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Chinese village reflects success of latest economic incentives

By Takashi OkaStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 2, 1983



Dazhai, Shanxi, China

A village that became famous for collective self-help during the Cultural Revolution is now allowing individual peasants to ''get rich first,'' as the saying goes.

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''Learn from Dazhai'' was a slogan celebrated throughout China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and for several years thereafter. The basic idea was that through self-reliance and determined collective endeavor, even a poor mountain village could work wonders, creating rich, wide fields where only scrubby hillsides and eroded gullies existed before.

Recently, this correspondent became the first journalist permitted to visit Dazhai since the ''Dazhai way'' fell into disrepute three years ago.

Visually, the village is like no other I have ever seen in China. Dazhai sits on the eastern slope of Tigerhead Mountain, and its 497 inhabitants live in two extraordinarily long buildings of stone and brick, plus an adjoining U-shaped building surrounding a courtyard.

Each family occupies two rooms, the facade of which is arch-shaped, letting in plenty of light. I was vaguely reminded of a convent in Assisi or some other Italian mountain town. Two characters spelling Dazhai crown the archway leading into the village, while below it, on the wall, are four characters signifying self-reliance.

Under the warming autumn sun, the courtyard spaces in front of each family unit were beehives of harvest activity. Ears of corn were drying everywhere - in the courtyard, on rooftops. Peasants were sieving linseed, beating soybean stalks to separate the beans, chopping up cabbage and turnip tops to pickle for the long winter ahead. It was a colorful, bustling, happy scene.

''Ai-ya,'' said one of the women chopping turnip tops, ''this is the time of year when we simply don't have any extra space anywhere. Just look at all the corn, sorghum, millet, soybeans, linseed drying everywhere outside. And we're just as crowded inside; cabbages and potatoes are sprawled all over our floors.

''It looks like this year's harvest will be the biggest we've ever had,'' said lean Zhao Suheng, the hydraulic engineer who has been Dazhai's Communist Party secretary since March this year.

''I think we're going to have more than a million catties (500,000 kilograms) of grain, compared to just 651,900 catties last year,'' he said.

Mild weather and plenty of rainfall have helped, of course. But more important, Mr. Zhao said, was that after a couple of years of confusion the peasants have managed to ''emancipate their thinking'' and take full advantage of economic incentive policies practiced since December 1978 by China's leaders under the mentorship of crusty Deng Xiaoping.

These policies represent a 180-degree turn from what China's villages in general, and Dazhai in particular, had been used to during the Cultural Revolution and before. In Dazhai the confusion was greater because for many years the villagers had been used to the charismatic leadership of Chen Yonggui.

Mr. Chen, a gruff, towel-turbaned peasant who eventually became a Politburo member and a vice-premier, is in disfavor as an ''ultra-leftist'' today. But he is still popular in Dazhai even though many villagers recognize that some of the things he did were wrong.