By Wieland Wagner
Even Hu Jintao was there recently. The president and Communist Party leader who, at 65, is the same age as the pig farmer, met with Yan and other farmers. Hu, also wearing a white shirt, sat outside on a stool and asked the residents of this village, Xiaogang, to recount how they set Chinese capitalism in motion here 30 years ago.
Of course, the party leader was not there to talk about the past, but to set the tone for the future. Shortly after his visit, he and his comrades in the Central Committee of the Communist Party met to discuss a new land reform policy. If party chairman Hu has his way, it will revamp the entire country and change China as much as something that once happened in Xiaogang did.
The capitalist experiment, happening so soon after the Cultural Revolution, was illegal. "But we were dirt poor and we had no choice," says Yan. He and the other farmers promised to take care of each other's children if any of them were arrested. Far from being thrown into jail, the men became national heroes. A short time after they had signed their agreement, the legendary reformer Deng Xiaoping launched his far-reaching reforms.
Xiaogang, where the farmers were so successful that they doubled their harvests in the first year, became a model. And now officials want to enlist the spirit of Xiaogang to inspire the next reform. The party wants to allow farmers to transfer the rights to the use of their land, which still belongs to the state, to third parties, a move that officials believe will stimulate local economies.
A Step Ahead
Once again, Xiaogang is a step ahead of the rest of the country. Yan Jinchang and several other farmers have already leased their land for 20 years to a large operation from Shanghai. Yan, now an employee of the company, still tends to pigs. The company invested in his farm, allowing it to become bigger and more modern. This, Yan says, benefits everyone.
The Communists have long been developing plans for land reform, in the knowledge that, ultimately, it would be detrimental to China if it merely continued manufacturing sports shoes, TVs or tankers, betting that the rest of the world would keep on buying its goods. But now that the global financial crisis is turning into a global economic crisis and saving money is the new buzzword in the West, the world's factory must look for new customers -- at home in China.
China needs its roughly 800 million farmers as new consumers. The party wants to see incomes in the rural population double by 2020, which would represent a radical change. This could explain why Beijing has only announced a rather vague outline of the reform. Chinese experts speculate that the delay was the result of substantial and, in some cases, unexpected resistance within the Communist Party. Until now, Beijing's strategists had treated the rural population principally as an enormous reserve army of cheap migratory workers.
The farmers of Xiaogang hardly fared any better, even though the myth of being the birthplace of Deng's reforms protected them from the worst. In other regions, corrupt party officials illegally confiscated fields and farmland to build apartment buildings and factories, a highly lucrative proposition.
In Xiaogang, however, villagers received government subsidies to build an attractive administration building, an enormous paved village square and a museum to celebrate their reformist fervor.
But to participate in the "small amount of prosperity" the party promised its subjects, the villagers were often forced to send their sons and daughters to work in the factories in big cities. The faster China's economy grows, the wider the divide becomes between the rising middle class in fast-moving cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen and farmers in the countryside.
Wang Shaodian, 44, and his wife farm a wheat field on the outskirts of Xiaogang. His tractor is 24 years old, but Wang will need it for many more years, not just in the fields but also as transportation. He could afford a car, says farmer Wang, holding a crank in his left hand that he uses to start the rusty vehicle. But he has no pension insurance and saves almost every spare yuan for old age. Many of his fellow Chinese are in the same position, saving four times as much as Germans on average.
Ordinary Life is Better
This is not the image one would expect to have of someone poised to replace Europeans and Americans as a domestic consumer of Chinese goods. Nevertheless, says Wang, he has already seen noticeable improvements in ordinary life in the countryside. The most important change happened when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao abolished the agricultural land tax, which has forced China's farmers into poverty for centuries.
Hardly a month goes by without Premier Wen visiting some village in China. As if he were the country's highest-ranking social worker, he asks about the hardships people face, just as he did a few months ago after the massive earthquake in Sichuan Province. But the farmers are not looking for handouts from the government. Instead, they want more freedom. That, at least, was what farmer Yan told the powerful comrade Hu when the leader recently asked him, speaking in a friendly voice: "Well, why don't you say something!"
The farmers of Xiaogang want to use their land more efficiently, Yan told his high-ranking comrade. "We want to start businesses that are profitable and create jobs, here in our village."
The fastest way to kick-start China's enormous domestic market would be to allow farmers to own and sell their land. But that, for China's communists, still smacks too much of unadulterated capitalism and is therefore taboo. It is an ideological inhibition threshold that they continue to shy away from. Memories of the party's often-brutal campaigns against large landowners are still too fresh in their minds. And they are too afraid that "socialism with Chinese characteristics" could deteriorate completely into nothing but a propaganda slogan.
Nevertheless, party chairman Hu has inspired great hopes with his announcements of the coming land reform. But now actions must follow his words, or he could lose face -- also in the eyes of pig farmer Yan. The hero of Xiaogang keeps coming back to something Hu told the farmers: "You will all have more money in your pockets in the future."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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