Lao Yang and his donkey are very happy with China's reforms

Lao Yang has no tractor to help him till his land. But he does have a donkey.

''No one in our commune has a private tractor,'' he said. ''At 2,300 yuan ($ 1185) for a small, hand-held tractor, it's far too expensive.''

A donkey, however, eats far less than a horse or a mule. He patiently plods up and down the steep hills of Yangta, 80 miles into the mountains from Lanzhou. He helps Lao Yang plow his one-third acre of terraced wheat fields. He can carry Lao Yang's mother to visit her friends, or bring home a load of firewood.

Lao Yang bought his donkey last year for 300 yuan ($155), after he had sold two pigs for 280 yuan and wool from his 20 sheep for 50 yuan.

''I don't have an easy life,'' said Lao Yang. ''I have 11 in my family, including my parents and one grandson. Only four are of working age. And with just a bit over one-third of an acre, I have to buy grain rather than sell it.''

But Lao Yang manages, and he is very happy with agrarian reforms that have given him, in effect, his own piece of land, his own sheep and goats.

The day I met Lao Yang it had snowed in Yangta, 6,000 feet above sea level in the foothills of the desolate Qinghai Plateau. But by midday the sun had melted off the blanket of white from the village's terraced fields, descending in a crazy-quilt pattern of stairs to the valleys far below.

''It's not good for my wheat, so late in the season,'' said Lao Yang. ''But we welcome the moisture. Our battle here is for water, year in, year out. We don't even have enough water to drink, how can we have any water to irrigate our fields?''

Yangta depends on small reservoirs to trap rainwater for its needs, and when these run dry, water must be fetched from huge Liujiaxia reservoir, 40 miles downhill on a winding unpaved road. Once a day a bus comes from Yongjing, the county town by Liujiaxia dam. If villagers miss this bus, they must walk or ride their donkey carts.

Yangta is not on the list of model communes visitors to Lanzhou are taken to see. It is too remote and too poor for that. But a chance visit, during a 10 -mile hike to see some 1,400-year-old caves with Buddhist sculptures in the vicinity, shows how the government's incentives policy seems to be working, even in this distant corner of Gansu.

The scenery is spectacular, comparable to that of Switzerland. Where hillsides are too steep to be terraced, a trail zigzags back and forth a mile and a half to the valley floor, where sheep and goats graze in stubbly grass.

Twenty of the sheep and 40 of the goats down in the valley belong to Lao Yang , and are being tended by his grandson.

''Before the reforms two years ago, we owned all our livestock in common. Nobody really looked after them properly. Now that each of us has his own sheep and goats, things are much better.

''And the land, too. Of course I'm not fully satisfied. I'd like to have twice the land I've been assigned. But what can you do? My production team (hamlet) has too little land. You can't divide up more land than you've got, can you?''

During the slack season, Lao Yang sends his second son to a construction company in Lanzhou. The company has a contract with the commune, under which his son receives 2.30 yuan ($1.18) per day for four months work.

If Lao Yang's son stayed in the village, he would get at most about 30 cents a day for communal work. ''Actually,'' said Lao Yang, ''my son doesn't bring any money home. City life is so expensive, but he enjoys it. At least he isn't eating my food for the four months he's in Lanzhou.''

Could his son get a permanent job in Lanzhou? Lao Yang shakes his head. ''Lanzhou has a hard enough time finding jobs for its own young people.''

Life in Yangta is hard, but with the new incentives policy, there is the possibility that the more one works, the greater his reward. ''I can't increase my land, but I can increase my pigs and my sheep,'' said Lao Yang. ''Who knows? Perhaps I'll be able to buy myself another donkey.''

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