“China Along the Yellow River – A Scholar’s Observations and Meditations on Chinese Rural Society”  Reading Notes for Book One 


  “China Along the Yellow River – A Scholar’s Observations and Meditations on Chinese Rural Society”  Reading Notes for Book One 

[My 2001 review of Cao Jinqing’s China Along the Yellow River was published in China Review in 2001 is on JSTOR.]

Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, September 2000
Publication data:

Publisher’s website at http://www.slcm.com and email cslcm@public1.sta.net.cn

Book cover photo and publication data (in Chinese)
Page numbers refer to the first edition. These reading notes are from Book One (to page 239) of this 772 page book. The notes cover the section on Cao’s first trip through rural Henan during May and June 1996.

The author of “China Along the Yellow River”黄河边的中国,  Professor Cao Jinqing  of the Shanghai Social Development Research Institute also wrote or edited

“The Road to the Restoration of Confucianism — A Collection of Essays by Liang Shuming”   (Shanghai, 1996, Yuandong Publishers) ,

“Escaping from the Ivory Towers of Idealism: Research on the Work Unit Phenomenon”   which focuses on the question can the work unit system, developed for the planned economy adapt to the market economy?

with Zheng Letian, “Social and Cultural Changes in Contemporary North Zhejiang Rural Villages”,   [Shanghai, Yuangdong Publishers]  and  the related essay by co-author Zhang Letian .

Social scientist Prof. Cao Jinqing  was able to do the rural survey that resulted in “China Along the Yellow River” [Huanghe Bian de Zhongguo]  took advantage of his network of friends and relatives in rural Henan to talk with farmers throughout the province during the Spring and Fall of 1996.  Cao remarks that the village is the unit of study for those who want to understand the modern fate of Chinese culture (p. 170).  Cao alternated conversations in the field with extensive background research on rural China during the Ming and Qing dynasties. This historical background gives his analyses and descriptions a rich texture and great clarity and a good sense of what is traditional and what are recent changes.  For Cao,  reading the history and literature books from the Ming and the Qing dynasties and talking with country people are two complementary approaches to traditional China.

Chinese tradition can be approached through texts or through getting out and talking with a lot of people, says Cao.  What is apparent is that all social organizations are modeled after the family.  One of the central questions of Cao’s book is that now that Mao is gone, (and despite Mao’s most strenuous efforts)  is rural China snapping back to its traditional sources or is it, disrupted by the biggest rural – urban migrations and economic reform changing into something completely different?  One of the big diffrences Cao finds between villages is the amount of non-agricultural income the farmers get. As non-agricultural income increases,  urban culture (and the cash economy) penetrate.  Villages with little non-agricultural income tend to have the highest number of  children born above the family planning quota [hei haizi]. [See the online essay by Prof. Huang Ping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences  “A Sociological Study of Non-Agricultural Activities of Rural Chinese” in Chinese on the UNESCO web site at  Selection of Articles in Chinese ]

The TV sets and the movie star pinups of the young married couples symbolize the arrival of urban culture in rural China.Cao remarks repeatedly on the growing influence of urban culture in the countryside seen in pinups, home appliances, TV and the many farmers who work in the city (or even in far off Xinjiang) during the idle season.

Chinese villagers, remarks Cao, hate and fear local officials but have an almost superstitious respect for high ranking officials.   (p. 199)  Cao noted that Henan rural people have great respect for Mao Zedong despite the famine that killed 10 percent of the population in southern Henan after the Great Leap Forward. (p. 172)

Henan is Geographically Closed Compared to Yangtze Region and Socially Closed: Local Officials Don’t Want Outsiders Be They Journalists or High Government Officials Talking to Local People

Henan is different from southern China in just as the Yellow River is different from the Yangtze. The Yellow River carries more a higher concentration of silt than any other river. So much so that the Yellow River from the Henan provincial capital of Zhengzhou eastwards has its riverbed well above the level of the surrounding countryside.  And forty meters above ground level at Kaifeng.  The river keeps getting higher and higher and higher.  The silting and raising of the bottom of the riverbed means that no rivers flow into the downstream stretch of the Yellow River and that navigation along it is not possible. Thus Henan is closed while the provinces along the Yangtze are opened up by that river that makes navigation possible deep into the Chinese interior. (p. 85)  People who live along the Yellow River get their water mostly from wells while people who live along the Yangtze get their water from the river.

Cao avoided going with officials so that village people would speak more freely about their incomes, village politics, relationships between the villagers and officials, family planning, corruption and family.  Many times local officials from the township or county discovered him and sternly questioned what he was doing there. Cao remarks that China’s villages are often kept closed by local officials. Even Chinese scholars cannot go there freely to do survey work.  Cao notes time after time that when officials heard that he was doing survey work, they accused him of breaking some kind of rule.  Officials feared that he was a journalist or an investigator from the central government. (54 – 55) .  This is a sign of very tense relations between officials and villagers. Some villagers, Cao said, were prepared to give him a full run down on local problems and official corruption in the hope that someone from the center would fix things.  (p. 57) .

