by CAGJ member Ross Doll
China’s small-scale and subsistence household farms across the country are rapidly fading. For thousands of years the foundation of Chinese agriculture and a fixture of China’s vast countryside, they are now being replaced by the large-scale and mechanized operations so common in the Global North.1 Prominent Western and Chinese media reports have hailed this phenomenon as a necessary step to easing rural poverty, improving food security, and boosting the global economy. Says the New York Times in a recent article, “The world may benefit” — in other words, everyone wins. However, my research in rural China, along with broader work in China studies, suggests a more complicated situation, and along with it the need for a very different response.
The number of small-scale farmers in China has been rapidly declining since the 1990s, when rural people began moving to China’s cities en masse. But the remaking of the rural landscape has reached a new scale and pace in the past 10 years. This new era has been precipitated by the Chinese government and its investments. The state has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into agricultural infrastructure, funding demolition and land leveling projects2 and subsidies for new, “modern” farms.3 Though it has stopped short of privatizing rural land, the state has formalized and liberalized the rural property market to allow village households to lease and exchange their shares of collectively-owned land more freely.
Reporting on this phenomenon has often described small-scale farming as a “scourge” of drudgery and poverty whose demise is long overdue.4 These stories have praised the Chinese state’s agricultural modernization policy as offering a long-term and comprehensive solution to the problems of rural-urban flight and food security.5 Oft-noted are the transformative ripple effects of the state’s land formalization initiative. With registered and transactable land rights, villagers can receive rents from the subsidized large-scale farmers. These rents, we are told, will provide a stable source of income allowing villagers to retire or start a new life as a full-time wage worker.6 Through this process, a once marginalized population will become full-fledged members of the global economy and consumers of “Ford cars, Starbucks cappuccinos and Apple iPhones.”7
I explored these claims as part of my research in rural China. I spent 12 months in total from 2014 to 2018 conducting fieldwork in Ruilin8, a township of 30,000 in the central eastern province of Anhui. Research included 220 formal and informal interviews with small- and large-scale farmers, government officials, input sellers, grain processors, and laborers. In 2007, the year modernization began, farming in Ruilin was done by 9,000 households with farms averaging half a hectare. These farmers were indeed aging, with most in their 50s and 60s. Eleven years later in 2018, all of Ruilin’s arable land had been reconstructed for large-scale mechanized farming. Sixty-one percent of that land had been leased to 135 large scale farmers on five-year contracts, with landholdings averaging 13 hectares. In 8 of Ruilin’s 12 villages, nearly all of the arable land was in the hands of large-scale farmers. This rapid expansion earned Ruilin and its leaders national policy model status. Ruilin officials were rewarded with priority funding, promotions, and frequent visits from nationwide delegations hoping to learn from their success.
This image belied a more complex and troubling reality, however. While many Ruilin villagers embraced the chance to lease their land to large-scale farmers, more than half did not, preferring to continue farming their land. Far from respecting their wishes, however, Ruilin officials responded with pressure and coercion, including ideological re-education9, threats to livelihoods and lives, and land vandalism. Having signed over the rights to their land, either freely or under duress, villagers were compensated with about $500 a year in rent — a sum that placed them just over the state’s poverty line.
Willed into existence at such costs, the new large-scale farmers were largely failing. Eighty percent of those I interviewed reported to me that they were either losing money or just breaking even, with a majority stating they were not planning to renew their leases. They cited high input and labor costs as barriers to success. But most importantly, at such large scales the new farmers could not adapt quickly enough to extreme weather and the restrictions of Ruilin’s growing seasons. Ruilin’s more adaptable small scale farmers were 25-75% more productive on a per hectare basis. They were also substantially less susceptible to wind, rain, and drought related crop damage. Ruilin small-scale farmers did frequently overuse chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but as government officials acknowledged in interviews, this is largely attributable to the influence of private and unregulated input retailers, who often prescribe overuse as a profit-making tactic.10
The large number of farmers immediately willing to lease their land, combined with the ages of those still farming, offers some support for the view that the Chinese state’s modernization policy was necessary. But as historical and state-level research shows, these were hardly natural outcomes. Rural-urban inequality, long a problem in China, has reached new extremes over the past 30 years.11 While urban residents had more than twice the disposable income of rural residents in 1990, they had three times the disposable income by 2008. That same year, life expectancy for rural people was 12 years less than urbanites, and the rural infant mortality rate was twice that of cities. These changes corresponded with significant pro-urban shifts in state policy. After the state liberalized its economy following Mao’s passing in 1976, it dramatically reduced investments in agriculture, rural services, and rural infrastructure. The state directed that funding instead to the cities, pursuing an urban and coastal export industrialization-based economy. In 1994 the state changed tax laws with the effect of discouraging rural governments’ support of local industries and incentivizing their pursuit of property development, leading to waves of job losses and land expropriation. China’s economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s came at the direct expense of its rural people, and at the same time was critically enabled by the artificially deflated cost of their factory labor.
