What does the future hold for rural China’s small-scale family agriculture?

 

A small family plot

A few weeks ago I posted an entry about the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County’s efforts to organize rural cooperatives in Yilong, and argued that the “problem of scale” is one of the main challenges facing Yilong’s farmers.  Most families occupy the small parcels of land which were redistributed to them after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms broke up the collective farming system in the late 1970’s, amounting to about 2-3 mu 亩, or 1/5 of a hectare, each. While this provides enough land to meet many of the family’s own immediate nourishment needs, it leaves little room for families to produce a surplus that they would be able to sell effectively on the market. Furthermore, each family is traditionally responsible for all of the input costs for their own production, such as their own seeds, fertilizer, and pesticide. The need to meet each of these costs individually means that the marginal profit that each family is able to gain from the sale of surplus agricultural goods is quite small, and the additional costs associated with bringing the products to market—such as transportation—often make commercial farming not cost-effective.

 

Having studied Chinese history in college, my discussion with Gao Xiangjun about the reasoning behind the Rural Mutual Cooperatives made me first think of the historic roots of economic dilemmas that Yilong’s peasants face. After all, the United States had also once been a nation of small-scale farmers. What had happened in the United States that could not happen in China?

Over the course of the late 19th and 20th century, many small-scale American farmers sold their lands and sought urban jobs, leading to the rapid expansion of a small number of farms that were able to manage agricultural production on a large, industrialized scale. However, a number of social and political barriers in China prevent agricultural consolidation in the same way. First of all, under the Chinese government’s current legal property regime, all land is technically owned by the state, while current occupiers of land can only buy and sell long-term leases of the land’s use. This makes buying and selling land for the purpose of consolidation more difficult.

In addition, while a large number of Yilong’s peasants travel to cities annually to find work, a number of barriers make it incredibly difficult for them to move there permanently. Probably the most insurmountable of these barriers is the Chinese hukou system of residency permits, which the government instituted in part to prevent a massive rural exodus that would strain urban infrastructure. Without owning an urban residency permit, which is incredibly difficult or incredibly expensive for non-natives of Chinese cities, it is impossible to get access to urban government services such as health care and education.

Moreover, my experience in Sichuan has taught me not to underestimate the power of Chinese family ties as a guiding social force here. While I have met many people in Yilong who spent many years working outside of Sichuan, often hopping from one Chinese urban center to another in search of work, they all eventually moved back home in order to be close to family. Many people in Yilong are quite confused when I explain to them that my family, not atypically of American middle class families, is quite spread out. My parents live in one city, their siblings with their families and children in different cities, my grandparents in another city entirely. Most of the families whom I have met in Yilong have occupied the same several mu of land for several hundred years and uncounted generations. The idea of permanent dislocation from their ancestral homeland seems for many families to be out of the question.

These barriers to agricultural consolidation raise some interesting questions for the future of economic development in China. Without major overhauls to some of the fundamental underpinnings of the current social and political system, it will be impossible for rural areas in China to follow the same pattern of rural to urban migration and consolidation of farms which worked for the United States and so much of Europe. Only on such large-scale farms does the adoption of more sophisticated farming equipment and chemical fertilizers and pesticides become economically feasible, and thus make possible the huge increases in agricultural productivity which American and European farms experienced during the twentieth century. Can the region continue to grow economically without an increase in agricultural productivity?

 

 

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