Chapter Four

The Fruits of Toil

Mao Zedong became the leader of China's Communist revolution by convincing a majority of his comrades of the time that China's revolution must be based on the peasants, not on the urban workers. Though obvious in hindsight, this was, in the 1930s, a major doctrinal battle among the Chinese Communists, or `line struggle' as the Party describes it. Chinese Communists, in those days, took the Soviet Union very seriously as their model for revolution. The Communist International, based in Moscow and claiming the right to direct Communist revolutions throughout the world, solidly pushed the line that control of the industrial proletariat was the key to control of the nation. This may well have been their experience in Russia, but Mao proved that in China the peasants held the key.

It had always been so - peasant rebellions over the centuries had signalled the end of dynasties. Chinese Party historians might argue even today as to whether or not such peasant rebellions were `progressive' in Marxist terms, but the example was that small bands of peasant guerrillas, or bandits for that matter, had frequently been able to cause great disruption to a

Chinese regime's internal trade and communications, and, in time of weak or unbearably oppressive government, to become an alternate focus of loyalty for that vast sea of working peasants.

Chinese government power was defensively based, in walled cities and towns, and enforced, when necessary, by punitive sorties of government troops. But those walled redoubts quickly became a starving prison for their masters when peasant rebels, often joined by disaffected elements of the military, controlled the surrounding country. Peasants could live indefinitely on the fruits of their own labour alone - but the urban dwellers could not live without the produce of the peasants. Peasants formed the bulk of the Communist guerrilla forces in the civil war, whilst underground Communists in cities held by the Nationalists worked to undermine resistance, preparing uprisings and shadow administrative structures for the day of `Liberation'.

Since 1949, the peasants have continued to carry the greatest load in the Party's endeavour to reconstruct the world's largest nation. It was peasant labour that carried out the gargantuan civil engineering works on flood dykes and railroads, peasants, on the whole, who were shipped out to carve state farms from the wilderness in remote provinces, peasant soldiers who formed the Human Waves of the Korean War. It was even a high proportion of peasant labourers who made and carried the bricks to build ambitious civil works and heavy industries in the cities that China's new rulers wanted to transform into Soviet models of industrialisation.

Most of all, it was the ocean of the peasants who struggled to fulfil ever more ambitious production quotas forced upon them by a regime which, by the time of Mao's Great Leap Forward programme in 1958, sought to overturn the realities of peasant life with a mystical force of human willpower that would transcend all the laws of nature. As it failed, local cadres falsified records and compelled the peasants to send ever larger proportions of their shrinking yields to the state granaries, in pretence that they were meeting the absurd production demands. It was only when there was no more grain to send that the tragic farce was called off. China's own population statistics covering the period show a dip in the population growth curve that implies at least twenty million deaths during that three year period of man-made disaster. The vast majority were peasants.

Mao retreated then, but his followers were unrepentant. In 1978, whenever VIPs visited China, they were still being given glowing briefings on the Model Production Brigade called Dazhai. The twenty-five peasant families of Dazhai Brigade were held to have performed superhuman feats of improvement with their own hands to their meagre, infertile land in the stony hills of Shanxi province. `Self-reliance' was the principle. Since 1964, peoples' communes across the country had been exhorted to `Learn from Dazhai'. Pictures of Dazhai adorned the reception rooms of communes everywhere, its image was woven into gigantic tapestries for the foyers of public buildings, and elaborate scale models with flashing lights following the irrigation supply were erected in special exhibition halls across the country. The brigade leader, a peasant called Chen Yongui, became a national hero and was promoted, eventually, into the Olympian heights of the Party Politburo, where he was encouraged to continue wearing his rough clothes and peasant head-band as an inspiration to his former peers.

Not all was as it seemed, however. A few months after I arrived in Beijing, I was told by a cynical young worker that it was well-known Chen Yonggui had brought most of his own family to live in comparative luxury in Beijing. On the insistence of his wife, one of his sons was being taught to play the piano.

`A dirty old peasant playing the piano!', scoffed my informant, showing the traditional scorn of urbanites for their rural brothers. `In Shanghai, we taught a panda to play the trumpet!'

But, as we spoke, the whole gamut of policy towards the peasants was being reviewed, and Chen Yonggui's days on the politburo were numbered. By mid-1980, Dazhai had not only been removed from its status of National Model Brigade, but its leaders were charged with a long, sad history of falsifying grain production statistics, receiving secret subsidies, and plotting to divert, with upper-level connivance, the water resources of neighbouring brigades to their own territory.

`Self-reliance' and `Take Grain as the Key Link' were the two rural slogans repeated ad nauseam in those early days, but they were mutually contradictory. Critics with official backing from Deng Xiaoping's strengthening clique soon began pointing out that emphasis on grain production, to the exclusion of all else, had been a disaster, especially for the peasants themselves. Most obviously, it meant that commodity after essential commodity, once plentiful, became almost unobtainable. In many places, under the misguided enthusiasm of local leaders `Learning from Dazhai', timber forests, fruit trees and vines had been cut down to grow a few more bushels of wheat. Even more seriously, in the long run, millions of hectares of marginal, fragile land had been hastily put under the plough for grain production, causing massive and irrevocable degradation of soils with accompanying erosion and silting problems, all for a minimal increase in grain production.

For all its vast area of territory, China is chronically short of arable land. Each hectare of arable land in China must support fifteen people - more than twice the ratio applying in India, and eight times the ratio in the USA. In twenty years between 1957 and 1977, with urban encroachments and soil degradation, there was a net decline in the amount of available land by twenty million hectares, while the population increased by over a hundred million mouths.

Xian was once the greatest city in the world. Then known as Chang An, it was capital of the mighty Tang Empire of China, at a time when Mediterranean civilisation was at a low ebb and most other empires were in decline. Chang An was a cosmopolitan centre of trade, learning, and the arts, with communities of foreigners - political refugees or craftsmen of a hundred kinds, and a hundred nationalities - supported by the court. In the eighth century AD, Chang An covered eighty-five square kilometres and had a population of a million citizens, ruling a huge contiguous empire.

Little remains of Chang An, and Xian is depressingly like most other provincial capitals - drab and conformist, aping on a smaller scale the plaster-bound civic designs of modern Beijing. Xian's centuries as an imperial capital have left Shaanxi province a legacy of denuded hills and exhausted soils, grudging even an average living to its peasants. In 1979, the province is also famous for the Maoist conservatism of its local government.

