Peking to peasants: slow down. Government can't afford to pay for record harvests

China's farming revolution, after four years of phenomenal gains in food production, is slowing down. But the slowdown is intentional. For the first time in 20 years, Chinese leaders are encouraging peasants to produce less food.

So much grain poured into the market in 1983 and '84 that the government had to pull money away from much-needed investment in electrification, other energy projects, and infrastructure in order to pay farmers the incentive prices it had promised them.

According to Western agricultural experts, China's experience with price incentives since 1979 and with family-run farms since 1981 has proved that, when it comes to agricultural technology, China's peasants can quickly catch up with South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan once they get the right economic environment.

But whether the stimulus of private gain can work in China without the whole communist system coming apart is another matter. Already, in just a few years, the gap between rich and poor has widened. And traditional disparities between the north and south of China and between the country's coastal and inland regions have grown.

Last year, China harvested a record 407 million tons of grain. No country has ever done that before. The Soviet Union usually produces less than half that much, and the best the United States has done is about three-fourths. To give some sense of the accomplishment, it should be noted that in 1949 (the year the communists came to power after years of civil war), China harvested 180 million tons of grain. Five years ago the harvest had grown to 318 million tons.

But China uses just a fifth as much fertilizer as the US does, and pesticides are just being introduced. About 80 percent of last year's crop was planted and harvested by hand, much of it by women -- with hoe and sickle and without draft animals. Yet Chinese yields compare favorably with American -- 2.5 tons of wheat per hectare (2.47 acres) compared to the US's 2.2 tons, and 4.8 tons of rice per hectare compared to the US's 5 tons).

Chinese output has been growing rapidly. Wheat production alone more than doubled between 1977 and 1984, from 41 million tons to 87 million. (US farmers harvested 71 million tons in their bumper crop last year.)

Price incentives played a role in the 1981-84 grain production boom, with Peking offering incentive prices for all grain and cash crops produced.

But the real impetus came with the breakup of the communes after 1981. Now, under the new ziren zhi, commonly called the ``responsibility system,'' almost all food in China -- except for a few big state grain farms and surviving specialized communes -- is grown by individual peasant families. They cultivate on small plots ranging in size from about half an acre in the south, where there are three annual harvests, to three or four hectares in China's northeastern wheat-growing plains.

Harvests have been so bounteous under this system that the government had to reduce what it was paying farmers. In 1985, its guaranteed crop prices were reduced to cover only about 40 percent of what the average peasant grows. This has led to a sharp drop in farm income.

This year's grain harvest is projected to be around 395 million to 400 million tons, the first time in 15 years there has been an actual decline. In addition to lower prices, bad weather in northeast China is partly to blame.

Chen Yun, veteran economist and Politburo member, seems far from happy about senior leader Deng Xiaoping's radical reforms and the leap in production they produced. Because of the fluctuating prices -- something unprecedented in communist-ruled China -- he warned in late September that ``tens of millions'' were leaving the land. The resulting ``grain shortages can lead to social disorder,'' Chen said. ``We cannot underestimate this matter.''

Western farm scientists, too, are predicting possible food shortages by 1987 unless the Dengists restore some of the former price incentives next year. It is hard to pay for everything at once, but with China's thin margin between surplus food and scarcity, there are few reserves.

It is the 1981-84 boom that has so transformed life in China's villages and fueled the country's new prosperity. It is a transformation that would be difficult to reverse.

With many thatched and mud-walled huts being replaced by new tile and brick houses, rural China looks like one big construction site. Some experts speculate that at least 1 percent of cropland has been lost to houses. After houses, peasants have been spending on bicycles, sewing machines, electric fans, radios, or television sets (Chinese TV now has some programming from CBS and the BBC).

China's villages are starting to invite comparison with those elsewhere in East Asia, a comparison that would have been far-fetched just five years ago.

For example, one of Deng's aims is to raise the average Chinese peasant's per capita annual income to $800 over the next 15 years. Estimates of China's per capita income range from $122 to $470. Taking the lower of those figures, Deng's proposed growth would mean a rise in income from about $500 now to $3,200 within the projected period for a Chinese family of four. South Korean rural family incomes rose from $800 to $3,000 between 1970 and 1980. So China is not far behind.

The same trends that affected Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan seem to be at work in China: diversification of crops (for example, barley is now being grown to meet the soaring demand for beer); growth of small-scale industry in country towns; and a shift away from grain into cash crops and livestock as prospering peasants reduce their consumption of grains and increase consumption of milk, meat, and poultry. (In 1985-86 about 20,000 dairy cattle will have been flown here from the US and Europe.) A good m any Chinese have apparently been suffering from malnutrition because of heavy grain diets.

South Korea's 10-year farming transformation came from successfully introducing new high-yield grain; doubling a subsidized rice price; and expanding credit, transport, storage, and the urban market. It also electrified all its villages and provided at least primary schooling for everybody. It is this infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams, telephone lines, etc.) that now so badly needs investment in China, something Deng and his fellow reformers have recognized. And this looks to be a fundamental reason for Peking needing to fund farming less and infrastructure more.

Average farm sizes in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea all tend to be about 2.5 acres -- small, but big enough to farm with mini-machines such as power tillers with attachments to plough, harrow, haul, reap, bind, and thresh. China's several million small tractors are mainly used for hauling, and animals are still used for transport in the dry, poorer north. Most farming in China is still done by hand -- mainly by hoe and sickle.

A German farm scientist who has been visiting China since 1958, Helmut von Uexkull, voiced a widespread belief that China, too, will move to approximately 1 hectare family farms and introduce small machinery. ``China can modernize much faster than Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan because the land is all state-owned, and by decree Beijing [Peking] can rationalize land size,'' he said.

This may happen by itself. Since Deng has encouraged the growth of private enterprise -- up from 660,000 private businesses in 1980 to 10.6 million now -- many villagers are already engaged in non-farming occupations. China hopes to reduce its rural population from 80 to 65 percent by the year 2000 through the spread of decentralized industry, a process that already has a good head start because of Mao Tse-tung's establishment of communes throughout China during his tenure.

The exact size of China's population is anybody's guess. The last official and reasonably accurate count in July 1982, came to just over a billion. China's ``one-child family'' program has since thrown off projections. Only about 200 million men and women are thought to be presently working in agriculture -- including their dependents, about half China's people.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.