It was a bad year for sacred cows -- and bossy bureaucrats -- China's countryside. The officials who once dictated what the peasants produce and sell are being told to give way to the market.
A new socialist morality has been proclaimed, up it looks very much like the Protestant ethic. As one recent radio broadcast put it: "The more prosperous people become, the more honorable they are."
The reason for this turnabout is that the policies of the past were not working out very well. Grain production in the 1970s barely crops, such as cotton, did not even fare well. over 100 million villagers did not have enough to eat. The big cities had recurrent shortages of vegetables, meat, and eggs. Appeals to altruism increasingly fell on deaf ears.
Now, the tide has turned. Having decided that the best politics is whatever lead to improved production, the authorities are searching for new ways to provide personal incentives.
China's peasants belong to cooperative farms of several dozen households. Through these, the peasants collectively own the land and share in the harvest proceeds. But the authorities recently concluded that these collectives may be too large to provide peasants with sufficient personal stakes in agricultural production.
So the peasants are being encouraged to split the co-op's work three or four smaller squads. These make contracts with their co-op to manage specified fields, and the squad members share bonuses if they bring in good yields. Some co-ops have courted government disapproval by going further and contracting out fields to individual households.
These peasant co-ops, called "production teams," have never had complete discretion to grow whatever they want. Quotas handed down by officials stipulate how much grain, cotton, and other important crops each of the teams must sell to the government. In the past, the peasants generally felt that the state squeezed out too much at too low a price.
Peking moved this past year to relieve the financial crunch. The prices for grain were raised some 20 percent, and the grain quotas reduced. Chinese officials used to fear that the peasants' market-day trade fairs were seedbeds of capitalism, but now these are booming with business -- with official blessings.
In the past the government mandated the peasants to "take grain as the key." But in the rush to meet grain targets, officials often took little account of natural conditions. In the north, where grazing land was plowed under, the ecological damage has been especially grave. Within the past three decades a quarter of northern China's grasslands were turned into dust bowls and wastelands. In the south, districts that were best suited for cotton struggled to produce rice ordered by the government. China had to import cotton to keep its textile industry busy.
The government is now trying to correct these problems by encouraging villages to produce crops suiting local growing conditions rather than follow the often blind commands of China's bureaucracy. Increasingly, "suiting local conditions" means concentrate on whatever is the most profitable.
Many peasants and local leaders are wary of their new economic freedoms, however. They have seen so many shifts in policy that they hesitate to venture out onto a new limb. They do not quite believe the government's insistent reassurances that this time the policies are permanent.
They may have some cause for their doubts. Following a record-breaking grain harvest in 1978 of over 300 million tons, output went up last year by another 3 percent; but the basic problem remains -- too many people on too little land. The question is whether even under the present policies, China's peasants can produce enough to feed and clothe themselves while protecting the environment and meeting China's requirements for modernization. It is a tall order.