Returning from the sites of extravagant imperial tombs, in a comfortable official sedan, I notice peasants by the roadside in clothes more ragged than anything I have encountered in Beijing or the more fertile south of China. China's west has been short of rain for two years, and news is leaking through that some production teams have closed down altogether, lacking even seed grain. In the city itself, I am taken to a large, modern restaurant famous for its local dishes, and join a hundred or so Chinese in a large modern dining hall. Around the walls stand a fringe of ragged peasants. At first I think they are waiting for tables to become vacant, until I notice that they swoop like sparrows on the scraps left on the plates of departing diners. I feel grossly overfed.

At the end of my meal, I deliberately leave two or three mantou (steamed bread rolls) on my plate. As I stand up to leave, there is a scuffling behind me as chairs are pushed aside in a scramble for the food. Grubby hands have reached into the bowl before I am even properly on my feet. On normal protocol, my Chinese guide should have berated them for this display of desperation, shaming China in front of a Foreign Guest. But the guide is of peasant origin himself, and has felt hunger, so he pretends not to notice. I have been inured to the sight of starvation in India, but this is my first encounter with Chinese reduced to beggary, and I feel strangely shaken by this contrast with the picture of universal welfare China has been giving to the world.

The eight hundred million Chinese peasants labour at the bottom of a very large administrative pyramid. A peasant's immediate unit is his Production Team - often a village, or a section of a large village - which may have around a hundred members. There are reckoned to be a million villages scattered across all of China. Next layer up is the Production Brigade, which might group several such teams together with some common resources or equipment. Above this, until they were abolished, were the People's Communes, which were generally based upon a large town. The original 1958 experiment with totally collectivised living in the communes was brief and disastrous, destroying morale and responsibility, and the communes steadily reverted to a role of political and economic supervision of the units below. Commune Party Secretaries, however, remained extremely powerful men in their locality, deciding careers, distributing resources, and settling disputes, so the quality of such officials could make or break the lives of those under them.

Still more layers remained - the County (often embracing two or three million residents overall), the Prefecture, the District, the twenty- nine Provinces and Regions (the largest with over a hundred million citizens), and then a great leap upward to Beijing itself. At each of these layers was both an administrative structure, and overlapping that a Communist Party structure - each level supposedly carrying out and passing on instructions from the level above. But this general structure covered a vast diversity in actual style and practice of administration at the local level. In remote areas, the titles of Team Leader or Party Secretary might be worn by the traditional clan headman, purely as a matter of form, whilst in the giant and highly developed communes close to the markets of the major cities, political life could be intense and competitive for ambitious young men with an eye on that long ladder ahead of them.

The Four Modernisations policy for agriculture, even in late 1978, was for large-scale mechanisation through the existing structure - in other words, a top-down development. Grain was still to be the Key Link. Extravagant production targets for tractors were announced. But it soon became clear that the whole thing was unrealistic, hopelessly inappropriate to the actual resources and needs of Chinese agriculture. Deng Xiaoping's group in the policy circles began to argue strongly for agricultural reform that started from the bottom up. As they steadily prevailed over the grandiose dreamers, the organising principles of agriculture and land management were revised to emphasise balanced production of varied commodities, local specialisation according to resources, and a radical revision of the means to get goods from where they were produced to where they were needed.

In 1979, the peasants were unhappy with the way things were going. Many of them had expected that the fall of the Gang of Four would end their troubles with excessive political interference, but it had not yet turned out that way. In the second half of the year, thousands of the most aggrieved found their way to Beijing to lay long-standing complaints against local cadres directly to Comrade Deng Xiaoping. For a while, their processions, sit-ins and rough camps in some quarters of Beijing were tolerated, as part of what was then a general uncertainty in Beijing as to what constituted a proper degree of democracy for the Peoples' Republic. US Vice-President Walter Mondale in his official Red Flag limousine passed a demonstration of angry peasants squatting at the very gate of Zhong Nan Hai, the nearest thing to a Chinese White House, on Chang An boulevard in Beijing. A thousand cadres were assigned to deal with the flood of complaints, many of which dated back up through twenty years of Maoism.

Deng Xiaoping knew where he wanted to lead the Chinese nation, but he also knew the constraints. The Party was like an elephant, huge and powerful, basically obedient, but with a mind of its own and a long memory as well. The Maoists had got it moving where they wanted for a time, with the prick of the goad and the commotion of drums - but the elephant, finally, had trampled them for their insolence. Deng now held a troubled and suspicious elephant at the end of a thin straw rope, and must try to lead it onto a new course. Pull too hard, and the rope would part in his hands. One step at a time, was the answer.

Except at the most hysterical heights of the Gang of Four period, the peasants had been allowed to cultivate a small proportion of the land in private plots. At times they were not allowed to sell the produce - it could only be for their own consumption. But most of the time there was a certain degree of permitted Free Market activity in local towns. Quite soon after the Gang of Four arrests, free markets on a small commercial scale were permitted, not only for the peasants to exchange privately-produced goods among themselves, but also to sell them to urban dwellers. Maintaining the distinction with the state economy, such goods were called `Sideline production'. Small quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables began to re-appear in Beijing, brought in on the backs of bicycles by peasants from the outskirts. At first there were many restrictions, but, point by point, the markets became freer and freer.

Important points of principle were breached. Suppose five families in a production team each had ten kilos of extra potatoes from their private gardens, which they wished to sell in the city, twenty kilometres away. The fifty kilos made one good bicycle load, and one man could take the lot in, sell them, and distribute the proceeds, with a small commission for his efforts. That breached the principle of each person selling his own produce, but it was soon permitted. At the next watershed, the same man could make it his daily business to do the rounds of his team, collect whatever was available for sale from each private family plot, pay the families better than government purchase price for them, take them to town on a horse-dray `rented' from the team, and sell them at a profit in the free market. Was he now a `speculator', or a `middleman' - both criminal types under the prevailing rules? The rules were changed.

Horse carts and tractor-hauled goods drays without permits were restricted entry to Beijing. So, as the flow of private produce burgeoned, informal depots grew up at the fringe of the city where the rural `middleman' with his horse dray would sell his produce, wholesale, to urban peddlers with rented tricycle carts who would trundle them off to retail for a profit in the city. There were prosecutions and confiscations for this `speculation', and bitter complaints from the Municipal Vegetable Marketing Authority which was being undercut. But eventually this rampart of socialism, too, was breached, and private commerce was reborn for the peasants in China.

`The peasants have suffered too long. As long as they fulfil their quotas of state production, we must allow them to get rich by their own efforts', was the judgement in Peoples Daily editorials. By the Spring Festival of 1980, Beijing residents were already complaining that they were being crowded out of the shopping lines for prized consumer goods by the numbers of urban- fringe peasants come to town to spend their new wealth. Conservatives of the Party grumbled aloud that years of effort to inculcate the peasants with Socialist Spirit were being thrown out the window, as personal greed was now condoned. But the peasants knew that it had been their own unrewarded labour, year after year, that had paid the salaries and the central heating bills of those high-minded cadres in their fine suits and leather shoes. Deng Xiaoping was a popular man in the countryside.

