The story of reform in Xiaogang Village

Wang Lei China Plus Published: 2019-06-27 22:50:44
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Yan Hongchang cherishes the seal he used in signing a secret agreement with his fellow farmers of Xiaogang village in 1978 to subdivide their common farmland into family plots.[Photo: China Plus/Li Jin]

It's the birthplace of China's rural reforms. Xiaogang village in east China's Anhui Province is a household name in the country. Back in November 1978, 18 farmers from the village signed a secret agreement to subdivide their common farmland into family plots. That was the start of the household contract responsibility system. Ever since, Xiaogang has been known as a symbol of China's rural reforms. So, more than forty years later, how are the farmers' lives there today? And what changes have occurred in the land system and traditional farming in the village?

Hello and welcome to Selfie, the show that gets to the heart of Chinese society, life and the economy. I'm Tony Reid. In this edition of Selfie, China Plus's Wang Lei takes us to Xiaogang village.

First, we find out how the land system has progressed over forty years.

Then we'll see how the reform of traditional farming into modern agriculture has affected farmers and households of Xiaogang village.

1.A glimpse of China's rural land reform from the changes in Xiaogang village

Land is farmers' lifeblood. In Xiaogang village, farmers dared to initiate the household contract responsibility system in 1978. And in 2013, China's No.1 central document on agriculture said the country would practice a system of registration and certification for land-use rights and ownership in the countryside. Why reform the system? And what impact has it had on lives in Xiaogang? Here is Wang Lei with the story.

Farmer Zeng Yun of Xiaogang village begins to work in the rice paddy filed in the early morning. [Photo: China Plus/Li Jin]

It's seven o'clock in the morning. With her two-year-old granddaughter, farmer Zeng Yun, begins to feed the ducks in the rice paddy field. Two years ago, Xiaogang began to work with the Anhui Science and Technology University on an ecological farming project to breed ducks, shrimps and crabs in the paddy fields. Zeng Yun was given the job of breeding ducks and crabs in a high-standard farm area of some five hectares. She used to do farm work at home before she transferred her family land of two hectares. She says her current job is much easier and provides a more reliable income.

The ducks nourished by the paddy fields have brought income to the farmers in Xiaogang village. [Photo: China Plus/Li Jin]

Zeng Yun's husband works in a nearby mine. The couple earn more than 30,000 yuan a year, which is average for the village.

Better living standards can be attributed to a bold initiative by the village's old generation. Sixty-nine year old Yan Hongchang was the deputy head of the production team of the Xiaogang village in the 1970s. He remembers he and his family scrounging for food, with locals suffering food shortages for three months a year. Even today, the memories make him tearful. He says there was a shortage of food everywhere, even on building sites, with beansprouts the only available food for the workers. And if they begged for more, there was just soup.

Yan Hongchang, the deputy head of the production team of the Xiaogang village in the 1970s, became tearful when recalling the days of food shortage. [Photo: China Plus/Li Jin]

So it was hunger that drove the reforms, in November 1978. Yan Hongchang and the head of the production team led the farmers to sign a secret agreement to fix farm output quotas for each household, even though it risked breaking the law at the time. In 1982, China's No.1 central document on agriculture was released and the trial in Xiaogang village was later promoted around the country. The household contract responsibility system spurred on the enthusiasm of the country's eight-million farmers to grow grain. As a result, China has seen its grain yield increase year on year and the villagers of Xiaogang have waved goodbye to the days of grain shortages and hunger.

Still, at the beginning of the 21st century, farmers in Xiaogang village who farm for a living only saw the problems of food and clothing solved. Here's Li Jinzhu, the leading official of the village.

To make the land profitable and better protect the rights of farmers in contracting the land, in 2013, the Chinese government proposed in its No.1 central document that the state would practice a system of registration and certification for land-use rights and ownership in the countryside. Xiaogang village was the first in Anhui Province to register and certify land. In 2015, the first certificate of management rights was issued in the village.

Yan Jinchang has transferred all his family's land and opened a restaurant to receive tourists who come to Xiaogang. [Photo: China Plus/Li Jin]

Yan Jinchang was one of the 18 farmers who signed the secret agreement in 1978. He has already got a certificate of management rights for the 2.3-hectare land of his family.

Yan Jinchang has transferred all his family's land to either farming companies or big farming households. This has made time for him and his sons to open a restaurant for tourists who come to the village. In recent years, more and more tourists have come to visit Xiaogang, and Yan Jinchang's family business has kept growing.

