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Poverty Alleviation
Eighteen hungry farmers from Xiaogang Village, Anhui Province, signed a secret pact, lighting the torch for China's rural revolution.
By Tian Yun | NO.34, AUGUST 24, 1981

Fengyang peasants selling surplus grain to the state

Editor's Note: Following is the first of three special reports on the changes which have taken place over the past two years in the rural areas of Chuxian Prefecture in east China's Anhui Province. Parts 2 and 3 will appear in succeeding issues. 

Chuxian Prefecture is an historically poverty-stricken area which had not made any substantial progress in farm production for many years. But the recent introduction of more flexible agricultural policies has made a dramatic difference in the lives of Chuxian's peasants. 

Peasants support the adoption of various forms of responsibility system in farm production, including the fixing of output quotas on the basis of individual households, and the development of household sidelines and a diversified economy. The Party Central Committee formulated appropriate policies in compliance with the peasants' wishes and after investigations of local conditions. 

For many years, fixing output quotas at the household level was mistakenly criticized as attempts to "restore capitalism." The reappearance of these things in poor and backward areas has given rise to many questions among friends of China in other countries. We hope that publication of these reports will help clarify those questions 

Chuxian Prefecture includes seven counties in eastern Anhui Province with an agricultural population of 2.95 million. During my visit I talked with a considerable number of Chu-xian peasants and rural cadres. Their favourite topic of conversation was the new policies, which had allowed them to achieve a prosperity they had never known before. Their enthusiastic approval of the new forms of responsibility system was obvious from their every tone and gesture, from every smile that creased their sunburnt faces. The story of Xiaogang Village is typical of what has happened throughout the area.

In 1978 Anhui was hit by serious drought, That September, the Party committee secretaries of over 240 communes of Chuxian Prefecture met to discuss ways of helping the peasants recover from the natural disaster. One of them raised an issue that touched a nerve in all of them: "Why on earth are the peasants here so poor? One or two of us secretaries might be charged with incompetence, but can all of us be incompetent? Could we make some changes in the organizational and managerial methods of our collective economy?"

A commune Party secretary of Laian County replied with an account of recent developments in his area. To combat the drought, one commune's production team had decided to subdivide itself into several small work groups. Each group had signed a contract with the team accepting the responsibility for meeting specific production quotas. Everything they produced within the quota went as usual to the team for unified distribution. But if they surpassed the quota, the surplus would belong to the work group members. They settled among themselves the hours of work, the division of labour, and other matters.

This was a big improvement over the old days, when individual responsibilities were not clearly defined and incomes often did not reflect the amount and quality of the work people did. As a result of these measures, the team's grain output had increased by 50 per cent in just one year.

Cadres all over the prefecture started talking about this responsibility system. Then the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Party Central Committee held at the end of the same year called upon people to emancipate their minds and adopt more flexible rural policies. Before long, experiments in assigning production quotas to small groups were going on throughout the prefecture.

Peasants driving their own tractors home

The Xiaogang Experiment

The Xiaogang production team in Fengyang County's Liyuan commune in the northern part of the prefecture was selected as one of the experimental units. The 20 households and 115 people of Xiaogang were very poor. They had no tractors, only a few cattle; most farm work was done by hand. When they could not find a satisfactory team leader by election, they decided to try setting quotas on the basis of households.

The team's 25.3 hectares of cultivated land was divided and allocated among the households according to the number of people each had. The land is still owned by the collective; household members have only the right to use it. In accordance with the number of people, each household was assigned quotas - so much to go towards meeting the overall state quota, so much towards repayment of state loans, so much towards the team's accumulation and welfare funds. The income from any surplus above these quotas could be kept by the families themselves.

Yan Hongchang, a 32-year-old Xiaogang resident, recalls the days before the new system went into effect: "From 1966 to 1976, the peasants here had to depend on grain and relief funds from the state for six months out of every year. The collective income was so low that each person got an average of only 25.8 yuan a year as his share. The prolonged hard life left us so discouraged that many saw no point in working at all, much less working hard. We let weeds grow wild in the fields. Some lost hope altogether, and left for other places to make a living."