Hong Qiao (Red Bridge) free market straggles in a thin strip under the trees against the wall of the Altar of Heaven park, where the emperor would come once a year to intercede with Heaven for a good harvest. Fruits of the harvest now lie in rows along the ground, or on trestles hired from the market supervisor's office. Attendants hand out wooden tags at the entrance to the roped-off bicycle park.

Bags of grain, heaps of the best vegetables, tables of fragrant herbs and spices under cotton awnings. Chickens tethered by the leg or squatting moodily in wicker baskets. A man pushing a bicycle through the stalls buys a chicken, ties its legs together with string, and hangs it by the feet from his handlebars. Boys systematically visit each peasant selling peanuts from an open sack, and ask to sample one or two. They never buy, weathering the occasional shouted insult from the producer.

Someone is selling one of the family dogs. There is its pelt, next to it the internal organs, good medicine, and the meat itself butchered in neat cuts laid out in a row. Plump live frogs are drawn from a basket of wet leaves and beheaded on a block as they are bought. Live freshwater crabs are tied in stacks with home-made hemp string, claws and legs waving and tangling, crusty mouths bubbling in the warm sun.

A thin man offers a selection of small fish laid out on an oil-cloth: a large eel, a small eel, some carp, a couple of crabs, baby turtles in an enamel bowl. Three live freshwater crayfish under six inches constantly break ranks and are replaced in their place on the oil-cloth. I comment that they look rather small to be eaten. `They'll grow bigger', I'm assured, but I don't buy.

Two overseas-Chinese women, visitors to Beijing, pick their way through the bustle, looking over the local produce with expert eyes. From the sea of old blue cotton and goat-skin overcoats, an old peasant regards their fashionable clothes and made-up faces quizzically.

`Do you work in the circus?', he enquires politely.

As the prosperity of the free markets attracted more and more peasant labour, it became evident that the `collective' part of their responsibilities was often suffering. In some communes near Beijing, team leaders could not muster enough labour to get their grain production quota harvested and the next crop planted. Everyone was too busy cultivating private plots or travelling to market to bother with the collective labour, for which the reward in work-point income was delayed, unpredictable, and meagre. Collective labour did not pay cash. Work-points for hours contributed were totalled for the year, and when all other commitments of the Brigade had been met, a decision would be made by the leaders as to how much should be distributed as cash income. That was then divided according to accumulated work- points. But if the Brigade decided to invest more of its money in capital works or other projects, or to subsidise poorer teams of the Brigade, each work-point would be worth proportionally less. Not surprisingly, most peasants preferred cash-in-hand from the free market. Faced with this, rural cadres had a difficult task. But instead of chasing the peasants back into the collective fields, the central policymakers went in the opposite direction.

Once the right to one's own labour was established, the next step was to encourage peasants, individually or in voluntary collectives, to sell their labour and their personal skills on a contract basis, where the relationship between the work and the reward was defined in advance. Units had been able to contract their labour to other units - roadworks for instance - but now the labourers themselves could take the initiative. It was obvious that there was pool of labour available in the rural areas far in excess of agricultural requirements. The Party should now encourage brigades, teams, and even individuals, to break out of the rigid relationships of the Peoples Commune idea where the collective `owned' the man. Now the collective, the unit, should instead serve the individual, while of course guarding the collective interest and that of the state, and strictly adhering to government policy of the day.

This was not revolution, but devolution, and the whole massive shift in state ideology of labour came under the overall title of the Responsibility System. In detail, it would mean different things in different places, but the fundamental principle was that the millions of peasants would be restored to personal responsibility for the management of that part of the national resources under their particular care. The better their management, the greater their personal reward. For most, it would mean a family lease over certain fields, owing a set rental in kind to the team or brigade, and keeping the surplus. To others, it would mean a forestry lease, charge of the team's herd of pigs, management of fish-breeding ponds, a new enterprise in beekeeping, or even full-time commerce as a wholesaler of other team members' produce. Most importantly, the system would be flexible.

In Guangxi province, in western South China, the landscape opens out into wide, flat valleys between abrupt limestone hills, sometimes taking on that fantastically craggy aspect loved by Chinese painters, with a twisted tree clinging to a high crevice. The air is sub-tropical, the red soil fertile when it is not abused by over-cropping. By the rivers, huge bamboo water-wheels turn slowly in the stream, lifting water in dripping bamboo troughs to feed irrigation channels. Population density is low by Chinese standards, and gravel roads run for miles at a time through the brilliant green paddy-fields from hamlet to thatched hamlet, hidden in clumps of giant bamboo.

The foreigner's car roars noisily through this idyllic landscape, scattering gravel to the verges as the local chauffeur does his best to show that Chinese drivers lack nothing in courage. Every few miles we pass road-graders repairing the damage - stolid ponies hauling a simple buggy that drags an angled wooden plank along the verge, smoothing the gravel back to the carriageway. The fast traffic is provincial transport brigade lorries, the occasional bus, and perhaps once a day a military convoy - the Vietnam border is not far away. Two-wheeled hand-tractors, with their thundering one-cylinder diesel engines, drag small overladen trailers slowly along on market errands, but the majority of the local traffic is horsedrawn, and the evidence is spotted all the way along the tarmac. Here we encounter the Guangxi Lancers - lone rangers of peasant enterprise. Horse manure is not to be sniffed at as fertilizer for private gardens, but neither is time to be wasted. Guangxi Lancers ride the highways and the byways on a sturdy bicycle - panniers lashed behind, and an extra-long handled shovel held at the ready. Pedalling up to the target, the shovel is lowered with careful aim like the lance of a tent-pegging hussar, there's a scrape and a flip, and the rich prize sails into the air and over the shoulder to plop neatly into the creaking pannier basket.

At the other end of the spectrum, some kinds of agriculture obviously benefited from economies of scale. Large scale mechanised farms or cotton plantations in the border regions are almost invariably State Farms anyway, where the workers are already fixed-wage employees, with no personal rights of ownership, so the applying the Responsibility System there never broached principles of ownership. Another category where little change took place was in those communes closest to big-city markets, such as Beijing and Shanghai, where long-term contracts with the city's commercial purchasing departments had already converted these once-peasant collectives into large-scale agribusiness. Famous communes such as the Evergreen Commune on Beijing's northern fringe, much visited by foreign tourists, had received considerable capital assistance from Beijing in the early days, but by 1983 was a thriving food producing and processing conglomerate which supplied ten percent of all urban Beijing's vegetables. It could offer its forty thousand `peasant' members cash incomes six times higher than the national average for peasants, and welfare benefits better than most state enterprises.

