Yang Yunbiao’s Brainchild: A Rural Cooperative in Anhui

China Development Brief, No. 53 (Spring 2012)

中文 English

In recent years, the international co-operative movement has gained ground across the globe, with the business model it promotes, the co-operative, now forming an integral part of our society. Co-operatives come in many shapes and forms, but are generally enterprises or organisations jointly owned and run by those who make use of their facilities and services. Individuals are able to pool together resources to generate profits and cost-savings that would not have been possible if they were on their own. Co-operatives are also seen to have more ethically, consumer and worker-focused policies, often balancing profit-making against the interests of the wider community.

To celebrate and highlight the benefits co-operatives bring to communities while also enhancing cooperation between the international co-operative movement and other key players such as governments, the United Nations designated the first Saturday of each July as the International Day of Co-operatives, with each year having a different theme. The theme for 2014 is ‘Co-operative enterprises achieve sustainable development for all’, and focuses on the role of co-operatives in safeguarding favourable living conditions in the communities they operate in.

To celebrate this day, CDB chose to highlight this article about a cooperative in Anhui province, originally published in 2012.

CDB Senior Staff Writer, Guo Ting, delves into the fascinating world of rural cooperatives in this profile of an Anhui cooperative founded by Yang Yunbiao, a former rural rights-defense (weiquan) activist.. 
This article is part of a special section in Issue No. 53 devoted to NGOs in Anhui, a province that has in the past received scant attention for its NGO activity.  Rural cooperatives are also a subset of the NGO community that has received little attention.  According to the 2006 Agricultural Specialized Cooperatives Law, cooperatives should register as a commercial enterprise, and yet many also have a social, community-based mission.  Some scholars as a result count them as NGOs or nonprofits or social enterprises.

As the saying goes, those living on a mountain live off the mountain and those who live near the sea live off the sea – so, one has to make use of one’s local resources. But, for the large agricultural province of Anhui, it is the land that forms the only livelihood of most people. This is perhaps the reason why the farmers of Anhui are frequently at the forefront of agricultural innovation and reform. Thirty years ago, the villagers of Xiaogang were the first to sign onto the new contracting system, daring to be the first to fight for systemic reforms; fourteen years ago, the farmers of Nantangxing Village in Sanhe Town, Yingzhou district of Fuyang city in northern Anhui, in order to protect their land rights and interests, came together in Beijing to fight for their rights, a move that shook the entire nation. Today, that fight has long been settled, and those farmers who returned home safely are still brave risk-takers in rural development1.

Making a profit from public interest

The thin mist and drizzle cannot stop the biting cold in the first month of the Chinese New Year, and although some fresh green paddy fields on the Huai Plains of the Yangzi River show early signs of spring, northern China is still in the angry clutches of the winter chill. On the sixth day of the new year, following my earlier plans, I got off the bus along the recently opened rural route at the Sunzhuang intersection in the outskirts of Fuyang City, and was met by a young lady clutching an umbrella who immediately rushed over. The lady is Fu Li, a long-term volunteer from the Liang Shuming Center for Rural Construction (乡村建设中心) in Beijing, and she is here to support the agricultural cooperative in Nantangxing Village. As I was turning down the road to the village, my eye caught sight of the main cooperative building, sitting only 200 meters away.

This white three-story building was erected in 2008, by none other than the famous Taiwanese eco-friendly architect Hsieh Ying-chun. It is consistent with the theories of environmental protection, as it uses only local construction materials and was built by the local villagers themselves. Walking inside, I was met by a gust of clean, fresh air. The entire building is light and spacious, and is of a style that differs greatly from the other local buildings. This style is said to be a typical Taiwanese architectural style, which is especially cool and ventilated for the summer months.

The chairman of the cooperative, Yang Yunbiao, waits in an office on the second floor; lying on the floor are several cases of newly distilled spirits, the mouth of one bottle accidentally broken open. The entire room is filled with the scent of the sorghum spirit, as the forthright and outspoken Yang begins our conversation.