Villagers sometimes feared that he was there to ferret out information about unregistered over the birth quota children.  The parents of the child and sometimes neighbors and relatives as well could be penalized if an extra child were discovered.  Cao with the help of the Kaifeng Party School mostly to counties where high county officials who would bail him out of trouble served but the officials as a precaution, but those officials were only told of Cao’s presence if a problem arose.  The usual way social research is done, said Cao, was for the county to be contacted,  the county contacts the xiang (district) and the xiang contacts the village.  And officials from each level not only accompany the researcher but shower the researcher with hospitality.  The problem with this, say Cao, is that with an official around,  the villagers will not speak frankly.

After Productivity Gains, Most Are Well Fed But Developing Industry is Difficult

Cao discusses the considerable gains in unit productivity since the 1970s owing to improved seed varieties, fertilizer and pesticides.  Mud and straw dwellings have often been completely replaced by brick.  In some villages people will hire builders instead of following the old custom that disappeared in the 1970s of gathering the relatives together and of course feeding them during construction work.  Land is generally allocated fairly evenly among the inhabitants of villages (typically one Chinese mu (1/15th of a hectare) per person, with some people getting a bit more sometimes if they belong to an influential clan, and sometimes they do not get extra land for a child who is over the birth quota.   Cao says that in rural Henan agricultural productivity has increased between three to five times since the 1950s owing to more fertilizer, improved seeds, and water conservation projects.Cao suggests that Chinese agriculture would be much more productive if farms could be larger, but the even allocation of land that is the guarantor of social stability blocks this line of advance (p. 36).

Villagers often say that over the past two decades, with the contract land system and improvements in irrigation and fertilizer the basic problems of food and clothing have been solved.  The problem today however is no spending money. Cao comments on the great number of village enterprise projects that have risen and failed driven by political pressure from above, handicapped by lack of experience and poor management below.  Village enterprises often collapse, Cao noticed,  when local people are taken in by swindlers from the big city. (p. 60 – 61)

Cao lets the farmers speak, adding in his analysis, but that analysis really emerges from a very through contextualization of what the local people are saying.  Cao,  never resorts to jargon. Indeed at the conclusion of the first half of the book (the book is divided into the Spring 1996 and the Fall 1996 trips to the Henan countryside)  Cao remarks on how the social theories imported into China from the West have messed up China something awful.  A swipe at Marxist-Leninism?  China needs to learn from Western social theory but rethink it so as to develop a theory that can be applied fluently to Chinese society.  Cao asks, “If we hold to a dogma that we don’t even believe in ourselves anymore, and don’t go study how social life and social  psychology is changing, how can we ever hope to solve the great many ideological problems before us?”  (p. 30)

One theme running through Cao’s book is the central importance of extended family and clan power in village politics.  Mao Zedong  tried to root it out of the traditional village, observed Cao, but the extended family/clan is still the basic fact of life.  Mutual aid among villagers, for example,  almost never went beyond extended clan groups. Cao made the fascinating observation that villages with a strong, effective leader who did go things for the village were nearly always to be found only in villages in which one surname dominated the village. [pp. 116 – 124 “Able Leader or Village Tyrant”]

When the Farmers Can Stand Up for Their Own Interests, China Can Become A Democratic Country

Cao writes that “the central task of modernizing Chinese villages is leading the village people, unable to stand up for their own interests and organize themselves to the point where they can stand up for themselves and organize themselves.” (p. 175)  Cao sees the election of village officers and the selection by village party members of the village branch party secretary as important advances in democracy.  One village leader said village democracy can work since people know each other, but how will it work in larger units such as the district?  Cao argues that the farmer’s conception of personal interest doesn’t go much beyond the village and do not think about representing their own interests but look to someone else to represent their interests.  In practice, village party committee are permitted to operate as long as they get the job done and there is not too much factionalism. If that happens, the district party committee will intervene and change the village committee. The corruption of village officials teaches villagers the importance of democracy, which is a weapon against corruption, remarks Cao.  (p. 63)

Cao observed time and time again as he asked villagers the name of the local branch party secretary or village officials, that the dominant surname always dominated village politics well above its proportion in the village.   The branch party secretary nearly always belongs to the dominant family/clan or at least to a large family (pp. 37 and 207) . In his discussion of the importance of the family/clan he stresses a feature of rural Chinese society that Chinese economist He Qinglian pointed to in the last chapters of her 1998 book  “China and The Pitfalls of  Modernization’  [ full text in Chinese at  Zhonggguo Xiandaihu de Xianjing  ]

Mao was unable to eradicate many of the customs and thinking of the old society, despite his most strenuous efforts. Now the question is will the old society return or is something else emerging?  The return of at least long-term land tenure with the responsibility system in agriculture seems to have restored many traditional relationships.  Especially these  four tradional relationships:

To land — exchanges with nature;

Non market exchanges based on human sentimental connections with relatives and others;

Market exchanges;  and

Relationships/exchanges  between the family and the state — that is the people are taxed and the state rules on the people’s behalf.