The only pressing problem for communes like Evergreen was to find employment for their children, whose rural registration did not permit them to get city industrial jobs. But with its huge cash flow and proximity to city markets, it was not too difficult for the commune managers to set up new collective enterprises either making light industrial products on their own account, processing some of the commune's own produce, or processing materials on contract for urban industrial units.

To support its expansion, Evergreen needed more professional expertise than could be supplied by its own members. It broke new ground by advertising in the Beijing press for agricultural scientists and engineers. They received over two hundred applications - almost unheard of - from people of whom over a hundred were already in secure urban employment. A 46 year-old engineer from a research institute who took up one of the positions, said the commune had offered him better pay, accommodation and conditions than his government job, as well as offering jobs to his two unemployed sons.

In this context, it was clearly in the interests of most of the commune members to stick to the centralised organisation of work - in fact, under the rural reform programme, Evergreen actually increased its degree of centralisation under expert commercial management. In smaller communes, private individual expanded rapidly into the private ownership of agricultural machinery. By the end of 1983, there were a million tractors in private ownership in rural China. But at Evergreen commune, all the tractors formerly owned by various Brigades of the commune had been gathered into a single Machinery Service Brigade, which could deploy a total of five hundred machines according to the overall needs of the commune.

Some other urban-fringe communes became quite aggressive in their hunt for labour contracts in the cities, to the extent that in 1982 Beijing's city government was forced to call a halt. Construction firms had been hiring contract labour gangs from the communes in preference to taking on new employees from among Beijing's own unemployed youth. By the time the practice was banned, there were forty thousand such peasant labourers on building sites around the Beijing, with other cities similarly under siege.

The real propaganda heroes of the period were those individual peasants who used skill or enterprise to make themselves rich - an extraordinary turnaround since the days of Chairman Mao. From the stories printed in the official press, none of the old socialist principles on `public ownership of the means of production' seemed to be sacred, apart from a firm tenet that land itself always belongs to the collective, no matter to whom it is entrusted on contract. `Responsibility' and `ownership' were not to be confused, though they were not far apart in practical terms. The collective could terminate responsibility contracts, however, if laws were broken or serious mismanagement threatened the land itself.

Two main categories of newly-rich peasants emerged rapidly - those who were able to use existing skills (such as expertise with grape-growing or chicken-raising) to take over management of collective resources at a handsome profit to themselves, and those who found neglected areas of production or service which they were able to fill (such as medicinal herb-growing, or the two brothers who built their own small hydro-electric scheme and sold power to the whole village). These new entrepreneurs were accustomed to a very frugal lifestyle, and were able to build up their own capital very rapidly in two or three profitable years. Twenty families in a remote Central China village got tired of waiting for the local authorities to build them a theatre, so they collected together thirty thousand dollars from the profits of their private farming to build their own. In their first year of operation, they showed ninety movies hired from the state distribution bureau, hired seventy live performing groups from neighbouring towns and cities, and turned a profit of twenty percent on their collective investment. The story was publicised to encourage further private investment in fields such as this, so as to relieve the demands on state funds for these relatively low-priority projects.

Stone Buddha Temple Brigade crouches right against the Great Wall, at the top of the Ba Da Ling pass, forty kilometres north-west of Beijing. Just that modest distance, combined with its shortage of water, means that Stone Buddha Temple has not shared the prosperity of the suburban `agribusiness' communes. Yanqing county is famous for its sweet, crisp apples, but they don't appear in the open Beijing market. They are bought up by the capital's food wholesale corporation and stored for supply to priority customers: government banquets, and hotels serving foreign tourists.

Ba Da Ling pass is the main route out of Beijing, across its northern horseshoe of sheltering hills, towards Mongolia and the west. Through the centuries, the pass has seen mighty armies clank back and forth: Genghis Khan, the Manchu banners, the Japanese invaders, and finally the Communist armies themselves, completing their mastery of the North China plain.

At Stone Buddha Temple Brigade, the temple no longer exists. It was an early victim of the Cultural Revolution, and future archaeologists may look for its stones and timbers in the walls of neighbouring cottages. The stone Sakyamuni Buddha itself squats, lotus position, next to the pigsty of a tumbledown farmhouse.

The Great Wall, where it hangs over the brigade, is a Ming dynasty construction, part of a series of fortifications, garrisons and customs stations spread the length of the steep, winding pass. Like a modern-day nuclear arsenal, the Wall seems to have served more as a psychological deterrent than a practical defence against determined attack. But who can say what barbarian raids might have taken place if the Wall had not been there to make an attack on Beijing at least marginally more difficult? The mere sight of the Wall at Ba Da Ling, draped, as the Chinese say, `like a resting dragon' across crag and ravine, is a salutary reminder to any upstart barbarian, even today, of the massive force of sheer manpower which, at the Emperor's disposal, constructed this preposterous monument. As with modern defence programmes, the defensive value of the Wall was hotly debated by court officials even as it was being built, and the costs of construction brought bitter protests from taxpayers and feudal lords obliged to pour their own wealth and productive manpower into the grand but dubious project. Tens of thousands of human lives were expended, with no memorial but the Wall itself.

Stone Buddha Temple Brigade is small by average standards. Units generally are smaller where the life is harder. The brigade's four hamlets are scattered up a steep, winding valley, the houses clinging to the northern slope, where they can catch the most of the sun before it drops early behind the high western crags.

Xiao Sung is one of the hundred and fifty people in the valley, forty-five families in all. She's not yet old enough to be married (twenty), so lives with her father, her married brother and her married older sister in a new six-room house of the traditional design. There's no room on the hillsides for the spacious south-facing courtyards popular on the plain, so their six rooms all sit side by side under one long roof along the mountain slope. For the time being, brush fences define a narrow yard in front of the long house, where, later, the pig-sty, chicken coop, fuel store and so on will be added as budget allows. With six able-bodied earners in the family, their new house boasts square lattice windows of glass, rather than the traditional white paper, needing replacement every year.

The family built the house themselves, buying timber, bricks, lime and joinery from the commune headquarters, and supplementing this with adobe from their team's own land. A few years ago, building your own house was a crime: peasants were supposed to wait until the commune was rich enough to re-house them all in those uniform cement barracks beloved of the Party model-makers. Now brigades make their own rules, and almost everyone prefers the traditional style: a frame of trimmed logs for pillars and beams, adobe or tile roof, adobe or brick walls, with windows and doors filling all the southern exposure. Right across North China, the same general pattern is found in buildings from pigsties to the Forbidden City of the emperors.

