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