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What Is the Impact of China’s New Rural Initiative?

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What Is the Impact of China’s New Rural Initiative?

China is more tightly controlling how farmland can be used in an attempt to bolster food security – but it risks undoing the progress made in alleviating rural poverty.

What Is the Impact of China’s New Rural Initiative?
Credit: Depositphotos

In recent years, the Chinese government has started to worry about the effect of the changing international environment on Chinese food security. The China-U.S. trade war was a wake-up call when Beijing realized its dependence on American soy and corn. The possibility of an international food shortage after the Russian invasion of Ukraine further aggravated this worry. The 2023 Central Government No.1 Document highlights the importance of food security in an uncertain international environment, particularly given the China-U.S. tensions and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The recent “Rural Administrative” (农管) initiative symbolizes Beijing’s effort to increase its control over agriculture production.

Under Beijing’s new rural initiative, preventing farmland from becoming unproductive (非粮化) becomes the most urgent task. The purpose of this initiative is to plan China’s agricultural land use based on food security needs, which is highlighted as the “top priority,” rather than economic interests. To that end, China will “concentrate limited farmland resource into food production.”

Under this system, the government divided farmland into three categories. The best land is labeled as “permanent basic farmland” (永久基本农田), which is prioritized for planting staple food crops, such as rice, wheat, and corn. Regular farmland, the next category, can be used to plant vegetables, fruits, and other cash crops in addition to staple food crops. Lastly, other farmland can be used to develop forestry and other industries. Under this system, farmers cannot convert food-producing farmlands to other uses, even though conversion might bring more economic benefits. In general, this initiative supplants farmers’ economic incentives with national security needs.

Following the central directive, local governments treat farmland protection as a top priority; in Guangxi, it became part of the cadre evaluation scheme. Under the evaluation, each locality must survey all local farmland and divide lands into three categories. It also set targets for consolidating permanent basic farmland.

Provincial governments such as Guangxi also implemented a “food crop planting target” (粮食种植目标), which includes areas for staple crop planting. This target aims to increase the area used for rice cultivation, while stabilizing planting areas for other staple foods such as corn and potatoes. To enforce these targets, local governments use satellite images and inspection teams to crack down on “non-crop-planting activities.” For example, building fishponds and meat farmers were strictly prohibited. In Chengdu, a green trail, the symbol of the city’s environmental protection achievement, was demolished for crop planting. This emphasis on increasing farmland and agricultural production led to the “return forest to farmland” movement, which aimed to cut down trees for arable land.

In the late 1990s, Premier Zhu Rongji implemented the “return farmland to forest” policy after seeing the horrendous ecological effects of the overexploitation of farmland during the 1998 flood. The goal was to protect China’s forestry resources and improve overall ecology. Under this directive, cutting down forests for farmland was strictly banned, and each local government received “forest restoration targets.”

The “return forest to farmland” campaign essentially reversed the previous policy. It was implemented in many areas, with local governments receiving targets for farmland revival (measured in mu, about 1/15 of a hectare). This became the most urgent task, with local officials mobilizing to cut down trees, many of which belonged to farmers. While local officials formed inspection teams to inspect progress, each village committee took the primary duty of cutting down trees.

Village committee members recruited paid “volunteers,” often college students during their winter break. In some places, these volunteers received over 100 yuan ($14) per day. Thus, it became a popular job among college students who tried to make some extra pocket money during vacation. Cadres and volunteers would show up at farmers’ houses and coerce them into signing contracts agreeing to cut down trees voluntarily. If farmers resisted, cadres and volunteers would “overwhelm” farmers while bulldozers ran over trees. Farmers did not receive compensation; their only way to recoup some of the loss was to sell their trees as scrap wood.

The “return forest to farmland” campaign has many potentially harmful outcomes, particularly regarding rural income. The Chinese government views increasing rural income and preventing poor rural households from returning to poverty as the most vital task of the rural revitalization project. In many places, the government continues to provide subsidies to “poverty households” five years after poverty elimination. However, this new policy might undermine these efforts and lead to a large-scale return to poverty.

For many farmers, forestry is a crucial side job. Under the previous “return farmland to forest” policy, many farmers planted trees in remote and poor farmland where cultivating crops for profit was nearly impossible. From the farmers’ perspective, trees do not require heavy-duty maintenance and provide a stable supplementary income. As a result, forestry played a key role in lifting many farmers out of poverty during the rural poverty elimination campaign. Many rural households are worried about the decline in income after the campaign.

In the most extreme cases, local governments even forced farmers to cut down fruit trees to restore arable land for staple food crops, because cutting down forests alone could not meet the farmland revival targets. Cutting down fruit trees has caused significant concerns among farmers, as fruit production is a crucial pillar of the rural income and a key factor in poverty elimination in rural areas. In places such as Guangxi, cultivating oranges and other fruits is the pillar of the local economy. In addition to providing higher income than producing staple foods, fruit production also requires less manual labor. As a result, farmers often take other part-time and full-time jobs to supplement their income. One interviewee even stated that orange production was the sole reason her family could afford her university education. Thus, as news of cutting down fruit trees reached farmers, many became worried that this new policy would push them back into poverty.

This campaign has also placed a tremendous burden on local cadres. Regardless of their original duties, all cadres must join the inspection team and “go down to the village” (下乡) to enforce this policy. The local government often left only one or two people to run daily activities while everyone went down to the village. As a result, they have often had to postpone or even ignore their daily, non-campaign-related responsibilities. According to one interviewee, the cadres have had to work overtime to complete their work, leading to widespread complaints among officials.

In addition, following the tree-cutting campaign, many farmers are reluctant to work on the newly revived farmlands. First, these lands are often poor and remote, which is the reason farmers had left them fallow and planted trees in the first place. In addition, the bulldozers destroyed the previous land dividing lines; farmers don’t know where their land stops and their neighbor’s land starts. Thus, they refused to use these lands to avoid potential conflicts with neighbors. As a result, officials have been tasked with restoring soil nutrition and planting staple food crops, adding even more tasks to their workload. One interviewee admitted that many officials lost weekends to work on their new assignments.

Beijing’s new food security initiative would undermine poverty elimination efforts by reducing rural household income. The emphasis on staple food production forced farmers to cut down profitable forests and even fruit trees alienating many farmers.

Besides farmers, even city residents wonder about the deeper political meaning behind this policy. One Beijing resident reached a very specific conclusion: “Do you know what this means? The state is preparing for war. Attacking Taiwan is inevitable!” While his analysis is not based on any concrete evidence, it shows that the influence of this campaign has reached beyond the rural area.

The zero COVID policy has ended, but Beijing still considers mobilization campaigns an important way to achieve policy goals and address challenges – even though these campaigns will cause unintentional negative consequences. In short, mobilization is here to stay; only the focus has changed.