Xiao Sung shares her father's two rooms and looks after him. She'll leave when she marries. Like the other women of Stone Buddha Temple, her day is divided between housework and fieldwork. The day begins early in summer, the peak season for fieldwork, and starts with a breakfast of millet porridge and maize-bread. Rice is not part of her diet. Though the brigade has only twenty acres of land flat enough for crops, each year they get one wheat crop, one coarse grain (millet, maize or sorghum), and possibly a crop of potatoes as well out of the better irrigated fields in the valley bottom. Even so, the fields alone cannot support the population of the brigade.

For the long years in which Mao's slogan `Take grain as the key link' was being enforced, mountain villages like Stone Buddha Temple faced demands from literal-minded cadres for impossible annual increases in grain production, and a ban on the proper development of the meagre non-grain crops their land could support. After the absurdity of that policy had finally been acknowledged, Stone Buddha Temple was able to return to the diversified land use which, from the beginning, had been its only realistic hope of prosperity. The fields now use less than half the labour power of the brigade, and a majority of the female labour is split between the crop fields and the private vegetable gardens.

Xiao Sung takes her turn when a collective project such as road-mending or building a new well demands labour contributions from each family. She may also tend her family's share of the fruit trees scattered through sheltered and watered spots on the stony hillsides: apple, pear, crab-apple and walnut. In spring, the blossoms make bright patches of white and pink on the grey- brown native brush of the mountains.

In mountain villages like Stone Buddha Temple, where grain is short, chicken-raising is a personal luxury rather than a business. Xiao Sung's family keep only one or two chickens for their eggs: any more would only eat grain otherwise destined for the family's own bellies, and they live too far from the markets to make any profit from selling the eggs there. For meat, rabbits are a better proposition than chicken, and are gaining popularity. Their feed can be gathered freely from the hillsides rather than subtracted from the family grain store, and their skins can be sown into snug linings for winter clothing, or taken for sale in the township.

`Town' for Xiao Sung is Yanqing, the seat of the county government, about ten kilometres through the pass. Nankou, at the foot of the pass, is just as close, but the road to Yanqing takes less climbing - a big factor when you are carrying heavy goods on foot or on a borrowed bicycle. Its in Yanqing that Xiao Sung buys her cotton smock jackets and trousers.. a little more form- fitting now than in previous years, but still loose enough not to set prudish tongues wagging in her tiny community. The general store and hardware department there supply all her normal requirements- a few pins, a new pair of scissors, a new plastic waterbottle to take to the fields on hot days. Yanqing Photography Studio has its stamp on all the small black and white portraits of family members assembled in the glass frame that takes pride of place on the wall of her room.

Beijing is quite accessible, should she want to go shopping for something special, or simply to see the sights. The commune headquarters has a truck going to Beijing on some errand or other several times per week, and she can get permission to perch on top of the load, or, as a woman, may have the luxury of squeezing with several others into the cabin. Failing that, there's the public bus, or for more money again, the train.

Trains pass right through Stone Buddha Temple Brigade. The main line from Beijing to Mongolia, Siberia, and even Europe, bursts from a tunnel just at the end of the village, leaps the river-bed on a short bridge of hand-cut local stone, and disappears into a second tunnel on the other side. International passengers on the train can glimpse the village for perhaps ten seconds. In summer, the mental snapshot would be idyllic: leafy poplar and beech by a rippling stream, green terraced fields against hillsides dotted with walnut trees and wild roses, cottages overgrown with flowering melon-vines and surrounded by tall nodding sunflowers. An old man might be snoozing over a herd of goats up on the hill, and a young woman coming down the valley, shouldering a pole with wooden water-buckets swinging at either end. The young woman could be Xiao Sung, and that could be her eighth trip for the day to fill the household water-vats. She could be wishing she were on that train herself, heading for heaven knows where with money in her pocket and a mug of tea chattering in its saucer on the table in front of her.

After an autumn of brilliant reds and golds, winter at the pass is cold and unforgiving. Temperatures from December to late February are seldom above freezing, and the nights regularly plunge more than twenty degrees below. The same Siberian winds that chap the lips in Beijing have even more bite up here, where the hills take away the low, weak sun by three in the afternoon and funnel the wind fiercely down the valleys. Then, only evergreen pine and spruce on the hillsides break the uniform grey of the valley. The stream freezes, snow falls, but the arctic airstream is so arid that the air catches at the throat and seems to suck body moisture greedily through any exposed skin. Men and women wrap up in heavy goat-skin coats, over five or six layers of padded cotton and wool knitwear. Carters trudge the hard roads beside their steaming horses rather than ride on the shafts, to keep some heat moving in their blood.

There's little point in fighting the extreme cold: Xiao Sung and her family stay indoors for the worst of it, sitting or lying on the kang, the brick platform heated by a charcoal fire, which serves as bed, table, and chair together in peasant homes. They make and mend clothes and cotton shoes, listen to the radio, visit friends, or take their shopping trips to town.

Children, who do a share of field work at peak seasons, spend the winter in their cramped little school-room, three primary classes together reciting their three different lessons simultaneously at the top of their voices. The school runs with assistance from the collective funds of the commune, but no central government support. Teaching method is traditional, consisting mainly of wrote learning set texts and some basic arithmetic, but those who complete the primary school course will have at least basic literacy. If Xiao Sung's little cousin wants secondary education, she will have to go to the county town. Few parents other to encourage this, as there are very few jobs for middle-school graduates even in the county towns, and the smarter, better-connected town children seem to get them all.

In milder weather, the family begin venturing out to work on maintenance and building projects before Spring starts the crops shooting and agricultural tasks begin. At Stone Buddha Temple, the railway provides work at these times, giving local contracts for track maintenance which significantly boost the village's cash income. Others of the men work a small quarrying operation on the local granite, cutting and shaping stone building blocks by hand, for sale to the commune or to other villages. In rural China, hand-cut granite can be cheaper for building than bricks, since brick-making burns expensive fuel, while stone-cutting burns only cheap, renewable human labour.

In 1983, the peasants of Stone Buddha Temple Brigade had an unexpected bonus. They were chosen by the central government to be among recipients of a small-scale Australian aid project, sponsored personally by the Australian Ambassador to China, Hugh Dunn, to bring reticulated drinking water to poor villages. Pipes reached most of the homes by summer of 1983, ending Xiao Sung's daily trudge to the spring. Annual income of the villagers in that year had been a hundred and fifty yuan per head.. less than seven dollars per month. And that had been a fifty percent improvement over the previous year.

