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The Reform Unravels: Rural Change 1986

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The Reform

Rural Change 1986


This article is a revised version of a report prepared for the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, and Fisheries, Peoples Republic of China, 1986.


After working for five months in China in 1986, I had a feeling that conditions were not as stable as they had been the year before. The whole country seemed far less stable, the problems more widespread and urgent, and the government less capable of handling them.

    The key weakness showed up in foreign trade. Sometime late last year or early this year, Beijing authorities decided that certain cities and whole provinces could make their own deals with foreign concerns. The upshot was that Beijing lost control of the whole process, provinces and cities began wheeling and dealing on a large scale, imports shot up, and the country ran through half or more of its foreign currency reserves in a few months. Much of the goods imported came from Japan: cars, television sets, tape recorders, refrigerators. They flooded the country from one end to the other and threatened the demise of large sections of native industry. People began to talk of "a second Japanese conquest of China."

    Trade balances that had always heretofore been in China's favor suddenly went against China, especially the trade balance with Japan. Added to that was the serious corruption, such as the Hainan Island scam, whereby officials imported thousands of mini-vans at high dollar rates, then turned around and sold them to the rest of the country at vastly inflated prices, making illegal profits for Hainan and for themselves. While all this was going on, inflation continued to mount, forcing lots of prices up, especially food prices, vegetable prices, and meat prices. City people on fixed incomes found it harder and harder to make ends meet.


    In September, students in Beijing finally took to the streets. A few thousand paraded in Tiananmen Square. The government acted quickly, mobilizing large numbers of youths to block the gates at Qinghua and other campuses, thus keeping further protests off the streets of the capital. But in the provinces, due to effective liaison between young people, students marched in many cities.

Trade Problems

    On the surface the demonstrations were anti-Japanese. The immediate cause was the visit of Japan's premier to a Shinto shrine where he paid his respects to the memory of military men, including some who are regarded as war criminals in China. This shocked the Chinese, who are very sensitive to anything that looks like the remilitarization of Japan. Some recalled that Japanese aggression against China began with trade and investment. So the first slogans were "Down with the flood of Japanese goods" or "Stop the Japanese flood." The target shifted quickly to domestic issues, however. "Oppose inflation" and "Oppose corruption" led to much sharper phrases like "The government is incompetent," and "Down with the new Li Hongzhang."

    Li Hongzhang was the Qing Dynasty viceroy who helped crush the Taiping Rebellion, brought in foreigners to build modern plants in China, built a so-called modern army and navy, lost the war to Japan in 1895, then gave in to humiliating Japanese demands at Shimoneseki. To call Deng the new Li Hongzhang is to criticize, first and foremost, his handling of Japan: Japanese trade, Japanese trade balances, imports, and investments. When a government loses control of imports and currency reserves it certainly becomes subject to charges of incompetence, particularly in China, in view of the history of China vis-à-vis imperialism in the last 150 years.

    Of crucial importance in the sphere of trade has been the commitment of large quantities of Chinese resources as exports in order to balance up the import account. The new coal mine in Northwest Shanxi jointly exploited by Armand Hammer and the Chinese government, other big coal fields in North Shanxi and Inner Mongolia marked for export, and vast quantities of oil headed the same way have alarmed many people who fear that China is headed in a typical third world direction, giving up vast quantities of valuable resources at low prices for expensive industrial imports at the expense of building up its own industries. It would not take too many bad deals to put China in the same bind as Nigeria now finds itself -- deep in debt peonage.

    I heard many tales of native Chinese industries undercut by subsidized imports from abroad, imports that Chinese bought simply because they were foreign and not because they were superior to native products. My sister and her husband have been working for years to develop native Chinese dairy equipment. Now they have finally succeeded, but the whole effort is in jeopardy due to the export drives of Denmark, Japan, and Germany in this same sphere. Chinese state units would rather buy foreign than domestic, so they cut the throats of their own people. I also heard of a computer that Shenzhen could have bought from a firm in Chengdu, but bought from Italy instead because it was foreign. Thus the Chengdu firm had a hard time staying in business.

    In the auto industry the foreign advantage is very clear. No one wants the Chinese cars. Every official wants to keep up with the Joneses by buying a Japanese car. My brother-in-law was worried that he wouldn't find his car and driver in front of the Beijing Hotel. But I pointed out to him that his unit's car was the only one, amidst hundreds of Japanese-made vehicles, that was made in Shanghai. He could pick it out anywhere. Why was his unit so backward? Because it was rural.

