Agriculture is one of the bright spots in the Chinese economy this spring. Despite drought in the north and floods in the south, last year's grain harvest was the second largest in history. The government's economic readjustment policies would be facing far greater difficulties than at present were it not for last year's excellent agricultural results and the prospect of a better harvest this year.
Final figures for 1980 are not available till April. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates only that the harvest was 10 to 15 million tons below the record 332 million-ton harvest of 1979, and 5 to 10 million tons more than the 305 million tons in 1978. Western analysts belive that the final figures will certainly be beyond 315 million tons, perhaps not quite as high as 317 million tons.
In contrast to the exaggerated claims made during the Cultural Revolution ( 1966-76) and the accompanying rule of the "gang of four" (headed by Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang Qing), Chinese agricultural statistics, the publication of which was resumed in 1978, tend to err on the conservative side.
Western analysts credit the post-Cultural Revolution government's restoration of incentives and priority given to agriculture as the main reasons for three successive years of good to excellent harvests.
First, the government raised its own agricultural purchase prices by 20 to 25 percent. This meant a corresponding increase in the incomes of agricultural commune members.
Second, quotas for deliveries of grain and cotton to government purchasing agencies were set at realistic levels. Communes exceeding this level could sell their surplus at a price 50 percent higher on the free market.
Third, restriction on peasants' private plots and on sale of produce from these plots were also lifted. As a result agricultural production zoomed.
Fourth, on the technical side, fertilizer deliveries to farmers were increased, to such an extent that Western analysts now believe that farmers have adequate supplies of nitrogen fertilizer. What remains to be done, they say, is to work for a better all-around balance of chemical fertilizer, including phosphates.
Fifth, instead of the Maoist emphasis on "grain as the key link," farmers were encouraged to plant what best fitted local conditions. Cotton, tobacco, peanuts, potatoes, corn, fruit trees -- there was no doctrinaire assertion that a particular locality had to plant a particular crop.
Sixth, the production team of some 20 to 30 families was made the basic accounting unit in most communies -- not the commune itself, which with 30,000 or more members is more an administrative unit than one to plan farming in detail. In some areas the intermediate production brigade remains the basic accounting unit. This meant that in matters such as assigning specific production tasks, or on figuring out the complicated system of remuneration known as work points, the individual farmer could argue things out with his immediate neighbors, not with a distant bureaucracy.
The outlook for 1981 is good. Anyone on the roads in rural China will notice the number of squealing pigs being carted or cycled to market, or the bicycle loads of quilt chests and wardrobes that accompany a bride on the way to her new home.
Progress is not even, however. Sometimes, in the same district, a commune rich enough to pay its members one yuan or more per day may coexist with another that can afford to pay only a quarter of this amount. Where man-made polices account for these discrepancies, they can be changed. But if some land is hilly , while other land is in a valley, if transportation favors one village and passes by another, there is not much the farmers themselves can do to even out the differences.
And, in a way, the easy things that can be done to improve agriculture have been done. Incentive payments cannot rise further without regard for side effects on the economy as a whole, now that inflation is the prime concern. More fertilizer, improved seeds, more pesticides --there is some room for improvement in all these areas, but startling further increases in yield are unlikely. Mechanization will continue in wheat-growing north China, but small farm tools characterize the economy of the rice-growing south.
In the heady days immediately after the downfall of the gang of four, China's leaders set agriculture a goal of 400 million tons of grain in 1985. that goal is still achievable, Western analysts say, but unlikely. Harvests can be expected to grow, but not at the spectacular rate of the past three years.