SHAO GUOXING shoulders a bamboo pole with two pails and sets off into the dawn mist across a crumbling stone bridge toward the village well.
In recent years, as Mr. Shao each morning crossed the bridge over the glassy creek, he has regarded the cracked structure as a symbol for China's struggle to bridge the gap between penury and prosperity.
"Everyone uses this bridge and some villagers have plenty of money, but still we let it go to ruin," Shao says, pointing at the mossy span and shaking his head. Neglect of village structures has become more common in recent years, he notes.
"During reform we've only worked for ourselves, not for each other," he says, sweeping a finger toward the mud-and-thatch dwellings around him.
Shao's disgust highlights the failure of the government to carry out full economic reform in the villages of China.
Overall, market-oriented reform has been a boon for the country's ancient effort to feed and clothe itself. Most of China's 860 million rural residents are prospering more than ever before and inducing more progressive change.
Yet as self-reliant farmers cross the bridge to prosperity, many of those Chinese who are more dependent on the rickety socialist economy remain behind. The steep rise in their incomes has sharply leveled off in recent years.
The per capita income of farmers more than tripled in the decade after senior leader Deng Xiaoping disbanded Mao Zedong's communes and condoned family farming.
But farmers' incomes have risen only 2.5 percent since 1989, according to Farmer's Daily, an official newspaper. Consequently, village tax revenues are insufficient to maintain vital public works like the bridge near Shao's home.
Research for this report indicates that farmers are bearing the brunt of a failure in national leadership. The authority and prestige of officials ranging from the central government in Beijing down to the cadres in Shao's village have waned because of corruption and the unpopularity of socialist ideology.
Also, China's leaders are too divided and afraid of unrest to finish the high-stakes task of reform and carry the economy completely from socialism to a market system. Conservative leaders have ruled out the decontrol of agricultural pricing, private land ownership, and other reforms essential to invigorating the economy.
"China needs to ascend to a new level in rural reform," says Du Ying, the head of experiments in economic reform at the Ministry of Agriculture.
The political uncertainty and hesitant leadership have provoked concern about a possible return to collective tilling. Farmers refuse to invest in the common good, favoring their own short-term interests instead. Vital public projects like roads, irrigation systems, and the bridge in Shao's village have deteriorated.
The costs of such fractious leadership have grown especially conspicuous in recent years. The problems have underscored how leaders have wasted opportunities to end persistent poverty.
Arable land and per capita grain production are shrinking; the population and the potentially explosive army of idle farmhands are growing.
Also, the disparity in incomes is widening. In Shao's village and thousands of others nationwide, many farmers cannot get along on what they grow because state-set prices for agricultural products are too low to cover the rising costs of farming.
Consequently, more than 60 million farmers have left the fields for the road, seeking the comparative riches of work in the city.
The migrants and other maverick rural residents have become a leading force for the elimination of state controls that inhibit prosperity. By their gumption alone they are compelling change in fields, factories, and Communist Party ideology.
Rural residents are snubbing orthodox Marxism, inducing market-oriented economic reforms, and making local government more responsive to their struggle for prosperity.
Reform-minded Chinese in Shao's village and much of the countryside have already won over hard-line cadres and blunted the orthodox edge to party ideology and economic policy.
Farmers have confronted rural cadres with a simple choice: Advance market-oriented change and share in its profits or step aside before the will of "the masses."
"Rural cadres must emancipate their thinking from past ideas," says Zhu Siyan, a leading agricultural official in nearby Shashi. "Officials must realize that without money one can't get anywhere, but with money one can get anywhere."
Party officials in the countryside are undermining orthodox Marxism as they promote economic policies of virtually any ideological color that enable farmers to prosper.
The popular support for reform is unorganized and inarticulate and it does not prevail in all of rural China. In many places Marxist ideologues and bureaucrats protect their powers by thwarting new initiatives. Poverty, ignorance, and repression also inhibit progressive change.
Yet in more than 15 rural towns and villages nationwide, Chinese recently expressed a willingness to challenge authority and support virtually any policy that will help them get rich.
The aggressive, get-rich-quick ethos has compelled Shao and neighbors to pine for an idealized version of the early 1950s under Mao. Then, rectitude and self-sacrifice were the official watchwords.
Shao's wife and children have left the village for work at comparatively high-paying city jobs. He says he has remained to farm and run the village medical clinic to provide an example to his children for the Maoist ideal to selflessly "serve the people."
"Wherever they are, I want my children to live by the ideals of hard work, honesty, and `serve the people,' " Shao says, sitting at a small table in his three-room, brick-and-tile home. He spoke on the condition that neither his real name nor the name of his village outside Shishou City be disclosed.
Shao and his neighbors applaud reform. But they say Beijing has erred by making economic strengthening the chief national goal. By doing so, the leadership has encouraged villagers to hustle for money regardless of ethics.
Comparatively well-to-do villagers have recently begun to compete over who has the biggest or most handsome home. Many of them borrow in order to dress up their dwellings.
"People would rather go deep into debt than have a small, ugly house and lose face," Shao says.
Meanwhile, villagers' shared needs go unmet: Poorer residents still live in wattle-and-daub dwellings. And the village bridge deteriorates.