In Yang’s view, in order to improve the famers’ quality of life, finding profitable business opportunities is the key challenge. The cooperative had once considered, in its early years, introducing a knitting industry for the seniors, and now it plans to expand into both the organic food industry as well as the rural tourism industry. However, it is clear that the profitable distillery is the biggest success of the past two years. In 2010, the cooperative began setting up the distillery as a joint-stock business, and sought advice from the village seniors  about the best traditional distilling method. The idea was to use their home-produced sorghum method to create pure-grain spirit, and now, after two years, the distillery is reaping the rewards of these efforts. Currently, annual alcohol production is approximately 7-8 tons, which generates a profit of around 60,000 yuan, split as dividends for the shareholders.  And of course, in return for the investment, shareholders are given some of the distillery’s own spirits, which not only saves on capital which can continue to be used for production, but also allows shareholders to use the alcohol to host parties or as gifts, in turn improving the distillery’s reputation. According to industry experts, the quality of the spirits is actually quite good, and a pressing concern is to get the brand name out into the public. Some time ago, the Beijing NGO, Migrant Worker’s Home (工友之家), held an event in which the director, Sun Heng, ordered ten cases of the alcohol from Yang who, it was said, received quite positive feedback. Thus, Yang jokingly requested that I help to advertise the spirit among NGOs, to capture a market share in public interest circles, and establish the spirit as the preferred drink of public interest organizations.

Just as our conversation was in full flow, a shareholder of the distillery brought along his son, who works away from home and had only returned for the New Year to pay a visit to Yang. Suddenly, the room was filled with people, dreaming together about the distillery’s future. Yang and the shareholder said that if they could construct a new building, they would start by creating a two-story cellar and use it to store the alcohol. They also planned to work together on developing the village’s rural tourism industry by inviting selected tourists to participate in tastings. Alternatively, they might work with cooperatives in other areas with complementary resources. One idea was to partner with a Hubei cooperative producing gastrodia (an ingredient in Chinese traditional medicine) to produce medicinal spirits, which would help improving their overall market prospects.

Aside from the distillery, a division of the cooperative had set up a micro-financing credit union that sees annual profits of around 20,000 to 30,000 yuan. In 2005, when the credit union first disbursed  dividends, each share cost only 14.50 yuan, but now, each share it costs 150 yuan. Another major business operation and source of income is the collective procurement of agricultural materials, which mainly consists of the cooperative buying low-cost seeds, fertilizers, and other, similar products from the suppliers, and then selling them to the cooperative members. Furthermore, as local laborers increasingly work outside the village, there is a lot of untended land. The cooperative has rented a substantial amount of land to be used for farming. Ever the entrepreneur, Yang also drew lessons from the Beijing Little Donkey Farm (小毛驴) model, and is planning to use the excess land to not only develop agricultural opportunities but also develop the area’s rural tourism potential. Yang told me that the day after our meeting he plans to go to Fuyang to inspect some model tourist villages, in a bid to get this model implemented county-wide before year end in 20122

As we sat in the spacious and bright office, with the rich fragrance of liquor in the air, we chatted about ways of increasing revenue and profits. Thinking back to over ten years ago, when the farmers demonstrated in Beijing to protect their rights, spending many restless nights holed up in an alley somewhere near the Dongdan area of Beijing, it feels to Yang as if that was an entirely different world. However, Yang thinks that this is inevitable in times of rapid change and development. When he went to Beijing for a meeting ten years ago, activist groups were everywhere, but if he were to go again today, most would be building cooperatives and rural development organizations.  Most of the rights-protection groups found it difficult to adapt to the rapid changes of the outside world, and following failures, they disbanded.

However, when comparing the rights struggles of that time with today’s rural construction, to see which is more important, Yang still thinks that the earlier struggles were an indispensable process.  These are entirely different times, and back then was a time of difficult circumstances, wherein if you did not rise up and struggle, survival itself became difficult. From experiencing the bitter struggle, the villagers now appreciate more fully these modern days of stability and financial opportunities.

Today’s environment is much better than in the past – the early land rights struggles have now adopted organizational forms, the objectives of the early years have been realized, and rights campaigners and the government get along better. In 2006, the government issued an Agricultural Specialized Cooperative Law, which came into effect a year later. Following this law, Yang and colleagues immediately went to Yingzhou District Trade and Industry Bureau to register, and although the Bureau had not yet stocked any registration forms, it was simply a matter of downloading the documents from the internet to complete the registration.

Reconstruction of Rural Community Life

From the mutual aid society to the joint-stock distillery, the goals of the cooperative, in addition to making money, also include the vision that by getting the rural community to collaborate in production, rural residents can move away from an individualistic way of living and towards a more public-minded community, and in doing so change the dominant view in society of only looking out for oneself.