In the hamlet itself, the mountain stream has undermined the Great Wall where it crosses the narrow valley floor. A watchtower has crumbled into the sandy alluvium, to expose a cross-section of the wall's insides: massive fine-cut stone foundations, facings of huge grey bricks, and a filling of earth and rubble penetrated by a drainage channel. Around the edges are abundant signs that human erosion has also played a part.. a few bricks here, a few bricks there, windfalls, as it were, for any local man planning to bridge a ditch or extend a pigsty. Peasants have always tended to consider ruins as a resource to be mined, and the stimulus of the Responsibility System has created a stronger demand for building materials. Stern prohibitions against `Eating our Cultural Heritage' issued by the State Council have not fully solved the problem, especially in remote areas.

The increase in rural wealth also created a change in the market for consumer durables, which many peasants were now able to afford. Sales of wristwatches, sewing machines and bicycles would continue to boom, of course, but now more and more peasant villages were wanting to join the twenty percent of Chinese who receive the national television service. Travelling on a train between Beijing and Heilongjiang (Northern Manchuria) one time, I looked out the window into a dark shelter which had been thrown up by a gang of local labourers working on the line. Flickering in the gloom was a small black and white television set, which happened to be showing a satellite news broadcast of European Grand Prix motor racing. I had to wonder what they made of it, but of course never found out.

The television revolution is just beginning to make its mark in the more prosperous rural communities. But manufacturers have found they need to adopt special strategies to overcome an unusual cause of buyer resistance. Its not the quality of the programming that makes Chinese peasants think twice about buying a TV, though the single government-controlled channel available in most areas would not get far in a western ratings game. Market surveys carried out by a TV factory in north China revealed that many families who could well afford to buy TV refrained from doing so out of fear that they would be swamped by neighbours keen to share the viewing. Respect for privacy is low in the scale of proletarian social values.

The factory managers decided that the best way to keep the neighbours away was to give them TV sets of their own. In consultation with local authorities, they began setting up what they call `TV villages', in which the prices of the sets are specially discounted for a bulk sale, and to make sure each family can view free of neighbours pestering. After-sales service, a sad rarity in China, is also thrown in for the TV villages. Hundreds of these TV villages have now been installed, in a good example of the commercial freedoms now revitalising Chinese industry. But while a minority of prosperous families are buying over two million sets per year, the price of a set still represents three or four times the average yearly income for a Chinese peasant.

During 1981, there was a massive movement of rural workers away from collective field labour and into the `rural enterprises' which were being set up at local levels with the encouragement of the new central policy. Over a million such non- farming businesses were set up, employing over thirty million people. The trend continued, and by 1983 there were over a hundred million peasants, or one in every eight, working in jobs other than farming, including a million peasant families employed fulltime on reafforestation projects.

With such rapid development, there were bound to be a few loose ends, and indeed there were plenty. Most rural cadres had been used to a Command Economy, in which their prime responsibility was to carry out instructions from above. The new collective and co-operative industries seemed to be outside of that known command structure. Faced with a reluctance on the part of many cadres to make public resources available to collectives, some of their agents resorted to bribery and corruption of various kinds, which was often an easy matter, given the sudden acceleration in rural cash flow. The central government estimated that over a billion yuan in enterprise taxes was evaded in 1981, due to lack of efficient or experienced tax inspectors. One enterprise manager convicted of corruption in Henan province boasted that he could secure the co-operation of any commune Party Secretary for one thousand yuan, while most problems could be smoothed with ten packets of good cigarettes or two bottles of good grain spirit.

Peasants on the fringes of Shanghai developed a lucrative racket involving grain ration coupons. The state purchase price paid to peasants for grain was in fact higher than the subsidised price at which city consumers bought it - and the monthly ration allowance was higher than many city consumers required. The racket involved selling eggs in the streets, not for money, but for surplus grain ration coupons - about one kilo's value of coupons per egg. The peddlers could then in turn sell their accumulated grain coupons to a grain dealer, at a profit, and he could use them to buy subsidised grain, and resell it to the state purchasing bureau for full price.

Many of the problems, however, did not arise from any criminal intent. In the summer of 1982, a large number of students from universities in Beijing were asked to return to their home villages and report on the implementation of the Responsibility System there. A hundred and fifty-seven reports covered twenty-seven provinces - almost the whole country - and there were some alarming trends to report. Serious damage was being done in many places to local forest resources which had been divided up, as the persons given responsibility sought quick profits with no eye to the future. Land in some areas had been subdivided into uneconomically small units. Most seriously, the infrastructure of roads, irrigation, pumping stations and other common capital works, nominally the responsibility of the Team or Brigade, were being starved of funds and maintenance as everyone concentrated on their own plot of land. Capital construction works for the common good had come to a standstill. Welfare funds were also dangerously running down in many units. There was a serious upsurge in encroachment on arable lands to build housing, as more money encouraged marriages and family expansions.

A little further up the scale, all was not well with the commercial system, either. Beijing had taken the decisions, very costly in national budget terms, to raise the official state purchase prices of rural produce and to suspend a wide range of rural taxation for a period. Both measures were intended to give the battered peasant economy a chance to re-establish itself profitably under the Responsibility System. But soon the State Council had to issue stern reminders that the Responsibility System required people, first, to fulfil state purchasing quotas in essential commodities, before going off on their own more profitable pursuits. Reliable state purchase of grain was absolutely essential to the national plan, but there had been a disturbing decline in the acreage of grain being cultivated, as farmer after farmer chose to plant his assigned fields with more profitable cash crops, like tobacco and rapeseed. One county had a glut of fifty thousand pigs more than the butcheries could handle. In another province, forty different local units decided to set up factories to build washing machines, then a hot market item, but most of their products were unsaleable. After decades of commodity shortages, the peasants had grown used to the idea that the State commercial bureaux were bound to purchase whatever they might produce, but they were no longer producing what the State wanted them to produce.

Loosening of the economic reins inevitably led to a decline in power and prestige of local cadres, with an upsurge, disturbing to the Party, of old customs and practices which the Party had long said were dying out. With their money, peasant families and villages in parts of the country rebuilt old Buddhist and Taoist temples, conducted expensive traditional weddings and funerals, patronised soothsayers and exorcists, and generally behaved as if the Cultural Revolution had never happened. Ancient clan rivalries suppressed, or transmogrified, under Communist Party authority, arose again with displays of wealth sometimes erupting into violence. In Hunan, the very heart of Mao country, two villages populated by the Chen clan held a joint ceremonial dinner. Residents of the nearby Deng family village chose to take offence at not being invited, waylaid the visiting party on its way home and attacked the festive Chens with pitchforks and threshing flails. Hostilities lasted eleven days, until county police could be brought in.

Hunan province, anyway, had been thrown into some ideological confusion by the developments which cast a shadow over the reputation of their favourite son, Chairman Mao Zedong.

