China’s Push to Advance Rural Revitalization

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China’s Push to Advance Rural Revitalization

Xi is promoting a new vision to tackle long-standing problems like the rural-urban divide, food security, and poverty.

China’s Push to Advance Rural Revitalization
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Rural revitalization is a critical component of the Chinese government’s 2020-2025 work plan. The overarching aim of rural revitalization is to make China, a still largely traditional agricultural country, into “a modern, socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by 2049. As China is at a historical juncture of moving toward its second centenary goal, the Chinese central authorities seek to achieve this by consolidating the achievements of poverty alleviation and pushing for the modernization of the agricultural sectors and rural areas, as demonstrated by recent plans and announcements put forward by the Chinese central government.

President Xi Jinping first spoke in 2017 of “implementing the strategy of rural revitalization” and promoting an integrated urban-rural development during the 19th National Party Congress. Since then, the strategy has appeared as a critical focus of many of the policies and plans of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For instance, in 2018, the Central Committee and the State Council issued the 2018-2022 Strategic Planning for Revitalization of Rural Areas. Following this, the National Rural Revitalization Bureau was built to replace the Poverty Alleviation Office in February 2021. The bureau seeks to continue improving the livelihood of rural people.

The rural revitalization strategy was also a significant focus at the recent Central Rural Work Conference in December 2021. These conferences set out agricultural and rural development plans and tasks related to “the three rurals” (三农) (agriculture, rural areas, and farmers) for the coming year. Last year’s conference, led by Xi and bringing together officials from agricultural and rural authorities nationwide, also highlighted the necessity of encouraging rural revitalization. China shifted its focus from rural work to overall rural revitalization to benefit both the environment and the people. These plans include, for instance, promoting the socioeconomic development of the countryside as well as encouraging the development of secondary and tertiary industries in rural areas.

At the same time, the rural revitalization strategy aims to promote the sustainable development of the countryside, including creating a robust rural economy. Notably, at the Central Rural Work Conference in late 2020, Xi set forth the concept of “rejuvenation of the nation and revitalization of the countryside.” He also called on the entire CCP and Chinese society to promote rural revitalization.

This strategy intersects with some of China’s other significant aims, such as the “Chinese Dream,” “ecological civilization,” and “Beautiful China.” It also fits in with the national green development push, green agricultural development, and other development policies. The inclusion of green or sustainable growth and a robust rural economy demonstrates the growing interest of the Chinese central authorities in environmental protection, which is likely to continue in 2022 and beyond.

The main components of the push to advance rural revitalization are outlined below.

Rural Development

Agriculture, rural areas, and farmers are the top priority for the Chinese central government. In December last year, Tang Renjian, China’s minister of agriculture and rural affairs, wrote in the Qiushi Journal, laying out the main goals of the rural revitalization strategy. In his article, “Steadily Advancing Rural Revitalization,” he noted that China has always had a large agricultural industry of small-scale farms. To promote the prosperity of both rural areas and their residents, modern farming practices, he argued, must be adopted by small-scale farmers.

Furthermore, Tang acknowledged that the rural ownership rights system and market-based allocation of factors of production must improve. Doing so will enable farmers to have greater property rights and increase production in rural areas. At the Central Rural Work Conference in late December last year, Xi additionally commented that efforts must be made to promote the efficiency and quality of the agricultural sector. To support these tasks, rural areas will be made suitable to live and work in, including by boosting rural incomes and spending power.

The continued emphasis on rural development and agricultural production also follows various policies and laws related to rural revitalization. For example, in April 2021, the “Law on Promotion of Rural Revitalization” was passed to accelerate the development of rural areas while also maintaining environmental protection measures. The law came into effect on June 1.

