The Economy - China´s 10th National People´s Congress - 5th Session

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The Burden of China´s Peasantry

This is how a good old classical Chinese story about government has to start. I don´t know if it is legend or truth, but it is quoted in an online document published by Taiwan´s Mainland Affairs Council.
This is how it goes...

In spring of the year 2000, Zhu Rongji, then China´s premier, received a dossier from a local official in Hubei province, stating the situation of the rural population. Moved by the dossier, Zhu added a comment: nongmin zhen ku, nongcun zhen qiong, nongye zhen weixian, which could be freely translated like "the peasants really suffer, the villages are really poor, agriculture is really precarious". Whatever the genesis of the issue really was, the san nong had started to become a major one for the central government in Peking.

Zhu Rongji was renowned as a tough and efficient reformer. But when Wen Jiabao succeeded Zhu as prime minister in 2003, he inherited most, or all of China´s countryside crisis. Apparently, not too much had been done about the hardship of China´s farmers, until four years ago.

On the dossiers and working reports that followed Wen´s succession, "san nong", the three rural hardships, turned into politics. Tax breaks, and eventually the scrapping of all taxes on farming, followed in the years up to 2006. But Wen had to concede this week that not all goals set for the past year had been reached. And that wasn´t only the protection of the environment.

Some of Peking´s goals for the coming year sound like symbolic gestures, rather than like steps to improve the situations of the farmers. The March 6 overseas edition of Ren Min Ri Bao (People´s Daily) quotes excerpts from Wen Jiabao´s working report. It even refers to the need to control golf course development (as one of several measures to safeguard at least 1,800,000,000 Mu of arable land, nationwide). Granted, golf courses do require a lot of land. But when looking at the underlying problems, one wonders if the poor particularly hate golf (and Wen´s announcement to rein it back is an efficient bit of populism), or if Wen meant to indicate how powerless the central government actually is. Macro-economics it is not.

Last year, the underlying problem of land use was described by Wei Kang, a researcher with the State Politics Academy (guojia xingzheng xueyuan). It was first published in the Shandong Social Science periodical (Shandong Shehui Kexue), No. 6, 2006, and then reprinted in excerpts by Xinhua Wenzhai No. 17, of September 5, 2006.

From 1996 to 2003, Wei´s article says, China´s arable land dropped from 1,951,000,000 Mu to 1,951,000,000 Mu: a drop of 100,000,000 Mu or 6,670,000 hectares (1 Mu = 0,0667 hectares). This wouldn´t necessarily hurt, if his assumption that many of China´s 200,000,000 redundant workforce will have to find non-agricultural employment in order to rise to average income levels was right, anyway. But arable land is shrinking, and the unemployed are still there.

Wei Kang argues that urbanization has been favoured by local governments, and that the peasants have contributed to industrialization, with no adequate gains of their own. Arable land had been lost to developing urbanization, and industrialization. When the right to use arable land is sold to industrial companies, the local governments and the farmers "all get their share". But the local governments establish the price at which the land use right is sold. The farmers, Wei´s article says, are in an unequal position to the other two stakeholders: the authorities, and the industrialists. You can expect the share of the farmers in this business to be low.

True - local cadres love industrialization. Farming carries little prestige in China, and a general urban contempt for the peasants is apparent, too. Wei does not speculate about what happens with land transactions from farming to industry when local officials are truly corrupt. To assess the impact of corruption would be difficult for technical reasons alone - not to mention the political limits to research in China. After all, corruption is no public business. Only Wen Jiabao seemed to know some numbers, on the NPC session this week: "In some areas, departments, and a minority of those working there, there is still bureaucracy, formality, separation from the masses, dereliction of duty, and even power abuse and corruption."

Erm... yes.

This isn´t how a good old classical story about government should end. But then, there are almost four more years ahead, within the current 11th five-year plan.

sources and related topics:

Hardcopy –
Wen Jiabao zongli zhengfu gongzuo baogao zhaiyao, Ren Min Ri Bao (overseas edition), 2007-03-06, page 4

Hardcopy –
Wei Kang: nongcun jiu ye zhuanyi zengzhang de kunjing, Xinhua Wenzhai, 2006-09-05, page 50 - 53

Internet –
Mainland Affairs Council - article on san nong (pdf file)

External links about this topic
Agriculture in China
continuously updated

Aiming for the moon, but ill-prepared to deal with the plight of peasants
Oct 11th 2007

The Economist
This was an article by an academic in Hong Kong (Carsten A. Holtz) that basically asked if scholars researching China are celf-censoring their research papers, for fear that they may not keep access to mainland Chinese sources otherwise. It was a very interesting article, unusually outspoken, and is no longer accessible at FEER Online.

New property law passed, Mar 16, 2007
BBC News

A new property law, Mar 8, 2007
The Economist

State property neglected? - Oct 28, 2006
People´s Daily Online

Related internal links
Kang Xiaoguang propagates Confucianism for a stable society, June 1 & 7, 2007
Only Confucians can rule China, says professor

cities and countryside, Oct 6, 2006
Income disparities

 rice farming
 rice farming 

 market hall
 market hall 


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