Four years ago I began going to Little Lina, a hamlet of fifty households a few hours’ trek from the nearest road winding through the Chinese Himalaya. My aim was to find out how grand ideas about poverty alleviation and environmental conservation actually look when they finally reach their target villages. I was there as part of a much larger environmental policy research project funded by the National Science Foundation that was examining this question across several different Himalayan countries.
For me, this research has been like following a game of “telephone” over thousands of miles, tracing an idea about how to preserve Himalayan ecosystems and reduce poverty among its inhabitants from its origins among a few cosmopolitan experts to its intended destination in a hinterland peasant’s household. As in “telephone,” the idea transforms as it bounces around international organizations and eventually works its way through the state, municipal, and at last, village-level bureaucracies. All along the way there are meetings, luncheons, press conferences. Perhaps it is because so much time and money go into delivering these policies to the village that, once there, work in the village is often done hastily, with little regard for the complexities of local people’s lives.
Just months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an experience in Little Lina fundamentally changed how I see myself and my research. When I arrived at the tiny cinderblock general store at the trailhead that marks entry into the hamlet, I sensed a malaise in the otherwise bucolic air. More young men than I ever remembered seeing were gathered at the store, at a time when most people should have been just returning from the fields for breakfast.
Strikingly lean, these men seemed to chafe against the quiet midmorning. They smoked, spat, picked mud off their shoes. A few toddlers with open-seated pants moved among the tables spilling out from the three-walled structure, stepping awkwardly in the thick mud.
The general store was always my first destination in Little Lina. I would stop to buy some candy for the children and see if I could glean any gossip. Then I’d continue into the village to make whatever personal calls I had arranged for that day. This time, however, my greetings were met with silent nods. Something was wrong.
I turned off the trail and took a footpath around a creaking stand of bamboo, avoiding the houses with the fiercest guard dogs. The footpath rejoined the main trail alongside a limestone well in front of Madam Old Master’s house.
Madam Old Master had earned the title for her skill in just about everything. She was often put in charge when a new project mandate came down from the village or township government. Although Madam Old Master enjoyed the camaraderie of leading embroidery circles and pig slaughters, she hated being called on for other village mandates because they took her away from her crops and animals. It wasn’t merely a matter of taste. Her family’s lives depended on tending animals and crops, and her breadth of skill had been acquired out of sheer necessity to survive.
Madam Old Master’s gate was open, a sign that either she or her husband had returned from morning chores to have breakfast. After several awkward intrusions in earlier stages of fieldwork, I had learned to time my arrival in Little Lina just after breakfast, but just before everyone returned to the fields for the day.
“Madam Old Master!” I called from the gate. Dogs barked.
“You’ve come!” Madam Old Master emerged from her grass-roofed house.
“I’ve come.” I returned her smile.
“Come and sit!” She commanded. “I’ll boil some tea. Have you eaten?”
“I’ve eaten in the municipality before coming here.” This reply had, over time, come to be a satisfactory response to offers of food and drink upon arrival.
“I’ve eaten in the municipality,” she laughed, mimicking my mix of the local dialect and Mandarin. Much of our relationship had been built on her alternately making fun of me and teaching me with heroic patience.
Madam Old Master disappeared back into her house as I took a seat on a low stool in the courtyard. The corn drying in the rafters of her earth and wood house glowed a deep yellow against the dark interior, blackened by years of cooking over open wood fires. Madam Old Master reemerged with her battered aluminum teapot and hot water thermos. Since we had last had tea together, the handle had been broken and repaired at one end with a bit of reddish twine. I admired the knot work.
“You’re still fat!” she declared, setting the tea service on one stool and pulling another close to me.
You’re skinnier now would have been the obvious reply, but in a place where You’re fat! is a compliment to one’s apparent good fortune, pointing out another’s thinness would be inauspicious, to say the least. I’m fairly lean by most standards, but a healthy body mass index looks plump next to a body hardened by toil and hunger.
