IT is daybreak at Baihe.
The cuckoo begins to sing as the soft dawn light silhouettes the feathery leaves of a water cedar tree standing beside a still creek.
Suddenly, villagers are jolted awake. Loudspeakers throughout the village growl with the sound of the local leader clearing his throat.
"Comrades, in some cotton fields farmers have not dug irrigation ditches. Those who have are diligent; those who have not are lazy," blares the leader. It is Sunday, 5:15 a.m.
"Comrades, all work group leaders will meet this morning; the meeting will start on time regardless of wind and rain," the village leader says before delivering a long lecture on basic farming.
Later, 25 minutes after the scheduled start of the meeting, the village leader shouts, "Group leaders come to the meeting right now!"
Chinese leaders have long bemoaned the difficulty of motivating a rural population that Sun Yat-sen likened to "a great heap of sand."
But it is more than the sleepiness of a Sunday sunrise that makes it hard to rouse the villagers of Baihe.
Throughout rural China, government and Communist Party leaders have seen their power to marshal farmers erode in recent years.
The easing of social regimentation during 12 years of market-oriented reform has slackened the rigid lines of socialist orthodoxy and conviction in the countryside.
Chinese are now far less dependent on the party. They enjoy greater opportunity to prosper and to associate with one another outside of direct party control.
Indeed, many rural Chinese in prosperous areas only heed cadres who can run factories, market products, and offer other profitable skills, sociologists say.
The decline in the party's totalitarian power raises a fundamental question: Who is in charge in China's villages?
The answer is not always bright.
* In southern China, crime bosses promote prostitution and gambling, traffick in narcotics, rural women, and children, and slip hired outlaws across the border to rob Hong Kong banks.
* Charlatans are reviving ancient superstitions and winning followers, according to accounts in even the usually glowing official press.
* Long-dormant clans spread networks of control that have confronted, and sometimes absorbed, local government, according to the reports.
Some new facets and forms of authority competing with the party are neutral or benign.
Along the country's thriving coast, entrepreneurs devoted to money rather than Marx assume top posts in village and township party branches.
In Hebei Province villages, underground Christians gather at night to worship.
The power and ideological appeal of the party has declined because villagers see it as irrelevant - or as an outright impediment - to their struggle for prosperity.
And the party has largely itself to blame for the loss of power. Farmers in more than 15 villages across China complained about rising corruption, particularly about flagrant wining and dining at public expense.
"Cadres and most other people are no longer concerned with serving the people but are more economically oriented," says Shao Guoxing, a Baihe resident.
"So now economic ideals and the struggle for personal gain prevail instead of political ideals," says Mr. Shao, who spoke on condition his real name not be used.
Hard times and declining state revenues have also strained relations between villagers and cadres.
In Baihe, a village outside the city of Shishou, leaders in recent years have seized the grain of several villagers who have refused to pay an onerous annual tax, according to residents. The actual name of the village has been withheld at the request of residents.
Yet the party has most decisively undercut its own power by making families rather than communes the basic force for farming.
IRONICALLY, the nationwide enactment of the "household-based responsibility system" in the early 1980s was the most successful reform by the party in decades. Farmers' incomes and grain production surged. But by promoting such sweeping change, the party released its tight stranglehold on many rural Chinese. It denied itself many day-to-day controls over the land and those who till it.
"Under the communes, cadres wielded great powers and they could control farmers like a factory boss controls workers," says Wang Guosheng. He recently retired as both government leader and party secretary at a neighboring village.
Commune leaders allotted a farmer "work points" for his labors and so decided his family's grain ration. They could deny recalcitrant farmers food and basic benefits.
"Today, cadres and farmers are not very close; the farmers rely less on officials and can do pretty much what they want," says Mr. Wang, who spoke on condition his real name not be used.
Farmers have left the land and found ways to prosper in commerce, services, rural enterprises, and other work outside immediate party purview.
As a result, the party is no longer the sole boss and benefactor for farmers. It is just the most powerful among society's several emerging interest groups.
Conservative leaders warn about the political danger from a rural population taking to the road, to foreign fashions and ideas, and to associations loosely affiliated with the party.
But the comparative unruliness in the countryside is just a painful rite of passage for Chinese politics. The rising wealth and unofficial groups are prerequisites for progressive change toward a pluralistic society, political scientists say.
For Wang, the former official, the decline in party power and the transition to pluralism only brought headaches.
Wang built a reputation for efficiency and rectitude during 11 years as party secretary, eight of those spent concurrently as village leader.
Wang nurtured a small lumber mill and other lucrative collective enterprises. And he organized the funding and construction for a $36,000 water tower that provides the extraordinary luxury of running water.
Although villagers respect Wang, they gradually refused to follow him. He quit because he gradually felt he was becoming the local villain while coping with what he called the "Five Difficulties" of the village cadre: "land, birth, death, water, and high officials."
Wang repeatedly had to dun his neighbors for tax payments, most notably an annual levy of $22.50 for every acre of land.
The retired leader also was responsible for collecting $272 from couples who broke family planning regulations, a fee 50 percent higher than the average annual per capita income in the village.
When villagers died, Wang had to compel grieving families to cremate the remains in Shishou rather than hold a traditional burial on scarce land. He was also responsible for rallying reluctant farmers behind common efforts in ditch digging, dike building, and other water conservancy projects.
Finally, like his neighbors, Wang grew exasperated with officials too.
"Township officials don't do solid work; they just give orders and expect village cadres to do all the work," he says.
"The orders keep us running around all the time, and meanwhile the higher officials never come down to the grass roots," he adds.
Like many of his neighbors, Wang plans to forsake public service for personal gain. He plans to emulate a wealthy in-law and make a fortune selling and installing tar paper.