How Luo's truck breaks red tape

"I hope every peasant will have his own car." This comment from a reader was occasioned by a magazine article telling the story of Luo Dejin, an enterprising young Sichuanese peasant who has become the talk of his county for having become the owner- operator of a 2 1/2 ton truck.

Is it right for an individual peasant in Communist China to have his own motor vehicle? In a country where even privately owned motorcycles are quite rare, 28-year- old mr. Luo's coup has stirred nationwide comment both pro and con since the magazine Banyuetan (Fortnightly Forum) ran an article on the young farmer a month ago.

Mr. Luo is a member of the Liberation Production Brigade of Shibantan commune in Xindu County, Sichuan Province. Sichuan (Szechuan) is the populous inland province in southwest China where present Premier Zhao Ziyang made his mark as an innovative administrator carrying out bold economic reforms.

Mr. Luo's family was well-off because it had four working members, owned 267 fruit trees, and 12 pigs, of which six were sows. But their production brigade was a long way from the highway and had to beg transport units to come and help them whenever they needed to bring goods in or out. The process was costly. The transport units bullied the brigade and did not arrive on time.

In March, Mr. Luo used 800 yuan ($532) of his family's savings to buy a fire-damaged walking tractor. (This is a small one-wheel tractor, which the operator must walk behind. When a wagon is hitched to it, it can become a transport vehicle, although a slow one.)

He spent another 500 yuan ($333) to have the tractor fixed, and got a mechanic to teach him how to use it.In just two months he had made a profit of 500 yuan hauling goods short distances in and around the commune. Seeing this, the commune from which he had bought the tractor asked to have it back, paying him 1,300 yuan ($867).

Fortunately, the county agriculture bank sent an inspection team to check out its various loans in the area about this time. Mr. Luo requested a loan to buy a used truck. The investigating team visited his family, decided it had the ability to repay the loan, and found that the local Communist Party secretary and brigade committee were willing to serve as guarantors of the loan.

"There's no precedent for a peasant buying a motor vehicle," said the county agricultural bank director, Xu Youjie, "but let's try it!" He approved a loan of 3,000 yuan ($2,000) to Mr. Luo.

So, with the bank loan, plus 1,000 yuan of his own, Mr. Luo went to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, where he bought a Chengdu 130-type 2 1/2-ton truck secondhand. He signed an agreement with his production brigade providing that he would pay it 20 yuan ($13.6) as taxes and 100 yuan ($67) as insurance each month.

The brigade paid the 1,200 yuan annual insurance premium for Mr. Luo. He could keep any profits beyond these sums. The brigade also agreed to supply him each year with grain and other necessities (as it does all its working members). In exchange, he would give priority to transporting essential goods for the brigade. Finally the agreement specified that Mr. Luo was not use the truck for "speculation and profiteering."

Since there are no private vehicles in China, there are no gasoline stations open to the general public. When Mr. Luo's gasoline ran out, commune and brigade authorities went with him four times to the "responsible authorities" to get authorization to buy gasoline. Each time they failed. It was not until early July, on the direct intervention of the county party secretary, that Mr. Luo finally received authorization. Meanwhile the commune, for which Mr. Luo's truck had become an indispensable means of transport, lent him gasoline from its agricultural machinery station.

Mr. luo has faithfully kept his side of the agreement, refusing to use his truck for parties and ceremonies, only for transport of essential goods. He works day and night, in rain and shine. On one occasion, a shipment of 30,000 fish fry (baby fish) arrived at Shibantan railway station for a neighboring commune. It was night and the commune was 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. It urgently asked for Mr. Luo's help, and he willingly obliged, reaching the commune at dawn with the fish all alive.

Before Mr. Luo bought his truck, his production brigade paid 1000 yuan ($667) per year in order to get a truck or tractor from outside to bring in essential supplies of fertilizer. since Mr. Luo's truck arrived, the brigade has not had to spend a penny on entertainment. From June to mid-July, Mr. Luo's gross earnings came to 1,100 yuan, from which, after deducting expenses, his net profits came to 410 yuan ($274.7). In the county, Mr. Luo's truck has become the subject of furious debate. Is not a truck a major means of production? Should it not therefore belong to the collective and not to an individual? Mr. Luo prudently sought the advice of brigade party secretary Liao Guocheng, who sagely observed, "After all, an ox is a means of production also, and individuals can own oxen. So long as you obey the laws and drive safely, never fear!" the magazine Banyuetan has now taken the argument to a nationwide readership.

In its latest issue, reader's opinions seem to be divided -- three for, two against.

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