Earnings wither in the Chinese countryside

Kang Xueji, a lifelong peasant, relies on remittances for half her income. Still, she’s glad to be rid of collective farms and sirens calling her to work.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Kang Xueji says her life has been transformed since Chinese peasants were allowed to farm their own plots and to earn money at jobs outside their villages. Still, many villagers are abandoning this way of life to earn better livings in cities.
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    Greens: Kang Xueji tends her vegetable plot.
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China has been transformed beyond recognition since the ruling Communist party decided 30 years ago this week to abandon Maoism, build a market economy, and dismantle the "bamboo curtain" that had isolated the country from most of the world. This series explores what "reform and opening" has meant to the everyday lives of six individuals.

SHALI, CHINA – If there was one thing that Kang Xueji could not stand about the old days, working in a production brigade on an agricultural collective, it was the siren.

Every morning at eight o'clock, the weathered old lady remembers now, dandling her granddaughter on her knee, "the brigade leader sounded the horn and gave us the order to go to the fields. We went."

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That was in the regimented days of the communes, before the government broke them up and let peasant farmers lease their own plots of land to till as they pleased.

Today, "we work when we want to work and we play when we want to play," Mrs. Kang smiles, her gold teeth glinting in the sun as she sits in the courtyard of her home. And the villagers still harvest three times as much rice as they did in the days of Mao.

"When the land was owned by the collective and everybody ate from the same big pot, nobody cared whether the harvest was good or bad because it was not their business," Kang recalls. "Everybody was very lazy when they went to the fields."

Change came in 1982 to this riverside cluster of gray brick homes scattered along dirt paths pecked clean by hens, when the government kick-started "reform and opening" with a new revolution in agriculture. "Our brigade leader held a meeting and told us that the new policy was the more you work the more you get," says Kang. "Everybody was very happy about it" and the harvest doubled the next year.

Kang's childhood, like that of hundreds of millions of other Chinese peasants in the 1950s and '60s was "very bitter." She began working when she was 4, collecting grasses that her father wove into mats. She was given one pair of cloth shoes a year at Spring Festival and went to school for just six months, long enough to learn to write her name.

Life was scarcely easier when she brought up her own three children: Her family of five crammed into one room in a house they shared with her aunt's family, and they ate rice and cabbage, or rice and sweet potato, or rice and turnip.

"Today even pigs eat better than we did then," she snorts. "At least they get proper feed."

Money was virtually unknown in the village: Households were assigned points in return for their labor, which they could turn in for rice, and they were given ration cards for other goods such as oil or sugar.

If Mrs. Kang is so pleased with the improvements in her life over the past 30 years it is partly because she started with so little ("In those days we didn't have any of the things we have now," she says, spooning pork stew into her granddaughter's mouth).

She and her husband earn only $260 a year from selling the rice they do not eat or feed to their 10 chickens and the cow. That buys the couple meat and fish "and gifts for when we go visiting," Kang says, "but it is not really enough."

What makes the difference – what paid for the Kang's TV set and fridge and indeed the two-story, seven-room gray brick house that the aging couple lives in – is the money that their children, migrant workers on the east coast, send home.

"When I am short, I call them," Kang explains.

But only about half of China's peasant families can rely on remittances from members working in the cities, and a quarter of a century on, the initial effects of reform on agricultural output have long worn off. The Chinese government is now seeking new ways to boost efficiency in the countryside, still home to 750 million people – more than half the Chinese population.

That will almost certainly mean consolidating landholdings, which will mean fewer family plots and more young people leasing them out so as to seek more lucrative employment in the cities.

Kang says that she herself would love to "go out" to factory work, "but who'd take an old woman like me?" she laughs. So she stays at home, tends her kitchen garden, takes care of her granddaughter, and chats with the other old people living in the village, undisturbed by sirens.

She knows, though, that however much better life in the village is today than it was when she was young, it is not attractive to people with choices.

"No young people want to farm any more," she says. "There are hardly any of them living here now. The only way to make money today is to leave."

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