No reasonable person would ever anticipate that they could achieve prosperity by farming half a hectare of land, as Ruilin small-scale farmers do. But institutional neglect and exploitation have made insecurity and marginalization a fact of life for most rural people.
As my research in Ruilin shows, even when villagers do legally contract their land to large-scale farmers, this does not necessarily reflect a desire to give up farming. The power held by rural officials over villagers means they can often pressure and coerce obedience. Villagers have few means of influencing or punishing rural officials. Village-level elections and the inspections performed by county and city officials have long been perfunctory and orchestrated. Government-controlled courts and grievance offices offer little aid. Meanwhile, officials’ ability to gain needed budgetary funds as well as job promotions is tied to their implementation of state development goals. They thus have every incentive to push villagers off of their land by signing over their household land shares. Under these circumstances, the formalization of land rights not only fails to protect and secure villagers’ interests; it facilitates rural officials’ land grabbing by giving them the means to disguise and dismiss coerced results with legal evidence of villagers’ apparent consent.
It is true that large-scale farming has its advantages. Able to accommodate large-scale tractors and threshers, it is far more labor efficient than small-scale farming. It is thus theoretically more cost effective, and eases pressure on states like China’s to retain a sizable rural workforce via policy. But as Ruilin shows, this theoretical cost-benefit analysis ignores critical factors. Among them, large-scale and mechanized farmers are rigid. They are often reliant on inputs like fuel, genetically-modified seeds, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This in turn renders them vulnerable to disruptions in supply chains, but also to the whims of the companies supplying those inputs. As higher prices drive out smaller farmers, the consolidation of farms and farmland self-replicates.12 This resource inefficiency also has significant implications for global warming. It is estimated that practices related to industrial agriculture are responsible for 25-30% of greenhouse gas emissions. The size of large-scale farms also slows farmers’ ability to adapt to particular climates and climate related disruptions. Small-scale farming affords adaptability and practices (such as non-tillage farming, seed saving, intercropping, and crop rotation) that are far more resource efficient, and can offer early warnings of pending ecological disturbances, as well as can better buffer those disturbances.13
In the end, we’re left with crises of poverty and food insecurity that were and are to a large degree avoidable, and a modernization “solution” that is not only failing, but seems to be creating new crises.
There are some reasons for optimism. In four of Ruilin’s 12 villages, farmers successfully resisted the local government’s pressure by protesting at government buildings, blocking bulldozers, and rebuilding vandalized land. These actions show that villagers do have some power to influence government action, particularly when they can act collectively and strategically to draw attention to their cause. In an apparent acknowledgement of the shortcomings of its agricultural modernization policy, the Chinese central government has increasingly promoted more resource efficient modes of agriculture, as well as climate change mitigating rural economies in general. In Ruilin, government officials have responded to this by supporting a businessman specializing in poly-cultural rice farming, as well as agri- and cultural tourism projects. But even these positives come with caveats. When villagers in Ruilin have collectively protested projects of particular economic significance, the Ruilin government has crushed them. And the new farming and tourism projects are plagued by cronyism and waste.
China’s small-scale farms don’t need to fade away. Those farms and the households that manage them can provide an important and resilient means of economic and food security. To do so they need appropriate state support: higher guaranteed grain purchasing prices, more funding for agricultural extension and farmers’ cooperatives, and mechanisms to advocate for their interests, such as fair elections and independent audits. These would allow households to pool resources and share information, hold their leaders to account, and provide a true picture of life on the ground to faraway policymakers. This would be a radical shift, but a necessary one given and befitting our new, unprecedented age — an age that should bury once and for all the ideas that development is linear and one-size-fits-all. The world may benefit.
