On a blackboard just inside the gate of Dahe Peoples' Commune, the provincial governor's latest proclamation exhorts in bold chalk characters: "Get rid of jia , da, kong." ("Get rid of false, big, empty.")
In other words, no more empty boasts and big words. Let's get down to work. The proclamation is as good a symbol as any of the new spirit China's leaders hope to encourage in the countryside as they push forward their economic modernization drive, a drive designed to give each of China's 1 billion people an income of $1,000 a year by the end of the century.
Many observers say flatly that such an ambitious goal can never be reached. And even those who do believe in it admit the distance that must be traveled in the next 20 years in awesome.
Dahe, a wheat, corn, and cotton-growing commune typical of the dry, dusty north China plain, is better off than many others in Hebei Province, yet commune members' per capita cash income last year averaged only 120 yuan -- about $80 -- for the entire year, according to the commune's deputy Communist Party secretary , Zhang Yumin.
In addition, commune members got an average 250 kilograms of grain per capita and a variety of subsidiary provisions -- vegetables, meat, oil, cotton, coal, sesame, soybeans. This brought income of a seven-person household like that the Wang Lingshu to about 500 yuan (about $333) last year, plus 1,750 kilograms of grain, plus various monthly cash supplements for a daughter who was a teacher ($ 48 yearly) and a daughter-in-law who worked in a commune factory ($120 yearly).
For many years, foreign visitors to communes were invariably introduced to a family of poor peasant background who told them how they suffered in the bad old days before the People's Republic, and how well they were doing today.
It was with some surprise, therefore, that this reporter heard Mr. Wang say that although living standards had improved greatly during the past 30 years, he and his family did not really live so very differently now from the way they did before liberation.
"Before, we used to make our own cotton clothes. Now, we buy clothes from the store," said Mr. Wang. "Before, we used to eat mostly corn. Now, we eat mostly wheat. Before, we lived in eight rooms. And today, we live in eight rooms."
Mr. Wang, it turned out, was an independent peasant, a member of a 20-person household that owned 60 mu (10 acres) of farmland before liberation. He was not a landlord, neither was he a tenant.
The sharp ideological and class struggles that typified earlier periods and especially the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) are now memories (although frequently bitter ones), and according to Mr. Zhang, even the descendants of former landlords are now treated as ordinary members of the commune.
"In any case," Mr. Zhang continued, "we had no huge landlords hereabouts. The biggest one owned about 300 mu [50 acres]. They lived in tile-roofed houses , and the master and mistress ate wheat products. All the others, even their children, had to eat corn."
Today Mr. Zhang's principal preoccupation -- and that of Mr. Wang and all the other commune members -- is the prolonged drought that has reduced the wheat harvest from 7,250 metric tons last year to just under 5,000 tons this summer.
"We hope to make up partially for this loss by doing better on autumn crops like corn," said Mr. Zhang. "But our total grain output is likely to be at least 500 tons less than last year.
"Fortunately, we also have cotton, which does better in a dry year. We may get up to 42.5 kilograms per per mu [one- sixth of an acre] this fall, unless it turns cold early. The key months will be September and October." (The figure Mr. Zhang cited is double the estimate for Hebei Province as a whole this year.)
"The new policies of economic incentives have brought increased income to our commune members," he added. "Naturally, they are very happy. But for us middle-level cadres, the big question is how to keep up policy continuity, how to make sure that income continues to increase year by year. The present policy is good. What we now need above all is continuity and good management. And that is our responsibility."