"You can't imagine how life has improved hereabouts since the smashing of the 'gang of four,'" said the grizzled veteran of the Long March. "See those goats grazing on the riverbank? See that black pig those two men are carrying? You couldn't raise your own goat in the days of the 'gang of four' without being called a tail of the capitalist dog. You couldn't raise your own pig, or your own chicken, or your own vegetables without being cursed as a capitalist tail.
"(Prime Minister) Zhao Ziyang changed all that. He said that socialism doesn't mean we all have to eat from the same big rice pot. There's nothing wrong with those who work harder being paid more, he said. You can see with your own eyes the results all around you."
The veteran and his friends, retired soldiers on holiday, were on the front deck of a riverboat cruising down the Yangtze from Chungking to Yichang through the spectacular Sanxia, the three gorges. Steep cliffs, sometimes of solid gray , sometimes streaked with yellow or blue, towered ahead and on both sides, each jutting line recalling a Sung landscape.
Here and there, the cliffs gave way to terraced hills, in the folds of which snuggled the occasional village and its carefully cultivated fields -- cabbages, and turnip greens, and withered cornstalks waiting to be cut down.
Life along the river may be richer since Zhao Ziyang's reforms, but the hill peasant's daily round is still arduous and backbreaking. Each pig, or sewing machine, or stack of firewood unloaded from the boat must be carried on human shoulders up the slippery river bank and on to mud-walled, tile-roofed houses far above.
A square-sailed sampan comes up the river, propelled against the current by the strong wind that whistles through the gorges. Farther upstream, when the wind dies down, its crew will have to jump and pull the boat from the bank by rope, as their ancestors have done for thousand of years.
And yet, today, this is a land of smiles. Peasants are not afraid of hard work. What they did resent, during the 10 years of the so- CALLED Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when the "gang of four" headed by Mao Tse-tung's wife Jiang Qing was in power, was that no one was properly rewarded.
Eatinf from the same big rice pot meant that whether one worked hard or little, the pay was exactly the same. Therefore, why bother?
Zhao Ziyang is the man who changed all that, at least here in Sichuan, a province of 97 million. ("We are the seventh largest nation of earth," sichuanese sometimes say with a combination of pride and concern over their intractable population problem.)
When Mr. Zhao (now premier of the whole country) came to Sichuan as governor and first secretary of the Communist Party in 1975, peasants had been so starved of incentive to produce that the province. Once the granary of central China, was forced to import 600,000 tons of grain the following year to stave off starvation.
In October 1976, a month after Chairman Mao's death, the "gang of four" was purged, and Mr. Zhao, a protege of Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, really came into his own. Don't have a single-track mind, he said. Get down the realities. Socialism meant two things: public ownership of the principal means of production, and the dictum, "To each according to his work."
With this general framework, "Each and every production team and enterprise should adopt every possible means to increase production and profits."
In three years, the countryside was transformed. The grain yield in 1976 was 25 million metric tons. Last year it had increased to 32 million tons -- "an unprecedented growth rate, although from a very low level," said the agricultural editor of the local newspaper, Sichuan Ribao.
I n a 10-day stay in Sichuan, this corresspondent came across these examples of villages that had taken Mr. Zhao at his word and were furiously intent on increasing profits: Outside Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan, one village that mainly grows grain now derives 30 percent of its income from shoemaking, wood-processing, house-building, watch-repairing, and other nonagricultural activities.
A vegetable-growing production team (hamlet) in the suburbs of Chungking already gets nearly half its annual income from nonagricultural activities -- including hiring out labor to industrial enterprises, renting fields to factories, and collecting pollution compensation from a watch factory that reduced the catch from some of the team's fishponds.
Free markets flourish, offering vegetableS, pork, and nearly anything else you can imagine. Fat pigs trussed to bicycles of carts on their way to market are a common sight on the roads leading to Chengdu.