    Those in the know said many bad deals are being made. If a foreign company can't put something over on government buyers or contract makers, they go below to provincial- or city-level units and make the rejected deal there. Thus they saddle China with a lot of shoddy equipment and outmoded technology. Since hi-tech is the craze, anything high-tech sells well even if it can't be used, even if China makes the same thing better.

Unloading the Burden of the Peasantry

    In agriculture some surprising things are happening. Ironically, new developments are reviving under Deng, some tendencies that, when they occurred under Mao, became the target of Deng's sharpest crit icism. For example, there is such a big exodus of labor from the land, so many millions of peasants abandoning tillage for local industries and sundry trades, that, just as during the Great Leap, the remaining labor force is unable to cope with the crops.

    With returns for labor on the land falling so low, nobody wants to stay at home and farm. Communities have to subsidize agriculture with industrial earnings, which amounts to a great ping diao, or leveling and transferring of wealth. This grossly violates the principle of "to each according to work performed." It was cooperatives that were supposed to violate this principle, but now suddenly in the privatized rural community much of the village income from contracting out land and sideline enterprises has to be allocated as subsidies to those who agree to remain on the land. If this is not "leveling and transferring," what is it? We are back to "one big pot," which is a term of derision, used against the cooperatives. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    Community subsidies for agriculture involve amounts that are not small. In Long Bow village, where I spent four days, each field contractor gets 60 yuan per mu total. This consists of free plowing, free harrowing, free fertilizer, free seed, free pest control, and a subsidy of a nickel a jin (1.1 pound) above the state price for all grain produced. This adds up to about $120 (official rate) per acre, which is more than the U.S. government allocates for various farm programs that discourage production. Over the country as a whole the subsidy figures must be enormous. And they do not include the various subsidies which have been built into the grain procurement price ever since the 20 percent price increase back in 1980. I used to feel that whereas industrial Japan could subsidize domestic grain prices this was not possible in China, but apparently this is what is happening. Even a modest increase in mechanization would make it unnecessary, but so long as the main tillage implement remains the hoe, and the main harvest implement the sickle, farming will have to be subsidized wherever nonfarm employment opportunities are significant.

    Of course, not all these phenomena are a bad thing. It is good that millions of peasants leave the land if they can settle into other productive pursuits. The drawing off of people, the difficulty of finding help, the sharp rise in wage rates, all create good conditions for mechanization, which is the only long-term solution to the problem. Unfortunately  

the new regime is no better prepared than was the old to provide the needed machinery, so the labor problem is solved by migrants, vast flows of people from the poorer hill regions who come down to do the heavy work by the day and go home at the end of the season with a little stake.

    I learned that this fall in Guangdong one had to pay 6 yuan a day for harvest labor in the fields, not counting the free meals, sorghum liquor, and cigarettes that the employer must also provide. Since it takes a peasant four full days of work to harvest a mu of rice, the cash outlay alone comes to close to 25 yuan. Twenty-five yuan per mu means 150 yuan per acre ($50 at the official rate; $25 at the market rate) just in harvest costs, not to mention the extras. This is way above machine harvest costs in the United States for crops of equivalent yield. And all this because of the rise in the price of labor due to sideline and industrial development.

    Labor costs last fall amounted to 4 yuan per day in Sichuan, 10 yuan per day this fall in Heilongjiang, and from 3 to 5 yuan per day -- but only 1.5 yuan per day for women -- this fall in Shanxi. These are great increases over the past and point up the need for mechanization now rather than the open-ended expansion of a migrant labor market through which the richly endowed peasants of the plains exploit the poorly endowed hill people. Unfortunately, higher authorities ignore the problem.

A Functioning Collective

    To see something quite different, we went to Wanggongzhuang, a village that copied Long Bow's mechanization and became so prosperous it refused to break up when the new policy was introduced. All the leaders disappeared every time the county authorities came down to find them. This went on until the break-up wind blew itself out after a year or two. So now Wanggongzhuang is one of the best mechanized and one of the most cooperative villages in all of China, and township leaders are mobilizing other villages to copy it. The experience is spreading far beyond the immediate locality, even though the achievements cannot be reported up to Beijing or even to Taiyuan, the provincial capital, because they are not in accord with policy.