Coming from the dusty plains of North China, the lush green landscapes of the province make a tonic for the eyes. Hunan's rich rice-growing river valleys now push higher and higher up into the hills, where, following the steepening contours of the landscape, the paddy terraces become steeper and smaller, eventually disappearing altogether. In the remote southern mountains, my jeep bumps slowly along unsealed roads lined by forests of pine, spruce and native deciduous trees, their strong vertical lines in sharp perpendicular to the horizontal contour lines of the paddy terraces. Here, people live in spacious timber cottages propped up on wooden stilts, much more graceful than the squat mud and brick farmhouses of the lowlands. In tiny villages, I see these timber cottages still daubed with Cultural Revolution slogans five and ten years old. Possibly the slogan paint is the only paint these timber walls will ever bear, but they show that provincial authorities have felt no urgency to erase the slogans of Maoism as they have been so thoroughly erased, by 1981, almost everywhere else in the land. My jeep rolls down from the hills and through county towns where `Long Live the Great Leader Chairman Mao Zedong' still flashes out on electric hoardings over municipal buildings.

I am not surprised to find the greatest loyalty remaining in Mao's own home town, Shaoshan, seventy kilometres from the provincial capital of Changsha. Half the district population are related to the Mao clan, of whom Mao Zedong's father was a comparatively prosperous member - farmer, rice merchant and money-lender. At the high tide of Mao-worship in the late sixties, Shaoshan was receiving up to sixty thousand pilgrims per day, and a special double-track railway line was built to carry them there from Changsha. A museum commemorating Mao's revolutionary relatives, as well as himself, was so popular that it had to be duplicated, in exact detail, to cope with the flow. Exhibits include the actual sword with which a hated local land-lord's head was lopped off by a revolutionary throng. Hotels, restaurants, and souvenir stalls all flourished on the Mao trade. The provincial Party Secretary, none other than Hua Guofeng, pushed through a massive irrigation scheme designed to make the area around Shaoshan a model of agricultural prosperity for all of China. There were plans, apparently approved by Chairman Mao, to upgrade the village school to the status of a university! Then Chairman Mao died.

My guide reports that as cautious, then bolder and bolder criticisms of Mao began to appear, obviously with high Party approval, the number of pilgrims to Shaoshan had plunged dramatically. Visits were no longer bao shiao (chargeable to one's Unit). The museums were closed. It was only with the publication of the Party's revised history, in July 1981, confirming that Mao, for all his faults, was a Great Revolutionary Hero, that a trickle of pilgrims began again - mostly loyal and local Hunanese schoolchildren.

We wander through a replica of Mao's thatched peasant home, built in the fifties, and gaze thoughtfully at the pond where the child Mao had threatened to drown himself, during a fight with his father. I wonder how different China might have been had he carried out his threat.

The museum has re-opened the door of one of its twin parallel exhibitions, but only those rooms dealing with Mao Zedong up until 1950. In Shaoshan, as everywhere in China, the rooms dealing with Mao in power are closed for revision.

A disturbing side-effect of the Responsibility System was a widespread withdrawal of rural children from the primary schools. All family labour was now directly profitable, so many parents simply saw no point in their children wasting good productive hours in school, when, in almost every case, they had absolutely no chance of ever getting a job outside of their home village. An eleven year old girl wrote to the Youth Newspaper:

`In our brigade, the twenty-five girls in the school have one after the other been taken out of school to mind cattle, grow rice, gather firewood and look after brothers and sisters, because our parents regard men as superior to women. My parents are like the rest, and want me to leave school, mind our cows, work in our contract fields, and let my younger brother go to school. When I asked to keep on studying, they said "Sooner or later girls belong to others. A few words of knowledge is all they need to know". I cried, but what is the use of crying. Are our schools only for boys?'

In other areas, hostility to schooling was such that schools closed down altogether. Official media carried a string of reports over a period of months in 1982, detailing how teachers were hounded, beaten and persecuted till they left the village, school buildings were vandalised or taken over for other purposes, and school furnishings taken away by the peasants. Under the system of collective responsibility, most rural schools actually belong to the team or brigade, not to the state, and all expenses of running the school, including teachers salary, must be born by the collective. Peasants thus considered it their right under the Responsibility System to close the schools down, when they failed to see the point of what was being taught in them. In one Hunan county surveyed, two hundred and fifty primary and secondary schools had been thus closed in one year - forty percent of all the schools.

In the summer of 1982, a national conference of rural teachers was called in Beijing to look for solutions to this serious development. Once teachers were consulted, it became very clear that the peasants had good reason to be dissatisfied with the education their children were being offerred. Under the ambitious pressures of local cadres, secondary schools seemed to concentrate almost solely on trying to urge a few favoured students through to higher institutions. One county government had tried to boost its record by arranging for all its candidates for college entrance examination to see the test papers in advance. They were exposed in a great national scandal. By rule of thumb in China, one such scandal given national publicity can be taken to represent dozens more which are never publicized.

Rural secondary education offered little in the way of vocational training for that vast majority of pupils who would live all their lives within twenty-five kilometres of the school door. Pupils whose family obligations required them to take time off for peak season labour in the fields tended to be the ones with the weaker foundation in primary education as well, and to become rapidly disillusioned as they dropped further behind and the teachers concentrated on those few with hopes of higher graduation. A complete reorganisation of the rural curriculum is the only real solution.

China remains unchallenged as the world's largest nation, with its population now officially reckoned by United Nations- sponsored national census to be well over one thousand million. The government has set a target population of twelve hundred million for the year 2000.. a twenty percent increase over today's population, to be achieved by keeping the annual increase to one point two percent per year. At a United Nations conference on population issues in Beijing in 1981, China claimed it had achieved this comparatively low growth figure in 1980 - but since then government officials have admitted to higher figures. Earlier, World Bank officials had estimated from their own researches that a figure closer to two percent seemed likely, considering the still-high birth rates in the rural areas.

Life expectancy has almost doubled in the last thirty years with improvements in basic housing, nutrition and hygiene which have especially reduced infant mortality. As well, the result of an earlier Maoist period of uncontrolled population growth is that a baby-boom of young people are reaching marriageable age at the rate of more than one hundred million per year until 1990, with a resulting likelihood of a second-wave baby boom leading into next century.

Already, despite impressive growth figures in some areas of the economy, China is little better off per capita in the basic areas of grain and housing than it was twenty years ago. Chinese economists say that unless population growth restraint is successful, no improvement in overall living standards can be expected in the foreseeable future. But attempts to achieve birth control by education and propaganda have been least successful in the place that matters most...among the rural peasants. The policies making families responsible for their own productivity and income, combined with the high tide of marriages, have produced a sudden spurt of rural population growth that has prompted tougher measures from the central government.

