The Quiet Revolt That Saved China
Forty years ago, farmers in Xiaogang village split their commune into family plots. A record harvest followed.
by Michael Meyer (China 1995-97)
April 16, 2019 7:35 p.m. ET
Wall Street Journal
The People’s Republic of China turns 70 in October and will celebrate with flag-waving and fireworks. But 2019 marks several other major Chinese anniversaries whose public remembrance the Communist Party will suppress—and another milestone whose observance has been surprisingly muted.
Twenty years ago, it was Falun Gong adherents being arrested. In July 1999 the Communist Party branded the spiritual meditation group an “evil cult.” On April 25, 1999, 10,000 practitioners, many of them elderly, had held a silent demonstration outside Beijing’s Zhongnanhai leadership compound. It was the capital’s largest protest since those held at Tiananmen Square ended—30 years ago this June—with a bloody military crackdown.
Sixty years ago on March 31, the Dalai Lama crossed the border into India, fleeing Tibet after a revolt against the occupying People’s Liberation Army, which had begun three weeks earlier. March also marks the 10th anniversary of this event’s patriotic rebranding: the creation of a new provincial holiday called Serfs Emancipation Day.
This year is the 10th anniversary of deadly ethnic riots in Xinjiang, a province now home to “re-education camps” where Muslim Uighurs are detained without due process and brutalized.
Yet 2019 also marks the anniversary of the result of a smaller, quieter but just as 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.
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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 1624 Pilgrims in the American colonies attempted a similar reform: after two years of food shortages at Plymouth, the settlement abandoned communal farming for family plots. People worked harder than before, with women and children joining men in the field. The colony never starved again.
But American Pilgrims did not fear charges of sedition. “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.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Deng’s decision to scrap collective farming. In its place came one of the country’s most popular reforms, the Household Contract Responsibility System, or chengbao, which allows families to farm their own allocation of land and sell most of the harvest at unregulated prices.
In today’s revisionist China, Xiaogang village is a “red tourism” attraction, albeit the only one whose “patriotic education base” (museum) celebrates local defiance of government policy. Its exhibition hall displays a copy of the farmers’ pledge—the original was lost years ago—and floor-to-ceiling photographs of its signatories. The men are lauded as heroes, and Xiaogang celebrated with a slogan: “The origin of our nation’s economic rise!”
All museums tell stories. In China, they tell political ones in which the ends justify the means. “Stability” and “social harmony” are invoked like “freedom” and “liberty” in the U.S. But in this case, the means highlight an ideologically uncomfortable question: What spurs individuals to stand up against the state’s overwhelming power?
Chinese civilization has, as every visitor quickly learns to repeat by rote, 5,000 years of history. But the nation is remarkably young and pliable. Yes, it’s mind-boggling to consider China’s changes since 1979. But even more remarkably, you can still talk to people who lived through them, including those with clear memories of each of 2019’s landmark anniversaries.
Jan. 1, 2019, marked the 40th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China relations, but America hasn’t managed to export its pluralistic attitude toward history. Imagine if China let its citizens tell the country’s stories, rather than restricting the job to propagandists.
“My father signed that paper because we were starving,” Mr. Yan’s son told me when I visited Xiaogang. He candidly shrugged off the museum’s official encomiums. “There was nothing heroic about it. He had no other choice. It’s difficult to celebrate survival. In the end, that’s just our human instinct.”
Mr. Meyer is author of The Road to Sleeping Dragon: Learning China from the Ground Up.