When Yang was a child, everyone was very poor, but he remembers that every time a beggar arrived from outside the village, every household would, regardless of their wealth, spare a bread bun and a hot meal. Several decades later, as production rapidly increased and the economy gradually improved, another form of poverty emerged – the indifference and estrangement between people. As Yang sees it, the 30 years following the reforms has, in some ways, been a process of transformation into organizations, which has undermined the original intimacy and camaraderie amongst villagers. Many people now not only do not sympathize with others, but do not even seem to show concern for their own relatives. At the same time, as the economy develops, the rich/poor divide is becoming increasingly obvious, and while the wealthy are getting more powerful, the poor become more vulnerable. One incident that particularly troubles Yang was that last year, two elderly villagers committed suicide. The two villagers were both over 70 years old, and could not work in the fields or labor elsewhere, and their children had abandoned them. On Chinese New Years, they felt particularly lonely and isolated and took their own lives in an act that shook the entire village.

Coming from his many years of experience, Yang is of the opinion that the key to changing the status quo is to encourage people to move out of the isolation of their own homes, for everyone to come together and rebuild a communal way of life in the village. In 2010, Yang went to visit a village in Taiwan, where he found that the local villagers operated a “communal kitchen” in which every family in the village takes turns to host, and everyone else brings their meals to the host family to eat together. Yang started out thinking that this system was rather too formal and a little boring, but after joining in a few times, he found that sharing a common table for meals truly was the best way to bridge the gap between people, allowing the villagers to establish trusting relationships. And because of this system, everyone developed very friendly interpersonal relationships in that village3.

In fact, Yang’s own family relationship is an excellent example. Yang has four other brothers, and every year, around the time of his mother’s birthday, all the extended family, children and grandchildren alike, get together to wish her a happy birthday. Everyone gets together under one roof to play games and take part in other activities, and over time, deep relationships have formed. The villagers view Yang’s family as the most tight-knit in their locality.

In addition to promoting interpersonal exchanges, communal ways of life also emphasize shaping the better aspects of human relationships. Several years ago, one of the reasons that the Nantang Agricultural Cooperative introduced the Robert’s Rules of Order was to emphasise that when communicating, everyone should be equal. However, after Nantang started flourishing, Robert’s Rules are no longer used. As Yang explained, the rules were very effective at resolving large differences, but now that the cooperative’s actions are less controversial and everyone’s interests are more aligned, differences are getting smaller. Moreover, as long as everyone has the group’s common interests at heart, then it is only a matter of moving forward without the need to vote on every matter4.

In order to rebuild community life, there is currently a rich variety of regular activities organized by the cooperative, with a members’ meeting on Monday, the Senior Society activities on Wednesday, cultural activities on Saturday and child-care activities over the weekend. There are quite a few participants each time, but the biggest headache for Yang is that participants are all aged forty and upwards, with a lack of young newcomers. Because this impacts on the future development of the cooperative, Yang has been trying over the past couple of years to attract and train young people to become the future backbone of the cooperative. However, it is very difficult as Fuyang is a village of migrant workers with 90 percent of its young people working elsewhere, and they are all have become accustomed to lifestyles in the big cities, and their hobbies and experiences are centered around urban life. They return home during public holidays, but often their experience is limited to visiting relatives and family festivities, so their impression of home is that of watching TV and playing cards – meaningful conversations are rare, let alone discussions about village community life5.

The cooperative has spent quite a lot of thought on how to keep these young people. By taking advantage of the recent Spring Festival, when all the young people returned, the cooperative organized a number of activities which included not only singing, game playing, lotteries, but also discussion groups, book clubs, and other, similar events. The cooperative hoped that using these types of activities would strengthen everyone’s interactions and deepen their understanding of their hometown; they hoped to use practical events to tell young people that there is a different way of life at home other than drinking and playing cards, one that involves communal discussions and book reading. Yang hopes that by strengthening their sense of community, the young and the old can build a strong social network, and leave both groups with fond memories.