Ten years ago, Yan himself left home to do odd jobs elsewhere. He returned only after the fall of the gang of four in 1976. At the end of 1978 he was elected deputy team leader because he proposed to "work out a way to feed all of us." Soon after the election, he found the peasants unwilling to try setting quotas even at a small work group level. So he and Yan Junchang, the team leader, decided to try household quotas.

Chen Tingyuan (right) chatting with peasants

Remarkable Changes

Before the new system was introduced, the peasants were so dispirited that few would take any initiative, and planning and organizing was left to the team leaders. The leaders had to try to arrange production schedules, urge people to go out to the fields to work, and solve any problems that arose. And leaders were blamed for the low levels of grain and income distribution.

But now the peasants themselves have taken the initiative. Many not only cultivate the land they have contracted for, but have also started to reclaim wasteland (21 hectares so far). Family members are out in the fields early and work hard all day, with the able-bodied taking on the heavier jobs while the very young or very old do lighter tasks. During the summer rainy season, peasants go out to the fields in their raincoats.

There is new concern about soil fertility, weather changes and water resources. Each household tries to get better varieties of seed to plant. Those who never bothered about insect control have bought sprinklers and even the older generation has begun to learn about scientific methods. From sowing to harvesting, Xiaogang peasants watch over their crops as carefully as mothers tending their babies.

The results are plain to see. Xiaogang's 1979 grain output was 69,500 kg. - an amount equal to the total five years' output from 1966-70. In the same year 17,600 kg. of oil-bearing crops were harvested, surpassing total amount grown in the preceeding 20 years. The number of pigs raised exceeded any year in history. The team not only set aside some grain and money as reserves and repaid part of the state loans, but also handed over or sold to the state more than 12,000 kg. each of grain and oil-bearing crops. The average per-person farm and sideline income reached 311 yuan (the 1977 figure was 41 yuan). Even the household which gained the least earned an average per-person income of 240 yuan.

Animals raised by individual households

Summing up the Experiment

Xiaogang's history of backwardness in agricultural production had several causes, including poor farmimg conditions, frequent natural disasters and an inadequate material base. But local people believe the root cause lay in the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the peasants. Their initiative and enthusiasm had been suppressed again and again by ultra-Left practices in the rural areas.

What happened during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) serves as a typical example. One year Liyuan commune sent an 18-member work team to Xiaogang (there were only 19 households in the village at the time). A leader of the work team told the peasants: "You are no longer permitted to take the capitalist road. The work team will not leave here until you've been driven back to the socialist road."

The two things he labelled as capitalist were, first, the small differences in income due to the practice of "to each according to his work," and second, the income from plots for personal needs and household sidelines, both of which were permitted by state policies. As one might expect, peasant initiative was seriously damaged. Low labour efficiency and equalitarian distribution have become long-standing. problems in the management of collective economy.

After the "cultural revolution" ended, plots for personal needs were given back to the peasants and family sidelines were encouraged and supported. The economic situation improved a little, and the peasants were happier. But the above-mentioned problems still existed in the collective economy, and stood in the way of real progress.

With some experience of the new system, the peasants themselves identify three advantages for the household quota method:

- Serves immediate interests of the peasants. After handing over a set proportion to the state and the collective according to contract, the peasants can keep all the remaining products of their labour. Their income depends directly on their work. The old equalitarianism, which meant no differences in income whether one did a good job or a sloppy job, is gone. Because quotas include anocations to the collective, funds are still available for public welfare and subsidies to families and individuals with financial difficulties, so the superiority of the collective economy in this respect is maintained.

- Fixes responsibilities. The new system has solved the problem of ill-defined responsibilities and low labour efficiency. Instead of leaving everything to the leaders, the peasants themselves now take the initiative in deciding such things as hours of work, crop rotation and the use of more scientific farming methods.

- Is easy to administer. Instead of trying to manage every aspect of farm production, production team leaders can concentrate on overall planning for the team, while leaving details of farm work to each household. Contracts are drawn up in clear and simple language, and are signed once a year. This system of management seems more suitable for poor and backward areas.

The strength of responsibility system

In 1979 many rural cadres who had been influenced by "Left" ideas opposed the fixing of output quotas for each household. In Liyuan People's Commune the Party secretary forbade this practice under the pretext of preventing a "restoration of capitalism."

