History sometimes has a wry sense of humor. Thirty-one years ago Mao Tse-tung deceived and conquered China with the populist slogan "Land to the tillers." Now Taiwan, the island province that eluded Mao's grasp, has come up with a new and unvoiced slogan, "Land to the power tillers." And Mao's heirs, who admit that reunification would not succeed without the mainland's economic superiority over Taiwan, are doubtless paying it much attention.

Taiwan, following Japan's lead, is about to restore farm tenancy -- the abolishment of which, earlier, probably saved it from communism when Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Nationalists fled there in 1949. But times change, and Taiwan's booming industrial economy (its GNP) jumped from $11 billion in 1973 to agriculture more in tune with the times.

To see why, you have only to go to its villages. Take Wang Hsiao, a lean, hard-muscled Chinese who grew up a city boy in Taipei but took up farming because "I liked it." With only three hectares (a hectare is about 2 1/2 acres), Wang could probably grow his rice and vegetables by hand. But the shed next to his new brick house is crammed with mini-machines: a $10,000 combine, a $2,000 power tiller with all attachments, a mechanical rice transplanter, a motorized wagon, and a motorcycle.

With so much machinery, Wang could easily farm 10 to 15 hectares.But under 27 -year-old land-tenure laws, his village neighbors are fearful of renting or selling him their land, though many would like to move to the city, where average incomes are 50 percent higher. They do not want to sell the land, at least not all of it, since under Confucian custom a man is merely a custodian of land, a living link between his ancestors and descendants.

Wang's neighbors, Liang Sun, farms only two hectares, but figures that with his power tiller he could cultivate three times as much. Yet with true Chinese individualism, he doesn't want to. He earns half his income working 10 days a month on road construction. He lives on the same earth six generations of his family have lived on ever since they migrated from Fukien Province long ago. Although Liang's house is still thatched, earthen-floored, and mud-brick, it is also filled with electrical appliances: a refrigerator, TV set, rice mill, telephone, even hair dryer. Liang is content to have things stay as they are. "I don't know the ways of a city," he says.

The only thing that worries Liang is that after the nine years of compulsory schooling now universal in Taiwan, few village youngsters learn how to farm and fewer still want to. He says, "My neighbor has six children. Five have gone to cities to work and the sixth one wants to. Who will cultivate the land?"

It was harvest time in central Taiwan when I visited Tsaotun village, about a three hour's drive south of Taipei, and for the second year Liang had hired neighbor and his wife with a combine to cut, tresh, and sack his rice. They charged $175 a hectare, cheaper than the $250 or so he used to pay hired men to cut it by hand, when he could find them. Unemployment has fallen to 1 percent in Taiwan, landless laborers are virtually nonexistent, and the few that are available demand $12 to $15 a day, plus two ample meals.

In other villages in northern Taiwan, around Taipei, I found many factory workers who said they would like to rent their land. Typical was a part-time coal miner in Su Ting village, Lim-Wen-lung, who earned $22 daily in the mine. He said he feared renting the land because the laws in Taiwan protected tenant farmers and he might get classed as an absentee landlord and lose his ancestral land.

Recognizing such dillemas among the 1.4 million of the 18 million Taiwanese who still farm, President Chiang Ching-kuo's government last November decided to embark on what is officially called "second-stage land reform." Its aim is to make renting farmland easier, without jeopardizing ownership for sons who are unwilling to sell ancestral land or fathers seeking to keep the land in their name in case of bad times (during the economic crisis after the first oil shock in 1973-74, Taiwan's villages absorbed billions of temporarily unemployed industrial workers).

The problem is complicated, because a Taiwanese village represents both China's future and its past. After Japan, Taiwan has by far the most modernized rice cultivation in Asia. Indeed, the short-stemmed, high-yield varieties that have revolutionized world rice production originate from DEe-gee-woo-gen, a native Taiwanese variety with a dwarf gene.

Mechanization first came 20 years ago when American garden tractors were imported to replace draft animals (buffalos and cows). Rice seedlings have long been protected from cold in vinyl greenhouses, a practice now common in Japan and South Korea and spreading to mainland China. Some 60 percent of rice is now transplanted by machine, and the use of herbicides has completely replaced hand weeding.

The Taiwanese were among the early pioneers of multiple-cropping, getting as many as five crops of rice and vegetables per year on the same ground. Fifteen years ago, 80 percent of Taiwan's farmland was triple-cropped. Today, because of rural labor shortages, only 30 percent is triple-cropped and 50 percent double-cropped.

Taiwan is self-sufficient in fertilizer, making it from the island's coal or from the nitrogen in the air (the Haber process) and applying one ton per hectare. Its cropland is 55 percent irrigated. Water is diverted from streams or piped from 17 huge mountain reservoirs built since 1949 to catch the torrential typhoon downpours. Seven more such reservoirs are in the planning stage. Taiwan has two nuclear power plants and plans to build six more in the next 10 years.

China's pre-1949 past can be seen in the way Taiwan's villages preserve traditional chinese culture. Amazingly, in such a modern agricultural setting, China's age-old syncretic religious and philosophical beliefs in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism are very much alive.

No household on the whole island, even in urban Taipei, seems to be without its altar facing the entry, with its ancestral tablets, urns, joss sticks, food or flower offerings, and the scroll bearing an image of Buddhist goddess Kuan Yin. Most often the altar is flanked by a TV set, refrigerator, desk for the schoolchildren, sacks of grain, or even farm implements.

