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No. 9 Courtyard in Beijing and China’s Rural Development


By Zhao Shukai

The other day, I went by the gate of No. 9 Courtyard in Beijing (The author once worked in No. 9 Courtyard in Beijing- note added by the translator). I couldn’t help gazing at the heavy and elegant gate and the marble doorplate, which read “Mansion of Prince Li of Qing Dynasty”. The guards stood by the gate with guns. I was not sure how many guards hadserved there, but the place still looked so intimateto me. Compared with the first time I entered the courtyard, twenty years had past. However, everything seemed unchanged. Actually, I was clear that this courtyard was not the same one as that of twenty years ago from where a good number of policies on China’s rural reform were issued. At that time, everything in this courtyard seemed to be related to China’s rural reform. Nevertheless, that part of history is fading away from the memory of many rural researchers.

I drove away from the once familiar courtyard andan indescribable feeling of sadness welled up in my heart. That reminded me of an ancient verse written by a poet of the Song Dynasty, which roughly said that the stories about the rise and fall of the feudal six dynasties had become topics among fishermen and woodmen to chat about those bygone days. My former colleagues occasionally talked with me about what had happened in this courtyard. What’s different is that we are not fishermen or woodmen.

In the early 1980s, it was a hot summer day when I went into the courtyard for the first time. I remembered that it took me quite some time to find this place. On the certificate of graduates assignment was just written the name of the unit, but without the specific address of the place.I found about that fact only one day before my registration,People told me that since it was adepartment under the Secretariat of CPC (Communist Party of China), this place should be in Zhongnanhai. So that morning, I went straight to Zhongnanhai. At the western gate, the guard told me that my working place was not here, but in Western Huangchenggen, just one block away. According to his instruction, I walked for about fifteen minutesand finally reached the No. 9 Courtyard.My first job was a clerk in the secretary office and I worked there for more than ten years.

This was a grand and simple courtyard, which used to bePrince Li’ mansion in the Qing Dynasty. It is said that in the Ming Dynasty it was also used as a mansion. During the late Ming Dynasty Li Zicheng led a peasant uprising army to Beijing.He lived in this courtyard for three days and then moved to the Forbidden City. There were about six or seven yards of different sizes in this courtyard.It was divided into two parts, the northern part and the southern part. The northern part had three big yards which were used respectively by three former state leaders as living quarters, including the formertop Party and State leader. The southern part had three small yards, one was used as the office of leading members of the Department of Rural Policy Research under the Central Secretariat , the other two were used as staff office for research work.

At that time,“the all-round contract responsibilitysystem” was sweeping across the country, and meanwhile rural reforms were in full swing. In those days,the Department of Rural Policy Research in this courtyard held a number of meetings, and listened to reports about field surveys in rural areas.It could be felt that here was actually the “general headquarter of China’s reform of rural areas”. Although the overarching plan was made by the top leaders, the drafting of documents about rural reform and policy options were made here in this courtyard through discussions and deliberations.

At that time, the Department of Rural Policy Research under the Central Secretariat was the exclusive one on research of rural reform in the Party Central Committee and the State Council. The work of the secretary office was mostly to transmit information, arrange meetings, take meeting notes, and receive telephone calls, including instructions given by leaders of the Party Central Committee and the State Council. Relevant ministers in charge of agricultural and rural affairs and some provincial governors and mayors often came here to give verbal reportsor participate in related discussions. In the office, several old typewriters clattered all the day andtwo female typists were responsible for printing and binding of various types of documents, which made them nearly tired out. During the summer in 1983, the main office work was to prepare a document on rural reform. This document was made into the “No.1 Central Document”, and became one of the five central documents on rural reform in the same year.