Chen Tingyuan, the Party committee secretary of Fengyang County, went to investigate the situation in Xiaogang team in the company of the Liyuan commune Party secretary. After they examined the newly sprouted peanut crop and held discussions with various commune members, they went to deputy team leader Yan Hongchang's thatched cottage for a rest. Party secretary Chen asked Yan: "Can you peasants do better if quotas are assigned to each family?" Yan Hongchang declared with assurance: "Yes." Chen Tingyuan then turned to the commune Party secretary and said: "Let's give them a chance. Maybe this method suits their conditions."

Chen Tingyuan's remarks seemed quite spontaneous but actually he had thought about rural problems for many years. In the 1950s, Chen Tingyuan raised controversial opinions concerning the problems in implementing the Party's agricultural policies and protecting the peasants' interests. For this he was wrongly labelled as a "Right opportunist."

This county Party secretary has worked in the countryside for 30 years and knows well the difficulties the peasants face. He has concluded that the distinction between socialism and capitalism is not decided by collective or individual labour, but by the form of ownership of land and other major means of production and by whether there is exploitation or not. He believes that there is no correlation between fixing output quotas for households and capitalism. In poor and backward areas like the Xiaogang team, fixing output quotas for households may be a fuller expression of the socialist principle of more reward for more work and distribution according to labour.

Chen Tingyuan again visited Xiaogang after the summer harvest. He investigated the results of the new system and observed that the harvest had been good and the peasants' food supply was adequate. In February 1980, Wan Li, then the provincial Party committee secretary and now Vice-Premier and Minister in Charge of the State Agricultural Commission, visited Xiao-gang. He went from house to house to talk to the peasants and subsequently commended the way Xiaogang was managed.

In 1980, the Xiaogang team signed contracts with every household. The contracts set clearly the responsibilities of both sides. They fixed: (1) Output quotas, including the land area to be sown with each crop, output per unit and total output; (2) quotas to be supplied to the state, including annual and seasonal quotas for grain, edible oil, hogs, poultry and eggs; (3) money and grain to be handed over to the production team for the collective accumulation fund, the public welfare fund, collective grain reserves, and to be used to repay loans, to compensate for the depreciation of fixed assets and to subsidize the cadres of the production team. Many of these items were recorded in a table in the contract when they were fulfilled.

The contract for fixing output quotas for households is a legal document. With it, the people in Xiaogang feel reassured. They have opened up more wasteland and their enthusiasm for production has been enhanced. In 1980, despite three months of cloudy and rainy weather, the quotas of oil-bearing crops to be sold to the state remained the same as in the previous year. While the output of oil-bearing crops fell slightly, the total grain output went up by 64 per cent compared with the previous year when fixing output quotas had just begun to be implemented. Grain sold to the state increased by 114 per cent, and the average percapita income, 41 per cent. In the last two years, 82 new rooms have been built in Xiaogang and the number of draught animals has increased from one to 19.

Xiaogang is a miniature of Fengyang County. In the years 1953 to 1978, the state had supplied on the average 8,650 tons of grain annually to Fengyang. In 1979 and 1980, the situation changed drastically as a result of the adoption of fixing output quotas for households and other forms of the responsibility system. For these two years, Fengyang handed over and sold to the state an average of 50,500 tons of grain per year. The peasants in Fengyang had not had so much grain before. Many observed that fixing output quotas for households is really an effective way of eliminating poverty.

Various forms of responsibility system have been practised in Chuxian Prefecture. Those production teams which carried out the system of fixing output quotas for households account for 92.9 per cent and they have achieved good results in increasing production. So far they have only taken the initial steps in meeting the needs of the people. The government policy is that this system will remain unchanged for a relatively long period of time. How long the period will be and when and how it will be changed depend on the wishes of the peasants.

The test of the big flood

When fixing output quotas for households is practised, each household becomes a production unit. If there is a natural calamity, can the people be organized to resist it?

Last summer, rainy weather lasted for nearly three months in Chuxian Prefecture. As a result, 40 per cent of the land suffered from waterlogging and crops were destroyed on 13,000 hectares of land; houses embracing more than 30,000 rooms were damaged and some 30,000 people were endangered by the rising waters. The prefecture experienced its second largest flood in the 32 years since liberation.