The legislation also seeks to encourage food security by barring farmland from being used for non-agricultural purposes and by turning the Chinese Farmers’ Harvest Festival into a statutory holiday to revitalize rural culture. It also called for increased efforts to create agricultural brands, improve the country’s food safety standards, and implement vocational training programs to boost the

Land Protection

The environment in China has been severely degraded in recent decades due to food systems and increased food production. The increased food production is needed to feed China’s population, currently the world’s largest. However, food systems, particularly those at the food production stage, pose severe risks around the world due to their effects on climate change, freshwater use, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, land-use changes, and biodiversity loss. This is also the case for China.

As part of efforts to reduce these effects under rural revitalization, the “Law on Promotion of Rural Revitalization” seeks to improve environmental conditions. For instance, it requires local authorities to roll out measures to repair the damaged environment, reduce the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and adequately treat wastewater and rubbish. This fits alongside plans to prevent soil and groundwater pollution and protect the rural environment and the national aims of “Beautiful China” and “ecological civilization.” There is also a push to convert degraded lands into arable land while still protecting the ecological environment, similar to the “red line plan.”

Mentioned in last year’s “No. 1 document,” the purpose of the “red line” is to protect China’s limited land resources from further land degradation to encourage increased agricultural production. In December 2020, Xi announced that greater efforts should be made to increase agricultural production to ensure food security, including retaining a  “red line” of 120 million hectares of cultivated land.

Further encouraging agricultural production and supporting rural revitalization, Beijing has also established a National High-Standard Farmland Construction Plan (2021-2030) to increase the amount of arable land for farming and crop yields per acre. The plan aims to reach a national target of 71.75 million hectares of “high-standard farmland” by 2025 and then reach 80 million hectares by 2030. This will also help ensure that the “Chinese bowls are filled with Chinese grain and that Chinese grain is grown primarily from Chinese seeds,” as Xi and Tang described last year.

Agricultural Production and Food Security

The push for rural revitalization comes at a time when domestic food production in China is unable to maintain current lifestyles and consumption habits. It also comes against a backdrop of global food-trade disruptions, natural disasters, deficits in production, and the impact of COVID-19 on supply chains, forcing Beijing to rethink its approach to food security.

Even as food demand grows, China is seeing reduced quality and quantity of arable land due to urbanization, intensive farming, and agricultural runoff. Research from the World Bank shows that the rural areas in China have only 0.21 acres of arable land per capita, indicating that China needs higher agricultural yields from less available land.

At the same time, China’s water resources are under considerable strain due to nationwide quality, quantity, and distribution issues. These problems are further compounded by rapid urbanization, shifting demographics, and a smaller rural workforce.

To overcome the challenges posed by food, water, labor, energy insecurity, and related concerns, the Chinese central government may use the rural revitalization strategy alongside other goals (e.g. national output targets) to encourage agricultural production to help feed the nation. For example, as part of efforts to increase domestic agricultural production, the Chinese central authorities have put forward various policies and plans, including a new grain security law, annual grain production targets, and planting acreage targets.

These targets also fit in with China’s greater aim of safeguarding food security, in itself an increasingly high priority for Beijing under the new “dual circulation” development strategy. As the “dual circulation” strategy seeks greater self-reliance to reduce external uncertainties, China’s rural areas are seen as having great potential to boost domestic demand and are essential to increase self-sufficiency in agricultural production.

Poverty Alleviation

Poverty elimination has been one of Xi’s vital national initiatives since taking power in 2012. As a predominantly agricultural country with a long history, China’s rural regions are considered the backbone of the country’s overall development. In 1949, most people lived below the poverty line. Since the beginning of the reform and opening-up era, policies and frameworks have been implemented to encourage the agricultural modernization process, resulting in over 700 million rural residents being lifted out of poverty.

Over the past eight years, China has lifted the final 98.99 million impoverished rural residents living under the current poverty line out of poverty and removed all 832 poor counties and 128,000 villages from the poverty list. In February 2021, Xi declared a “complete victory” in eradicating extreme poverty in China, calling the poverty alleviation campaign a “miracle for humankind.” This milestone has been achieved by lifting approximately 10 million people out of extreme poverty every year since 2013. As a result, China has officially met the poverty eradication target set out in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 10 years ahead of schedule.

