Signs of Prosperity In China Countryside

Capitalism returns with a passion to thriving village fairs - a letter from Longyao County

THERE was a time when such bourgeois trappings would have spelled trouble - right here in Longyao County. Trouble with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool.

Now, though, Liu Lihe travels freely around the county in a truck, carrying his homemade pool table, the hit of every village fair at only 15 cents for two games.

"This was impossible before the reform and opening," says the young man, clad in dark sunglasses from Hong Kong and a Barcelona Olympics sweat shirt. "Even tables were not sold."

Boisterous villagers jostling for a turn at Mr. Liu's pool table are one sign of the new vitality in that most ancient institution of Chinese capitalism, the village fair.

As economic freedoms have stirred commerce and prosperity into the harsh lives of Chinese villagers, colorful and bustling fairs have grown, multiplied, and spread across the countryside. China has more than 7,000 bazaars and 3,400 specialized and wholesale markets, according to press reports late last year.

And there are countless other small fairs that are quickly transforming many villages, such as this one in Longyao County, into thriving rural entrepots.

"I've been making the rounds of fairs for 20 years now," says He Zhipeng as he sits back amid the buckets, tubs, and other plastic ware that he has peddled at four fairs in the last 10 days. "The living standard of the farmers has greatly improved, so the fairs have become more prosperous."

Although rural commerce has gained new momentum during China's past 15 years of economic reform, the village fair has always been a mainstay of countryside life.

Even during the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when capitalistic outbursts were severely punished, local fairs were cut back but still survived. A farmer was allowed only one monthly visit to a fair to sell extra vegetables or other produce to supplement meager means.

One local resident recalls selling vegetables or a chicken or a pig during that period to earn extra money. "It helped to make life a little more bearable in those days," he says.

"A commune member could attend only one fair. Otherwise, he wouldn't be working in the fields," says Zhang Jinzhi, a Chinese Communist Party official who runs a tractor parts factory in the county. "But this is a tradition that didn't end entirely. It's difficult to overthrow a tradition."

Fairs have been one of the basic continuities of Chinese life through the centuries. Traditionally, villages were built in clusters around a central market town. The market operated at staggered times during the month to allow traveling merchants to complete a larger circuit of market towns. Today, the frequency of the local fairs in Longyao is increasing dramatically. In one village, fairs are now held six times a month, twice as often as last year. Average turnover for merchants each day is more than $ 5,000, says Mr. Zhang, the local party official.

"More and more merchants are coming into the market. And if you're not competitive, you can't last," he says, adding that the local cooperative recently doubled the size of its warehouse.

Competition is even on the rise among Longyao pool table owners, who have increased to three from none just a few years ago. As older Chinese and even the official press frown on such an idle pastime, pool tables have proliferated in the countryside and become popular for entertainment and even gambling.

"Older people don't care about learning, but the youngsters are very interested," Liu says as he racks up the balls and collects money for the next game.

"Two to three years ago, we were not allowed to play pool," he says. "Now there are several tables just in this village. We even have one at the [Communist Party] brigade headquarters."

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