Among some 1000 hectares of arable land in the village, more than 60% has been circulated. Li Jinzhu says the basic industry of the village is modern agriculture. Through certification, land fragmentation could be changed so that larger areas absorbed smaller ones. Based on this, officials are trying to explore new business modes -- such as stocks cooperation and loans by mandate.

Li Jinzhu says that since 2017, they have worked with the Beidahuang Group, a well-known agricultural reclamation group in the great wilderness of northeast China. He hopes that Xiaogang village will see its modern agriculture develop much better with its help.

2. The growth of modern agriculture in Xiaogang village

China's rural reforms can be traced back to 1978, when the farmers of Xiaogang village blazed a trail for the household contract system. But Xiaogang was still far from prosperous in the next twenty years. Why is that? And what efforts have been made to develop modern agriculture and increase farmers' income? Here's Wang Lei with more of the reform story in Xiaogang village.

Fifty-five year old Cheng Xibing is a grain producer who is well known in Xiaogang village and even Fengyang County. [Photo: China Plus/Li Jin]

Fifty-five year old Cheng Xibing is a grain producer who is well known in Xiaogang village and even Fengyang County. He has transferred more than 30 hectares of land from other farm households in recent years. But the continuous increase of land transfer fees and other costs have put him under a lot of pressure.

The secret agreement in 1978 to subdivide their common farmland into family plots set rural reform in motion. However, just like the majority of the countryside in China, Xiaogang village fell into a development predicament in the latter half of the 1990s. People wondered why their lives have reached subsistence level but didn't progress from that in twenty years. Cai Jin'an, Chairman of Panpan Food Group, a leading food supplier that came from Fujian Province to invest in the village, gave his opinion on how the predicament came about.

Yan Yushan (centre) , son of Yan Hongchang, was among the first group of young people to leave the Xiaogang village as early as 1992.[Photo: by courtesy of Yan Yushan]

It has been a long-cherished dream of the villagers in Xiaogang to develop the industry and increase their income through setting up a business. Yan Hongchang is one of the village officials who led the farmers to sign the 1978 agreement. His son, Yan Yushan, was among the first group of young people to leave the village as early as 1992. He has tried and failed several times to try to start a business in the village.

In recent years, the new generation of Xiaogang people like Yan Yushan have broadened their horizons by working outside the village. With their return, the obstacles in setting up businesses have been reduced. Yan Yushan explains.

Nowadays, the Beidahuang Group, a well-known agricultural reclamation group in northeast China, has planted more than thirty hectares of quality paddy rice in the village. Zhao Mingwu was assigned by the Group to be in charge of the agricultural technology. Having worked here for one and a half years, Zhao is ambitious about the future of farming in Xiaogang.

In fact, when Beidahuang Group started its cooperation with Xiaogang village, the natural conditions were not ideal as land is far from a water source and the terrain is not smooth. But the Group soon applied its experience in transforming land and its technologies of standardized planting to the fields here. They did not use a single drop of fertilizer in planting rice, from raising the seedlings to transplanting. This helped the local farmers witness the strength of scientific growing.

In this wave of change for development, the inner impetus for innovation in Xiaogang village has also been stimulated. Pan Miaomiao is general manager of the Fengbao Grain and Oil Group of Anhui Province. She says in recent years, more and more young people have returned to the countryside to start businesses. She herself has chosen to set up a whole grain food processing project in her hometown.

Wang Hui is the general manager of the Xiaogang Technology Co. of Fengyang County. [Photo: China Plus/Li Jin]

Although there is a growing trend for young people to start businesses in Xiaogang village, it remains something distant for villagers who have lived on farming for generation after generation to set up an enterprise. To help farmers increase their incomes, in 2018, the village began to build an online platform for farm products. Wang Hui is the general manager of the Xiaogang Technology Co. of Fengyang County.

By scanning the QR code posted along the main road in the Xiaogang village, one could go to the online shop to buy the farm products directly. [Photo: China Plus/Li Jin]

As the reform goes on, more stories will emerge in Xiaogang village in terms of developing modern agriculture and increasing farmers' incomes.

Thank you Wang Lei. What has happened in Xiaogang village is just one example of the efforts in China to reinvigorate the vast countryside. To this end, China will strive to transform the development model of agriculture, boost policies that benefit farmers, deepen rural reforms and strengthen rule of law in dealing with rural issues.

For more information, please click the audio above to find out more about the show and Xiaogang village’s reform story.

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