    The provincial machinery officials wrote my report for me, saying that the way forward for mechanization was through contracting larger tracts of land by crop production specialists. It is true that I did not oppose this route, so long as they find a way to mechanize soon, but I also advocated the Wanggongzhuang cooperative route organized around the "four unities." This latter route involves all land contractors in a joint effort, practicing unified planning, financing, management, and mechanization. Another list of the "four unities" presents them as: unified planning, unified purchasing, unified technology or technical measures, and unified machine work.

    In other words, in these cooperative communities, even though the land has been contracted out, all the wheat is planted together, all the corn planted together, all the beans planted together. The community buys the finest grade seed and the best fertilizer, then a central machine group, either owned and managed by the community or contracted to a local specialist, does all the plowing, harrowing, fertilizing, planting, and spraying, right through until harvest time. All the individual family does is some crop care in the interim, in corn, perhaps, some light weeding or some detasseling (in South Shanxi they believe that detasseling two rows out of four increases yields 10-15 percent). Then at harvest time they keep the crop separate. Each family stores its own and each family keeps its own accounts, paying out whatever it owes for inputs and machine work.

    This really represents a high degree of collectivization and a high degree of joint management. Where we saw it practiced the results were excellent. But it is a far cry from the privatization that is standard today throughout the Chinese countryside. And it is so out of line with state policy that the Shanxi machinery people did not want me to mention it as a possible road forward in my report.

    The Wanggongzhuang results are really impressive. They started with a lot of land per capita, at least for Shanxi, with 5,680 mu for 1,611 people, of whom some 455 are ablebodied. Their cropland equals 5,442 mu, or slightly more than half an acre per person. So even after handing out about a mu of per capita grain land to each man, woman, and child they still had a large acreage to farm commercially, to contract out but to manage jointly as was their custom. The yield picture looks like this:  



Yield Per Acre







    This progress really began with mechanization, especially with the corn picker, which has a stalk chopper built in. Since the pickers chop up the stalks as they pick the ears, all organic residue goes back into the soil, enriching the fields from year to year. This gives the soil much greater water-holding capacity and makes the chemical fertilizer more available to plants. When you add to this the top-quality seed, the increased amounts of fertilizer, the addition of phosphate fertilizer to the usual nitrogen used, some use of herbicides for weed control and perhaps the detasseling, you get an unbeatable formula for raising production year after year. Since the machines liberated labor power this village, which could previously hardly handle the grain land, branched out into sidelines -- processing, transport, livestock (particularly chicken raising), silk worms, silk filiatures, and construction crews -- to push up income by 333 percent. Agriculture and sidelines combined now provide 418 yuan per capita per year as against 66 yuan in 1978.

    Wanggongzhuang's success has inspired the whole township and the whole county, for that matter, and many other brigades have decided to follow its example. This method has the support of county leaders now, but no one can publicize the experience nationally or even at the province level because it is not in accord with policy.

    The contrast between the remarkable results in Wanggongzhuang and the farming in other places is sharp. We saw peasants burning enormous quantities of stalks in the fields to make room for the planting of wheat. They burn the corn stalks and bean stalks wholesale in Southeast Shanxi in the fall, and after the summer harvest the wheat stalks or straw as well. All of this useful organic matter is burned because it is in the way and villages don't have enough labor power to process it by hand. Of course, traditionally they used to burn all these stalks as fuel for cooking and heating, but with the development of coal mining in recent decades and with coal so cheap everywhere in Shanxi, people burn coal as fuel and the stalks are no longer needed for domestic survival.


    We saw places where the peasants had piled stalks along the highway embankments at the ends of the fields, then set them afire and burned them in such a way that the heat killed the shade trees that lined the highway. In late October universal burning filled the Shanxi air with smoke; one could smell it on the wind everywhere and see it on the horizon, an ubiquitous blue haze. A terrible, terrible waste!

    Since privatization all the traditional threshing floors have turned out to be too small. Every family must now have its own space so all the contracting peasants, if they live anywhere near a highway, bring their unthreshed grain to the road, lay it out on the pavement to be thrashed by the vehicles passing through, then dry the grain on the shoulder of the road. Peasants have always used roads this way, but never on such a massive scale. This October we literally traveled several kilometers at a time over crops to be threshed. At one point bean stalks wrapped on our drive shaft and jammed it and it took about an hour to cut ourselves free.

    The grain processed on the roads gets really dirty. Oil from the passing trucks, cars, and tractors, manure and urine from the horses and mules, tar from the blacktop underneath all contaminate the grain. Governments at various levels have forbidden processing on the roads again and again, but it still goes on on an ever more massive scale. No one can control it. To make sufficient threshing floors to substitute for these road areas would further deplete the amount of cropland and no one is in favor of that. Collective threshing uses much less space; it's the private threshing that bursts all bounds.

