Chinese peasants seek new path to prosperity

October 3rd, 2008 - 9:22 am ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Oct 3 (Xinhua) When Yan Jinchang stamped his fingerprint on a secret agreement 30 years ago for a piece of farmland to cultivate on his own he did not expect that he would lease the land one day.”Everyone in my village was willing to lease land to get a stable rent then. Many, now set free from the land, have gone to big cities to seek new jobs,” says Yan, 65, from Xiaogang village in east China’s Anhui province.

Yan also started a new career, but in his village.

Two years ago, Yan leased his 0.13 hectare of farmland to a Shanghai-based animal and poultry breeding company for an annual rent of 1,000 yuan ($145).

The company later set up a pig-breeding farm after pooling a total of 13.3 hectares of farmland in Xiaogang, and Yan was one of the villagers who decided to join the farm with a monthly salary of 600 yuan ($87).

The annual payment, plus rent and year-end dividends promised by the company, is much more than what he could get from an entire year of toiling over the same piece of land growing grains, since a good harvest could bring him only 800 to 1,000 yuan a year.

But Yan seemed to gain even more than that. He has been promoted to be the farm’s manager due to his “rich experience and leading capacity”.

Aside from the pig farm, the land in Xiaogang village has also been assembled for mushroom, flower and grape plantations, which is considered a more efficient development mode evolved from a contract system initiated 30 years ago.

On one night in Nov. 1978, 18 villagers of Xiaogang, including Yan Jinchang, risked their freedom to sign secretly an agreement, which divided the then People’s Commune-owned farmland into pieces for each family to cultivate.

This was a bold move, as it was seen as “capitalist” and might have led to severe punishment from the government at that time.

Thus, on that secret agreement covered with villagers’ seals and red fingerprints, there was a wobbly line saying: “If any word about this is divulged and the team leader is put in prison, other team members shall share the responsibility to bring up his child till he (or she) is 18. ”

The risk proved worth taking. Allocating farmland to each household, also known as “household contract responsibility system”, fired the locals’ enthusiasm for agriculture production, which had been contained in the outmoded planned economy, and helped poverty-stricken locals out of starvation.

The 1980s, with farm potentials fully unleashed, saw the country’s rural population far outperforming their urban peers.

Many Xiaogang villagers soon accumulated tens of thousands of yuan by working from dawn to night. “In 1989, my family spent 100,000 yuan ($14,493) building a two-storey house,” Yan Hongchang said.

However, since the development of urbanization in the 1990s, rural areas have gradually lost their lustre, as resources, labour, land and funds flowed to cities.

Xiaogang, located on the bank of the Huaihe river, the country’s third largest, suffered the same setbacks. The village did not become the “national model” in leading locals to wealth through land division as people had expected. On the contrary, some villagers slid back into poverty again.

“In recent years, we peasants have become more clear that farming individually cannot bring us a prosperous life,” Yan Hongchang says. |”It’s an inevitable trend to amass the land and combine production forces. ”

Currently, about 60 percent of the village’s 133.3 hectares of farmland have been leased and re-divided into larger patches for industrial production of mushrooms, flowers, grapes or livestock.

In 2007, the per capita annual income in Xiaogang exceeded the national rural average of 4,140 yuan ($600) to reach 6,000 yuan ($870).

“That could not be realized if each family worked on its small piece of land separately,” says Shen Hao, the party chief of the Xiaogang village, expecting more villagers would lease their farmland to promote a more efficient agricultural economy.

“With more leased land in circulation, Xiaogang village is to witness another period of fast development,” Shen says.

The current new land reform, based on the farmers’ own will, did not clash with the contract system, as the farmland would be returned to each household once the lease was due. “It’s by no means a lapse into the planned economy,” Guan says.

He Kaiyin, however, worried that the lack of related regulations on land lease would put both sides of the lease on risk once there was any dispute.

“Now at a new start, a corresponding new system is needed (in rural areas),” He says.

Shen Hao is more ambitious. He has painted a “three-phase” development plan for Xiaogang Village. The work during the current first phase is to promote land lease to adjust the local agricultural structure, the goal of the second phase is to develop tourism by the fame of Xiaogang Village, and the third step is to attract businesses and coordinate the industrial and agricultural development in the village.

“There are many ways of developing rural economy. Xiaogang is still searching, hoping to find a path that suits it most,” Shen says.

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