COLUMN ONE : On China's Hungry Plateaus : Rural peasants survive by relying on ingenuity and superstition. Now, to relieve grinding poverty, Beijing plans the largest relocation project since the Communist revolution.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The village children, some with the telltale reddish-brown hair of malnutrition, crowded outside the door of Ma Minglian's cave as she told of her troubles. "The winter wheat died this spring, so then we planted yellow millet," she said. "I'm worried that we may not harvest anything. We have to wait and see how this crop grows."

Ma and her family, like generations of their ancestors, make their homes in caves dug into the walls of yellow-earth gullies that scar the arid plateau of north-central China. For them, life is a constant struggle.

The Communist Red Army first marched through here in 1936 on its way to set up a revolutionary base in Yanan, where Chairman Mao Tse-tung himself lived for many years in a traditional cave home. But 42 years after the Communists came to power in Beijing, life has changed little for those who remain in Wudaoling.

They still are tied to the parched land and whatever they can eke from it. And sometimes the rains never come.

The dire threat of hunger is never far out of mind for the Mas and the 7 million peasants living in the 70,000-square-mile area that includes the southern part of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and adjacent parts of Gansu province.

In this rural region, the annual cash income averages $75 a person, enough to live on if one also grows grain. Still, 1 million people here are so poor that they rely on government relief grain.

It is clearly a daunting task to attack the endemic poverty that plagues many of the remote villages of China's interior provinces and border regions, where, the official New China News Agency reported last year, 40 million people still live in families whose average annual per capita income is less than $43.

To try to ensure that the rural impoverished are fed, clothed and receiving the basic necessities, for example, the Chinese government, by the end of the century, plans to move 900,000 people from their ancestral villages to reclaimed wastelands, newly irrigated by Yellow River water. This is China's largest relocation project since the 1949 Communist revolution. It already has moved more than 320,000 people--some less than a dozen miles, many others 200 miles or more.

The government has undertaken such sweeping efforts--which have had a mixed effect on ordinary Chinese lives--for more than just the obvious reason of alleviating human suffering. For the Beijing government, which still stakes its legitimacy on its claim to represent the interests of peasants and workers, the continued existence of grinding poverty cannot be ignored.

The backwardness of China's interior regions also has become an increasingly sensitive political issue, as such areas fall further behind economically dynamic coastal provinces such as Guangdong, which has benefited from its location next to the prosperous British colony of Hong Kong.

How to allocate resources between the interior and the coast is now a major question, dividing the leaders of wealthy and poor provinces and worsening splits in the national leadership.

"Guangdong should pay more tax to the central government, so it can do more here," declared Wang Shengshui, a top official of Wangzhuang Village, established three years ago on newly irrigated land as part of the resettlement effort. "If the state gets more money from the coast, it should invest it in poor and dry areas, to let peasants resettle and make everyone prosperous."

Many foreign and Chinese economists believe that China can develop most rapidly by allowing its coastal regions to continue to race ahead. But there are others who just as strongly advocate the view that fairness, political stability and long-term development all require the Chinese to labor to eliminate the most grinding poverty and ensure that the interior does not fall too far behind.

For Ma and her family, however, such debates seem distant as they wait--desperately--for any help they can get. They have a son who has moved to newly irrigated land. But no more such acreage is available in his village. And because peasants in China are forbidden to simply move to cities to search for factory jobs, Ma remains uncertain when--if ever--the rest of the family can leave their cave homes.

There, the dinner fare is usually millet, the roughest, cheapest of grains. Meals are often supplemented by a wild plant called kukucai-- "bitter-bitter vegetable." When asked if she likes the taste of millet, Ma thought the question strange. "I don't care whether it tastes good or not," she replied. "I only care that we have enough."

Her husband, Ma Junzhen, said that after a late freeze killed this year's winter wheat seedlings, he spent $36--a bit more than one-third the family's annual cash income--to buy enough grain to last until the late-summer millet harvest.

The cash, he said, comes partly from gathering a kind of wild fungus called facai , which he sells to trading companies in the nearby county seat of Tongxin.

The plant's name--which means "hair vegetable," in keeping with its appearance--sounds almost the same as the Chinese word for "get rich." Primarily because of this play on words, the edible plant fetches high prices in capitalist Hong Kong, to which most of the region's production is exported.

Villagers also engage in an even more exotic trade: digging up fossilized dinosaur bones. "We've found some in gullies near here in recent years," he explained. "Chinese traditional medicine companies buy them."