From Exchanges Based Upon Sentiment and Partiality to the Market

Large numbers of human exchanges based on personal feelings intrude upon modern political processes. Cao sees the same phenomenon operating in China that Max Weber saw in Europe:
“The human feelings in relationships that are such a deep source of pleasure are just what has prevented our people from cooperating in groups rationally on an equal basis with others. Max Weber wrote that to develop a modern rationalized organization, human sentimental relationships have to be eliminated from the process.  This process greatly improved organizational efficiency and became a powerful force for the modernization of the economy.  Some people say that an organization without human feeling (renqing) has become dehumanized. This is the very big price that humanity paid in order to create modern bureaucratic organizations. I suddenly understood what Weber meant.”  (p. 196)

What are the results? There are laws but they are not followed.  Laws are not strictly enforced. There is corruption in the Party and the government.  (p. 31).  Farmers are only operating in their local market — they will need a new way of organization to participate in national and international markets.  Farmers now enjoy freedom and the market, but few people understand that freedom and responsibility are interlinked.   Local officials charge all kinds of excess illegal arbitrary fees — they are not then ruling in the people’s behalf — are among China’s big problems.

Cao sees family planning and the tax burden on farmers as the two big flashpoints in the relationship between rural villagers and officials.  When Cao visits a village, he talks to a range of people from different income groups to get an idea of the tax burden (he calculated it at 24 percent in one village) and the proportion of children born over the family planning quota (he figured about half in  another village).  In one village an accounting table showed 4.7 percent tax rate (just under the five percent set by the State Council) but the village accountant explained that the tax rate was really 10.7 percent.  Villagers where nearly everyone depended exclusively on farming for their living were much more likely to have many “black children”.  (pp. 45 – 54)

Money Making Units Collecting Family Planning Fines and Taxes Swell in Size and Need to Collect Even More Taxes and Fines

In many areas, the district government would have ten or twenty divisions employing a total of over 100 people,  but the family planning section would by itself employ thirty or forty people.  Farmers understand that there is not enough land to support more people, but in their own case they want more children to help in farm work and for an heir.  The family planning office in one village, during the two years prior to a 1996 visit, to suppress excess births required all women of child bearing age to report to the district government office on odd numbered months.  Failure to report brought on a fine of 50 – 100 RMB.  One villager talked about some methods family planning official use when a fine is not paid such as taking away grain, livestock or even tearing down a house.  Sometimes neighbors and relatives would share in the fine or even in the destruction of their homes.  Family planning as an important source of revenue in many areas.   Here is a passage from a talk given at the Kaifeng Party School on family planning practices in some Henan counties:

“To accomplish their family planning mission, village cadres are doing whatever they think it takes — from fining people to corporal punishment, from taking away livestock to destroying houses, from holding close relatives responsible to holding neighbors responsible too. But many villages in the interior still have 25 percent more births than they should.

  “Many village, township and county governments have become dependent upon family planning fines as a source of “off-budget” income. Some county family planning committees assess a ten RMB (USD 1) per capita family planning fine quota on villages and townships, payable in advance. The township or rural district keeps half of the family planning fine, twenty percent is sent to the county and thirty percent is remitted to the village committee. If the county gets 20 RMB per capita, then the township gets another 50 RMB per capita. Some districts have lower excess births that others. In these districts, enforcement is often relaxed so that there will be more families to fine. The fines changed from a means to an end and the objective switched from reducing births to increasing births.” (p. 16)

On Village Democracy

There are three main conceptions of what a village is. There is the Marxist view that farmers are like potatoes — they are tied intimately to the soil, get their living from it but don’t have much to do with each other. A second theory divides people into social classes — that was theory was the basis of land reform (landlords vs. poor farmers) of the 1950s. A third theory (of pre-’49 scholar Liang Shuming)  sees a Chinese village as a family/clan organization.  Cao said that there is some truth to all of them and most Chinese villages are a mix of all three.    Villages on the north China plain tend to be larger (several hundred to a thousand or more households) than in the south, which is more mountainous.  Relations and exchanges between people and households are based on mutual courtesy and sentiment rather than on a market.  Owing to this mentality, argues Cao, people don’t think of themselves as a group with group business.  This mentality needs to be considered when analyzing village democracy and village committees.

