Since the start of the economic reforms in 1978, China has developed today into one of the world’s leading producers of agricultural produce—particularly pork, poultry, fruits, vegetables, wheat, corn, and rice. The transition of China’s collectivist Soviet-style agricultural production toward a modernized, mechanized, and market-based agriculture has taken many decades to take effect. A major breakthrough that marked the start of China’s agricultural transition was the nationwide adoption of the Household Contract Responsibility System in the mid-1980s. In addition to these managerial and structural changes, the Chinese government engaged in the liberalization of agricultural prices and supply and marketing systems, as well as the stimulation of agricultural diversification, mechanization, and economies of scale. As agriculture continued to develop, millions of farmers were lifted out of poverty and migrated to the cities to find employment in the industries and services. At the same time, however, China encountered significant problems as a result. For one, how to ensure food security and feed close to one-fifth of the earth’s population with less than one-tenth of its farmland? On top of that, over time vast tracts of fertile, arable land were lost due to its (legal and illegal) conversion into urban construction land. Raising agricultural production was also severely constrained by the small and fragmented nature of Chinese farms. Well into the 2010s, over 90 percent of these were smaller than 2.5 acres, while cropland was scattered over numerous different plots. Furthermore, ensuring adequate social welfare, education, and health care for the rural populace had become a daunting challenge in the face of the growing divide between urban citizens and the peasant population. Last but not least, rapid rural industrialization through township and village enterprises (TVEs), once hailed as a miracle of China’s reforms, had taken a heavy toll in the form of soil, air, and water pollution, giving rise to “cancer villages”, “black rivers,” and heavily degraded natural resources. At the time of this writing, Chinese agriculture is caught in between two worlds: on the one hand, one may find smallholders tilling scattered agricultural plots, on the other hand, there are high-tech food-processing factories and the peri-urban, sometimes ecologically guided industrial farms. The stark contrast between a highly modernized sector versus a traditional one will continue to explain the paradoxical dynamics of Chinese post-collective agriculture for the foreseeable future.
A wealth of materials on Chinese post-collective agriculture is available. The literature may be divided into two major strands. First, Western studies that—primarily driven out of an interest in contemporary China—examine agriculture as one of the major areas of its reform. Overall, these studies provide different perspectives on the changes that occurred within Chinese post-collective agriculture. Parish 1985 looks into the first efforts to decollectivize farming. Unger 2002 and Putterman 1993 provide a detailed look on the shift from the collective to the post-collective period, the former with a fine-grained qualitative approach, the latter combining that with quantitative data. Ho, et al. 2004 allows the putting of agricultural changes into perspective, while also offering insights into their fiscal, social, and environmental aspects. Zhang, et al. 2015 analyzes the post-2000 situation of state-sponsored agricultural modernization and argues that China’s agricultural trajectory constitutes a valuable paradigm to study agrarian change and the development of rural China. Secondly, there are studies from Chinese scholars which, initially from an economic angle, and later diversifying into other disciplines (i.e., sociology, political science, and anthropology) study agricultural transition with a somehow more technical and normative approach—that is to say, using data and case studies to derive lessons in order to improve China’s agricultural modernization policies and practices. An early example of this approach is Du 1995. Zhang and Li 2018 enlarge and actualize the analysis and Yan, et al. 2014 considers the future prospects. Zhang, et al. 2009 gathers accounts representing both the strands outlined above.
Du, Runsheng. Reform and Development in Rural China. Edited by Thomas R. Gottschang. London: Palgrave, 1995.
A collection of speeches by the politician considered to be the “father of Chinese rural reforms,” providing insight into his thinking.
Ho, Peter, Jacob Eyferth, and Eduard Vermeer, eds. Rural Development in Transitional China: The New Agriculture. London and New York: Frank Cass, 2004.
Wide-ranging study covering land, labor, industries, fiscal policy, social welfare, poverty, food, and environment.
Parish, William L., ed. Chinese Rural Development: The Great Transformation. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1985.
One of the earliest Western works on China’s agriculture at the time of decollectivization.
Putterman, Louis. Continuity and Change in China’s Rural Development: Collective and Reform Eras in Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993
Although it contemplates also the collective period, this work offers a comprehensive introduction to the post-collective agrarian situation, shedding light on the transition from the former to the latter. It draws both from quantitative data and case studies.
Unger, Jonathan. The Transformation of Rural China. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002.
Deals not only with agriculture but focuses on the shift from collective to post-collective agrarian organization from a qualitative, micro-level perspective.
Yan Ruizhen 严瑞珍, Luo Dan 罗丹, and Kong Xiangzhi 孔祥智, eds. Weilai shi nian nongye nongcun fazhan zhanwang (未来十年业农村发展展望). Beijing: Nongye Chubanshe, 2014.
Economic review of the process of China’s agricultural and rural development.
Zhang, Qian Forrest, Carlos Oya, and Jingzhong Ye. “Bringing Agriculture Back In: The Central Place of Agrarian Change in Rural China Studies.” Journal of Agrarian Change 15.3 (2015): 299–313.
A comprehensive overview of the main academic focuses and debates on China’s agriculture in the post-collective period, arguing for a reconsideration of its importance in an era of government sponsored rural revitalization.
Zhang, Xiaoshan, Li Xiaoyun, Peter Ho, and Du Zhixiong, eds. Zhuanxing zhong de nongcun fazhan: Chengxiang xietiao fazhan de xin zhanlue (转型中的农村发展:城乡协调发展的新战略). Beijing: China Social Sciences Press, 2009.
Comprehensive collection of studies by both Western and Chinese scholars, including on farmers’ income, credit, markets, land loss, natural resources, food, and pollution.
Zhang, Xiaoshan, and Li Zhou, eds. China’s Rural Development Road. Berlin: Springer, 2018.
Agronomic study of the economic transition of Chinese post-collective agriculture.
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