At last year’s Rural Work Conference in December, Xi emphasized that the premise of rural revitalization is to consolidate the achievements of poverty alleviation. To that end, China has announced plans to increase the employment of those lifted out of poverty. In January 2022, China stated that it would strive this year to ensure the employment of at least 30 million people lifted out of poverty. Liu Huanxin, deputy chief of the Office of the Central Rural Work Leading Group and head of the National Rural Revitalization Administration, noted that in 2021, approximately 31.45 million rural residents lifted out of poverty found jobs. Similarly, in 2020, approximately 30.19 million rural residents lifted out of poverty found employment.

According to Liu, new measures will increase domestic labor service cooperation between counties, cities, and provinces. Also, public welfare jobs in rural areas will be provided alongside support for entrepreneurship and flexible employment.

As a result of China’s efforts to consolidate national poverty alleviation achievements and push for rural revitalization, the average net income of those lifted out of poverty has risen. Estimates from official data show that this average net income likely reached 12,500 renminbi (roughly $1,968) in 2021, demonstrating an increase of more than 16.5 percent year on year.

Through rural revitalization, the gap in living standards between urban and rural can be reduced, which is necessary to strengthen coordinated regional development. As Tang noted in December 2021, the key to solving China’s imbalanced and inadequate development lies in agriculture, rural areas, and rural residents. If left unaddressed, the widening gap between rich and poor, as seen by access to the “three big mountains” (education, healthcare, and housing), for instance, could pose a threat to the Chinese Community Party’s leadership and the country’s social stability.

Meeting Basic Needs

Another significant aspect of the push for rural revitalization is to ensure the basic needs of rural residents are met along with improvements to their wellbeing. For example, in 2021, the “No. 1 document” referred to long-term policies to improve the lives and welfare of rural residents. These include, for instance, guaranteeing farmers’ incomes and improving infrastructure and essential public services in rural areas.

Following the policies referred to in the “No 1 document” last year, in January of this year, Tang announced that there would be a greater focus on the building of public infrastructure in rural areas and sanitary conditions to advance rural revitalization. As part of this, Tang’s recent article in Qiushi Journal stated that a five-year Green Rural Revival Program would be launched as part of the Chinese central government’s rural revitalization strategy.

The Green Rural Revival Program was initially launched in Zhejiang province in 2003 by Xi, who was then party secretary of Zhejiang. As an ecological engineering idea that focused on the concept that “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” in rural areas, the program aimed to transform the province by incorporating water management, waste management, and recycling. By 2017, 27,000 villages finished their initial revival program, making up an estimated 97 percent of villages in Zhejiang Province. In September 2018, the program was recognized with the highest environmental honor of the United Nations. Tang’s inclusion of the Green Rural Revival Program in his recent article for the latest edition of Qiushi suggests that the Chinese central government may consider the program’s rollout on a national scale.

China’s push to advance rural revitalization incorporates the implementation of many policies and national aims, seeking to transform China and the lives of its rural residents. Aiming to address regional socioeconomic regional disparities, the widening gap between urban and rural residents, and promote the sustainable development of the Chinese countryside, the rural revitalization strategy offers both the environment and rural residents many opportunities.

However, rural revitalization also presents challenges. How can the Chinese central government implement and enforce rural revitalization strategies at all levels? What kind of enabling environment and legal mechanisms, if needed, could help ensure the success of the rural revitalization strategy? How sustainable is the push to advance rural revitalization? How much energy and water will be needed to carry out rural revitalization? Will competing domestic demands between urban, industry, and agriculture affect the strategy’s success? How does the expected energy consumption of rural revitalization fit into Xi’s declarations that China will reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060? To what extent can increased agricultural production in China safeguard the country’s food security?

Nonetheless, such potential concerns could be mitigated or avoided by technological developments. These include using artificial intelligence in farming for more efficient agricultural production, growing genetically-modified (GM) crops for higher yields, creating cultivated meats to meet domestic demand, and using alternative water supply sources to avoid further water insecurity concerns.