A tale of sweet potatoes and firecrackers in China

Chen Changfu is a 10,000-yuan-a-year peasant who has tasted both the joys and the dangers of being considered a man of great wealth in his own community. Ten thousand yuan a year - about $5,000 - is an almost unimaginable income for most city dwellers, whose annual salaries range from 700 to 1,000 yuan ($500 ). But with the economic incentives policy of the Chinese leadership under the guidance of senior leader Deng Xiaoping, peasants - who make up four-fifths of China's 1 billion people - are encouraged to ''get rich first.''

The policy is that all should get rich together, but that those who work harder may get rich first. This is a 180-degree change from the days of the Cultural Revolution when no one could get rich before his neighbors. ''Get rich together,'' the peasants used to say, ''actually means stay poor together.''

The new policy was announced after the third plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee in December 1978, when the Deng Xiaoping line triumphed.

Chen and his fellow peasants in Anyue County, Sichuan Province, were at first cautious. They had passed the years of the Cultural Revolution in poverty. No single peasant had dared to keep more than two chickens for fear of being labeled a ''capitalist tail.''

In those years, Chen and his family ate sweet potatoes morning, noon, and night. A fellow peasant taught Chen how to make firecrackers.

Once the Cultural Revolution ended, there were many festive occasions, and Chen was in demand as a firecrackermaker. He continued to work the land and to raise pigs, and in 1982 he was publicly commended as a 10,000-yuan-a-year plus man, earning 9,000 from firecrackers and 2,250 from crops and pigs.

Chen accepted the commune party secretary's congratulations with misgivings, protesting that actually he had only made about 5,000 yuan ($2,500) and that he owed the state loans. It was only after the secretary assured him that if any evil consequences ensued, the secretary himself would stand surety, that Chen felt somewhat relieved.

This was at the time of the Chinese new year, in February 1982. Within a few days Chen was suddenly called to commune headquarters and then to the town hall, where a battery of tax officials angrily accused him of having cheated on taxes. In spite of all his protests and denials (he had been paying taxes every month, as required) he was told that unless he paid 9,854 yuan by May 20 he would be jailed.

It turned out that, far from cheating on taxes, Chen had been repeatedly asked for ''loans'' by tax officials who knew how much money he was making, and that he had been afraid to refuse.

None of Chen's explanations about this were of any avail. In the end he had to dispose of all the goodies he had accumulated - a leather overcoat, radio, watch - and even to tear his house down brick by brick, post by post in order to sell it as building material. Sympathetic neighbors loaned him money and even 19 fat pigs and somehow or other he was able to pay the amount.

Then, at the end of the year, an investigation team from county headquarters finally vindicated him. Before Chen had taken over the firecracker operation, the commune had run it as a cooperative enterprise, obtaining a three-year tax holiday. Then, under a new policy of devolving responsibility on individuals, the cooperative was dissolved and Chen was given sole responsibility for making and selling firecrackers. It was discovered that the tax officials had been trying to make him pay 8,000 yuan corresponding to the amount of taxes the cooperative had been forgiven.

So, at the lunar new year this year, Chen was once again hailed as a 10,000 -yuan-a-year man and his smiling face was carried in the national magazine Liaowang, which also ran an article about him. All is well with Chen and his family today and, as an article in the People's Daily Aug. 15 makes clear, the government is vigorously promoting the idea of ''getting rich first.''

The article refutes the notion that this will lead to polarization in the villages. It argues that instead, those who get rich tend to pull up the level of the village as a whole.

In a production brigade in Anhwei Province, the article says, the richest household in 1977 earned 13.7 times as much as the poorest. By 1980, the gap had narrowed to 3.9. But among local cadres, there is apparently still resistance to the idea of ''getting rich first.'' Somehow, it does not seem to square with socialism. Such is the surviving influence of the ''leftism'' of the Cultural Revolution.

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