China is the fastest growing large economy in history. One man’s decision did this: Deng Xioping’s decision to free up agriculture in 1978.
But how did he know this would work? Because there was a test case — a kind of social laboratory.
The farmers in a small village decided to secretly abandon Communism and adopt the free market. That decision could have led to their execution as “capitalist roaders.” Under Mao, it probably would have. They did it anyway.
“Back then, even one straw belonged to the group,” says Yen Jingchang, who was a farmer in Xiaogang in 1978. “No one owned anything.”
At one meeting with communist party officials, a farmer asked: “What about the teeth in my head? Do I own those?” Answer: No. Your teeth belong to the collective.
There was no incentive to work hard. The village was always bordering on starvation. It was like Plymouth Colony in 1621. The solution was the same in all both cases: the free market.
So, in the winter of 1978, after another terrible harvest, they came up with an idea: Rather than farm as a collective, each family would get to farm its own plot of land. If a family grew a lot of food, that family could keep some of the harvest.
They made a written agreement.
The farmers agreed to divide up the land among the families. Each family agreed to turn over some of what they grew to the government, and to the collective. And, crucially, the farmers agreed that families that grew enough food would get to keep some for themselves.
The contract also recognized the risks the farmers were taking. If any of the farmers were sent to prison or executed, it said, the others in the group would care for their children until age 18.
This was serious business!
Before the contract, the farmers would drag themselves out into the field only when the village whistle blew, marking the start of the work day. After the contract, the families went out before dawn.
“We all secretly competed,” says Yen Jingchang. “Everyone wanted to produce more than the next person.”
The results were so spectacular that word got out. They grew so much food that they could not conceal their secret from other villages. The crop was five times greater. The Communist Party found out.
At one point, Yen Hongchang was hauled in to the local Communist Party office. The officials swore at him, treated him like he was on death row.
But fortunately for Mr. Yen and the other farmers, at this moment in history, there were powerful people in the Communist Party who wanted to change China’s economy. Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who would go on to create China’s modern economy, was just coming to power.
So instead of executing the Xiaogang farmers, the Chinese leaders ultimately decided to hold them up as a model.
These villagers changed our world for good. Their story deserves to be told.
The sad part is what has happened to the village. Read the full story by clicking the link.