In fighting the flood and draining the waterlogged fields, water conservancy projects built by the state and collectives played a role. More than 100,000 peasants from seven counties served as a shock force to protect dykes and deal with emergencies. This enabled three flood peaks to pass safely. Those left in the villages drained water from the fields and replanted them, and cultivated the new crops.

All the seven counties in the prefecture reaped in bumper harvests under these conditions. The total output did not decrease, but, for the first time, went above 1.5 million tons, the highest level in history.

Jia Changzhi, former Party secretary of Jiashan County in the northern part of Chuxian Prefecture, recalled that last July water in a lake in Jiashan went up rapidly and the 22kilometre-long dyke was in danger. In the evening when the county announced this, 13,700 commune members rushed to the site. After five days of hard work, the danger was fended off. Why did the commune members who were responsible only for their family's production rally in face of such a natural calamity? They realized that no matter how well the rice in their own fields grew, it would come to nought if they did not join hands to fight the flood.

Jia Changzhi revealed: "At first I was not sure myself if the commune members under this responsibility system could be mobilized to fight such a big flood. Now I think, with necessary ideological education and organizational leadership, this system in production is excellent, because the peasants work not only for the state and the collective, but also for their immediate interests. That is why they are as active in fighting the flood as they are in production."

Let the peasants choose

Now most production teams in Fengyang County have adopted the system of fixing output quotas for households, but there are also some which practise fixing output quotas for production groups or keep the team as a production unit. The opinion of the county people's government is: Let the peasants choose; no unitary pattern should be forced. In poor production teams like Xiaogang, fixing output quotas for households is a good way to eliminate poverty and provide the peasants with enough to eat and wear. However, in areas where the collective economy is fairly developed and mechanization and economic development have reached a higher level, the peasants do not want to implement this system of fixing output quotas for households. They want to establish responsibility systems which suit their own conditions and can further develop their collective economy.

The Jiangzhuang Production Brigade in the mountainous area of southeastern Fengyang County is one such case. It is composed of 2,250 people who are divided into 11 production teams. Taking advantage of its remoteness, its Party branch reduced to the minimum the influence of "Left" ideology when the gang of four held sway. Since the early 1970s, it has led the peasants to develop agricultural, industrial and domestic sideline production in a planned way. They have planted 80,000 trees, cultivated 80 hectares of economic forest, raised 2 million fish and set up seven industrial enterprises. Their income from industry and sideline occupations has surpassed that from agriculture and the total value of fixed assets and collective accumulation is 1.09 million yuan. Everyone is guaranteed 350 kilogrammes of grain annually. In agricultural production, tractors have replaced heavy manual labour and the peasants are satisfied with the low-cost co-operative medical service. In addition, the brigade has a permanent construction team to build houses for the brigade members. Already 40 per cent of the brigade members have moved into new houses.

In order to carry forward the strong points of collective management and overcome its shortcomings, i.e., not clearly defined responsibility and inflexibility, since the beginning of this year, the Jiangzhuang brigade established a new responsibility system in production. The brigade-run enterprises carry out independent accounting and have introduced a more flexible system of awarding compensation. Most of the wages are fixed (decided according to skill, amount of labour and productivity); the rest is given as bonuses based on monthly production figures. With regard to agricultural production, rice and wheat, two major crops, still remain under the care of the production teams or groups, while other crops (oil-bearing crops, cotton, maize and sweat potatoes) which are not planted in large quantities are the responsibility of households with fixed output quotas.

Jiangzhuang adopted this formula completely on their own accord and it has received approval from the county Party committee. If necessary, the brigade has the right to change it in the future.

Farm Output and Commune Members' Income In Chuxian Prefecture

  1979 1980 Percentage increase
Total output of grain (1,000 tons) 1,416.5 1,608.5 13.6
Total output of oil-bearing crop (ton) 49,530 75,710 52.9
Per-capita income from agriculture (yuan) 82 103 25.6

Note: The responsibility system in production began to be implemented in 1979. By 1980. 85 per cent of the production teams in Chuxian Prefecture had adopted this system.

Since the introduction of the responsibility system, agricultural production and the standard of living in Chuxian Prefecture have gone up (see table). Its achievements represent the hope of China's backward countryside to eliminate poverty and develop prosperity.

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