Down on the farm

Letter from Jiangsu Province

October 11 1993

Down on the farm

Letter from Jiangsu Province

October 11 1993

Down on the farm

Letter from Jiangsu Province

The closer the Chinese-made Volkswagen sedan drew to the peasant village of Tanghe in the north of Jiangsu province, the worse the road got. First, the pavement ended. Then, even the graded dirt roads were left behind, replaced by rutted paths that were sometimes blocked by

sleeping goats, donkeys or water buffalo. Flawlessly directing the driver down a series of confusing byways, Zhang Xiaotao was in high spirits. Vice-director of the radio station in the provincial town of Huaiyin—the childhood home of the late Chinese premier Chou Enlai—Zhang knew the area well. As the teenage son of two Communist party cadres in Huaiyin, he had been “xiafanged” (sent to the countryside) in Tanghe for three years during the turbulent Cultural Revolution that ran from 1966 to 1976.

After a seemingly endless series of turns down unmarked paths, the car pulled up to a small farmyard of smooth, hard-packed earth,

completely bare of grass. A large sow grunted in irritation and lumbered aside as the Volkswagen came to a stop. Several women sitting near a small brick building looked up curiously but did not move, but an elderly man, heavyset and muscular, came out of a large house facing the yard and headed over, grinning broadly. “This is my ‘dad,’ ” explained Zhang. “The whole time I was living in the country, I was part of his family, like another son.”

Now a successful lawyer and journalist, Zhang, 38, makes the 120-km pil-

The sons and daughters of Chinese peasants seek a new life working in the cities

grimage from Huaiyin to the vil lage of this peasant family every year or two, to check up on everyone and to offer them as sistance when needed, if he can. His intimate friendship with the family that "hosted" him during the Cultural Revolution, and the fond memories of that stay-his real family was abused by Red Guard gangs-is quite common among educated urban Chinese now in their late 30s and 40s. "Life in the countryside here is very hard," Zhang explained, "but it has gotten much better since I lived here."

The old man, Xu Shuren, 73, patriarch of a clan of four broth ers whose houses stretch back in a line from the main "road" in de scending order of age, led Zhang and his companions into the

most obvious manifestation of an improved lifestyle, his threeroom brick house. The structure, some 20 feet tall, still has a dirt floor and, like most peasant homes, has no doors, but looks comfortable. Only the bottom five feet of brick is held together with concrete—above that the

walls are held together with mud. Still, it is a big improvement over the cramped mud huts common when Zhang lived in the village. Explaining the extreme height of his home, which makes any effort at winter heating futile, Xu says, “It is good luck to have the tallest house.” China in 1993 is in the midst of an economic revolution.

Following 89-year-old paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s celebrated 1991 trip to the country’s booming southern region, and his push for creation of a “socialist market economy,” urban areas—especially major ports like Shanghai, Nanjing and Guangzhou, and trading centres like Chengdu—have experienced a boom akin to California’s 19th-century gold rush. But the countryside, with its 850 million peasants, has been left behind.

Old Xu’s younger brother, Xu Zhongpei, 69, explained what has happened. “We four brothers and our families have about 40 acres to farm,” he said. ‘We grow most of what we need to feed our-

selves, and sell the rest in the nearest town, Xinji Xiang.” The extended family’s net income from farming, after taxes and the cost of agricultural supplies, is a meager 200 yuan (about $30) a year—only a fraction of what workers earn in the city—even though peasant farmers are now permitted to sell their produce on the open market. “The prices we get for our vegetables has not risen very much in the past three years, but the prices we pay for supplies have risen a lot,” Xu Zhongpei points out.

Yet a glance at the extended family, apparently fairly typical of the area, shows everyone—even the elders and small children—to be well-clothed and well-fed. Xu Shuren’s home even boasts a television set. Where is the money coming from to so dramatically improve the village of Tanghe’s standard of living? “Economic reform,” laughs Xu Zhongpei, giving the same answer millions of Chinese use these days to explain everything from their better clothes to the troubling spread of corruption in government and the general society. “Before, we had to live here in Tanghe,” he says. “We had no alternative. Now we are free to leave for the city to find work.”