In my view, each document was formed through a series of researches and a number of panel discussions. The field surveys, researches and meetings were mainly organized or held here in No. 9 Courtyard. Before sending these draft documents to CPC Political Bureaufor review and final approval, relevant meetings would be sponsored by the Department of Rural Policy Researchand the meetings were attended by related ministers of the State Council and responsible members of various provinces. These meetings were originally known respectively as “National Agricultural Conference”, “National Rural Work Conference”, and “Central Rural Work Conference”. These conferences were held in different hotels in Beijing and Tianjin.These conferences would last a long time, and some even took about ten days or half a month. The forms of many conferences were group discussions. Nearly all the staff of the secretary office participated in these conference. They were responsible for making phone calls, sending out notices, and taking notes, etc. The job was tiring and we often stayed up very late. When I felt extremely tired, I would complain a little bit. And I remembered that a senior colleague of mine told me that serving the people was something practical. In fact, I really learned a lot from attending these conferences. For me, attending conferences was quite comfortable because hotels had bed and bread and I liked the life in different hotels.

In my mind, it was a very successful conference during the discussion of the second “No.1 Central Document”. It took almost twenty days and the meeting place was moved from Beijing to Tianjin. People were very active and enthusiastic in the discussion. However, because “the ice of policy” had been broken, the atmosphere of this conference was not like that of conference on household contracted responsibility system about which there was a sharp divergence of views. The problems discussed in the conference were all about urgent problems in the initial stage of reform in rural areas. The issues discussed were that land had been contracted to the households and agricultural production had been organized based on a family unit. But there were still some questions that needed to be answered like whether it was allowed for individual farmers to purchase large agricultural machinery and equipment such as tractors; whether farmers could do transportation business during their spare time; whether hiring employees was allowed by relevant policy. These are no longer problems nowadays, but they were policy-related issues at that time. Under the former system, the lower-level governments could not bring their initiatives into play if there were no instructions issued by the central government. For example, if there were no policy permissions by the central government for farmers to buy tractors, it was impossible for them to do so. Even if farmers wanted to buy tractors, the state-run factories were forbidden to sell tractors to them. A number of conferences held in the No. 9 Courtyard and the topics for researchers to make field surveys were focused on the issues mentioned above. When it came to controversial policy problems, people would wait for leaders of the Central Government to give written or verbal instructions. For example, those farmers engaged in transportation business were called unscrupulous merchants because they sold goods at inflated prices.However, the then top Party leader held that what the farmers had done was helpful for solving the rural circulation problems. These orders issued by the top leaders were always the important basis of policy documents. After the second “No.1 Central Document” was released, the Central Government issued another three “No.1 Central Document”. These documents gave a timely response to the newly-emerged problems in rural life, effectively broke the yoke of the old system on farmers and formulated the basic structure of the market economy in rural areas.

The influence of the No. 9Courtyard on China’s rural development was beyond its policy research. At that time, the No. 9Courtyard integrated and organized universities and research institutes across the country for rural and agricultural research. In those years, a large number of scholars from Beijing and other parts of China often came and had discussions with researchers at this courtyard. The Department of Rural Policy Research under the Central Secretariat in this courtyard had another name called the Research Center for China’s Rural Development. Two years later, it was renamed as the Research Center for Rural Development under the State Council. The central government appropriated a large sum of moneyfor research projects on social affairs. In addition, this center also carried out many international exchange programs. At that time, some scholars from the Western countries were invited to China by this center and conducted cooperative research with Chinese peers and their views on China’s issues were solicited for reference in our work. Some foreign scholars had the chance of meeting with leaders of the State Council through our arrangement. The No. 9 Courtyard played a key role in the research of China’s rural development at that time.