Filial piety --the respect for age and authority -- and worship of ancestors still form the basis for correct behavior. From popular Taoism come strong beliefs in the supernatural; Taiwan's villages seem populated not only by the living but by the whole community of ancestral spirits, deified heroes and Taoist gods, evil spirits or demons, and even the ghosts of trees, wells, or ponds.

The paradox of magical practices and supernatural rituals in the most modern Asian country after Japan is puzzling. Elsewhere in the world, the spread of scientific farming weakens, if not destroys, such beliefs. One possible explanation is that so much of Chinese traditional religion and ritual is centered on material self-betterment and the prosperity of the family, whether living or ancestral.

The persistence of tradition complicates the task of the officials of Taiwan's Council for Agricultural Planning and Development (CAPD), who hope to work out a detailed program for "second-stage land reform" by the end of this year.

Dr. Y. T. Wang, CAPD vice-chairman, says, "To enlarge the size of individual farms, in my personal opinion, will be very difficult."

Dr. Mao Yu-kang, director of CAPD's economic planning, says the aim is to make the land-tenure laws flexible enough that a trend toward larger mechanized farming operations can naturally evolve.

He told me, "People are now afraid to leave the land for the city. They fear the government will take their ancestral land. We need to create a system in which people can take city jobs and leave the land for their neighbors to farm while still keeping ownership."

Progressive farmers like Wang Hsiao would ideally be able to buy or rent more land; they would also be encouraged to cultivate and market their rice and other crops jointly to get still bigger economies of scale.

In Peking last June, this writer saw bigposters exhorting Chinese to "learn from Taiwan in economy." I was amused to find that many Taiwanese, if a conversation goes on long enough, will cautiously put the delicate question, "Did you feel, visiting the communes on the mainland, that the farmers have a successful way of working together?"

The Chinese on Taiwan are well aware that the island's GNP is currently seven times that of the mainland, that calorie intake is about 50 percent higher, and that the average living space is five times as big. Yet there is a distinct curiousity about whether some of the mainland communes' group farming experience might not have some application on Taiwan.

The Taiwanese are looking for ways to get farmers to form groups to grow rice seedlings, plow, sow, and harvest with ever-bigger machines and to sell their produce in cooperatives.

Initially, a $25 million fund is being set up to lend farmers money to buy land at 6 percent annually over a 20-year period. Land consolidation will be speeded up to add 160,000 more hectares to 270,000 already gathered into single-unit farms.

Taiwan's success or failure seems likely to affect other industrializing Asian countries, notably South Korea, where there is the same need for bigger farms and less labor-intensive rice cultivation to release manpower for industry. South Koreans share the same Confucian ties to ancestral land.

Japan has led the way. It abolished its postwar three-hectare ceiling some years ago and has gradually liberalized its tenancy system. Last month it lifted all restrictions on land tenure and ownership, something Taiwan hopes to do eventually. But like Japan, a country of four islands, Taiwan seeks to balance a shift to better land use and full-time mechanized farmers with a long-term need to preserve its rice-growing capacity and farming production in the event food imports are ever cut off.

At present, Taiwan imports about 4 million tons of grain yearly from the United States, much of it animal feed to improve diets (again like the Japanese, young Taiwanese are much taller than their parents). It is self-sufficient in rice and, indeed, every time the price that is given to farmers gets too high it has rice coming out of its ears (but because of high farm wages it is uneconomic to grow for export).

Taiwan is a strikingly beautiful tropical island only 240 miles long and 88 miles wide, with some of the world's most spectacular scenery. On the east coast, rugged mountains, some of them snowcapped in winter, rise straight from the sea to heights of over 13,000 feet. Here, in dense, primordial jungles with gigantic trees and deadly poisonous snakes, live remnants of nine aboriginal tribes, a few of whom still tattoo their bodies and faces. In the west, the mountains slope down to a fertile coastal plain. (Taiwan has so far largely escaped becoming part of the global tourist circuit, something probably too good to last. Its Grand Hotel in Taipei, the grandest hotel I've ever stayed in, still has rooms for $22 a night, though suites in its fantasticaly palatial buildings to up to $300 or more.)

Taiwan's former political salvation and present problem is that most of its 900,000 hectares of cropland are divided among 900,000 farming households, 90 percent of them owner-operated by Chinese whose ancestors came from the mainland 200 to 300 years ago. While the average size per owner is one hectare, 40 percent of these family farms average only half a hectare.

Today, with modern cities and factories spreading down the plain (you can turn off a six-lane superhighway and get a hamburger or ice cream cone), 91 percent of Taiwan's farm families rely on some nonfarm income, which explains why even the poorest mud-brick hut is filled with electrical appliances, everything from color TVs and telephones to stereos and washing machines. Only about 18 percent of farm families now rely solely on agriculture to make a living; the average family gets 60 percent of its income from nonfarm work.

Taiwan, like Japan, has become a nation of part-time farmers. The Taiwanese do not yet edge their rice paddies with concrete, as many Japanese do, and they go to their fields on motor scooters, not yet cars, but otherwise they are not far behind. With small-scale rice cultivation with muscle power no longer profitable, both countries see bigger mechanized farms and modern management skills as the answer.

This is something new in Asia. Countries like India and Philippines still badly need first-stage land reform to eliminate widespread absentee ownership; both have high unemployment and large number of landless laborers that industry cannot absorb. Indonesia badly needs preemptive land reform to stop city speculators buying village land (in Taiwan only a farmer can buy or rent land, something that will not change).

And China itself, if it really wants to "learn from Taiwan," should take part to heart the lesson that private ownership is the greatest economic incentive. It is a generation of small Taiwanese rice producers that paid for the island's industrialization and made "Land to the power tillers" capitalist East Asia's most urgent new postrevolutionary slogan.

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