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Yan Hongchang, A Pioneer in Economic Reform in China's Rural Areas
    2008-12-02 14:43:06     CRIENGLISH.com

Yan Hongchang [source:jinghua.cn]

Thirty years ago, peasants in China had few private belongings. Farmlands were owned and managed by the People's Commune and villagers worked and ate together. They even suffered from starvation due to low productivity. But most peasants in China now live happy lives with sufficient food thanks to economic reforms since 1978.

Yan Hongchang, a simple peasant, was instrumental in economic development reforms in China's rural areas. Our reporter Yingying has the story.

On one night in November 1978, Yan Hongchang and a dozen peasants from Xiaogang Village in east China's Anhui province, stamped their fingerprints on a secret agreement to divide the then People's Commune-owned farmland into family units. This was a bold move, as it was seen as "capitalist" and might have led to severe punishment from the government at the time. Little did the peasants know that they would begin a new path of economic development in China's rural areas.

Yan Yushan is Yan Hongchang's son. 

"People say that my father was the first to smash the communal pot and lead villagers to divide the then People's Commune-owned farmland. But in my family, we shared one pot over the past years. My brothers, sisters and I got married, but we all continued to live with our parents."

The agreement with peasants stamps and fingerprints [source: peopledaily.com.cn]

The family now has a well-off life, but 30 years ago they had to beg for a living.

Prior to 1978, the People's Commune administration was in effect in China's rural areas. The commune, as the largest collective unit, was divided into production brigades and production teams. Many peasants abandoned their land and entered the communes. All the peasants lived in a cooperative environment and ate at "the communal pot" cafeteria. They were treated the same despite differences in working attitudes and contribution. The result was that few peasants were active in their work and productivity was low.

Many families in Xiaogang had to beg for a living in winter, singing the local folk song 'Fengyang Flower Drum.' But Yan Hongchang went to work at construction sites. In 1976, he organized a construction team of a hundred workers and was considered rich in the village. When he planned to expand his business, he was asked to return to his hometown. Yan Hongchang recalls.

"The newly-elected leader of our village told me that the village needed me and hoped that I could help them out of starvation. He said the villagers would be satisfied if they didn't have to beg."

Yan Hongchang didn't know much about agriculture. He learned from the older generation that in early 1950, the village was productive and villagers could feed themselves. He also discovered that peasants were more active in cultivating their own fields than with the People's Commune-owned lands. So he made the decision to divide the land into pieces for each family. The village held a meeting to discuss Yan Hongchang's bold plan. He even wrote a statement to prove his determination.

"I wrote down a requirement saying that every family must deliver tax grain to the country and I added that 'The move is risky and if any team leaders are put in prison for it, other team members must share the responsibility to bring up their child until they are 18.' "

The risk proved worth taking. After peasants stamped their fingerprints on the agreement, the village allocated farmland to each household. This became known as the "household contract responsibility system". The move sparked local enthusiasm for agricultural production and helped poverty-stricken locals out of starvation.

Farmlands were divided into pieces for each household to cultivate [source: peopledaily.com.cn]

The next year, the village harvested its fields and they had adequate food. For the first time, it delivered public grain to the nation and paid back its loans. With the support of the local government, its experience was promoted across the province. After that, the "household contract responsibility system" reform was adopted across the country, bringing unprecedented change in rural areas.

In 1984, Yan Hongchang thought about how the village could grow rich. His experience of Rui'an County in east China's Zhejiang province gave him vital clues.

"They cultivated farmlands. After that they opened factories, such as a button factory and a lathe factory."

Yan began to develop industry in his hometown and launched various factories including a plastic bags processing factory, quilts factory and food processing factories. He also tried to invite investments to develop other projects. However, most of his plans failed. The reasons, according to Yan Hongchang, were a lack of service awareness and limited decision-making power. Soon after, the central government planned to enhance the service system in rural areas and protect villagers' rights. Yan Hongchang felt this was the key to rural area development. 

"Administrative departments used to be simply powerful. But now they are responsible for providing public services. It's vital to the development of rural areas. Our country will have a brighter future if the government becomes service-oriented."

Yan Hongchang has long-harboured an ambition to develop commerce and industry in Xiaogang village, and his son Yan Yushan is now continuing his work. He even registered a hi-tech company to manufacture high voltage and electricity saving equipment. The son says: 

"I'm the second generation of peasants in Xiaogang. The village hasn't developed much over the past three decades, so I hope the younger generations can make greater contributions."

Yan Hongchang feels pride that young people in the village have more diversified knowledge and inspiring plans to develop the village in various ways.

For Beyond Beijing, I'm Yingying.



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