Of course, to retain young people who are well paid in their work elsewhere, it is critical to provide attractive employment opportunities. In Yang’s own words, young people need financial returns, and one cannot hope that everyone can share in the same ideals. From this perspective, the cooperative’s distillery, the credit union, and the agricultural procurement projects also have some value, but it is far from enough, and they are still searching for projects that are more suitable for young people. Apart from rural tourism, Yang plans to apply to the rural livelihood program run by Heifer International’s Anhui Office”, hoping to create more projects which will ultimately allow for public welfare, income, ideals and reality to successfully come together6.

  1. Editor’s Note: The article refers to a period of time when farmers came to Beijing to petition mostly on issues related to land seizures.  In the early 2000s, some of these rights-protection farmers began to work with intellectuals who persuaded the farmers to return to their homes and channel their energies into setting up cooperatives. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The Little Donkey Farm (小毛驴) is a cooperative/social enterprise established in Beijing’s Haidian district in 2008 that allows people to rent a plot of land to either farm or lease, and provides training in agricultural techniques and management. 

  3. Editor’s Note: Farmer’s cooperatives in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, are seen by Chinese advocates of rural cooperatives as potential models. 

  4. Editor’s Note: Robert’s Rules of Order is the title of a book written by a U.S. Army colonel in the 19th century setting forth a set of rules that are now widely used to promote democratic debate and deliberation in associations, legislative bodies, and other groups. 

  5. Editor’s Note: Yang Yunbiao’s cooperative is not alone is facing this demographic challenge.  Many cooperatives operate in villages where many of the able-bodied men and women have left for work in the cities, leaving the children and elderly behind. 

  6. Editor’s Note: Heifer International is an international NGO devoted to working with local communities to end poverty, and has localized its offices in China. 