After the greetings came the weather. Accustomed to the ritual of our conversations, Madam Old Master poured tea into two chipped cups and put one in my hands, saying, “It was so dry after Qingming day that we were afraid to plant! And this past month it has rained so much that everything is waterlogged. The weather is just plain backward this season.”
Following the ancient and sophisticated local adaptation of the Chinese Almanac, the villagers plant their summer crops just after the Qingming holiday, during the period of lighter spring rains so seedlings have a chance to grow before the August monsoons. But this year it was raining at all the wrong times, rendering useless their millennia-old crop sciences.
“What were you able to plant, then?” I asked.
“Corn. Rice. Some greens in my garden up behind the house. But not as much as usual.” She paused.
“Because of the weather?”
“Well, yeah. But also because the township decided to use some of my land for their tobacco scheme.”
Tobacco scheme. I wanted to ask about this, but going straight after new questions would be rude given that we hadn’t seen each other for months and I hadn’t yet properly asked about her household. But I wasn’t surprised to hear that the township had appropriated peasant subsistence land for a cash crop.
“The tobacco scheme has taken a lot of my land. The best of it.” Now that she had mentioned it twice, I could ask without breaking the subtle rules governing respectful conversation. When I did, Madam Old Master spat on the ground in disgust. “It comes from the township. They say we will get rich.”
“How many mu have they planted in tobacco?”
“I could tell you how many, but it would break my heart. Later when you go down to the fields, you will see that all the best land by the stream is full of tobacco.” She took a sip of tea.
“How many households here in Little Lina are part of this scheme?” I asked.
“Almost every household has some land by the stream.”
“So almost every household is involved?”
“Yes. And the chemicals! You have to use such terrible chemicals on the tobacco. It drives all the bugs into our food crops.” She tightened one of her pigtails. She had much more white hair than last season.
“Do you apply the chemicals yourself?”
“My husband does.” She paused. “In general, the men are responsible for the chemicals.” I knew this was true only for households that had not sent their men to the cities to earn money as laborers in the construction boom leading up to the 2008 Olympics. But, knowing her husband had been ill, I decided not to pursue this any further.
“How did they negotiate how much of your land you would dedicate to tobacco?” I asked.
“Negotiate?” Madam Old Master narrowed her eyes and lowered her voice, leaning close. “They didn’t negotiate anything. They just came and looked at what land they wanted and then got the ownership charts from the village leader. Then they sent some men to each household to give us instructions.”
“They went to each household?” I asked, “You mean they didn’t discuss this with everyone in a village meeting?”
Madam Old Master laughed. “Meetings! Only foreigner projects like meetings!” She was referring to the “participatory” practice of promoting “grassroots democracy” through whole-village meetings—a darling initiative of many big international organizations doing development work in rural China since the late 1990s. While Madam Old Master and others appreciated the principle behind these meetings, they generally saw them as a waste of time. It did not take long for villagers to start avoiding them for fear of being saddled with ever more “participatory development” obligations that took time away from their subsistence labors.
“They came and said that as a Designated Tobacco Project Household, we had to invest some of our own resources because we would be getting benefits from them,” she continued.
“Were you interested in being part of this project?” I asked. I decided against opening my notebook. I didn’t want my note-taking to make her shy.
“Not even the tiniest bit! But there was no other way. They designated. And then they took 60 percent of my harvest.”
“They took 60 percent of your harvest? They didn’t buy it from you?”
“Oh, they bought it. For money that would hardly buy a few kilos of rice.”
No wonder so many of the villagers were so thin, I thought to myself. They had been forced to sell their provisions far too cheaply and then been left to survive on a fraction of their seasonal subsistence stores until the October harvest, which meant that in the meantime they were getting less than half their daily calories.
