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    The Farmer Who Changed China Forever

    Forty years ago, Yan Hongchang broke the law to save his village from hunger. Today, his idea is national policy and Yan is a reluctant celebrity.

    ANHUI, East China — From the moment you arrive in Xiaogang, you know it’s different from other Chinese villages. Along Friendship Avenue — the main street — sits a grand seven-story hotel, a spacious bus terminal, and a conserved cottage from the 1970s. A grand arch spans the road into town, emblazoned with characters reading “China’s No. 1 Rural Reform Village.”

    Yan Hongchang’s home is an unprepossessing bungalow in the backyard of his sons’ three-story abode on Friendship Avenue. Wild grass sways in the wind outside; two dogs sit quietly by a broken tractor near the door. It’s hardly the sort of place you’d expect to find one of the most important people in China’s recent history.

    These days, the 69-year-old Yan spends most of his time in his modest living room, smoking, reading the newspaper, and gazing at distant farmers’ fields. But his drawers are filled with photographs of Yan posing with some of China’s highest-ranking officials, including former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, as well as current president Xi Jinping. Sometimes, awestruck strangers knock on Yan’s door to talk to him about the past. When they do, they always refer to an act of defiance 40 years ago that changed China forever.

    Fixing a Broken System

    In autumn 1978, Yan called a meeting for Xiaogang’s villagers. Its aim: to steal food from the state.

    China had just marked the two-year anniversary of Chairman Mao’s death. His successor, Hua Guofeng, initially won plaudits for calling an end to the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long assault on the country’s political, legal, educational, and social institutions. But Hua’s unswerving support of Mao’s other political directives was now making him increasingly unpopular in Beijing’s halls of power. An influential clique of Communist Party officials was seeking to oust him and move China out of Mao’s shadow.

    But in rural Anhui, the residents of Xiaogang were less concerned about the nation’s future than about their own survival. Years of subpar economic planning had left the village desperately poor, while persistent drought had ravaged local crops.

    “The whole village was on the verge of collapse; some villagers were already too weak to farm. It felt as though we were going to see a recurrence of the Great Chinese Famine,” Yan recalls, referring to the catastrophic results of the Great Leap Forward policy that, combined with a series of natural disasters, starved between 15 and 45 million people to death between 1958 and 1961. “Local villagers only wanted two meals a day.”

    Since the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, Xiaogang’s residents had belonged to a people’s commune, after the national government had enacted an agricultural collectivization policy assigning farmers to certain areas, storing harvested grain in central granaries far from the village, requisitioning some of it as tax, and finally redistributing the rest among the populace. At the outset, the state framed collectivization as a key step on the road to a communist utopia. But in Xiaogang, that utopia seemed a long way off.

    Collectivization disconnected farmers from their former land and destroyed any motivation to care for it. Knowing that the government promised an equal wage to everyone regardless of how hard they worked, many farmers slacked off, hoping that others would make up the shortfall. But most of the time, they didn’t. The result was a vicious cycle: Farmers worked at half-pace, crop yields fell, the state handed back less grain for food, and so farmers worked even slower.

    Xiaogang was soon surviving on government relief grain. “In good years, we were self-sufficient for nine months and relied on the government for the other three,” Yan remembers. “But in bad years, we sustained ourselves for two months and the state covered the other 10.”

    Even in Fengyang, the largely destitute county that administered Xiaogang, the village was known for extreme poverty. In times of scarcity, many villagers abandoned their crops completely. Some walked wearily to nearby towns to beg for food; others foraged in the wilderness instead. “The first thing I did every morning was go into the fields with my sister and look for anything edible. Sometimes, we’d find a few dates that had fallen from the trees,” says Yan Yushan, Hongchang’s now 45-year-old eldest son. “I never saw sweet potatoes or corn before ’78. Having a bowl of rice was a luxury back then.”

    In 1978, Yan Hongchang was 29 years old and the father of four hungry children. He knew that the system wasn’t working. If Xiaogang’s residents were going to get out of poverty, he thought, they couldn’t rely on state planning to achieve it. They had to do it themselves.

