market economy under Deng Xiaoping's reform policies. In the essay we argue that the most significant effect of decollectivization was the liberation of wage labor and the increase of inequality in village society. These narratives were recorded in 1992-93, a time of critical transition in China , when the reform period kicked into high gear; this essay reflects that moment. While the basic trends outlined here effectively characterize the critical first phase of the reforms, a better understanding of the later trajectory of the reform period can be obtained by reading the Ecotourism essay in the Landscape chapter and the essay on the Village Economy in 2004 in the Work chapter of this website. An earlier version of this essay appeared as a chapter of the same name in Pam Leonard's 1994 Ph.D. thesis "The Political Landscape of a Sichuan Village ."