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Chinese Farmers Explore New Path to Development

When Yan Jinchang stamped his fingerprint on a secret agreement 30 years ago for a piece of farmland to cultivate on his own, as he had been longing for, he didn't expect that he would lease the land one day.

"Everyone in my village was willing to lease land to get a stable rent income then. Many, now set free from the land, have gone to big cities to seek new jobs," says Yan, 65, from Xiaogang Village, east China's Anhui Province.

Yan also started a new career, but still 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 (US$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 (US$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".

"The pork from our farm has a special flavor and is directly sold to large supermarkets in Shanghai, with its price twice that of the common pork," Yan says.

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 lives 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 that "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 facts proved that it's worthwhile to take the adventure. 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 grains that a local farmer turned over to the state in the following year almost totaled what he did in past two decades, recalled Yan Hongchang, one of the 18 Xiaogang villagers who initiated the contract system.

Their practice was later supported by Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of China's reform and opening-up drive, and recognized by the Chinese government. Xiaogang has since been labeled as the pace-setter of the nation's rural reform.

The ensuing 1980s, with farmers' production vigor fully unleashed, became a primary period for development in China's rural areas, which once outperformed 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 (US$14,493) building a two-story house," Yan Hongchang says.

However, since the development of urbanization in the 1990s, rural areas have gradually lost their luster, along with flows of large amounts of resources, including labor force, land and funds, to cities and mounting tax burdens.

Xiaogang Village, located on the bank of the Huaihe River, the country's third largest river haunted by frequent floods, 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 farmers 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. "

He Kaiyin, an expert on rural issues from Anhui, considered it reasonable to aggregate the land for better utilization, as a lot of farmland remained idle and irrigation and other rural infrastructures were left dilapidated after farmers swarmed into cities.

Yan Deyou, once head of Xiaogang Village, is now looking after a 12-hectare vineyard, "which can bring out a profit 10 times that of grain farming," he says.

"This year, about 40 hectares of the leased farmland in my village have been pooled to grow grapes, which has facilitated a centralized management and made it easy to fertilize, water and remove pests from the land." Yan says.

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 (US$600) to reach 6,000 yuan (US$870). "That could be realized if each family was still working 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.

However, some doubt it a throwback to the planned economy by amassing farmland again.

"We are now trying to explore a new way of getting wealthy, just as we did 30 years ago, dividing the land to break from collective farming, which sheerly ignored farmers' initiative and pursued absolute egalitarianism," argues Guan Youjiang, head of the villagers' committee.

The current new land reform, based on the farmers' own will, didn't 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 than that. He has painted a "three-phase" development plan for Xiaogang Village. The work during the first phase, also the current 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.

(Xinhua News Agency October 3, 2008)

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