Village organization descends most recently from the production brigade system. In rural Henan, sometimes the head of the production brigade was appointed or elected but was usually the result of an effort to balance several clans or the branches of the predominant clan.  People see issues from the perspective of the immediate family to extended family to clan and only then to the village.  Everywhere village people who are not able to represent their own interests see local officials systematically violating those interests.

What is the heritage of the collectivist thinking championed by Mao Zedong?  This kind of collectivist philosophy and style of popular mobilization  aimed at changing the Chinese village from what Sun Yat-sen called “a pile of sand” to a “piece of iron”.   Can the work brigades (equivalent to a village) fashioned by Mao become the source of democratic organization to handle public affairs?  Cao says after he can’t answer this question, but notes the village committees  mostly function as arms of the district that collects taxes, and sees to it that abortions and sterilizations are done.  Cao points out that the democratically elected village councils are the Chinese manifestation of an attempt at modernization.

Developing countries try to impose modernization from above by changing a system but the  social-psychological-cultural change need to achieve this is much harder and takes much longer than changing a system.  Cao sees democratically elected councils as floating atop a mass of traditional culture and traditional behaviors.  In most villages, people aren’t used to acting on their own behalf and if they want to, the village does not permit them to do so. Cao prefers, when considering this question not to thing about what should be, but what is, and even more what is possible.

Why Are Officials So Corrupt?

Why are village officials so corrupt? asks Cao at one point. Part of his answer is that in the mid 1980s some villagers started to get rich through sideline industries and by the late 1980s through some of the township and village enterprises.  Although  it should be said that in village after village introduced in the book the local TVEs that collapsed quickly or died at birth. The outside swindler and faking results for TVEs by local officials who want to rise are two typical TVE stories in his Henan villages.  Village officials saw some fellow villagers getting rich and wanted it for themselves. Cao observes that village people don’t like corrupt officials, yet their custom of giving presents for favors is a corrupting influence. So another part of the problem is the gift-giver.  Cao finds much in the Chinese villages of today that reminds him of his readings about China in ages past. His discussion of corruption includes a discussion of the famed clean official of Song Dynasty Kaifeng, Bao Gong, and the wide appeal that story has even today.

Village committee core officials (party secretary,  village chief,  village accountant)  work 200 days a year on village business are lowly paid. They draw just 100 RMB per month in salary.  The village budget might be 50 – 60,000 RMB annually spent on village roads, bridges, and schools. [pp. 66 – 67]

Mao’s solution to corruption, remarks Cao, was to mobilize the people against the officials, but that approach disrupted administration and proved to be very expensive.  Democracy depends upon a true democratic election system and press freedoms and individual freedom of expression — but real democracy based on people aware of and determined to use their rights — to seize power.  Not a country like India, remarks Cao, with vast numbers of passive people who receive these political rights as a gift. (p. 237)

Corruption Will End Only When Villagers Stand Up for Their Rights and Organize Themselves

Yet at the root of corruption Cao sees the inability of the villagers to create democratic institutions to represent them. The villagers says Cao, are always looking for someone to be the boss on their behalf (ti min zuo zhu) rather than organizing themselves and choosing someone to be accountable to them (min zhu). This is another theme Cao returns to regularly. Can democratic centralism be a kind of halfway house?, he asks.  Cao observes that democratic centralism is centralism without the democracy as it is practiced in rural China.  Democracy only goes as far as the expectation that officials will “listen to the people”.  But democratic socialism lacks built-in institutional guarantees to assure its functioning.  The central question for China, Cao writes, is to determine how to teach rural people to have a democratic consciousness through village and xiang-level elections.  “A modern political party with no interest of its own other than the well-being of the people, should make thorough studies of how to accomplish the political modernization of China.  This is an even bigger and more difficult task than economic modernization.” (pp. 237 – 238)

No Limit to Payrolls So No Limit to Fines and Taxes, Either

Another thread running through this books is the tax burden on farmer. In village after village farmers say that the tax burden is high and getting heavier.  Cao traces this to the role of the village, the rural district/township and county as the employer of last resort. Payrolls keep getting bigger and taxes increase accordingly.   In one xiang, Cao notes how during the last twenty years government and party payrolls tripled and quadrupled with many superfluous workers. The sections that increased fastest were those that brought in income such as family planning, public security and finance from fines and taxes. (pp. 91 – 93) .  When the xiang was organized as a People’s Commune, party and government staff totaled 20. Now there are 150.  When local leader were asked how many workers were needed, they said 30 would do instead of 150.

In discussions with a village leader, party secretary and accountant,  Cao heard four main reasons for this:

After the commune was dissolved, responsibilities of government and party sharply decreased, but the people who held the old jobs were still around.

Moreover, as a new function was created, new jobs and new sections keep payrolls growing.

The county kept sending retired soldiers and school graduates to the xiang. Jobs were created for them.  And payrolls got bigger year by year.