    One night in late November, Yan called a representative from each of the 20 families in Xiaogang to a meeting at his home. There, he proposed a radical idea: Why not return responsibility for the village’s cropland and farm tools back to individual households, and allow them to keep all the surplus grain for themselves, after paying taxes?

    It was a dangerously subversive plan. The trauma of the Cultural Revolution — a hardline and sometimes violent campaign to eradicate capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese culture — still loomed large in the national psyche. Yet Yan openly rejected the planned economy — the cornerstone of Chinese socialism — and advocated a return to private property, the profit motive, and individual gain. Two years prior, such ideas were condemned as counterrevolutionary and worthy of condemnation by mob justice. They were still tantamount to sedition.

    Farmers who enacted similar reforms in the past — for example, in the famine-ridden eastern Chinese county of Yongjia in 1956 — were arrested and sent to labor camps. Understanding the risks, Yan asked his fellow villagers to look after his children if he was jailed or sentenced to death. “But if I didn’t take that risk, people would die,” he recalls. “Some people were already suffering severe health consequences due to hunger. They were confined to their beds. Even the cattle were too weak to plow.”

    Some of Xiaogang’s villagers voiced unease at the plan, but the survival instinct eventually trumped any fears of retribution. The literate signed Yan’s agreement in lurid red ink. The illiterate signed with their fingerprints.

    Sowing Discord

    Xiaogang’s act of insubordination immediately bore fruit, drawing both praise and suspicion. The following winter, police interrogated Yan about the motives behind the initiative, but released him the same day. Then in early 1980, Anhui’s Party secretary, Wan Li, visited Xiaogang and lauded Yan’s initiative. In the ensuing months, thousands of people came from far and wide to observe the Xiaogang model.

    “Most visitors came to criticize us. They accused us of deviating from the socialist path and taking the country back to the pre-Liberation era,” says Yan, referring to the 1949 Communist takeover of China. Unimpressed visitors called on him to reverse the reform and reflect deeply on his actions. “They denounced us as capitalists and counterrevolutionaries. The only people who supported us were a few farmers, because they saw that their peers had benefited from the reform.”

    In 1979, a few months after Yan’s fateful meeting, village farmers reported grain yields of more than 66 metric tons — equivalent to the sum total of all harvests between 1955 and 1970, according to official data. Virtually overnight, the village lifted itself out of poverty.

    “Everybody mobilized behind farming again. Families worked their own fields day and night,” Yan remembers. He claims that the real yield in 1979 was 95 metric tons, but villagers deliberately underreported it, fearing that the government wouldn’t believe such a high figure. Xiaogang’s per capita income rose from 22 yuan (now less than $3) in 1978 to 400 yuan (now around $60) the following year.

    Xiaogang’s experience shed light on the delicate political situation in late-’70s China — a country trying to reconcile the turmoil of its recent past, the demise of its paramount leader, and tentative attempts at political and economic liberalization. As Xiaogang’s once-destitute farmers fattened up — some even travelled to the villages where they had once begged for food to sell their surplus grain — public confidence in the planned economy eroded, and other villages began emulating Yan’s model.

    As top politicians vacillated between embracing a market economy and returning to hardline Maoist rule, Xiaogang received valuable protection from reform-minded officials in the county and provincial governments. The village had not only rapidly weaned itself off government relief, but also contributed vastly superior grain taxes without the burdensome bureaucracy of the commune model.

    Nonetheless, Yan was plagued by the threat of a clampdown by the central state. “I couldn’t sleep properly for a single night,” he remembers. “At least, not until January 1, 1986.”

    Fame, Decline, and Resurgence

    This November will mark 40 years since Yan convinced a ragtag meeting of local farmers to oppose the Maoist planned economy. Today, one of the busiest buildings on Friendship Avenue is a modern memorial hall commemorating the Xiaogang model.

    On the first day of 1986, eight years after Xiaogang took back control of its agriculture, China’s central government issued the Guidelines on Rural Work. The densely worded document was a landmark decision in the country’s modern development. Building on the abolition of the people’s communes three years prior, it formally endorsed a policy that came to be known as baochan daohu — a Xiaogang-style model of rural organization known as the “household responsibility system” — and called on local leaders to implement the policy throughout the countryside.

