Rural Transition in China | SMU Research


(♫) I’m Forrest Zhang, I’m an Associate Professor
of Sociology at the School of Social Sciences. My research is about contemporary China
and I do research in several fields but the most important one or the field in which my work has
been the most influential, I would say is agricultural
development in rural China. In the mid-1990s, an influential
scholar in the U.S. wrote a book about “Who Will Feed China?” and his
name is Lester Brown. And his argument is that with
China’s huge population and increasing living standard, the Chinese people would
consume ever more food and there’s certainly just not
enough resources within China to meet that demand and
that also means that China will have to go out to
the international market to buy a lot of agricultural products and that will cause disruption to the
international agricultural market. The Chinese government is certainly
keenly aware of this challenge and it has always been
its tradition to maintain a high degree of food self-sufficiency
to feed its own population. So to answer the challenge of
who will feed China, the central government has put in
place a whole set of policies including a very strict protection of farmland, so-called ‘red line’ of farmland, but still, it faces the challenge,
in the sense that, farmers in China do not want to do farming. Because there is more income or more
money to be made in other industries. So what we have seen in the
past three or two decades is that a massive exodus of
rural labour into urban industry. So I would travel to the Chinese
countryside, to these villages, and talk to farmers,
talk to the village officials, talk to other business people, who are doing
their business in the countryside, trying to find out how is
the agricultural production done, and what is the impact of the
transformed agricultural production. Traditionally, land is closely connected
with your urban household registration and there’s a lot of restrictions on
who can have access to rural land but in the past two decades or so, this
linkage between rural household registration and land access has been gradually loosened,
or to the extent it has almost decoupled. So in today’s China, anyone can
have access to rural land. You can rent farmland from
farmers and do agriculture, and in the past that
wasn’t possible. So some of these urban corporations realised
this opportunity and started going to the countryside and to organise large-scale
corporate agricultural production to directly supply to the consumer market,
to the supermarkets in Chinese cities. At the same time, some of the
rural producers, the family farmers, they also realised that
there’s changing demand, and they have scaled up their
production in various ways, including renting land from the neighbours,
including organising into cooperatives, so that they can supply large
quantities of agricultural products and they connect with supermarkets,
or sometimes connect with the traditional wet markets which still
exist in a lot of Chinese cities, to supply to the urban consumer. For those farmers who stay in
the countryside, stay in agriculture, many of them, because of the
relationship with these corporations they have been able to shift from
growing grains such as rice and wheat into growing a more value-added
crop such as vegetable or fruits. Of course, the cooperations
benefit from that, but the farmers, because of this upgrading of
their agricultural production, also benefited from that. We need to rethink about the
rural community in a different light. Traditionally we think of the rural
community as somewhat backward, a closely-knit community of a
highly homogeneous population, farmers doing small-scale farming. But in today’s rural China,
the rural community has been transformed
beyond recognition. It’s no longer a
homogeneous population, people are relying on different
sources of income for their livelihood, people are engaged in different occupations. In this new context,
we need to think about what is the social fabric that is
holding this community together, what are the challenges, what are the issues of
division and inequality, and we have to understand social cohesion, social inclusion and exclusion,
in this new social context. That poses a lot of challenges for the policymakers
and also for scholars. I think overall, the entry of external
capital into Chinese agriculture has been beneficial to farmers.

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