China's Farming, Once Vital, Is an Economic Drag ; Low Earnings Prompt Migration to Cities, and Rural Areas Are Left Barren

By Johnson, Ian | International New York Times, October 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

China's Farming, Once Vital, Is an Economic Drag ; Low Earnings Prompt Migration to Cities, and Rural Areas Are Left Barren


Johnson, Ian, International New York Times


Because land is government-owned, small family farmers are hurt by high rents and an inability to get mortgages or cash advances to grow businesses.

For about 4,000 years, farming in this part of Shaanxi Province has been a touchstone of Chinese civilization. It was here that the mythic hero Hou Ji is said to have taught Chinese how to grow grain, and the area's rich harvests underpinned China's first dynasties, feeding officials and soldiers in the nearby imperial capital.

But nowadays, Yangling's fields are in disarray. Frustrated by how little they earn, the ablest farmers have migrated to cities, hollowing out a rural district in the Chinese heartland. Left behind are people like Hui Zongchang, 74, who grows wheat and corn on a half-acre plot while his son works as a day laborer in the metropolis of Xi'an to the east. Mr. Hui, still vigorous despite a stoop, said he made next to no money from farming. He tills the earth as a kind of insurance.

"What land will they farm if I don't keep this going?" he said of his children. "Not everyone makes it in the city."

From a bedrock of traditional culture, and an engine of the post- Mao economic boom in the 1980s, agriculture has become a burden for China.

Farm output remains high. But rural living standards have stagnated compared with the cities, and few in the countryside see their future there. The most recent figures show a threefold gap between urban and rural incomes, fueling discontent and helping to make China one of the most unequal societies in the world. The nation's Communist leaders have declared that fixing the countryside is crucial to maintaining social stability. Last year, they unveiled a new blueprint for economic reform with agricultural policy as a centerpiece. But the challenge confronting them resembles a tangled knot.

It begins with the fact that farms in China are too small to generate large profits, about 1.6 acres on average, compared with 400 acres in the United States. Yet it is difficult to consolidate these farms into larger, more efficient operations because Chinese farmers do not own their plots -- they lease them from the government.

Privatizing farmland would allow market forces to create bigger farms. But that would be a political minefield for the Communist Party. It would also risk exacerbating inequality, by concentrating land ownership in the hands of a few while leaving many rural families without farms to fall back on if they hit hard times in the cities.

"All of these issues are interlocked and require a series of reforms to be solved," said Luo Jianchao, a professor at Northwest A&F University in Yangling, and a government adviser. "There's no magic bullet."

In late September, President Xi Jinping endorsed an experiment underway in Yangling and other parts of China to untangle this knot. The measure, called liuzhuan, stops short of privatization but gives farmers land-use rights that they can transfer to others in exchange for a rental fee.

The goal is to simulate a private land market and allow family- run, labor-intensive farms to change hands and be amalgamated into large-scale, industrialized businesses. In theory, liuzhuan lets this to happen without cutting ties between rural families and the land, since they collect rental fees as a safety net.

Mr. Xi has presented the policy as critical to China's next phase of economic reform. Skeptics, however, say it shows the government remains unwilling to consider a bold measure that has worked in many countries: giving farmers full ownership of their land.

"Privatization of land is a key issue, but it's completely taboo," said Tao Ran, an agricultural expert at Renmin University in Beijing. The party leadership, he said, "cannot countenance it."

More is at stake than the socialist credentials of the Communist Party, which came to power in a peasant revolution in 1949 and immediately collectivized farmland. State ownership of land is also a major source of government revenue. …

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