    In north Shanxi we saw a county where privatization combined with good leadership had led to a big expansion of the dairy industry. Shanyin now boasts 8,000 cows, most of them privately owned but all descended from a 1,000-cow state herd that has been there for a long time. In one village we found 500 cows -- two to a family, three to a family, one to a family -- and each cow in milk can yield a profit of 2,000 yuan a year. The peasants raise corn and feed the cows corn meal and chopped stalks (the grain ration has added nutrients from a local mill); they milk and after each milking send their milk to a milk powder plant by bicycle twice a day. What a sight! All those people, young and old, on bicycles with plastic containers of milk strapped on both sides of the rear wheel lining the roads on the way to the milk plant. There is no question that sideline development is the way to go and dairy cows, at least for now, are a profitable sideline. But the whole process leads to polarization and quite rapidly. Already the biggest private dairy has thirty head while the average family has but one or two. With thirty head you have to hire labor, at least one person for-every three or four cows.

    Everywhere we heard complaints about taxes and fees. The dairies were no exception. It seems that the Light Industry Bureau has the right to levy fees on all non-crop production regardless of origin, even if it makes no contribution toward setting up or managing the enterprise. For instance, as soon as you start to milk a cow a cent and a half of the 26 cents you get per jin of milk goes to the Light industry Bureau as a management fee. Another cent and a half goes in other taxes so three cents comes off (almost 12 percent) before the milk even reaches the plant. After that it is subject to various processing taxes, shipping taxes, and so on -- a real burden on the farming communities. People resent it and they are talking about it.

    Peasants who opt for transport on the road by buying a small tractor and trailer are subject to over twenty different fees -- license fees, road use taxes, load taxes -- you name it, there is a tax for it. These cut way down on the profitability of transport. Among the twenty they list insurance. This seems a reasonable charge, but many of the other charges are not reasonable at all. They have the appearance of feudal exactions, unwarranted restraints on trade imposed by local powerholders.

Cooperation Yields Success

    In the Northeast, in Heilongjiang, mechanization, at least for tillage and planting, was quite widespread in the past. Peasants often used combines to harvest the small grains and the beans if not the corn. The reforms dealt mechanization a staggering blow. Of the 10,000 villages in Heilongjiang, only 181 retained collective control over machinery, that is, collective ownership and management. Twenty percent contracted their machinery to private operators and the rest, over 80 percent sold the machinery outright at sacrifice prices to those with an inside track -- such as brigade leaders, their relatives, and friends. On the average the machinery brought only about one-third of its original price. If one assumes that depreciation had already exhausted a third of the value then the machinery sold at half price. However you figure it, it was a great rip-off of collective wealth, a major giveaway, and those who bought the machinery, having got it at such cheap prices, were often unprepared to pay for major repairs when the time came for that. They used  the machinery, mainly tractors, plows, and a few combines, until the time came for repairs, then they abandoned it.


    After reform most machinery did only a portion of the work it had done before. In almost every case the sales broke up implement sets so that the new owners could not contract any whole job, any whole crop sequence. One operator could plow for a peasant producer, another could harrow or plant, still a third might harvest, but no operator bought a complete set of crop production equipment. Thus utilization fell off sharply. Over the province as a whole, on the other hand, officials insisted that crop yields did not fall, but maintained fairly good levels. This is because the land contractors, doing the job primarily by hand or with draft animals are working a lot harder, putting in more and more intensive hours.

    We visited two villages that were exceptions to the great sell-off rule. Both had refused to break up. Jianhua village had over 13 mu per capita and if you include range land, almost 26 mu per capita -- about twelve times the national average. The Communist Party secretary decided on retaining ownership of the machinery and organizing its use through a mechanization team or teams. About ten families who thought they would get rich only if the coop broke up, left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But the village, still functioning as a collective, did very well and this year the ten families came back and begged for readmission. The party secretary wisely invited them back and even organized a welcome home party for them. They returned because they found that it was not so easy to get rich on their own. The people who stayed home and worked together were doing much better financially.

    This brigade had an impressive record in sidelines, with 50,000 chickens raised by scores of families (several hundred to several thou sand to a flock), a large fresh-water fish industry using man-made ponds, an oil-processing plant, cattle-raising on range land, and many other projects. They also had a pretty high level of mechanization, including one large parallel sprinkler system that could water several thousand mu, primarily wheat land. The potential here seemed great, especially if they maintain collective control.  

