How a village defied collectivism and pioneered China’s road to economic reform
“Come when the sun goes behind the mountain; don’t come all at once, and don’t tell your family,” Yan Hongchang of Xiaogang village, Anhui province, thus summoned his fellow villagers discreetly one day for a fateful summit at his home in December 1978.
Yan, a farmer, had called representatives of the 18 households in the village to an urgent meeting to discuss how they could stave off famine amid the prospect of yet another poor harvest. In Yan’s dimly lit home that night, they debated a plan that would, if implemented, essentially repudiate the collectivized agricultural system that had been state policy since the Communist Party’s land reforms of the 1950s—a potentially deadly move under the shadow of the recently concluded Cultural Revolution, during which those deemed insufficiently “revolutionary” faced humiliation, imprisonment, or worse.
The decision the Xiaogang farmers reached that night would have repercussions far beyond their own small township. It would eventually prove a catalyst for the reform movement that would drive China’s post-Mao economy, and earn Xiaogang the title of “China’s Number One Reform Village.” Instead of giving everything they produced to their commune (which then gave a portion to the state and divided the rest equally among the peasants), the farmers proposed dividing the land between households, each of which would farm a plot themselves. The households still had to fill government quotas, but were allowed to keep any surplus for themselves, and even sell it on the market if they wished.
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The Xiaogang Experiment is a story from our issue, “High Steaks.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.