Life Outside Beijing

The greatest concern of village officials is instability and the loss of Deng's reforms

``HEAVEN is high, and the emperor is far away.'' It's a proverb the Chinese often quote. In Beijing, the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp legislature, ended its three week session this week. Once again Prime Minister Li Peng justified the Tiananmen crackdown. But he also promised that the economic reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping twelve years ago will go on.

Far to the south in Guangdong province, farmers tending their rice fields and fish ponds watched the televised proceedings during lunch breaks in their brand-new two-story houses. In langurous, semitropical Guangdong, with its wide rivers and alluvial soil, it is hard to imagine the biting winds that blow down on Beijing from the Mongolian desert.

Yet China is one country, and decisions announced in Beijing ultimately affect not only the factory worker in Shanghai but the Guangdong peasant. What he longs for above all is stability, and the Prime Minister's pledge to continue economic reform is the most important message he has received from this session of the Congress.

Jinli, on the banks of the West River, is a pleasant township of 58,000, made up of a town center and of some 100 villages that used to practice collective farming in the days of the commune. Jinli had its days of turmoil, Party Secretary Luo Rong recalls, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Mao Zedong told youth to rebel against their elders, and youth did.

But those days, and the harsh collectivization that preceded them, are now memories Luo said when I visited him recently at township headquarters. ``The last twelve years are the longest period of stability we have ever known,'' he says, as the town mayor, Lu Hairong, nodded agreement.

The Western world is still preoccupied with memories of 1989 student protests in Tiananmen, and of the brutal repression that followed. Jinli's fears of Tiananmen, though, were that either it would precipitate a counter-revolution, with new disorders, or that the economic reforms that had brought peasants prosperity would be abandoned.

In Beijing there is daily speculation as to who is on top, the hardliners or the liberals, the conservatives or the reformers. So when two new vice-premiers are named, people immediately ask whether the leadership is continuing its delicate balancing act between the two camps, or whether, perhaps, the reformers have gained ground. But in Jinli, the most palpable feeling, before, during, and after big meetings in Beijing, is the hope that villagers will be left reasonably free to go their own way.

Luo says that the economic reform policy released the creative energies of individuals and groups. During the day of the commune, rice was almost the only crop, harvested twice a year, and everyone was poor. Today, farmers can plant watermelon, cabbage, eggplant, sugarcane, flax and other cash crops. They raise chickens, ducks and geese, and alternate rice with fishponds stocked with eels and carp. Sideline occupations plus the main crop, rice, have made farmers rich, Luo said.

In addition, individuals, villages, and Jinli township have built small factories producing a variety of goods from cement and electric wire to springs, kitchen tools and garments. Ten years ago eighty percent of Jinli's income came from agriculture. Today industry accounts for 55 percent. And income has grown, from the equivalent of $8 million (US) twelve years ago to $40 million today.

In Jinli, as in many other rural areas, the local leadership has remained remarkably stable. Luo and Lu have worked together for 30 years, ever since leaving high school. Three years ago Luo, who had been Deputy Secretary, became Secretary, and Lu became Mayor. Neither wanted to be drawn out on politics at the national level, but both made clear that they supported Deng Xiaoping's economic reform policies.

Jinli, of course, does not represent all China. Many inland provinces of China must deal with far harsher natural conditions, population pressures, and land hunger.

Nevertheless, a visit to Jinli and its surrounding villages is instructive. The landscape is immemorial China. But the people are bursting with entrepreneurial energy. Women pole sampans loaded with bags of goose down and duck feathers. Farmers are buying trucks and minibuses, to say nothing of tractors. Villages have set up copper smelters and metal workshops. They are richer, and so is the township.

If the emperor, having issued his original reform decree twelve years ago, will stay in his palace and not interfere, the people of Jinli might just make a go of it.

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