Official policies were decreed in 1979 to set the single-child family as the norm, backed up with economic rewards such as direct subsidies, preferential entry to schools, and free health care. Second children would not only miss out on the benefits, but would suffer official discrimination on the same matters, in favour of children bearing the only-child certificate. The policy was quite effective in the cities, where only those families determined, for instance, to have a son after a first daughter, would take the deliberate decision to launch a second-class citizen on the world. In rural areas, where state benefits anyway were marginal, the majority of families seem to have taken the view that more children, and particularly more sons, could not possibly be a bad thing in the long run.

Later decrees strengthened the demands on rural officials to enforce birth-control regulations, which, in many cases, they had been reluctant to do because local feeling was so strong. At the same time the levels of economic penalties for the second child were raised, and it was declared an offence against the state to have a third child. Local cadres have the power to enforce the abortion of third pregnancies, or even second pregnancies which have not had prior approval under the few special clauses, such as the first child being handicapped or dying. No pregnancy at all is supposed to be undertaken without a planning approval from the parents' unit, and young couples wanting to have their single quota-child may be expected to wait several years until their turn comes around.

Reliable contraception procedures are a problem everywhere in the Third World, and no less so in China. Contraceptive devices and medications are supposed to be a available freely to all married persons, but this creates a new problem. Particularly with the reintroduction of the profit motive into the retail and manufacturing sector of China, people in rural areas began to complain that the factories could not be bothered making, nor the stores stocking, these contraceptive items which brought them no sales profit. Whether this very serious problem has been resolved or not I do not know. What I do know is that the rate of abortion is enormous, and abortion is legal, even enforced, into the eighth month of pregnancy.

It's difficult not to sympathise with the view of the state planners that population growth control is vital, and cannot be delayed if China is to make any substantial long-term improvement in standards of living. But the One-child Family policy runs against some of the deepest traditions of Chinese peasants. In peasant China, children have traditionally been the only guarantee of support in old age. In the Peoples Republic, the elderly and infirm are supposed to have `Five Guarantees' of support from their unit, but the history of the Peoples Republic's first thirty years has not given the peasants much confidence that promises made today will be honoured in thirty or forty years' time. Governments may change policies at will, but children are always children, bound by filial loyalty beyond politics. In many minds, the Responsibility System re-emphasises this by throwing so much economic security back on the family. All around them, peasant parents see families with less children, less labour power, struggling with the tasks of their fields or having to hire extra help, while the larger families handle their field work with labour to spare for profitable sidelines.

Even those who can be convinced to accept the public necessity to limit families to one child can be extremely reluctant to adhere to the policy if their own child happens to be a girl. According to traditional attitudes, still very deep in the villages, girls leave home at marriage and become part of their husband's family. Parents of single girls may fear deeply that they will be left without family support when their daughter marries. And apart from this very practical concern, the whole thrust of traditional Confucian family values emphasized the necessity of sons to carry forward the family name. Chinese may feel quite obsessively that they have dishonoured their own ancestors if they have not generated a son to continue their line into the future.

Female infanticide has, regrettably, been a traditional feature of Chinese rural life. Historians have noted it as the most reliable form of population control, practised throughout Chinese history at periods of population stress. Now it has surfaced again, under the twin pressures of strict family limitation and the desperate desire of many parents to have a son. In the northern city of Harbin, I was out one morning on a film assignment, filming steam trains from a snowy railway bridge. We noticed a knot of passers-by staring over the parapet, and when we looked, I saw the frozen, naked body of a girl child of perhaps two years, lying on a cotton quilt on a bank of snow under the bridge, where she had apparently been left by parents to die.

According to the official reportage in the Chinese press, female infanticide is most common in two kinds of areas - where life is so hard that an extra female mouth is considered simply a burden, and in prosperous, densely populated areas where the one- child family rules are most strictly enforced. Stories are gruesome and horrible, of buckets of water kept handy in the village delivery-rooms to drown the child if it should be female. In a county of Anhwei province, every female infant born in 1981 died within twenty-four hours, while every male survived. In two counties of Guangdong province, very close to Hong Kong, where strong campaigns are in force to combat China's highest population growth rate, over two hundred female infants were known to have been murdered in one year. On those two examples alone, one could safely calculate that the incidents of female infanticide throughout China would number in the thousands each year.

In the cities, where births take place in supervised conditions, matters are not so crude. The economic advantages of a son are not so pronounced, and people, on the whole, are better educated. None the less, there are many cases reported of persecution, divorce, and even murder of a wife who has failed to produce a son. Medical facts to the contrary, most Chinese insist on blaming the wife for the sex of the child. Among the more sophisticated urban residents determined to have a son, a practice has grown up of seeking a sex-prediction from amniotic fluid analysis, then having the pregnancy aborted if the foetus proves to be female.

The truth appears to be that official attitudes to female infanticide are ambiguous. The national press condemns it strongly, as brutal and reflecting `feudal' social values. But local officials are most likely to condone or turn a blind eye to the practice, if they are not forced to take notice, in some cases by a grieving mother of the dead child. Of the many reported cases I noted in the press, only one (a father who threw his sleeping four year-old daughter down a well and smoked a cigarette as she drowned) received a sentence greater than four years in prison. In a country where embezzlers and rapists are shot, and a man can get fifteen years gaol for expressing anti- Communist sentiments, such penalties for what is clearly premeditated murder cannot be seen as a serious deterrent. Many peasants would consider it a cheap price to pay for a son.

Successful population control will determine the future of China, and individual human lives are not the priority in the planning of the Party. But one local newspaper cheerfully reported on a phenomenally fecund mother of fifty-nine children in Heilongjiang, who had born six sets of triplets, fourteen sets of twins, thirteen single children, and was pregnant again. Few would match that act of policy sabotage, but the chances of meeting the target nationally are very slim. Apart from anything else, most of the peasants have very little entertainment, and go to bed early every night. It has been seriously suggested that China should accelerate its investment in communications satellites so as to bring television as quickly as possible to every remote village. Not only would this offer a medium for birth-control propaganda, but it might also keep the peasants out of bed until they are ready for sleep.

At Spring Festival, peasants customarily replace the printed calendars and mottoes that have decorated their walls and doorposts for the previous year. In Cultural Revolutionary years, these were restricted to tableaux of revolutionary heroics, but traditional themes bounced back quickly after the fall of the Gang of Four. Production is vast - 650 million posters sold each year - and themes combine the traditional folk tales and legends with modern ideology. In 1979, my favourite poster depicted seven classical fairy maidens floating down from the clouds into an idealised landscape of socialist development, replete with regimented fields, tractors, jet fighters, an atomic power station, and with the slogan below: `Better on earth than in heaven'. But by 1983 the bombast was no longer in fashion, and peasants in their millions bought posters bearing the revived traditional icons of prosperity: the silver carp, sheaves of corn, and large, plump, male babies.