俗话说,靠山吃山,靠水吃水,但对安徽这个农业大省来说,土地是大多数人唯一的生计,也许是这个缘故,安徽农民常常走在改革前列。30多年前,那些最初在 土地承包到户的协议书上按下手印的小岗村农民曾经敢为制度改革之先;14年前,皖北阜阳市颍州区三合镇南塘兴农村的农民们为了保护土地权益联合进京维权,声震全国;如今,维权抗争早已尘埃落定,那些安然还乡的农民们依然是乡村建设中的吃螃蟹者。
正月里的薄雾细雨挡不住依然彻骨的寒意,有些青翠的稻田展现出江淮平原的早春光景,比起这时节仍是一片肃杀的华北多出不少生气。破五第二天,笔者根据备好的攻略,坐刚开辟没几年的农村公交专线在阜阳市郊孙庄路口下了车,一位撑着伞的年轻女孩立马迎了上来,她是北京梁漱溟乡村建设中心派来支援南塘兴农合作社 的长期志愿者付丽,随之拐进村中马路,一眼就看到了200米外的合作社综合楼。
在杨云标看来,让农民生活得更幸福,寻找能赚钱的商机是头等现实问题。合作社早些年曾考虑引入乡村留守老人编织产业,现如今又计划开展有机农业暨乡村观光旅游产业,但已经实现盈利的酒厂是这两年最为成功的实验。2010年,合作社开始创办股份制酒厂,向村子里的老人家讨教酿酒的古法,以自产的高粱酿造纯粮食酒,如今已是第二年结出硕果。目前酒的年产量大概是7~8吨,而盈利达到了6万元左右,并实现了向股东分红——当然,为了回笼资金,分给股东的是自己酿的酒,这既可以节省资金继续投产,也能让股东们拿这些酒请客送礼,形成酒的口碑。据懂行的人说,这些酒品质相当不错,眼前需要的就是进一步形成口碑。前些 日子北京工友之家办活动,负责人孙恒向杨云标定了10箱酒,据说反馈相当好,杨云标因此开玩笑请笔者帮忙在NGO中宣传介绍,把酒的市场定位成公益圈,把酒做成公益特供酒。
正聊得热乎,一位酒厂的股东带着在外工作、过年回家的儿子来拜访云标大哥,转眼间,呼啦啦站了满屋的人,一起畅想酒厂的未来。杨云标和股东说起,要是再盖新房,就先建两层地窖,专门用来储藏酒;他还打算和想开展的乡村旅游结合起来,邀请前来采摘的游客参加品尝会;或者和其他地区的合作社资源互补,如湖北一 家合作社出产中药天麻,就可以一起做成药酒,市场前景更看好了。
除酒厂之外,合作社下属开展小额信贷业务的资金互助社现在每年也有2~3万元的盈利,2005年互助社第一次分红的时候,每股只有14.5元,现在每股达 到了150元;集体采购农资也是一项主要的经营内容和收入来源,主要是合作社出面向供货商低价团购种子、化肥等,再卖给社员们;此外,村里外出打工的人越来越多,很多土地始终闲置,合作社就把不少地租下来,代为耕种。也由此,见多识广的杨云标萌生借鉴北京的小毛驴生态农场的模式,利用这些土地开展有机农业 加乡村观光旅游的计划——他第二天打算去阜阳一些开展农家乐的村子考察,争取把这个想法在2012年落实下来。
坐在宽敞明亮、酒香浓郁的办公室,聊着各项赚钱的营收,再回想起十多年前带着农民们进京维权,在东单附近的某条胡同彻夜难眠的情景,杨云标也有些恍如隔世的感觉。但他觉得这其实是时代发展的必然趋势。他十年前到北京开会时,到处都是维权的组织,但如今再去开会,大多是建合作社、发展乡村建设的机构——当年 的维权组织大多在外界环境的急速变化中难以适应、转型失败而消失了。
经由多年的经验总结,杨云标认为改变现状的关键在于让人们走出各自的家门,聚到一起交流沟通,重建乡村公共生活。2010年,他去台湾一个村子访问交流, 发现当地村民在做一个名为“共同厨房”的活动,就是村里每家人都轮流做东,其他人带饭菜来做东的人家里一起吃饭。杨云标开始觉得这种做法挺形式主义,有些无聊,但参与了几次之后,发现一个桌子吃饭才真是拉近感情的最好方法,可以毫无距离地交流沟通,建立信任关系。也因为此,那个村子里的人际关系非常友善。
除了建立人与人的沟通交流之外,公共生活还强调要塑造人际关系中的美好一面。早几年,南塘兴农合作社率先引入罗伯特议事规则的目的之一也是如此,他们希望强调每个人之间的平等沟通。不过,罗伯特议事规则在南塘兴盛一时之后,如今已基本不再使用了,杨云标解释说,议事规则在解决大的分歧时非常有效,但如今合 作社的工作越来越走上正轨,大家利益趋向一致,分歧越来越少,有了共同的利益,只要向前走就是了,不必再事事表决。
为了重建公共生活,目前合作社组织的常规活动相当丰富,周一有社员例会,周三是老年协会的活动,周六举办文艺活动,周六到周日还有为留守儿童举办的活动。每次来参加的人数也不少,但最让杨云标头疼的是参加者都是年纪四五十岁还要往上数的老面孔,缺乏年轻的新鲜血液。由于关系到合作社的未来发展,杨云标这两 年一直想吸引、培养年轻人作为合作社的后备力量。但是非常难,阜阳是打工者的家乡,村里90%的年轻人都外出务工,大家习惯了大城市的生活方式和消费习 惯,如今生活经验和兴趣爱好都不在家乡,逢年过节回了家往往就是喝酒串亲戚,对家乡的印象也停留在看电视和打牌上,谈心交流都很少,更不要说关注乡村的公共生活。
合作社在如何留住这些年轻人上很是花了一番心思。利用春节期间大家都回来的时机,他们近来搞了许多活动,除了热闹的唱歌、玩游戏、搞抽奖之外,还有座谈会、读书会等。合作社希望用感性的方式加强大家的交流,加深对家乡的认识;他们希望用实际行动告诉年轻人,除了喝酒打牌外,家乡还有另一种生活方式,可以 一同谈心、读书,可以一起营造共同的精神生活,留下美好的共同记忆。
当然,要留住在外收入不菲的年轻人,更关键的是能够提供有吸引力的就业机会,用杨云标的话,年轻人需要经济回报,不能要求每个人都和你一样是一个理想主义者。从这个意义上说,合作社开办的酒厂、互助社、农资等创收项目也有一定的价值,但还远远不够,他们还得寻找一些更适合年轻人做的项目,除了乡村旅游外, 杨云标眼下还在盘算申请国际小母牛安徽办公室的农村生计项目,希望能够创设出更多的项目,让公益与营收、让理想与现实更好地结合起来。

CDB Senior Staff Writer

Translated by Zaichen Lu

Reviewed by Andrew McDonald

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