Higher-level government and party officials saw to it that positions were created for their children, relatives and friends.

In the more prosperous areas officials would look to taxing township and village enterprises, but in the poorer areas where there weren’t any companies, so the officials would count on bringing in money from family planning fines in addition to taxes assessed on farmers.

What is the population of the a certain rural district (xiang)? The agricultural and economics section says 23, 192; public security 25000; family planning says 26,000. Of course population is a moving target, says Cao.  The many “black children” (hei haizi) making an accurate count difficult.

Many government and party organizations in the xiang are responsible to their own higher-level organizations and are not under the xiang party and government. This is the so-called tiao/stovepipe  problem that makes coordination difficult.  In general if there is money to be made, the superior organizes jealously guards it against the local government; but if there is no money to be made or if it is a money loser, they don’t mind if the local government takes over.

The xiang government and party finds itself caught between the local policies of the county and the interests of the locals. If they implement a policy too zealously, they may be kicked out by the county as a scapegoat if the farmers protest.  The county sometimes imposed tasks — unfunded mandates — such as setting up facilities in the villages all the while demanding that the burden on farmers be reduced.  The village committee is supposed to represent the local people but is actually an implementer of the orders of the xiang.  One xiang party secretary said that a village party secretary needs to have a strong clan behind him when he tries to carry out unpopular orders.   The xiang looks for a strong, able person to be village branch secretary or village head.  People who want the job often have corrupt motives. So corruption and the power of clans keeps growing in the villages.  (95 – 96)

Communist Disneyland??

One of the more startling chapters in the book was Cao’s discussion of a visit to Nanjie Cun (805 households, population 3000)  near Luohe City in south central Henan.  The village decided in the 1980s to recollectivize, hew to a Maoist line and set up prosperous enterprises. It is run a charismatic leader Wang Hongbin. The leader is idolized in the Maoist manner. There is a Mao statue guarded day and night and Maoist slogans are everywhere.   The village got nationwide attention for its prosperity and Maoism. Political achievements also helped economic ones as the village became a favored place of pilgrimage for the communist faithful. See the :Industry and Commerce Times (Taiwan) report on the Nanjie Village controversy .

Cao found that Nanjie Cun is a perfect type of the one-family name highly clan-conscious village run by a benevolent leader.  The top leaders, all named Wang, belonged to the same clan. The village made a strong distinctions between the inner and the outer.  The very many visitors were kept to a tourist track and museums and had almost no contact with villagers.  Cao introduced him as a social scientist who wanted to interview some officials and villagers, but was refused and told, read these books and come back if you have questions.  [p. 131 – 153]   Cao concluded that from a sociological perspective the village is an ethical collectivity (lunli gongtongtai) and not a contractual collective community [qiyuhua de jiti zuzhi]. Wang Hongbin is a ruler on behalf of the people and not an official chosen by the people.

Nanjie Cun has three basic policies:

Low salary, high welfare benefits. This policy aims also at eliminating selfishness

Contracts are let out not to individuals as in the responsibility contract system but to collectives

Criticism meetings aimed at combating the selfishness of individuals.

Cao concludes that Nanjie Cun is a true collectivity and they are achieving collective prosperity.  Cao concludes that its success depends upon the existence of a particular personality that can drawn on elements in the culture, but it is a personal success and the disappearance of the leader will mean the end of the organization.  Cao also mentions that the Nanjie Cun enterprises employ 12,000 people only 2000 of who are villagers. The 10,000 others work for wages and do not share in benefits. Thus Cao remarks, some have criticized Nanjie Cun as “collective capitalism”.  [pp. 131 – 153]

Cao visited Zhulin, another collectivized village, and one much poorer than Nanjie Cun, which relies on industry. There too is a charismatic leader and the dominance of one family name: eighty percent of the people are named Li.  Here too, success depends upon the leader, and so it is not actually a model for other villages. [pp. 157 – 165]

Not Just the Political System But Social Psychology and Customs Must Change If More Than Superficial Changes Are to Occur

Cao concludes that the weakness of Chinese farmers is that they do not work together well and cannot see things. This Cao said is very evident in water and waterworks disputes between and within villages.  Thus collective interests objectively exist but do not subjectively exist.  Cao criticized some Chinese intellectuals who see democracy and dictatorship as just a matter of political systems. Cao says the difference is much deeper than that.  Those intellectuals are blinded by political theory and do not understand that the effectiveness of a political system depends upon social psychology and customs.  Cao says until Chinese villagers learn to stand up and represent themselves instead of just needed other people to represent them, any laws and democratic system will be merely like a little oil slick floating on the water. [p. 167]

China Along the Yellow River  Notes  Part II

(2-1/  pp. 243 – 254)

Here are some more reading notes from “China Along the Yellow River”. This section covers the introductory material to Book Two of Shanghai sociologist Cao Jingqing’s travels in rural Henan from September 6 to November 21, 1966.