    While north of Chichihar we went one day to a second, even larger village that Shandong people settled on wasteland some twenty years ago. Here the collective level was even higher than at Jianhua. The place was functioning as the most successful collectives functioned elsewhere in China in the past. The accumulation fund was large enough to allow for big investments so the brigade had its own powdered milk plant and its own fruit cannery. Members had their own orchards and their own evergreen tree plantations as well as a deer farm. They had also invested in three big city stores (two in Chichihar and one in Harbin) and a taxi company.

    The central government man traveling with me asked the party secretary why he had not followed policy and contracted everything out. "I don't want to give you a long lecture on Marxism-Leninism," the party secretary said, "so I'll just give you three reasons: It wasn't practical to do it; we couldn't figure out a way to do it; and we didn't want to do it." He then elaborated on the three, with stress on the last. He himself was the manager of the off-farm enterprises and boasted he made money even while sleeping. He had set up a bonus system tied to off-farm enterprise profits and since the receipts far surpassed the plan in 1985 he was supposed to get 30,000 yuan personally. The average per capita income in this village is 1,700 yuan, 600 from private family projects, such as family cows, and 1,100 from collective projects. The party secretary projected that by 1988 total income would be about 7 million yuan -- 1 million from agriculture, 1 million from forestry, 1 million from livestock (mostly dairy cows) and 3 million from industries, trade, and outside enterprises, plus 1 million from private family earnings. This would create a per capita net income of 3,000 yuan.

    This community had seventeen large tractors, five large combines, and dozens of implements of all kinds. With this machinery the cooperators farmed over 300 mu (50 acres) per laborer which is well over ten times the average in the Northeast. It would have been the height of folly to divide, yet tens of thousands of communities with mechanization approaching this level did divide. Singing the praises of these collective places does not get one anywhere now, however, because they are considered mavericks, out of line with policy. Yet they are much touted by the machinery people because they are continuing to demonstrate what cooperation plus machinery can do

    Elsewhere in the Northeast the machinery people are trying to make the best of a bad situation by pushing Machine Owners Associations, where those who have bought machinery or contracted exclusive rights to machinery will organize, coordinate, set rates and standards, and then provide effective custom work for the individual land contractors. But if the contractors, on their part, do not practice some form of "four unities" the effort will be in vain because there won't be any large pieces of land on which the machines can rationally function.

    This year in the southern regions of the Northeast, in Liaoning, the rivers flooded badly. The Liao went over its banks in the rainy season and destroyed the crops over a wide area. The destruction was so great that city people in North China got nervous and began to horde grain tickets for the first time in several years. For a while, after the surpluses of 1984, it looked as if the private grain market would supply all the grain needed at bargain prices, but that clearly is no longer a probability. Suddenly rationing, grain coupons, and state guarantees look attractive again. Rumor had it that Guangdong fell short of grain and wanted to buy more from Hunan, but Hunan refused to allow the grain out since its leaders feared local shortages themselves. In the meantime the heavy rains in the lower Yangtze Valley just at harvest time caused a lot of grain there to rot. I guess it is no wonder that Chen Yun raised the grain question very sharply and called on the government to pay special attention to grain. The China Daily of December 12, 1985, reported a sharp drop in the national grain harvest, and follow-up report the next day said that half the land in Guangdong had been diverted to nonfarm use.

Grasslands Polarized

    In the summer of 1986 I traveled all through Inner Mongolia looking at the grasslands and the deserts (it is sometimes hard to tell the difference). There I found the situation to be as serious as ever -- everywhere overgrazing and no real program to overcome the destruction. No matter where we went the people all said the grazing was worse.

    Yet even in the deserts, sparse as the population was, we saw the same social differentiation that we had seen elsewhere: bold contractors assume the use-rights to more property than they can work, then hire poorer neighbors to do the hard manual work. One man who had bought or somehow acquired a young orchard from his collective was temporarily growing watermelons between the apple trees with the help of three hired laborers. When we went to see the plots he ordered his laborers to find ripe melons for us to eat, then cut them up and gave his guests a copious share while the laborers looked on wistfully. He offered them nary a piece. I was reminded of the relationship between landlords and hired laborers in old China.

