(p. A6) XIAOXIHE, China — Every year, the message is the same: the government will fix China’s left-behind countryside through a raft of reforms. This year was no different, with measures meant to help farmers move to cities, educate their children, and invest in improving their land.
But every year, the gap between village and city remains stubbornly wide. Many blame this on the fact that farmers are not allowed to own land, a policy that goes back to one of the founding decisions of the Communist revolution.
In Xiaoxihe, a rolling eastern Chinese region of rice paddies and fishponds, farmers speak of land ownership as something so improbable that it defies imagination.
Dai Jialiang, a 69-year-old farmer, grows rice and vegetables on a small plot of land his family leases from the government. That means that Dai’s family has made a modest living off toiling the land but their gains are limited.
“Ownership is not possible in China,” Mr. Dai said. “Socialism doesn’t allow that.”
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The party has long argued that one of traditional China’s main problems was that land was concentrated in the hands of landlords. After taking power in 1949 it introduced a violent campaign that killed up to two million farmers labeled “landlords.” State ownership of land became a nonnegotiable policy and farmers had to work in state-run collectives.
What farmers in this area came up with in the late 1970s was a plan to break the collectives back into the old family plots of land. Ownership stayed with the state but farmers were allowed to farm their plots as they saw fit as long as they paid a tax, usually in grain, to the government. Anything else they produced was theirs.
Suddenly motivated, farmers set records in grain production, while opening up orchards, vegetable plots and fishponds. Starvation, always a risk during the Communists’ first 30 years in power, disappeared.
National leaders endorsed this system but made sure that land stayed in the state’s hands. Farmers eventually got 30-year contracts over their land. When that ran out about a decade ago, they were extended another 30 years.
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According to popular accounts of Chinese economic history, the nearby village of Xiaogang is where the household-contract system began in 1978. There, a large museum features dioramas showing how farmers almost starved to death under the Communists until they secretly subverted their policies — the unwitting implication being that only civil disobedience can effect change.
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(Note: the online version of the story was last updated on September 28 [sic], 2019, and has the title “Barred From Owning Land, Rural Chinese Miss Spoils of Country’s Success.”)