The 770 pages of Cai’s  “China Along the Yellow River”  ( Huanghe Biande Zhongguo from Shanghai Wenyi  Chubanshe) are full of insights on society, economics, politics and society in rural China. The book is worth reading and studying.  I finished my Long March through this book several weeks ago. The quality is maintained throughout the book.  These notes cover pp. 253 ? 254.  In Beijing the book is available on the 3rd or 4th floor of the Beijing Bookbuilding (Beijing Tushu Dasha) near the literature section.  A second printing in January 2001 has brought up the total press run to 10,000 copies.

Reading notes for Book One are at  China Along the Yellow River — A Scholar’s Observations and Medications on Chinese Rural Society Reading Notes, Book One   http://www.usembassy-china.org.cn/english/sandt/china-along-yellow-river.htm

Cai Jinqing in fall 1996 began his second survey in rural Henan after a summer of reading in history.  Cai’s summer studies focues on rural society and rural government in late Qing China and the relationship between the two.  Cai writes that an examination of history shows that although over the past half century rural China has seen large changes in its political arrangements, there remains nonetheless a large continuity in the old methods of production, and in social and political
relationships.  There certainly has been change, but not really qualitative change.  Now has appeared that greatest shift in Chinese history. One again  liberated Chinese peasants are moving into non-agricultural occupations in the countryside.  Will this finally break the great continuity and so overcome the inertia of history? It is still hard to tell.   Cai has been trying for some years to create a theoretical framework for understanding rural China.  Can it emerge from survey work, or can the theories of western sociology and cultural studies be employed to create such a framework?

A tradition vs. modernization framework can be employed of course, but what does modernization mean? Is it a change in the form of agricultural production?  Maximizing yield in a situation where there is one person per mu (1/15th of a hectare) blocks the consolidation of farmland.  Does modernization mean per capita income? Without industrialization, rural China can be adequately fed and clothed but no more.  Does it mean a change in the political consciousness of China’s peasants? Without a change in the current means of production, there is no way in which peasants can be elevated to the status of citizens.  The modernization
of rural China seems to depends on rapid commercial and industrial growth and thus on the modernization of the cities.  Only if China’s commercial and industrial sector can absorb the majority of China’s agricultural population will the modernization of rural Chinese society be possible.  This will be a long historical process, especially in western China.    Many of the habits of Chinese society and politics are rooted in China’s rural past.   Many of the new concepts that China will
need to be interpreted in the light of China?s national experiences. (pp. 243 – 245)

Commonly the experience of modernization in third world countries is modernization imposed from the exterior and from the top towards the bottom.  This is quite different from the bottom-up modernization process that occurred in the original modern countries.  In the developing countries, intellectuals have been the missionaries of modernization who entered the political process and then modernization political and legal systems.  They used political power and education to
reform social structures and to modernize the economy.   Yet if China approaches modernization from the inner towards the outer and from the bottom up, we find that there is a tremendous amount of inertia in rural society.  There are obstacles in old methods of production and in old social and political relationships that would be difficult to overcome, even across the span of several generations.

The Central Plains (zhongyuan) gave birth to the Chinese people.  Once it had a mild and moist climate.  Visiting the farmers of Henan, their burden and the difficulty of modernization become apparent.  The people lack farmland and the farmland lacks water these are the two guardian tigers block the way to modernization.  Farmers along the coast of Jiangsu Province can switch into other sectors and use agriculture to supplement their incomes.  Yet in the center and west of China,
agriculture will remain the principal sector for a long time to come. According to reports, of the 80 million Chinese who live in abject poverty, water shortages are the direct cause of poverty for 60 million of them.   Chinese has over the past five decades made great progress in agriculture.  China’s population more than doubled but per mu (1/15 of a hectare) productivity increased from three to five times with the wide application of modern agricultural technologies.   (p. 247)

Technological has brought important changes. However  even today the foundation of agriculture is still built on the old small-scale, intensive family based method of production.  This household organization of production and with it the customary way of relying on a web of personal relationships to obtain resources and the
ever-increasing bureaucratic nature of local government organization are still central.  This traditional household organization based means of production has strengthened steadily since opening and reform made once again the household the basic unit of agricultural production.  These facts cast a shadow on rural China?s prospects for modernization.

Some say that the May 4th New Culture Movement marked a decisive break with traditional China. This was certainly true for the intellectuals who took the West as their tutors.  For the Chinese peasantry however, the old system that “takes the household as its basic unit and a mode of behavior that relies on a web of personal relationships to obtain resources” has remained just as in the past a central fact of their lives.  Just as Marx said, the past has a hold on the present as the
dead a hold on the living.   Pessimism is not helpful but the kind of optimism that brings with it rash actions are even worse.