Despite their ingenuity in finding ways to supplement their income, the Mas and other peasants who live on the dusty loess plateau struggle for their existence. They lead a harsh life whose desolate feel is best captured in an old Gansu folk saying:

The wind blows pebbles across the fields.

Sheep cannot find even dry grass.

In every 10 years, nine yield no food.

If it rains, there's a harvest. If not, all is lost.

Still, the peasants over the centuries have developed some extraordinary methods to deal with such conditions. One key method involves scattering onto their fields large quantities of rocks, which usually are dug out of hillsides with backbreaking labor.

"It's better for the seedlings," explained Li Shengru, 58, a Ningxia peasant who spreads rocks on all his fields. "If we don't do this, things won't grow. It's to keep the water in the soil."

Stone-field farming works on the principle that a layer of rocks, spread just thinly enough for wheat or millet sprouts to find a path between soil and surface, block the evaporation of whatever precious rain falls. In some conditions, the stones even attract condensation, providing moisture that otherwise would never enter the earth. Yields may be small. But in dry years, the stones increase the chances that there at least will be a harvest.

Recognizing that stones can accomplish only so much, peasants also build small hut-sized temples to the Dragon King Lord.

"The temple is to pray for rain," explained Yu Xuejun, when asked about the hilltop structure near her village of Sanyanjing. "The Dragon King Lord will give rain if he wishes to. But if the Dragon King Lord doesn't want to, he won't."

The Communists came to power committed to finding more reliable sources of water. During the first 30 years of their rule, massive irrigation projects reached most of those areas where a fairly simple combination of canals and gravity could do the job.

By the early 1980s, the government recognized that water could never be brought efficiently to many remote villages of the loess plateau, and it began to consider new methods, said Wang Weiling, a Gansu province agricultural official. The answer it came up with, he said, was summarized in the slogan Zhua shui yi min --"Get water and move the people."

This became the basis for the resettlement program, which largely depends on pumping stations that raise Yellow River water to higher levels. The central government spends about $50 million per year on the project, which began in 1983. The effort also receives support from the U.N. World Food Program, which provides grain for settlers to live on while they level the new fields for irrigation.

Wang Zhongjin, 43, his wife, Chen Meiying, 41, and their three children are typical program beneficiaries. In 1949, Wang's old village had only about 160 people. By 1987, when his family and many others moved to Wangzhuang, the population of their old village had increased to 446, placing ever-greater pressure on the dry land.

In Wangzhuang, the Wangs initially lived in a home of sunbaked mud bricks, similar to traditional adobe dwellings of the American Southwest. The next year, they built their current home, with fired-brick foundation, concrete floor and adobe walls.

In the old village, Wang farmed 1.6 acres, depending on rain for his crops. He now still has the same acreage, but it is irrigated.

Wang said he has half his land planted in wheat, 20% in corn, 20% in an oil-bearing crop called huma and 10% in vegetables and fruits. The family consumes most of the wheat, vegetables and fruits. Wang sells much of the huma and feeds the corn to his more than 100 sheep in winter. During the warmer months, Wang or one of his sons drives the sheep back to grazing lands near their old village.

Wearing a blue Mao jacket, black trousers, cloth shoes and a gray cap, Wang looks much like Chinese peasants have for decades.

But he now feels fairly prosperous, with a family income last year of about $1,000, mostly from sale of wool. "In the mountains," he said, "there was no electricity, and our house was very simple. I prefer to live here." A few months ago, he added, the family bought its first television, which he watches regularly after work.

The resettlement program is supposed to improve life not only for those who move but also for those who stay in their villages. At Wudaoling, in the Ningxia region, about 100 families remain, while more than 100 have relocated. Five years ago, Ma Junzhen said, his family had only 4.8 dry acres to cultivate; they now have eight.

"I'd be happy to move," said Ma Junye, Ma Junzhen's older brother. "But if I can't, at least there will be more land (here that) I can farm. . . . About 50 families could live quite well here."

Some villagers feel a sentimental loss upon leaving their ancestral homes.

"Even a poor home is hard to abandon; one's native land is hard to leave," one old saying goes. "Golden house, silver house, not as good as my mud house," another declares.

Ma Junzhen contemplated the prospect of relocating and observed: "If I move to a new home, I'll still think of this place, because my ancestors lived here for so many generations. I would feel sad about leaving. I would still come back to visit my ancestors' graves. But wherever I can grow grain, wherever life is better, I'll go. Eating comes first."

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