Chinese Reforms Widen Gap between Coast and Hinterland China's Vast Rural Population, Whose Support Is Vital to Communist Party Leadership, Is Becoming a Powerful Influence for Change. for This Report, Staff Writers Ann Scott Tyson and James L. Tyson Lived in Villagers' Homes, Unescorted by Government Officials, and Explored the Frustrated Ambitions of China's Peasants

Article excerpt

SHAO GUOXING shoulders a bamboo pole with two pails and sets off into the dawn mist across a crumbling stone bridge toward the village well.

In recent years, as Mr. Shao each morning crossed the bridge over the glassy creek, he has regarded the cracked structure as a symbol for China's struggle to bridge the gap between penury and prosperity.

"Everyone uses this bridge and some villagers have plenty of money, but still we let it go to ruin," Shao says, pointing at the mossy span and shaking his head. Neglect of village structures has become more common in recent years, he notes.

"During reform we've only worked for ourselves, not for each other," he says, sweeping a finger toward the mud-and-thatch dwellings around him.

Shao's disgust highlights the failure of the government to carry out full economic reform in the villages of China.

Overall, market-oriented reform has been a boon for the country's ancient effort to feed and clothe itself. Most of China's 860 million rural residents are prospering more than ever before and inducing more progressive change.

Yet as self-reliant farmers cross the bridge to prosperity, many of those Chinese who are more dependent on the rickety socialist economy remain behind. The steep rise in their incomes has sharply leveled off in recent years.

The per capita income of farmers more than tripled in the decade after senior leader Deng Xiaoping disbanded Mao Zedong's communes and condoned family farming.

But farmers' incomes have risen only 2.5 percent since 1989, according to Farmer's Daily, an official newspaper. Consequently, village tax revenues are insufficient to maintain vital public works like the bridge near Shao's home.

Research for this report indicates that farmers are bearing the brunt of a failure in national leadership. The authority and prestige of officials ranging from the central government in Beijing down to the cadres in Shao's village have waned because of corruption and the unpopularity of socialist ideology.

Also, China's leaders are too divided and afraid of unrest to finish the high-stakes task of reform and carry the economy completely from socialism to a market system. Conservative leaders have ruled out the decontrol of agricultural pricing, private land ownership, and other reforms essential to invigorating the economy.

"China needs to ascend to a new level in rural reform," says Du Ying, the head of experiments in economic reform at the Ministry of Agriculture.

The political uncertainty and hesitant leadership have provoked concern about a possible return to collective tilling. Farmers refuse to invest in the common good, favoring their own short-term interests instead. Vital public projects like roads, irrigation systems, and the bridge in Shao's village have deteriorated.

The costs of such fractious leadership have grown especially conspicuous in recent years. The problems have underscored how leaders have wasted opportunities to end persistent poverty.

Arable land and per capita grain production are shrinking; the population and the potentially explosive army of idle farmhands are growing.

Also, the disparity in incomes is widening. In Shao's village and thousands of others nationwide, many farmers cannot get along on what they grow because state-set prices for agricultural products are too low to cover the rising costs of farming. …