    In the years following the rollout of the household responsibility system, grain yields across China rose dramatically. After 1986, farmers regained the right to work their own patches of land and sell surplus grain on private markets. The state also slashed grain taxes, further boosting farmers’ incomes.

    In Xiaogang, the bumper harvests of the 1980s assuaged hunger, but the reintroduction of competition into the region eventually underscored its comparative lack of marketable agricultural products. Compared with villages in the nearby provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, Xiaogang’s residents remained poor. In 2003, the per capita income in the village was just 2,300 yuan; the national average was more than 2,600 yuan.

    Xiaogang’s economic backwardness became a source of embarrassment for a village that had pioneered the household responsibility system. But its history of nonconformism has since been invoked to pilot further rounds of land reform. In 2006, Xiaogang was one of China’s first villages to encourage individual farming households to lease their land use rights to private individuals or corporations. To date, 60 percent of the village’s arable land has been leased in this way, most of it ending up in the hands of large-scale agricultural organizations, including the Beidahuang Group, China’s largest agribusiness.

    “At first, local villagers didn’t have much faith in the land transfers,” says Yang Wei, a 31-year-old resident whose family contracts a little more than 5,000 square meters of farmland to an agricultural corporation. “People worried that they wouldn’t get their rent on time and that the contractors wouldn’t return the land at the end of the lease.”

    Yang’s family receives 7,000 yuan in rent every year from the deal. “That’s slightly lower than the profit we made from the land in harvest years,” Yang explains. “But given that there’s no longer much work done [by hand] in the fields, people now have more time to look for work elsewhere, and increase their incomes that way.” Yang still grows strawberries — a local specialty — on a patch of land opposite the memorial hall. With the exception of the busy harvest season, his 54-year-old father does odd jobs in local factories and on nearby construction sites. “He can make more than 200 yuan a day from that,” Yang says.

    Today, Xiaogang is home to more than 4,000 people. Like Yang, most residents earn the bulk of their incomes from farming grain, fruit, and poultry; others work in local food-processing and garment factories.

    Although Yan, the reformist farmer who masterminded Xiaogang’s initial transformation, is something of a national celebrity these days, fellow villagers largely treat him like they would anyone else. Yan went on to serve as the head of Xiaogang’s village committee from 1999 to 2002. Nowadays, he is reticent about the great changes underway in Chinese agriculture. “Modern farming is moving toward greater mechanization and the wider application of advanced technologies,” he says.

    Yan says that locals can tolerate most policy changes as long as farmers’ rights and interests are protected. “I see that farmers are being properly compensated for land transfers, but I do wonder whether the contractors can really make the most out of the land — if they can really grow better grains or fruits than we did,” he says. “There isn’t yet a clear answer to that.” Yan’s family owns 40,000 square meters of land, but have not been able to transfer any of it, because it is mostly divided into small, scattered plots.

    In 2016, further rural reforms reintroduced a measure of collective ownership into Xiaogang — albeit in a different way to Mao-era China. The village government set up the Fengyang Xiaogang Technology Corporation, a firm that aims to combine agriculture with internet tech. The company is responsible for managing certain local assets and resources and is partly owned by villagers themselves, who receive dividends from any profits the company makes. Earlier this year, local people received their first payment from the scheme — 350 yuan per person. “It’s not a big sum at the moment, but it encourages us to work harder to improve Xiaogang. We’ll probably get better returns the next year,” says Yan.

    Xiaogang is now transitioning away from farming and toward new industries, including e-commerce and tourism. Since 2010, average disposable incomes in Xiaogang have grown at an annual rate of between 12 and 20 percent. Last year, annual disposable incomes topped 18,000 yuan, significantly higher than the national average of 13,432 yuan.

    The Xiaogang of 2018 presents a scene of unprecedented wealth to Yan, a quiet, somewhat lonely-looking man who has always felt uncomfortable with national recognition. “My generation alleviated hunger by plowing the fields, and our children’s generation developed the economy around more efficient agriculture,” he says. “I just hope our grandchildren can acquire different kinds of knowledge to serve the country’s other needs, whether they choose to stay in Xiaogang or leave for pastures new.”

    Editor: Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: A woman rides a scooter in Xiaogang, Anhui province, July 25, 2018. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)