In fact, six of the children—three women and three men—from the four brothers’ families have left Tanghe thanks to the government’s new, more liberal residency controls. Joining an army of more than 100 million peasants who have left the farms to live and work in the

cities, the three women are now waitresses in Guangzhou and Nanjing. Two of the men are laborers in Nanjing, while a third is a restaurant chef in the county seat of Quan Nan—an hour away by car but a day’s travel by bike. Each of the children in this modern-day diaspora sends home cash—altogether 300 yuan (about $45) a month. The contributions have resulted in a phenomenal increase in the extended Xu family’s collective fortunes.

Xu Yuecai, 35, the restaurant cook, is one of Xu Shuren’s sons. He usually manages to come home to his wife and young son once a week, and sees to it that both are clad in clothes that would look fashionable in the city. “I would like to be able to stay here with my family,” says the younger Xu, who hitched a ride home after someone breathlessly told him about Zhang’s surprise visit. “But I want my son to be able to get an education and have a better life.”

This new urbanization of the peasantry, while boosting the livelihood of many families in the countryside, is presenting the Beijing regime with two related—and very serious—problems. First, as younger peasants like Xu Yuecai leave the fields, the arduous task of providing sustenance for China’s 1.3 billion people gets harder for those left behind, often the very old and the very young. At the same

time, the relatively easy cash being sent home makes farm work that much less attractive, as revealed by the often unkempt rice fields along the road from Huaiyin to Tanghe.

But the last thing Chinese government officials need these days is more and more peasants seeking work in the cities. China’s creaking state factories already have too many surplus workers with nothing to do. Indeed,

Chinese economic reformers, beginning with Senior Vice-Premier Zhu Rongji, have repeatedly called for massive layoffs in the state sector. But so far, such payroll cuts have been few because of fears of massive worker unrest. The new surge of peasants into the cities can only increase those fears. Already, along the rivers and railroad tracks and alleys of Shanghai, Guangzhou and other urban centres, tent cities for roaming jobless peasants abound. Some, like Xu Yuecai and his five cousins, manage to land steady jobs, but others simply shuttle from one temporary work site to another, earning barely enough to pay for their meals.

The striking thing about Tanghe, which is situated in the poorest part of Jiangsu, China’s most populous province, is the satisfaction expressed by the peasants about their lives. “Our lives are hard,” is the common refrain, “but we’re much better off today than we were even two years ago.”

There have been reports of peasant riots this year in other parts of China—in one case by as many as 10,000 angry farmers, near the town of Renshou in Sichuan province, who said local officials had been using taxes for a new road as an excuse to steal their money. Riots reportedly occurred in other communities because local governments, all their funds invested in speculative property and stock deals, had to pay for grain with iou chits. No such complaints in Tanghe. “We sell our rice on the open market,” says Xu Zhongpei. “Then we pay a tax of 35 fen [about 5 cents] per pound.”

In China’s cities, there is today the distinct sense that increased

economic opportunity—the chance to at least try and find a job and to be free of the old cradle-to-grave employment system of the danwei, or work unit—is bringing with it a greater sense of personal freedom, even if crackdowns by police on political dissidents continue. In the country, too, while there has been little or no sign of further agricultural reform since the big change in 1981 that let peasants control their own plots of land, the indirect results of economic reform are creating a new sense of independence.

Visitors to the peasant countryside have seen how village leaders, police and party cadres—through their control over land allocations, house building permits, and permits to have children—have essentially continued the feudal relationships of prerevolutionary days. With the new wealth sent home by urbanized children or siblings, however, many peasant families no longer worry as much about such powers. Farm income does not count as much anymore, and with the scattering of extended families, it is difficult for the state to keep records of the children people are having.

Of course, essential to the success of Tanghe’s peasants is the surging growth of China’s economy—currently about 12 per cent annually. If, as even some Chinese economists fear, the economy should falter or stall,

many of Tanghe’s urban sons and daughters will return to the village and the money orders they have been sending home will cease.

For now, though, times are relatively good in rural, northern Jiangsu. While Zhang Xiaotao tries out an outdoor hand water pump—a welcome innovation since his xiafang days—a group of men sit in second brother Xu Wen’s slightly smaller brick house smoking American

cigarettes provided by a Western visitor. High up along the back wall are pasted a series of large color posters of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Underneath them are dozens of pictures of pretty starlets from Taiwan and Hong Kong and pop singers. But notably absent is the architect of China’s economic reform. “Why no picture of Deng Xiaoping?” Xu Wen is asked. “I can’t find one,” he replies with a laugh, leaving his Western visitor wondering why he has not added the face of Deng to his pantheon.