The purpose of this second survey period is to expand the areas of Henan Province covered to the northern, western and southern parts of the province and to shift the focus from the farmer household to the country district (xiang) and county level government.  The network of students and teachers of the Kaifeng Party School along with the relatives of the acquaintances of author Cai Jingqing helped arrange access to these areas.

A difficult question is the place of China?s traditional pattern of human relationships in the modern age.  As a human being I love and cherish this way of living even as my rational mind has its doubts. As an observer and researcher of modern Chinese rural society, I find that  it is just there  “personal relationships” that block the development and maturation of politics, the economy and ethics in China and that inhibit the development of the “individual in society” and of the “awareness
that one is a citizen”. Yet as a person, I want to live amidst these direct and sincere personal relationships.  (p. 250)

A professor Hu of the Kaifeng Party School said,  “Reforms must be paid for.  Who is paying for them?  Reform also creates profits. Who gets the profits”  Hu continued, “It is first the farmers and secondly the workers of the state-owned enterprises who are paying for reform. According to what I have seen in eastern Henan Province, since 1985 many farmers have not seen improvements in their living standards.  What they have experienced is with the steady rise in their tax burden a decline in their actual standard of living.  Among the workers of the state owned enterprises in Kaifeng City and Kaifeng County, two-thirds are
either laid off or looking for work (xia gang, dai gang).  For people who have lost their rice bowl, life has become difficult and uncertain. Who has profited from reform?”

” First of all are local government officials at all levels, and especially those government and Party officials who have some real power.  Second of all are directors and managers of factories that have contracts.  Third are the owners of private industry and merchants.    This is a very serious and complex problem. If the burden of reform is borne by the workers of the state-owned enterprises and the peasants and the profits are reaped by government and party officials and the owners of private business, then the reforms are not China away from socialism but not to western-style capitalism but to a uniquely Chinese style of bureaucratism.   China may very well be heading that way.   This betrays the intention of the planners of reform and also the wishes of the people who are determined that China should become a liberal society.  Observing what is really going on in China’s interior, the actual process of reform seems to be bringing China along this third pathway. ”

China’s reforms started in the countryside.  The household contract responsibility system gave peasants the right to manage their own land and their personal freedom.  The result was a great increase in agricultural production and made possible great developments in the industrial and commercial sectors. Thus I could say that the peasants are the direct beneficiaries of this reform.  The ever-increasing burden on farmers is directly related to the tendency for the size of local government organizations at every level to expand and the increase of bureaucratism.  This is in turn related to the problem of political reform of local government. The increase in the farmer’s burden since 1985 has meant that there has been no real increase in their standard of living since then.  .. The picture is more mixed for workers, since some have been able to greatly increase their incomes by changing jobs.

Some local level government and Party officials use their power to reap benefits for themselves.  Thus, this local level is just where the Party and government has paid the highest price for reform. The price has been paid in the corruption spread by these corrupt local officials who have corrupted markets, beliefs, loyalties, public morality, and principles. Corruption in the Party and government is the key problem.  Eliminating corrupt morals and illegal profits among Party and government officials and factory chiefs who have special contracts is the absolute precondition to ensure that the reforms of socialism go in the proper
direction.   (pp. 251 – 252)

Hu maintains that most of the peasants in the Chinese interior have been the price but not reaping the benefits of reform. The poorest peasants suffer from three kinds of disasters — natural disasters, disasters from local government, and the disaster of fluctuating market prices.  Local officials run campaigns to encourage all the peasants to plant one or another crop in the hope of improving their incomes. Very often the result is that everyone plants the crop, prices plunge and farmers end
up not being able even to cover their operating costs.   In 1995, the market price of cotton was higher than the official purchase price so many country and district government sent police to the countryside to force farmers to sell as the lower, official price.  This year the market price for cotton is lower than the official price so many local government purchasing offices are refusing to accept cotton. Administrative orders from local governments that farmers plant this or
that are one of the principal causes of wide fluctuations in prices.

According to a State Council order, the farmer’s burden may not exceed 5 percent.  In fact, it is very often 30 –  40 percent.  Hu continued, therefore, whenever you travel around the countryside you notice the very strong bad feelings of the peasants and local officials for each other.   During one trip, a peasant told me, “One day the peasants will revolt. When that day comes, I’ll be the first to go to the county and district government and kill all those corrupt officials.”   Naturally,
that is the talk of a hothead.

There is a peasant saying that goes:  “Law isn’t as important as policy,  policy isn’t as important as a document coming down from on high, and that document isn’t as important as the words of a leader.”

