Enterprising Chinese peasants edge toward $5,000-a-year incomes

Horatio Alger is alive and well and living in a Chinese village. His peasant heroes may not be making millions yet, but under the economic incentive policies of Deng Xiaoping and his associates, more and more workers are crossing the threshold of 10,000 yuan ($5,000) per year.

Take, for instance, Liu Shezi of Qiaoli production brigade (village).

Lean, lithe, with face and hands leathered by years of work in sun, frost, wind, and rain, he is the kind of man you instantly feel would land on his feet whatever the circumstance. Lao Liu (as all his acquaintances call him) was working in the courtyard in front of the toolshed of the village apple orchard when brigade and commune officials introduced me to him on a crisp autumn morning not long ago.

''Well, yes, I suppose I am a 10,000-yuan man - or will be one this year,'' he laughed when I asked him. ''It's also true that not many years ago I owed the brigade 1,000 yuan and was struggling to make both ends meet. My wife and I were the only able-bodied workers in my family, and we had an aged mother and five small children to support.''

Qiaoli production brigade has 3,750 people, and in the late 1970s, before the economic reform policies were introduced, they had an average income of 100 yuan ($50) per person per year. Lao Liu's family, making not much nore than $100 per year, was one of the poorest in the village.

Collectivization and eating-out-of-the-same-big-pot had deprived peasants of any incentive to work hard or to produce more. Then came the reforms, introduced in Qiaoli's case from 1980.

Peasants were no longer summoned to work daily by drum or gong. They were assigned land by family, and signed contracts promising to turn over a fixed amount of grain to the brigade each year. Anything over the contracted amount, they could keep.

Lao Liu chose to go a different way.

''Since childhood I've always been interested in trees,'' he said. ''As soon as the reforms were introduced, I asked permission to go south and learn how to start and operate a nursery. When I came back, I was given about 14 mu [2 1/3 acres] to do with as I liked. On most of this land I planted tree seedlings.

''Many of my neighbors didn't want to risk going into a new field like forestry. They were afraid of insects and pests. I was willing to experiment.''

''There's a lot of money to be made in growing trees and selling seedlings, or saplings, or lumber,'' said Lao Liu. ''But you have to be willing to take risks, and you have to be willing to wait.''

Most people preferred to stick to wheat, cotton, or other crops they knew. In 1981, Lao Liu grossed 4,000 yuan ($2,000) selling poplar and mulberry seedlings to his fellow-villagers. The following year he made a similar amount from poplar alone - people came to him for cuttings from far and wide.

And in 1983? Lao Liu chuckled.

''My waiting has paid off,'' he said. ''This year I have 10,000 poplar seedlings for which the county forestry bureau will pay me 6,000 yuan. I have 10 ,000 sour apple seedlings which I can sell for at least 8,000. I have mulberry seedlings - another 1,000. And this apple orchard where I'm working now will give me another 1,000. How much is that - 16,000? (About $8,000.)

''I give work to others, too. Relatives come and help me and my wife during the busy seasson. I give them each two yuan (a dollar) a day plus food.

''Lots of food. Is that exploitation?'' He laughed again.

(China remains a socialist country, and there is controversy over what constitutes exploitation. Wages are a pittance, compared to Western standards, but two yuan a day is good pay for peasants.)

How about your own children? Aren't they big enough now to help out? Lao Liu, who had been laughing and joking till this question, suddenly turned serious and a bit defiant.

''Every single one of them is in school,'' he said, ''from college freshman to fifth grader. I am not going to have my children work before they get an education.''

Why? Lao Liu hesitated, then continued in a softer tone. ''You see,'' he said , ''I am illiterate. I never had a day of school.''

Lao Liu already has built himself a comfortable eight-room brick house. He has several bicycles, a television, a sewing machine, and other consumer durables peasants consider ''treasures.''

What's the next step? A truck, to widen sales possibilities for the apples?

Lao Liu chuckled. ''As a matter of fact,'' he said, ''that's just what I was thinking.''

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