Here in this land-locked, little-visited province of Anhui, China's crucial battle to feed its people remains so difficult that some peasants have traveled to neighboring provinces to beg for food and money.
Hit by two serious droughts in the last four years and a series of bad harvests going back decades, Anhui is a worrisome blemish on China's generally optimistic growth charts. Residents of Nanjing, in neighboring Jiangsu Province, said in recent interviews that they saw several Anhui beggars in the streets and restaurants last winter. Some peasants said they had special permits from their local government officials in drought-stricken northern Anhui authorizing them to augment their meager winter rations by begging in Nanjing.
Anhui's beggars are no more representative of conditions in China's vast countryside than the ever-smiling peasants photographed for the People's Daily, but they do highlight the greatest obstacle in the way of Peking's grand plans for modernizing the country by the year 2000. As the Communist Party theoretical journal Red Flag admitted recently: "Our country is still plagued by a very serious food shortage. The problem of food for 900 million people has put a heavy burden on us all along."
At briefings in this provincial captial for visting Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes and his party, Anhui official said the average income distributed in grain and cash to each peasant in the province was the equivalent of $49 a year, below the national average of $53 a year. Since the figure is an average, it suggests the peasants of northern Anhui are worse off than residents of the more fertile southern and central regions of the province, where Hefei is located.
Foreign travelers who were recently permitted a rare trip through parts of northern Anhui still closed to foreign journalists said that because of sufficient rainfall over the past year, the region now has enough food. Peasants in the area indicated, however, that they expect more bad times. Some said the Communist Party's most important recent improvement in the area was planting of trees with edible leaves.
One foreign resident of Nanjing said beggars from Anhui "came into the restaurants. When the meal was over, they would rush to our table and try to scoop up as much leftover food as they could before the waiters chased them away. We were told the waiters were more friendly to them when there were no foreigners around.
"You would see them on the streets last winter, singing while shaking a little rattle, and with a hat on the ground for contributions. We got the impression people like this have been coming to Nanjing from Anhui not just for years, but for centuries."
Residents of Hangzhous, further down China's east coast, also reported beggars last winter, apparently drawn by the city's reputation as a tourist mecca. Some did not go home in summer. Last week in the city of Shanghai, about 150 miles from Anhui, a beggar approached my wife as she was leaving a movie theater. The man was old, dressed in filthy rags and said he was from Anhui.
During a visit by Maryland Agriculture Secretary Wayne Cawley Jr. to the Longhekou Reservoir southwest of Hefei, Chinese officials said the reservoir dropped to one-quarter of its usual 100-foot depth during the summer droughts of 1976 and 1978. The reservoir is at about two-thirds of its usual depth now, during a period of light rain and heavy demands for irrigation of surrounding rice fields.
An official report a year ago said "the loss of soil moisture is particularly serious in the area north of the River Huai," but the problem appears to go beyond drought alone. Northern Anhui and parts of Jiangsu, Shardong, Henan and Hebei provinces have suffered a succession of floods and drought, loss of trees and overcultivation, which made the soil more saline and less fertile.
This is one of the first areas in the world ever to be systematically cultivated. Centuries of use have exacted a price. A report by the New China News Agency last month estimated the affected area covered 8.3 million acres. The Chinese said they have developed a method of natural fertilization and careful drainage to revive the soil, but it would cost about $3 billion to apply it in Anhui and surrounding regions.