[Faluu meiyou zhence da, zhengce meiyou hongtou da, hongtou meiyou tsuiba da]

China Along the Yellow River reading notes  2-2 (pp. 254 ?264)

County government is the most important of the four levels of local government  (provincial, city or regional, county, and rural district [sheng, shi (qu), xian, xiang].  Qing Emperor Yongzheng wrote that the county magistrate is the official closest to the people and the foundation of government. ?If the county magistrate is honest, the people benefit most of all, if the magistrate is corrupt, the people suffer the most.?nbsp; Although in today
China now extends even lower to the townships and rural districts (xiang), these levels are largely outposts of the county rather than semi-autonomous levels of government in themselves.

Government and Party leaders are especially important. Moreover from the perspective of rural sociological and cultural studies, the county is a complete social and cultural unit.   Studies of households, villages and groups of villages depend upon an understanding of the county, but the county is largely a distinct unit for the purposes of study.   Counties can even have their own languages, cultural traditions, and histories.   (p. 254)

Wuyang County in central Henan covers 777 square kilometers and has a population of 510,000.  Ninety-seven percent of the people are involved in agriculture.  The proportion of local government income from tobacco tax has grown from 30 percent in the 1950s to 42 percent in the 1960s to about 80 percent during the 1980s.  During the five decades of the PRC, the number of local government offices grew from 10 in 1949 to 23 in 1957, 27 in 1966, decreasing to 13 in 1971 but rising again to 29 in 1978 and 36 in 1985.  In addition to Party and government offices, the offices of the county people congress  and other organization have also added many employees.   Although the number and organization of county offices have been constantly changing since the late Qing dynasty, the trend is clear. More and more offices and employees that result in an ever-increasing burden on the local people.   The contract responsibility system and the market economy seem to be major factors in accelerating the trend breaking down large families into nuclear families.   Most of Wuyang County people live just above the line of abject poverty? they are just barely adequately fed and clothed (wenbao).  (pp. 258 ?259)

County and district (xiang) finance is very difficult.  In 1993, eleven of the fourteen townships in the county were not able to meet their payrolls on time.  Growth in rural incomes has been slow even as production has steadily increased. People don have enough money to buy more.  In 1993 per capita peasant income was 705 RMB (USD 100). Taking inflation into account, there was only a very small increase over the previous year. This per capita figure is 216 RMB below the national average.  The peasants of Wuyang County have no other resources than the one mu (1/15 of a hectare) that they farm.  They can draw no resources from the seacoast, they can get income from the city, and there are no natural resources below the ground.  Their situation is typical for counties in central and western China.

Nonetheless, the one mu per person of land keeps people out of abject poverty. People are building better housing for themselves although most people don have much in the way of interior furnishings. The county for all its problems, like most counties in central and western China, are in better shape today than it has been in one to two hundred years.  (p. 260)

Handicapped by the lack of capital , local officials promoted many schemes to promote commerce in industry. Nearly all failed. In recent years over 6000 township and village enterprises were started up but as of late 1996 only 300 were still operating.  Where TVEs have succeeded seems to be more along the coastal China. These successes seem to have been based on successful enterprises that grew out of the People Communes but more importantly the business experience from the port cities involved in China trade and the growth of commerce their going back to the late Ming Dynasty.  The mental accumulation of ideas seems in the end to have been and even more important kind of accumulation than capital accumulation.   This kind of

rimitive accumulation?of ideas has just begun in  rural central and western China.

Where the nearly all the people depend upon farming to make a living, increasing productivity through mechanization and large farms is just not possible. In Wuyang County, as in central and western China,  mechanization would make it possible for one family to farm 80 mu in an area that has one mu per person land. To do that would require finding jobs for the 95 percent of the population that would be displaced.

Wuyang County has 128,000 peasant households and so a workforce of about 300,000 in the villages.  The slogan there is ut 100,000 people to work on various projects and to send a labor army of 100,000 strong down south of the Yangtze to find work?   People can find work at home, so many look for jobs outside their area. Wuyang County organized the export of its labor.

Most of the peasants in the Chinese interior still live the traditional agricultural life that has been typical of the area for thousands of years.  The western thinking that has penetrated China for the past hundred years hasn affected them much.  Although the peasants are sometimes very angry at the heavy burden local officials impose on them and how those officials eat and drink away their earnings, this anger is as old as that practice that itself goes back to ancient times.  (p. 263)    According to official reports, the government project that organized labor exports increased farmer income by 50 percent and official revenues by 25 percent.  The two biggest effects of this organized labor export is to change the traditional culture of the area as well as to change for the better the relationship between the people and officials.  Now a study would be needed to see if these claims are true. (p. 264)   The percapita farmland available in  Wuyang County is just one-tenth of a hectare (1.5 mu) .

In Henan Province there are two poles typical of life. Either  the peasants continue dozing in the same passivity typical of the  agriculture based culture they have lived in for millennia.  Or else appear many county and township officials who make big plans but their interventions in economic life are typically ineffective.   Here’s hoping that Wuyang County can escape being caught in a vicious cycle that alternates between these two poles.

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Retired now, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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