Caixin
Sep 04, 2012 03:58 PM

Du Runsheng: Enduring Symbol of Rural Reform

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Du Runsheng, China's "father of rural reform," was too frail to attend a high-level splash for his 99th birthday July 18 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

But some 200 guests from central government agencies, the World Bank and Peking University celebrated in Du's honor, extolling his virtues as a skilled civil servant and reviewing his accomplishments on behalf of the nation's vast population of farmers.

They honored him for a life devoted to rural land issues and agricultural development – issues as relevant today as they were in 1949 when Du's suggestions for land-use reform were embraced by the post-revolution government led by Chairman Mao Zedong.

The partygoers also mulled the wisdom behind Du's words, including what's perhaps his best-known quote: "China's biggest problem is the problems of farmers. And the biggest problem for farmers is the issue of land."

Scholars give Du special credit for shaping national policies for rural China since 1979. These policies are said to have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of farmers and their families.

Du, who now lives at a Beijing health care center, was a military officer and revolutionary leader in the 1930s and '40s. He fought the Japanese and was rewarded for his loyalty with Communist Party positions starting in 1949.

Du's ideas fell out of political favor in the 1950s, but he survived a forced, 20-year career pause during which he was assigned to a quiet bureaucratic job in Beijing that had nothing to do with farm policy.

After 1978, China's economic modernization and reform campaign laid the groundwork for Du's return to influence.

At the party, Peking University National Development Research Institute President Zhou Qiren sang "happy birthday," and official congratulations were received from Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Big names in the crowd included Chen Xiwen, director of the Communist Party's Office of Central Rural Work Leading Group, and Lin Yifu, whose term as a World Bank chief economist and senior vice president ended in June.

Du served as the heart and soul of an agriculture reform team for 30 years, said Chen. "Young people benefited from Du, his career, thinking and methods," he said. "They called themselves 'disciples of Du' in his honor."

Document No. 1

A Shanxi Province native, Du is best known for his pioneering work: five annual white papers on rural development each called Document No. 1 and produced by the National Committee on Agriculture and the CPC Central Committee's Rural Policy Research Office. The first was released in 1982, two years after Du first proposed its core ideas, while he served as the committee's deputy director.

Follow-up papers released every year between 1983 and 1986 bore Du's touch as well, as he presided over the drafting of each Document No. 1 after being promoted to head the Rural Policy Research Office.

The document formally installed a national system for flexible land management based on household contracts, replacing the rigid system rooted in collectives that had been in place since the 1950s.

Through collectives, farmers and rural families were bound by a system of egalitarian distribution that restricted free trade and, critics say, actually prevented farmers from reaching their productive potential.

The household contracting concept stirred controversy among the nation's leaders in the early 1980s. Some said it undermined socialism. Du argued that the collective economy served a purpose, but that reform was necessary.

The document marked "the first time that the restriction on contracting production to households was lifted by central authorities," Du wrote in an article for Chinese Social Sciences Weekly in 2004.

"The document was also important because it respected the choices of the masses," he said. "Different regions have different conditions, and the document gave the masses free choice."

The document guided "China's rural reform as a roadmap to China's rural reform and development," wrote Wang Yuzhao, a former deputy director at the State Council Development Research Center, in a recent review highlighting Du's accomplishments.

Du's experience as a mediator and coordinator lubricated the sensitive research behind and drafting of the document. He arranged discussion forums and invited government leaders as well as scholars with expertise in agriculture issues who could offer advice to the document's central government writers.

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