Zhao Ziyang on China’s Agricultural Revolution

From Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, trans. by Bao Pu and Renee Chiang (Simon & Shuster, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2040-59:

After the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, there were good harvests several years in a row: 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1984. The rural areas experienced a new prosperity, in large part because we resolved the issue of “those who farm will have land” by implementing a “rural land contract” policy. The old situation, where farmers were employees of a production team, had changed; farmers began to plant for themselves.

The rural energy that was unleashed in those years was magical, beyond what anyone could have imagined. A problem thought to be unsolvable had worked itself out in just a few years’ time. The food situation that was once so grave had turned into a situation where, by 1984, farmers actually had more grain than they could sell. The state grain storehouses were stacked full from the annual procurement program.

Two other factors contributed to the change. One was the elevated price of agricultural products. Farmers could make a profit from farming. The other was the reduction in the quotas for mandatory state procurement, which meant taking less food out of the mouths of farmers.

For more than two decades, farmers had not had enough to eat after handing over the grains they had produced to the state after every harvest. Of course, the reason that we were able to introduce this new policy was because the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee had decided that China could import grains. Comrade Chen Yun said the imports were allowed so that industrial crops could be preserved, but in fact, the imports fulfilled urban consumption demands, thereby reducing the rural mandatory procurement quota [purchased in part for urban markets]. The quantity of grain imports was huge in those years, between 10 million and 20 million tons. Major grain-producing regions could sell their surplus at a higher price and make a profit. Together, all of this gave rural areas instant prosperity.

These policy implementations came at a cost. While the prices of agricultural products had gone up, urban food prices could not be immediately raised, since urban workers had limited purchasing power. Therefore we had to finance additional subsidies for agricultural and other rural products. At the same time, foreign currency was needed to import grains, which affected the import of machinery. Plus, urban housing needed to be expanded. And since factories now had more autonomy, the wages and bonuses of the workers were raised. All of this involved additional expenditure. But these things all were part of the recovery process, which paved the way for the good situation of later years.

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