LIUGE, CHINA — IT was not what farmers in Liuge consider a cheerful greeting: "Use Socialist ideology to occupy urban and rural fronts!" the large, white characters declared across a long wall.
A "work team" from the Hubei Province Communist Party wrote the slogan one evening last December to herald a "socialist ideological education campaign."
The next morning farmers went to market laden with produce and worried about a new wave of "class struggle," Liuge residents say. But the anxiety faded with the winter chill. The 130-man work team has dispensed plows, shovels, irrigation pumps, and cold cash, and has not tried to impose a harsh Maoist order.
"We welcome members of the work team, they are doing good things for us," farmer Chen Anling recently told an unescorted reporter in Liuge.
China's latest political campaign illustrates how the party has subordinated its traditional role as ideological overlord to a more popular role as welfare benefactor.
Indeed, the "socialist ideological education campaign" has largely discarded ideology and become a virtual vote-buying effort.
The party believes it must satisfy popular expectations that have risen with private incomes during more than a decade of market-oriented economic reform. Nationwide protests for democracy in 1989 also compelled the party to cultivate public opinion more aggressively.
"Our main purpose is to ensure farmers attain xiaokan [moderate comfort] by the year 2000," says Jin Shigui, a leader of the Liuge work team.
"Members of the work team realize that they have to satisfy our needs," says Ming Wangshen, a local farmer, squatting next to his paddy with several of his neighbors. Soon after its arrival the work team gave one village in the Liuge area more than $18,000, he says.
The party launched the nationwide campaign last year with a hard line that emphasized Marxist purity rather than prosperity. Song Ping, a conservative on the party's standing committee, spoke in widely publicized speeches of creating a "new socialist countryside."
Liuge farmers became more concerned in November when Guan Guanfu, Hubei party secretary, told officials they must "increase their ability to distinguish and foil the Western hostile forces' plot" to sow capitalism and democracy in China.
Farmers across China turned a deaf ear to the ideological campaign. So, rather than alienate farmers further, local cadres began to pander to their needs.
In December, reformist leaders in the party apparently prevailed over their conservative rivals and reoriented the campaign toward economic development. An effort by senior leader Deng Xiaoping to revive his reforms apparently has reinforced the campaign's new moderate line.
In a January visit to Mr. Guan in Wuhan, Mr. Deng told his hard-line underling that market-oriented reforms would prevail for a century and the people would overthrow officials who opposed change, according to Hong Kong press reports.
The softening of the campaign is especially striking in Hubei, traditionally a Maoist stronghold. The party work teams in Hubei have gone first to people who would most heed its call to prosperity, Mr. Jin says.
LIUGE farmers were especially open to the party's message. Heavy rain and flooding by the Han Dai River ruined most of the rice crop in Liuge last year, more than halving the per capita annual income to $55, Jin says.
The work team gave farmers $1,800 for a two-story pumping station that will clear water from several acres of farmland. The cadres helped the villagers construct the station, dig irrigation ditches, build roads, and plant seedlings for the spring rice crop.
"We want the work team members to remain here. They're always running around the fields at work," said Mr. Ming, wiping mud from his ankles and feet.
The cadres aim "to strengthen the conviction of farmers in socialism," says Jin. Yet their message merely seemed to underline the political value of the largely neglected Maoist task of doing good for "the masses."
At one training session, the cadres called on aged villagers to compare government aid after the 1991 flood to the paucity of official assistance after a severe flood in 1931, before the party took power.
"We use concrete examples from the farmers' past or everyday life to illustrate ideological principles," says Jin.
Otherwise, the work team discusses how to raise the living standard of Liuge and to curtail corruption by local officials. The cadres have drawn up plans for bringing prosperity: for now, a venture into vegetables and fish farming; for later, duck farming, grain processing, and other rural enterprises, says Jin.