I DID my best to mask my growing consternation. In many parts of China, officials use tobacco schemes to increase the revenues of their jurisdictions in order to secure promotions for themselves. The irony of it is that in cases like these, officials are promoted for “developing the local economy” while starving the people cultivating the cash crops. I knew how my meeting with the township leader would go later in the week. I could already hear him gloating over his ingenious initiative and planning his next trip to Europe.
“Did you get a good price for the tobacco harvest, at least?” I asked.
Madam Old Master didn’t answer. Instead she got up and disappeared into her house, reappearing after much rustling, holding before her a fifty-gallon clear plastic sack full of tobacco leaves. Only her head and shoulders appeared over the top of it.
“This is my yield,” she said from the doorway. “And I did not sell it to them.”
“They offered me a price way below what they had promised,” she said, using her leg to leverage the bag aside and returning to the courtyard. “I tried to reason with them but they said I had no choice. I hadn’t met their standards, they said.”
“Did you know their standards?” I asked.
“I’m not a tobacco farmer!” she said emphatically, by way of reply. “They offered me such a poor price that I refused to sell it to them!”
I admired her courage, but I also worried. A less overt, and therefore safer, form of resistance would be to simply let the crop fail. The officials would criticize the villagers for being “lazy and stupid,” but at least they would take their programs elsewhere and leave the villagers of Little Lina to get on with their subsistence. By directly refusing, Madam Old Master could be sure that the township leader would find a way to make her pay.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked, as carefully as I could. The situation was dire. She and her husband were trying to live off of less than half of their subsistence harvest. They had forfeited their income from the tobacco scheme, and were expecting a weak harvest from what little land remained devoted to food crops. Searching for something, I asked, “Can you replace some of the tobacco with grain?”
“Your friend Meilan’s second cousin tried to do this,” Madame Old Master said. “So they tore up what she had planted in the tobacco fields.”
I kept my head down, staring at my unopened notebook. I knew I’d have no problem remembering this.
“So what are you going to do?” I asked again.
“Once my husband’s health improves, he will go out to do some manual labor and earn us some money.” She looked up from the ground and directly into my eyes, as if by saying the words she could make it so. It was excruciatingly clear that this was their only hope for survival.
I soon learned that it would be impossible for Madam Old Master’s husband to search for work. Not only was he desperately ill from an unknown illness that covered his body with painful sores and made his hair fall out, but the central government had mandated that all migrant workers like him be sent “back home” to clear major cities in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Overnight, the police had emptied workers’ dormitories that had proliferated around construction sites in China’s cities and escorted the laborers to nearby train stations where they were issued tickets back to wherever their identity cards stated they had come from. They were so hastily deported that many could not even collect their final wages.
This government mandate explained why there were so many more men in the village. Nearly every household depended on remissions from a family member laboring elsewhere, and now most had to contend with the unforeseen return of the breadwinner. Many men, returning home empty-handed to hungry households that could not support them, had fallen into cycles of domestic violence. The nights lost their quietude as grim desperation pervaded the village. But, everyone said, there was nothing to be done.
The international organizations working in Little Lina joined in this fatalism in their own way. It wasn’t within their project mandate, they claimed, to help get food or money to hungry villagers now. Overlooking the obvious, that starving people had little reason to be interested in long-term projects that didn’t address their immediate crises, the organization declared its frustration with the villagers’ “lack of participation” and moved on. The peasants, disgusted and amused by the ultimately inconsequential traffic of big-city experts through their village, observed that participatory development schemes really only benefit those who are already better off.
My own findings make it impossible to argue with this observation, and I have since made a point of sharing it in my teaching on international development at University of California, Berkeley. When my students, brimming with good intentions, ask, what is to be done, I tell them the only thing that I now know for certain: ideals may take you around the world, but if you really want to make a difference, you have to be committed to one place and you have to be in for the long haul.
Julie Michelle Klinger was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1983. She is currently a Ph.D. student in geography at the University of California-Berkeley. She will be returning to Little Lina this summer to continue her research.