1 The cumulative percentage of formally transferred household arable land increased from 5 in 2007 to 36.5 in 2017 (Li et al. 2018), while the percentage of mechanically sown arable land increased from about 42% to 62% (Li et al. 2017; Wang et al. 2016). In that same time, statistics show that agricultural mechanization has rapidly expanded, with the use of mechanized inputs in the cultivation, breeding, and harvesting – increasing from 33% to 61% (Qiao 2017).
2 The state encourages rural governments to demolish buildings and level farmland to facilitate farmland consolidation.
3 China Daily website. 2013. “China Gives Agricultural Modernization 500m.” August 18. Accessed March 27, 2020. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013-08/18/content_16901983.htm; China Daily website. 2016. China to Invest $450b Modernizing Agriculture by 2020. September 19. Accessed March 27, 2020. https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2016-09/19/content_26828613.htm.
4 Yglesias, Matthew. 2012. “China’s Service Juggernaut and the Scourge of Agriculture.” Slate. 2 Feb.
5 Hornby, Lucy. 2016. “China Land: Losing the Plot.” Financial Times. 4 Jul; Xinhua. 2021. “China to fully advance rural vitalization, facilitate modernization of agriculture, rural areas.” 21 Feb.
6 Reuters. 2016. “China loosens land transfer rules to spur larger, more efficient farms.” 2 Nov.
7 Schuman, Michael. 2018. “China’s Small Farms are Fading. The World May Benefit. New York Times. 5 Oct.
8 A pseudonym to protect the confidentiality of my research participants.
9 A common government practice dating to the Mao era with the intent of changing individual consciousness (Smith, 2013; Hsing 2010). In Ruilin, ideological re-education consisted of house calls by officials to land transfer holdouts. These meetings often went on for hours and included friends and neighbors recruited for the purpose by the rural government. Rural officials employed two lines of reasoning: 1) giving up farming and urbanizing will increase households’ quality of life; 2) holdouts are delaying collective progress.
10 Doll, R. “Cultivating Decline: Agricultural Modernization Policy and Adaptive Resilience in the Yangzi Delta.” Hum Ecol 49, 43–57 (2021).
11 Kanbur, Ravi and Zhang, Xiaobo. 2004. “Fifty years of regional inequality in China: A journey through central planning, reform and openness.” World Institute for Development Economics Research. August.
12 Mills, Caleb. 2018. “The Rise and Fall of the American Farmer.” Geopolitical Monitor. 20 Mar. https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-american-farmer/.
13 Altieri, M.A., Nicholls, C.I., Henao, A. et al. 2015. Agroecology and the design of climate change-resilient farming systems. Agron. Sustain. Dev. 35: 869–890.
Hsing, You-tien. 2010. The Great Urban Transformation: Politics of Land and Property in China. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Li, Minghao, Zhang Wendong, and Dermot Hayes. 2018. “Can China’s Rural Land Policy Reforms Solve its Farmland Dilemma?” Agricultural Policy Review website. Accessed May 23, 2020. https://www.card.iastate.edu/ag_policy_review/article/?a=78.
Li, Z, Yang, Peilin, Yang, Li, and Peilin, Li. 2017. Reform and Development of Agriculture in China. Singapore: Springer Singapore.
Qiao, Fangbin. 2017. “Increasing Wage, Mechanization, and Agriculture Production in China.” China Economic Review 46: 249–60.
Smith, Aminda M. 2013. “Thought reform and the unreformable: Reeducation centers and the rhetoric of opposition in the early People’s Republic of China.” Journal of Asian Studies 72 (4), 937-958.
Wang, Xiaobing, Futoshi Yamauchi, Keijiro Otsuka, and Jikun Huang. 2016. “Wage Growth, Landholding, and Mechanization in Chinese Agriculture.” World Development 86.
Author bio: Ross Doll is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geography at the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to receiving his PhD from the University of Washington in 2020, he worked in China for six years as a teacher, writer, editor, and researcher, and received his MA in China Studies, also from the University of Washington. He has been a CAGJ member since 2011.