Fish and the Challenges of Chinese Rural Market Reform


Fish for sale in a market outside the ARDY headquarters

This blog has frequently explored the challenges posed to development efforts in Yilong County by the lack of education and the cultural attitudes at work here. Last week, while attending a meeting of the rural cooperative in the village of Dengbao 灯包, I witnessed another fascinating example of how peasants and Yilong are unprepared for the shift to a market economy in the countryside.


A fish processing company had recently made a deal with the town for the right to fish in Dengbao’s nearby water reservoirs. Once the deal was made, however, the company inadvertently drove in with a heavy truck that ruined Dengbao’s dirt road and damaged the water pipes leading into the village, inciting protests from the villagers. The company, however, had been generous, paying the cost of the repairs, bringing in a bulldozer to level the road, and replacing the broken pipe. The damage repaired, the company returned again and set up nets in the reservoir. However, it was discovered soon after that several villagers had been periodically taking fish out of the nets.


Community leader Zheng Yuanming leads the meeting of Dengbao's rural cooperative

Zheng Yuanming郑元林, the manager of Dengbao’s rural cooperative, seemed slightly impatient as he started off the meeting. “They repaired the road, repaired the pipe, they even bought a new connecting piece for the pipe, and then when they came to fish, you stole from them,” he scolded. “Who is going to be willing to invest in our village after this?”


The ARDY volunteer who helped me to translate this meeting explained that taking the fish might not necessarily have been malicious. Rather, the villagers may not view taking the fish as stealing. An Yilong resident, the volunteer explained to me that his uncle also lived near a reservoir and would fish in it periodically. As Chinese families traditionally eat fish as part of their Chinese New Year celebration, his uncle would give a fish or two to each of the neighboring households as a gift each New Years. The fish were seen not so much as a private possession of his family, but rather a resource that the entire community shared. According to such an attitude, the idea that the fishing company could purchase the exclusive right to exploit a shared resource may not have had any meaning to the residents of Deng Bao, and they may not have realized that they were violating the terms of their agreement with the company.

This incident illustrates one of the major challenges that Yilong County faces in its quest for economic development. Rural communities do not necessarily view property in resources in the same way, which makes it difficult if not impossible for them to understand the rules by which property and resources are quantified and sold in a market economy. The Rural Association for the Development of Yilong County makes teaching peasants how to engage with the market one of its major priorities.





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