One of Sichuan province's 61 million farmers is Zhang Hongshen, who owns a few acres in a small town 60 kilometers north of Chengdu.
After 2005, when the price of radishes boomed, he expanded his production to 75% of his land and left the rest for tomatoes and cabbage. But in the winter of 2006 prices plummeted.
"I was so happy to see a bigger harvest. But the price was a shock – US$0.03 per jin [half a kilo]," Zhang said.
Selling his entire harvest would have netted him US$65 while the cost of seeds, fertilizer and pesticide was about US$40 for each one of the three mu (666 square meters) he planted, far less than the US$260 he got the year before. So Zhang left the radishes to rot. The same thing happened across the entire province.
The situation mystified the village duizhang, or cadre, at Zhang's village whose job, once upon a time, was determining what to plant.
"My village sells crops to neighboring provinces and most of the time prices are rising. Our life is better, even if I am often left idle," Zhang said.
When the price of radishes dropped, though, he busied himself with trying to figure out how to help his village recover from the shock.
"I had only [known] of this kind of thing, like pouring milk into sewers during the Great Depression, from my high school textbook. I was taught it only happens in a capitalist business cycle. Was the textbook wrong? Or are we getting into a similar cycle?"
However, technology may provide a solution to these problems.
China Unicom, the country's second -largest mobile services provider, runs the Tianfu (Sichuan) Agricultural Information Network, which collects trading data on agricultural products and then publishes it online or transmits it through a combination of pagers, mobile phones and landlines. Farmers can subscribe for less than US$1 per month and get charged about US$0.25 per message. The program has worked well enough that the Ministry of Information Industry and the Ministry of Agriculture have decided to expand it across the country.
Beyond helping farmers determine what to plant and where to sell their crops, the program creates opportunities for hardware manufacturers who can provide inexpensive but sturdy computers that are easy enough for farmers to use.
In 2004, Lenovo rolled out a computer based on an AMD chip that retailed for US$389. HP, Dell and domestic manufacturers like TCL followed. The cheapest model is US$259.
In February, a Sichuan startup named Sinomanic upped the ante with four prototypes of cheap laptop and desktop computers. One of them is a US$130 machine that comes with an MIPS CPU, 128 megabytes of RAM, and a one-gigabyte flash drive, but no monitor. It runs on a system called FutureAlpha, developed by Sinomanic. Embedded in the operating system are programs tailored for the needs of the Tianfu Agricultural Information Network.
Some industry watchers have, however, been less than enthusiastic. Luo Huixiang, a columnist at the Chinese technology website E-net noted that the relatively better off farmers in eastern China might not buy the very cheap computers while the poorer farmers in the west cannot afford them.
Most of these cheap machines have, so far, created more hype than sales. The one exception is a model Haier launched in October 2005 with chip-maker Intel. The computer, nicknamed Jiajiale or "joy in every family," was widely seen as the first real rural PC.
Jiajiale is dust-proof and can tolerate different voltages. A single cable pokes out of the back and, when it is turned on, an icon directs users to the agricultural information network. Educational software and a karaoke player are also included.
The machine costs around US$400. In April 2006, Haier signed a deal with a local government in Henan province to supply 100,000 Jiajiale.
Haier says more than 96% of farmers surveyed would buy a computer for their children, but they don't like cheap ones, while buyers of the early models complained poor user experiences.
Still, neither Haier nor China Unicom is making much money from rural buyers although both are hoping that a lucrative future lies ahead.
"Many people in the countryside still know nothing about what a computer can do; we need to educate the consumers and nurture the market," said one sales manager from Haier.
China's 11th Five-Year Plan maps out a path for businesses into the countryside and includes a US$390 billion budget for rural infrastructure. Rural China could represent an enormous untapped market, and one in which price may matter less than solutions that can keep more radishes from rotting on the fields.
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