EVERY day, Li Zhizhong and his son Xuming take out their boat to feed their carp and their eels. At this time of year in China's semi-tropical province of Guangdong, most of the Li's 16 acres of farmland are fishponds. Later in the spring, Li will drain his ponds and plant rice as a summer crop. Li was the first farmer in his village to alternate rice with fish. Before him, villagers grew two crops of rice a year, a practice that is labor intensive and needs a lot of fertilizer.
Today, Li is Qinzhu's richest farmer, making $12,000 a year. His success reflects the human energies released by the economic reforms Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping began 12 years ago. Since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, there has been some backtracking, but in Guangdong private enterprise continues to be encouraged.
When farmers were still working on communes, there was no initiative and no innovation, says Guangdong's governor, Ye Xuanping. In those days, ``farmers had no say in the policymaking process in their own communes. Now they have. They can decide for themselves whatever they want to plant in their fields. Therefore their initiative has been heightened. As a result you have a great variety of products.''
Or, as Li puts it, ``Before, there was a leader who told me what I had to do. He says `Do this!' and I do it. He says `Do that!' and I do it. But now, I'm much more efficient.''
Li's affluence did not come easily. As the son of a rich peasant, in the days of the communes, Li had to work twice as hard as anyone else to prove that he belonged to the masses, not to the exploiters.
When the commune system was abolished in the early 1980s, everyone in Qinzhu village received title to one-sixth of an acre of land for 15 years. When all 600 villagers had been provided for, there was still about 70 acres left. The village decided to rent this land out to the five highest bidders. Li's share was 16 acres, for which he contracted to pay $2,400 a year. Much of it was lowland, frequently under water, but Li already had the idea of raising fish as a cash crop.
``Once I started doing this, it's been very easy for me,'' he says. ``Other people think it's hard, though. They think that they'll have to plant 100 acres just to equal 10 of mine.''
His neighbors don't seem jealous. ``He works harder than anyone else,'' says the village chief, Li Songda. Besides, while others may not be as rich as Li, they have become prosperous growing watermelon, or raising geese, or working in small factories nearby. Villagers have electricity and tap water and have paved some of their lanes with brick.
But as jobs in industry increase, the trend among young people is to leave farming. Even the wealthy Li's daughters aren't sure how long they will stay at home helping their mother cut flax. Youyi, the older daughter, says, ``If a better job turns up, I'd like to take it.''