In the last year of 1980s, the Research Center for Rural Development under the State Council in No. 9Courtyard was revoked, and this happened after the political turmoil at the end of spring and the beginning of summer in Beijing. From my observation, before the revocation of the center, its influence had already become weakened and some signs had indicated that. It so happened that when the fifth “No.1 Central Document” was issued, China witnessed a sharp fall of grain yield in the middle of 1980s. Some people including some senior government leaders began to have doubts about our policy optionsand even made fierce criticisms. Our research work on rural reform fell into a deadlock, not knowing what to do next. When we talked about our futureresearch plan on reform, we felt it was unclear about the focus of reform and policy instructions were a little blurred. After the introduction of the fifth “No.1 Central Document”, the government issued the No.5 document in 1987. The grain yield was still low and farmers’ income also grew slowly. The influence of our research center was no longer that powerful. After one year of revocation of our center, about two hundred staff members of this center were assigned to five different departments in summer that year. For most of the time in 1990s, some of my former colleagues who were assigned to other departments still worked in this courtyard, including some of my colleagues and me. But gone were the days when the influence of No. 9Courtyard was so prevalent in China. In autumn 1998, our research center moved to a new officebuilding, and we left the No. 9 Courtyard. Today, I past by this courtyard only as a passenger.

Many people know that the No. 9 Courtyard once boasted an important policy think tank,which became famous for its policy options and many of which had been written into five No. 1 Documents of the central government. Nowadays, there are many think tanks in China, but we do not know what forcecouldenable them to create the similar glory that the No. 9 Courtyard once enjoyed. When shifting my mind from the No. 9 Courtyard to the vast rural China and look at the development and changes over the past two decades, I could hardly find the impacts that those “central documents” had made on China. In the grassroots governments, when an official makes a speech, he would repeat what his senior leaders have said. When you listen to the talk of a village Party secretary, it seems as if he was reading an editorial of the People’s Daily.Their speeches are just empty talks without any practical effects.When drafting some policy documents, no matter what the senior leaders have written, the subordinated leaders will just copy. The policy documents are transmitted among different administrative governments at various levels. After the documents are sent out, many officials would think that they have fulfilled their tasks.Many stipulations and requirements are emphasized in different documents year after year, but the problems remain the same or become even worse. For the documentsthemselves, they are well organized with quite high conceptions, deep train of thoughts and quite clear directions. However, the problem is that these documents cannot work actually. An important reason why documents in the past could function is that they were implemented through a unified and integrated system and the instructions made by the central government could thus be truly carried out. Nowadays, the system is no longer unified or integrated. Beyond the government system, various kinds of stakeholders are voicing their claims for rights; within the government system, departments at different levels are expressing their demands in different means of expression. Although no one has showed open disrespect for the system’s authority, they have different thoughts and actions reflected in their performance. The changed system can be called “fragmented authoritative system” based on the observation of American politician Orson Berg.Reform has become a kind of “tussle”, not only among various social groups, but also among the various government institutions. Like a chess game, there used to be a power to make an overall command. Now, although this power is still there in form, in many cases, the power that used to enjoy an overall command has actually become one of thecompeting powers. Even if the commanding orders are still given, however, the operation logic has changed. It has become a game of chess. When issuing official documents, many departments in many localities do not have the mind of carrying out these documents at all, sometimes they even take opposite actions against these documents. The formulation of these documents probably reflected the ideas of the top leaders. However, when carrying out these documents, different people have different ideas. When I was making a field survey in the rural areas, one township Party secretary told me: “At present, the senior instructions are no longer important to us unless they could bring us money. If senior documents could not increase rural income, no matter what kind of new spirit it is, it is in vain.” Reform process has proved that the real motivation for creating glory is generated by farmers. It is farmers that raise problems and create developments and the top leaders would just follow the historical trend. In my opinion and in light of the current situation, the major way to solve the issues relating to agriculture, rural areas and farmers lies in how to make farmers become a strong power to lead the reform and how to promote policy implementation through giving farmers’ more rightsand improving rural governance.

No. 9 Courtyard’s history has become something of the past, but what has happened there often come to my mind. I remember a poet in Song Dynasty once said that all stories of the six dynasties had gone with the wind whereas the landscape remained unchanged. I am not sure what the poet really meant, but under the background of China’s rural reform, his poem could be interpreted differently. The rise and fall of the higher authorities, no matter how glorious it has been, cannot stop people to move forward. In Chinese rural areas, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are making everyendeavour to push the wheel of history toward a brighter future.


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