A glimpse of China's rural land reform from the changes in Xiaogang Village
Xiaogang Village is the birthplace of China's rural reform. Back in November 1978, 18 farmers signed a secret agreement to subdivide their common farmland into family plots. That was the start of the family contract responsibility system; ever since, Xiaogang has been dubbed the symbol of China's rural development. So forty years' after China's reform and opening up, how is life progressing for farmers in this rural village?
It is seven o'clock in the morning. With her two-year-old granddaughter, Zeng Yun, a farmer in Xiaogang Village, begins to feed the ducks in the rice paddy field. Two years ago, Xiaogang started to cooperate with the Anhui Science and Technology University for an ecological project to raise ducks, and farm shrimp and crab. Her responsibility is to raise these ducks and farm crabs in this high-standard farmland of some five hectares. She used to be a farmer before she transferred her family land of two hectares to others. She says her current job is much easier and provides a much more reliable income.
Zeng Yun, a farmer in Xiaogang Village, begins cleaning his duck shed in the early morning. After transferring her land to others to till, she earns 3,000 yuan a month (around 450 U.S. dollars) from raising ducks in a paddy field. [Photo: China Plus/ Li Jin]
"It was much better to transfer the land to others to cultivate it than doing it by oneself. Take me as an example, after transferring the land use right to others, I found another job. The salary I earn from this job, plus the fee from the land transfer, give me a double income. If I had continued tilling that land, I wouldn't have had time for extra work. Besides, the job I'm doing now has flexible working hours. I only need to feed the ducks on time. I work longer if there is more work and work less when the job isn't much. In the end, I earn 3000 yuan or about 450 US dollars a month."
Ducks raised in rice paddy fields provide income to the farmers in Xiaogang Village, the birthplace of China's agriculture reforms. [Photo: China Plus/ Li Jin]
Zeng Yun's husband works in a mine nearby. The couple earns more than 30,000 yuan or 4500 US dollars a year, which is ranked at an intermediate level in the Village. This better standard of living could be attributed to a bold initiative implemented 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 still remembers the days when he and his family had to scrounge for food as people in the village suffered from food shortage for three months in a year. Recalling the experience, he still can't hold back his tears. He says because food scarcity was rampant, even at the construction site, workers could only fill their stomachs with bean sprout. And when they begged for food, people could only offer left over soup.
Raising ducks, shrimp, and crabs in the rice paddy fields have helped Xiogang Village achieve a healthy balance between ecological protection and economic development. [Photo: China Plus/ Li Jin]
"My wife used to say that, had I known earlier that we could have some soup to drink, we would have brought our parents out so that they could also have something to eat. After hearing this, I would feel my heart aching. I didn't know how my parents were faring given the famine at home. I used to lament that I was born at a wrong time. As a young man in his twenties, I could take care of neither my parents nor my children. I was not in the mood to eat nor did I take the soup at all."
Recalling the experience of scrounging for food in times of shortages forty years ago, Yan Hongchang can't hold back his tears. Yan Hongchang, the head of the production team, and other local farmers signed a secret agreement to fix farm output quotas for each household in November 1978. This potentially law-breaking act was the start of what would become the Household Responsibility System. [Photo: China Plus/ Li Jin]
The famine-compelled reform took place 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 at the risk of breaking the law. In 1982, China's No.1 central document on agriculture was released and the trial in Xiaogang Village was later expanded throughout the country. As a result, the family household responsibility system helped increase the enthusiasm of the country's 800-million farmers into growing grain. As a result, China has seen the grain yield increase year on year and the residents of Xiaogang Village have waved goodbye to the days of grain shortage and mass starvation.
Still, at the beginning of the 21st century, farmers in Xiaogang Village who had been farming for a living only saw the problem of food and clothing solved. Li Jinzhu is a leading official of the Village.
"Why did people's lives reach the subsistence level in one night, yet after twenty years they are still far from being prosperous? It is because the practice of fixing farm output quotas for each household greatly boosted the productive forces only at the time and made tremendous contributions. Yet with the social progress, production of individual household no longer suits the needs for contemporary intensive production. A remote village as Xiaogang is, with no production factors and capital investment, it is therefore not surprising that this village hasn't seen big growth."
To make the land profitable and better protect the rights of the farmers in contracting land, in 2013, the government proposed in its No.1 central document that the state shall practice a system of registration and certification for land-use right and ownership in rural areas. Xiaogang Village was the first in Anhui Province to conduct the registration and certification of rural land, whereby, in 2015, the first certificate of management right of contracted land was issued.
Yan Jinchang sits in the yard at his restaurant. He was one of the 18 farmers who signed the secret agreement in 1978. [Photo: China Plus/ Li Jin]
Yan Jinchang was one of the 18 farmers who signed the secret agreement in 1978. He now also holds a certificate of management right for his family's 2.3-hectares of land.
"In the past, land was not certified. We farmers had to worry that once we had transferred our land to others, we wouldn't get it back. For famers, land is their lifeline. A farmer cannot live without a piece of land. So now that the property is certified, we farmers are at ease. Especially because, according to the report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the land ownership could be extended till 2057. The policy has made us farmers feel more reassured," said Yan.
Yan Jinchang has transferred all his land in the family to either a farming company or big farming households. This has saved 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 been following that growth trend.
Among some 1000 hectares' of arable land in the Village, more than 60% of it has been circulated. Li Jinzhu said the basic industry of the Village is modern agriculture. Through circulation, fragmentation of land can be changed and small farmlands merged into big pieces of land. Based on this, locals are trying to explore new business models such as stocks cooperation and loans by mandate.
"On one hand, we want to promote the development of a modern agriculture to a higher level; on the other hand, we want to help those who are not willing to be engaged in farming get away from agriculture. It is a pressing task to solve the problem of who shall plant on the farmlands and how to do it.” Li Jinzhu added that “I remember clearly how many plots my family had or where they were. Yet my child had no idea that we had farmland. Today, it would be impossible to count on those born after the 1980s or 1990s to come back to the village to till the land after they graduate from college. We now have to rely on professionals and those who are willing to go on with farming."
Li Jinzhu, the leading official in Xiaogang Village, talks about the future development of the village, which was the birthplace of China's agriculture reforms. [Photo: China Plus/ Liao Liang]
Li Jinzhu said, last year they started cooperating with the Beidahuang Group, a well-known agricultural reclamation group in the great wildness of northeast China. He hopes that through the cooperation, Xiaogang Village can see its modern agriculture develop more soundly and smoothly.