(p. A15) . . . 2019 . . . marks the anniversary of the result of a . . . defiant protest—one that will receive little attention in or out of China, even though it launched the economic reforms that kick-started the country’s rise.
Forty years ago this spring, corn farmers in Xiaogang village, in the central province of Anhui (where Pearl Buck set “The Good Earth”), reported a grain yield of 66 metric tons. This single harvest equaled the village’s total output between 1955 and 1970—but for once the figure was not exaggerated. In fact, villagers underreported their actual yield by a third, fearing officials would not believe their record haul.
What caused this massive spike in production? A new fertilizer or hybrid seed? Better equipment? A catchy, rhymed propaganda slogan? No; Xiaogang’s farmers were starving. After taking power in 1949, China’s Communist Party had effectively abolished private land ownership, grouping farms into “people’s communes” subservient to the state. By 1978 villages were crippled by quotas that seized most of what they grew for redistribution.
Only that season, there was no food. Xiaogang’s farmers dug up roots, boiled poplar leaves with salt, and ground roasted tree bark into flour. Families left their thatched-roof homes and took to the road to beg.
On the night of Nov. 24, 1978, a farmer named Yan Hongchang summoned the heads of the village’s desperate families to a clandestine meeting. On paper torn from a child’s school workbook, the farmers wrote a 79-word pledge to divide the commune’s land into family plots, submit the required quota of corn to the state, and keep the rest for themselves.
. . .
“In the case of failure,” the Xiaogang farmers’ pledge concluded, “we are prepared for death or prison, and other commune members vow to raise our children until they are 18 years old.” Then they signed their names.
By springtime the commune’s chief said the group had “dug up the cornerstone of socialism,” and threatened severe punishment. But a cadre above him eyed the record harvest—and a 20-fold increase in annual family income. The official told Mr. Yan he would protect Xiaogang and the rebellious farmers, so long as their experiment didn’t spread.
But villagers gossip. Farmers talk about their fields. The grass-roots experiment did spread. In Beijing, three years after Mao Zedong’s death, Deng Xiaoping urged the Chinese to ignore political dogma and instead “seek truth from facts.” Now came news that dissenting farmers were actually growing food.
For the full commentary, see:
Meyer, Michael. “The Quiet Revolt That Saved China; Forty years ago, farmers in Xiaogang village split their commune into family plots. A record harvest followed.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, April 17, 2019): A15.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 16, 2019.)