China's country markets burst with goodies. Bounty followed government's relaxing of controls over farming This report came in the form of a letter, one of a series sent by Ms. Wallace, who bicycled across the Chinese countryside for three months last summer.
Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China
The most enduring memory for travelers down China's country roads this past summer is the cornucopia of fruit available: the green but ripe, thumb-sized bananas of Guangdong; the small, striped watermelons of Hunan; and the pale peaches of Jiangsu. Trucks by the dozen with unwieldy mounds of produce rumbled toward towns and cities. Even in remote areas, vendors -- often grandmothers or young daughters -- stood under makeshift bamboo and straw huts on dusty roadsides hawking wares from their own backyards.Skip to next paragraph
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What made the abundance surprising was that the most popular China guidebook for independent travelers, written just two years ago, complained about the paucity of fresh fruit everywhere. Other books published more recently do mention that farmers have grown richer under the government's ``individual responsibility system,'' which allows them to pocket some profits.
But truly widespread evidence of the peasant's enthusiasm for the program has only appeared this year. Several early summer bumper crops, in particular a watermelon bonanza, gave the farmers encouragement. They gradually have been given fuller rein since 1981; currently, they may work private plots and keep what they make after they fill government quotas.
Stories from the late '70s about how the Chinese peasant had become lazy under the communal system of farming no longer ring true today. In the Sichuan mountains throughout July farmers headed for the fields at 5 a.m. As daylight faded they could still be seen bent over their crops or trudging home, violet peaks forming a backdrop behind them.
When summer fades here, temperatures drop from the high 90s to a more comfortable 80 degrees in the daytime. In Wuxi, a small city near China's east coast, the sun sets before 7 p.m., and farms in the area appeared quieter after the second rice crop was planted in the fields.
But the change of season did not appear to dampen the new-found spirit of free enterprise. Little family stalls were still hustling business; green apples -- much like Granny Smiths -- were starting to pile up; and, just as quickly, Chinese families were running to spend part of their food budgets here.
The four-year-old policy of relaxing state controls over agriculture is not without problems, but its general success has prompted the government to continue. The latest move goes into effect this fall. The government operates a grain monopoly under which farmers are given quotas to meet and are told which grains to grow. The new system will abolish quotas and leave it up to the farmer to decide how much rice, corn, or soybeans he should plant -- and he gets to choose which. The government remains the p rimary buyer, but peasants will have the right to sell directly to processors and privately-run stores.
Relaxation of controls has wrought major changes in the way the Chinese buy their food. Two years ago food lines in towns were not uncommon. This summer there were none to be seen, but outdoor vendors everywhere had throngs of people around them. The Chinese press reports that the abrupt shift toward private stores has nearly put some state-run stores out of business. In Guangzhou (Canton) alone, more than 400 state stores have recently become hotels or restaurants.