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China: why farmers do better than factory workers

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Everywhere one travels in the Chinese countryside, peasants are busy building houses, sometimes with traditional mud and straw, but now increasingly of brick. Country roads are busy with peasants taking squealing pigs, cackling chickens, or leafy vegetables to market -- by bicycle, wheelbarrow, or carrying pole.

China remains poor and backward, as its leaders frequently tell visitors. But the increasing prosperity of its 800 million peasants -- four-fifths of China's population -- is the major achievement of short, peppery Deng Xiaoping and his associates since they came to power nearly five years ago.

Industry, however, is another story. Deng's leadership is engaged in an all-out, concerted effort to raise living standards and modernize the economy. In later years Mao Tse-tung did deviate from the Soviet Stalinist model to emphasize decentralized agriculture and industry. But 30 years of communist rule frequently followed a relatively centralized model of rigid economic planning, often with a strong emphasis on heavy industry at the expense of the consumer. This cannot be changed overnight.

In speech after speech, Premier Zhao Ziyang attacks ''blind production'' -- planners setting targets and factories blindly meeting their production quotas in blithe disregard of whether the goods produced are either needed or useable.

More than 20 million tons of rolled steel are stockpiled in warehouses at present because there is no use for them, Mr. Zhao told a recent conference. (That is three-fourths of China's production of rolled steel last year.) Another economic minister said 18 billion meters of polyester cloth remained in warehouses at the end of last year - 800 million meters more than at the beginning.

''China's waste of energy is shocking,'' Mr. Zhao said to the National People's Congress last year. Mr. Zhao also repeatedly criticizes what is known as ''everyone eating from the same ricepot'' -- that is, no matter whether a person is hard-working or lax, efficient or inefficient, he will always have a job and has no real incentive to do better.


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