Problems with China's Agricultural Modernization

By Olpadwala, Porus | Monthly Review, December 1989 | Go to article overview

Problems with China's Agricultural Modernization


Olpadwala, Porus, Monthly Review


This article is based on remarks made as chair of the final session of the Annual Conference of the Chinese Association of Agricultural Students and Scholars (CAASS) at Cornell University, June 25, 1989.

Our two days of deliberations have shown post-1978 Chinese agriculture to have been a mixed bag, in sharp contrast to earlier appraisals of unadulterated success.

The Modernization Program has resulted in sharp increases in productivity and per capita income. But ironically this has taken place without much modernization having occurred. On the contrary, and remarkably, some of our colleagues have argued that the decade dedicated to building up agriculture may have ended up with a net disinvestment in that sector.

The achievements of the reform are diluted in a number of ways. Increases in income have not been across the board. The abolition of the iron rice-bowl, together with a reduction in social services, has left a considerable number of people poorer. There has been a switch out of basic food grains into cash crops, so that China has had grain shortfalls these past four years, necessitating food imports.

Excessive fragmentation of land has made "spaghetti agriculture" a part of our lexicon. This shredding, together with de facto privatization, has seriously affected scale-economies in machinery, irrigation, drainage, and pest- and weed-control. There has been a concommitant sharp reduction in mechanization, with considerable losses of existing machinery through disuse. Up to half a million hectares per year of valuable cropland have been lost to roads, industries, and other trappings of urbanization. Environmental degradation is severe as forest areas are reduced, water polluted, and crop residues used for home-fuel instead of being returned to the land. Inflation is high. Unemployment is growing, and so is external dependence.

Even scarier is the long-term disinvestment in agriculture about which we have been warned repeatedly these past two days. Government investment, measured as a proportion of its total budgetary expenditure, has plummeted to a third of 1978, and private farmers have apparently not found it worthwhile to fill the gap. The phenomenal increase in rural private investment of the decade has been overwhelmingly in residential construction. On the production side, the people seem to have been content to run down the communal infrastructure erected in the previous thirty years. But this cannot be done indefinitely, and recent reports of the ruination of the productive infrastructure are worrisome.

Long-term prospects are also being jeopardized by the drastic decrease in investment in human resources. The number of primary schools in the countryside was halved in the ten years of reform (from 1.62 million in 1978 to 744,000 in 1987) even as population rose. Nearly 25 million fewer rural children were in school in 1987 than in 1978 as parents kept them away to help with private family and farm chores. Health, medical, and other social investments have also declined.

These are not good signs for the future. As the next generation of China's leaders in agriculture, you are faced with critical choices, more crucial than those of 1978, or perhaps even of 1949. The option of private appropriation in the short term or public investment build-up in the long term is no longer open to you; even if it were, to continue to mortgage the future for immediate benefit would be foolish. Other ways must be found.

Please consider four matters as you ponder your choices. First, a more balanced view of your own past is desperately needed. …

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