Huaqiao Town, Guang’an County, Sichuan Province
Distance from Shanghai – 2,090 km
It was both exhausting and exhilarating to walk through Sichuan’s fields and villages this summer. It was either stinking hot, or very wet. One day, the sky wanted to rain so badly, the stifling tenseness of it unfortunately threw up images in my mind of the heavens being constipated, so it was good that the weather remained simply dry and oppressive.
I passed rich fields with little farmhouses set off the road and surrounded by mature trees. The edges of many of the rice terraces were also lined with trees which looked older than a few years, and I felt glad at these signs of settled continuity.
Eventually I walked out of Qu-xian county and crossed the border into Guang’an county, which is a quiet corner of the country best known as the birthplace of the late Deng Xiaoping. It is Deng’s image that should appear on mainland banknotes in honor of the fact that it was he who created the opportunity for so many of them to enter circulation by saving China from the morass of centralized isolationist socialism – the Soviet economic model – and a North Korean-like future.
It was the China I first saw when I came here in 1978, before the Third Plenum of the 11th Party Congress at which Deng rose once again to power. No private enterprises allowed; all agriculture organized into collective communes; and all affairs of all citizens the responsibility of the state. It was unsustainable.
Deng re-established relations with the outside world and allowed Hong Kong money to invest in Shenzhen, kick-starting the export industry boom that has contributed so much to the growth of the past 30 years. He abolished the rural communes, which had damaged agricultural productivity by denying farmers direct control of their own fields, and started to give Chinese people more control over their own lives. His bottom line was the retention of the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power, and control of the "whales" of the Chinese economy – all the big parts.
What China is today – the positive elements – is more the legacy of Deng than anyone else, which makes it strange that his public image is so muted. The reason, of course, is that Mao Zedong is more useful as a political symbol, and all the other leaders have been pushed into the shadows to simplify the story.
I was thinking some of these thoughts as I walked west through the first few kilometers of Guang’an county. I came upon a building with a sign on its wall saying "mediation forum." There was a young woman sitting outside and I asked her what the sign meant.
"This is where local people come to resolve disputes," she said. "But it is not used much for that purpose any more. There aren’t many disputes. But it is still the main meeting place for people from around here."
Today, there was no one present apart from her and a few chickens.
"That’s because today is a 3-6-9 day," she explained. "A lot of people have gone into town."
I asked what this meant, and it emerged that there is a practice in this part of Sichuan whereby the farmers are allowed to go into the little towns to sell their produce and wares on dates that end with a three, six or nine. I liked the idea a lot because it had absolutely nothing to do with the transplanted European week cycle. Today was the 13th, so the closest town, Huaqiao (Flower Bridge) was indeed a seething mass of farmer hawkers.
The big news from this part of the middle of Sichuan was that just about all highways and smaller roads seemed to be undergoing reconstruction and re-paving. As a result, long stretches of Highway 318 that I walked along were a mess with lines of vehicles waiting to pass through single-file sections of the road. It is part of the national stimulus package, the "Protect 8" policy of last year, and in terms of the roads, I would say much of the work is unnecessary. Highway 318 in this part of the country was already fine.
Anyway this particular stretch of highway between Quxian and Nanchong will be linked in a couple of years or so by a completely separate and parallel expressway. So why do it? To spend money through channels that benefit the Party as directly as possible. With the economy expanding 11.1% in the first half of the year, one could argue that it is not longer necessary. But the fact they do it gave me a sense, in Sichuan, of the pressure the guys in Beijing are under to maintain rapid growth.
I came to a road block set up at the start of one of the sections of the highway under reconstruction and spent a while talking to the men minding the red-and-white bamboo pole that spanned the road. They let me control the bamboo barrier for a while, allowing vehicles through or not. The power, the power. Then I walked on into the construction site where heavy machines were laying a strip of macadamized road surface. I walked along the fresh tar surface and the heat radiated up into my face and through the soles of my boots. As always I was impressed by the efficiency of the crew. Everything – the machines and the people – moved in perfect tandem at something more than a snail’s pace, but not by much.
Then the rain came, accompanied by sustained bursts of thunder, which gave rise to images of the immortals playing ten-pin bowling in the clouds. I was soon soggy and then drenched as a truck slammed into a puddle beside me, covering me in muddy water. It was all part of the adventure. Besides, the gray looked great on my khaki shirt.
The delightful countryside and the company along the way made up for it. The wide rice paddies were at their greenest, and some rice seeds were already starting to show themselves over the green waves.
This was mid-July, and the harvest will be at the end of August. I haven’t seen a rice harvest since 2006 in Hubei, because there is almost no rice grown in the mountains of the Yangtze gorges, so I will be reporting back to on what transpires in future travels notes. But the cautious farming authorities I consulted pronounced this year’s harvest to be pretty good. Time to offload some rice futures contracts. Also growing well was the corn, largely unaffected it seemed by the heavy rains of recent weeks that had caused so many deaths.
I walked into Huaqiao town and immediately fell into conversation with a man of about 60 who walked with me along the main street. His name, like that of so many people in this area, was Zhou. I asked him how Huaqiao was doing.
"It’s a mess," he said. "And getting worse. Just look at the road!"
The main street of Huaqiao was indeed a disgrace. It was half dug up, but it had been like that for two months already. While the official word was that construction would be completed by October, nobody I spoke to believed it.
"But there’s more money now than in the past, right?"
"Yes, more money. But everything is more expensive. Vegetables here are more expensive than in Chengdu!"
I asked him where he had traveled in his life.
"I have been in Sichuan my entire life. Except for once in the 1980s when I went to Beijing to pursue a law case. One of my relatives was killed by police during the Cultural Revolution."
"Did you win or lose?"
He led me to a small pharmacy where the shop assistant was a friend of one of his children. The assistant was sitting folding up pieces of cardboard cut from cigarette packets into little flowers used in decorations. I joined her and did a few dozen as I talked to them. A number of people came in off the street to talk to me. One was an older scrawny man who wanted to know where I came from.
"This is where Deng Xiaoping was born," he said.
"What do you think of him?" I asked.
"Good. But the Cultural Revolution was bad. I was from a landlord family."
"I would also have not done well," I replied. "I have a bad family background too. Foreign connections. And I am a rightist."
"England is rich," he said, politely avoiding any mention of the World Cup.
"China is developing fast," I replied.
Back out in the country, the rain became even heavier, and that combined with the heat meant that I could hardly take photographs because the humidity had fogged up the lens and viewfinder, and the autofocus could grab nothing through the blur. I passed the Huaqiao reservoir, filled to the brim, as were all the rivers and streams I saw, and stopped for a drink of water at the smallest and poorest roadside shop I would remember seeing. The old couple who lived in the hut and tended the store, although younger than me, said they made a few hundred renminbi a month selling water to the drivers passing by. They were welcoming and polite. An English cyclist had stopped here once a few years ago. "Do you English people all like to travel?" asked the lady.
A few minutes further along the road, a young man driving a truck stopped beside me and was most insistent that I get in beside him. "You’re soaked," he pointed out. "And filthy." I declined with thanks, and 15 minutes later he returned and handed me a bag containing water, peanuts and biscuits. How could I refuse?