    Where the government initiates dune fixation projects it often contracts them out. The state pays so much per mu of work. The insiders contract the acreage, then hire neighbors to do the hard manual work and pocket the difference. Thus the polarization spreads even on the wide frontier. A Mongolian friend said, "labor-management relations have returned to the stage of primitive capitalism as described by Karl Marx." When I asked what that meant, he said, "The owners have all the rights and the workers none. It's hire, fire, squeeze, and exploit without hindrance or organized resistance."

    We went to an entirely different area in the central Ordos where the water table lay hundreds of feet down and the wells were few and far between. The wells that did exist were generating small concentric deserts because so many thousand head of stock had to concentrate around each for water. While visiting one well we learned that the only other well in the neighborhood, one drilled by the local collective at a cost of 10,000 yuan, had been bought by one individual for 3,000 yuan. This herdsman bought it for 30 cents on the dollar and was using it to enhance his personal fortune. In that same area we saw farm machinery -- things like fodder choppers for silage making, large mowing machines, and large electric generators -- abandoned, stripped, and rusting, the copper wire ripped from the generators. Everything is private now and the scale is too small to put such machinery to work.

The biggest single contract that I saw anywhere in the grasslands was for 20,000 mu. An Atakachi man with a rather large extended family had contracted this large area (some 3,000 acres), had borrowed money from the bank, and had fenced off about half of it. He had also contracted with the collective for the use of the hay baler -- a 10,000 yuan machine -- and was making hay on the unfenced uplands. In haying season he hired several laborers. There was still some grass up there because there was no water available for grazing herds to drink.

    The officials told me that in the entire area there were about five contracts for over 10,000 mu. Most of them, however, were in the 2,000 to 3,000 mu range and many were for 1,000 mu or less. I think the 20,000 mu man is bound to do well, but what will the 1,000 mu fellows do? There, as elsewhere, the range looked badly depleted. It was already the end of the rainy season, the very best time of year for grass, but hardly a blade of grass could be seen. Whatever showed green turned out to be unpalatable weeds that no stock wanted to eat and between these weeds bare soil showed all around.

Waste Slopes, Virgin Grass

    Going over the mountains north of Hohhot and in the northern part of the Ordos we saw millions of mu of badly eroded slopes. The hills look as if they are being torn apart by the claws of giant tigers. The authorities do not call these regions grasslands, although if left to themselves they might be covered with grass; they call them waste slopes. We saw hardly any trees. In Inner Mongolia, they say, if you want to hang yourself you have to walk 100 miles to find a tree.

    Since here and there the hills are broken by small gullies and flats that peasants can cultivate, they class these lands as agricultural. The peasants till the barren plots, then run as many head of stock as possible on the hills. No one has a plan or a program to control the grazing, revive the hills, or check the terrible erosion. When I asked what measures could possibly save the day our guide looked at me in amazement. "But these are waste slopes," he said. It was clear that nobody had any plans for them at all. I don't mean to imply that the plans they have for the other grasslands are effective, but at very least a lot of people are worrying about their future. Most people recognize that there is a problem and they hold lots of discussions and lots of  meetings and conduct lots of studies. Not so for the waste slopes. Yet a quarter of all the livestock in Inner Mongolia graze on the waste slopes!

    East of Xilinhot -- two days journey to the east, not far from the Outer Mongolian border -- we actually did see some undergrazed rangeland, on the western slope of the Greater Kingan Mountains. The lands had not been grazed primarily because the water table was so low -- down several hundred feet -- so stock could come in only in winter when there was snow on the ground to slake thirst. Here we even saw natural forests and some of the most beautiful wild country that I have ever seen anywhere -- most of it not forested but grass covered -- huge rolling ridges clothed in grass from bottom to top and stretching away to the horizon in an endless velvet carpet. In this whole region we saw only one herd, mixed cattle and sheep. When we started to take pictures our guide protested. "Don't photograph those animals," he said. "They are poaching. They come from south of the mountains." They came from Balin Right, which I visited in 1983, from a range even more heavily overgrazed than most ranges in Xilinhot. So Balin Right's desperate herdsmen even braved the waterless mountains to find some virgin grass.

    The Kingan Mountain area was indeed a paradise, but it comprises only a small fraction of the total grassland. Nevertheless, it is large enough to give rise to the myth of great untapped resources on the frontier of the nation. If the government ever stopped building high-rises in Beijing long enough to send a little capital for well-drilling to the Kingan range then that whole range would soon be depleted also, because if herdsmen could find water there they would soon load the mountains with livestock enough to finish everything off. In some ways, then, it is lucky that there is little money for agricultural development in China now.

Next: Bypassed by Reform: Agricultural Mechanization, 1986

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