Peking to peasants: slow down. Government can't afford to pay for record harvests
China's farming revolution, after four years of phenomenal gains in food production, is slowing down. But the slowdown is intentional. For the first time in 20 years, Chinese leaders are encouraging peasants to produce less food.Skip to next paragraph
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So much grain poured into the market in 1983 and '84 that the government had to pull money away from much-needed investment in electrification, other energy projects, and infrastructure in order to pay farmers the incentive prices it had promised them.
According to Western agricultural experts, China's experience with price incentives since 1979 and with family-run farms since 1981 has proved that, when it comes to agricultural technology, China's peasants can quickly catch up with South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan once they get the right economic environment.
But whether the stimulus of private gain can work in China without the whole communist system coming apart is another matter. Already, in just a few years, the gap between rich and poor has widened. And traditional disparities between the north and south of China and between the country's coastal and inland regions have grown.
Last year, China harvested a record 407 million tons of grain. No country has ever done that before. The Soviet Union usually produces less than half that much, and the best the United States has done is about three-fourths. To give some sense of the accomplishment, it should be noted that in 1949 (the year the communists came to power after years of civil war), China harvested 180 million tons of grain. Five years ago the harvest had grown to 318 million tons.
But China uses just a fifth as much fertilizer as the US does, and pesticides are just being introduced. About 80 percent of last year's crop was planted and harvested by hand, much of it by women -- with hoe and sickle and without draft animals. Yet Chinese yields compare favorably with American -- 2.5 tons of wheat per hectare (2.47 acres) compared to the US's 2.2 tons, and 4.8 tons of rice per hectare compared to the US's 5 tons).
Chinese output has been growing rapidly. Wheat production alone more than doubled between 1977 and 1984, from 41 million tons to 87 million. (US farmers harvested 71 million tons in their bumper crop last year.)
Price incentives played a role in the 1981-84 grain production boom, with Peking offering incentive prices for all grain and cash crops produced.
But the real impetus came with the breakup of the communes after 1981. Now, under the new ziren zhi, commonly called the ``responsibility system,'' almost all food in China -- except for a few big state grain farms and surviving specialized communes -- is grown by individual peasant families. They cultivate on small plots ranging in size from about half an acre in the south, where there are three annual harvests, to three or four hectares in China's northeastern wheat-growing plains.
Harvests have been so bounteous under this system that the government had to reduce what it was paying farmers. In 1985, its guaranteed crop prices were reduced to cover only about 40 percent of what the average peasant grows. This has led to a sharp drop in farm income.
This year's grain harvest is projected to be around 395 million to 400 million tons, the first time in 15 years there has been an actual decline. In addition to lower prices, bad weather in northeast China is partly to blame.
Chen Yun, veteran economist and Politburo member, seems far from happy about senior leader Deng Xiaoping's radical reforms and the leap in production they produced. Because of the fluctuating prices -- something unprecedented in communist-ruled China -- he warned in late September that ``tens of millions'' were leaving the land. The resulting ``grain shortages can lead to social disorder,'' Chen said. ``We cannot underestimate this matter.''
Western farm scientists, too, are predicting possible food shortages by 1987 unless the Dengists restore some of the former price incentives next year. It is hard to pay for everything at once, but with China's thin margin between surplus food and scarcity, there are few reserves.