China Change, April 30, 2023
It’s the season for spring planting in China, starting from the south and moving up to the north. However, agricultural policies implemented by the Communist Party authorities in recent years are wreaking havoc in rural communities nationwide this spring, drawing the attention and unease of many Chinese commentators and netizens.
One is the sudden emergence of “Rural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Brigade” (农村综合行政执法大队). Netizens immediately nicknamed those tasked with the enforcing nongguan (农管, literally “rural managers”), echoing the infamous urban enforcers of rules and regulations known as chengguan (城管), and expressed worries that the latter would also brutalize farmers like the chengguan are known to do to street vendors in the cities and towns.
On social media, a lot of videos and posts have been circulating of nongguan “enforcing the law.” In Guangxi, dozens of nongguan eradicated farmers’ tobacco plants; pepper plants that had begun to bear fruit were dug up to make room for grain planting; in a rural area of Guangdong, nongguan trying to pull up ginger plants and demanding farmers to plant rice instead caused a scuffle involving dozens of men; in a video taken in an unknown location, a group of nongguan wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying riot shields pulled out rows of fully grown vegetables despite the pleas from helpless farmers; in a southern community, they chased and beat a flock of geese with long sticks.
All of these are part of the top-down order to return forest to farmland (after years of ecological policy returning farmland to forest), and reclaim farmland that had been used for other purposes. In one video, chainsaw-wielding men were sawing down flourishing fruit trees. In Leping, Zhejiang Province, a woman lamented that the bamboo grove she had worked so hard to cultivate for three years was being cut down and converted to farmland. A farmer reported that all the fish ponds in his county had been ordered to be filled in and converted rice patches within two weeks. Outside Shanghai, a vineyard was pulled up by a roaring excavator.
Most stunningly, the city of Chengdu is converting part of its 100-kilometer belt of parks encircling the city back to farmland. Billed as Chengdu’s name card to the world, this park project was built between 2003 and 2017, costing RMB$34.1 billion. A resident said the lawns near his residential complex, part of Chengdu’s “Green Belt,” have been planted with wheat and corn. A man speaking in Sichuan dialect described sadly how a large lotus pond that used to attract tens of thousands of visitors during the summer now has been dug up for farming.
China has been expanding farmland in recent years, but it seems to have reached an urgency this spring. The Chengdu basin, known as “Heaven’s breadbasket” (天府粮仓), has lost 40 percent of its arable land in just the past 10 years. According to a survey on farmland published a year ago by the Economic Daily, China’s farmland decreased by an average of about 100,000 acres per year over the 40-year period from 1957 to 1996, but in the 23 years from 1996 to 2019, China’s farmland decreased by about 1.7 million acres per year. To put it into perspective, the U.S. had 893.4 million acres of arable land in 2022, while China had about 316 million acres in 2019. The number continues to decrease, and should it follow the present rate, in ten years China’s arable land will fall below the critical red line set by the government: 1.8 billion mu (one mu is roughly a sixth of an acre), or 296.5 million acres.
Overall, China’s arable land is of poor quality, with more than two-thirds of it of low to medium yield, and facing soil degradation. Over the past two decades, China’s food imports have increased year by year. In 2022, Chinese grain imports accounted for 21.4 percent of the country’s total grain production.
In 2023, the No. 1 document of the PRC Central Government calls for “stable production and supply of grain and important agricultural products,” setting the goal for national grain production at more than 1.3 trillion jin (650 million metric tons; one jin or catty is half a kilogram), which, according to the government, has been the annual production for eight years in a row.
The zealous drive to expand grain production this year, then, reflects China’s anxiety over food security.
But it could be easier said than done. The authoritarian government in Beijing knows it is not enough to simply put its edicts in writing; it has to rely on force to implement its demands. This is the reason for the sudden emergence of “nongguan” everywhere in China.
In the past 40 years, China has reduced its peasant population by 400 million as a result of industrialization and urbanization, and by 2020, the rural population had fallen to 510 million, with less than 200 million actually engaging in agriculture. Ninety percent of Chinese farmers are smallholders farming over 70 percent of the country’s farmland.
Farmers have little incentive to grow grains because the net income from doing so is very low, ranging from a few hundred yuan to a few tens of yuan per mu per year. Out of necessity, farmers have had to restructure their farming operations to include poultry, fish ponds, vegetable plots, fruits, and other relatively more profitable varieties of crops and livestock. Such “non-grain farming” is now coming under crackdown as we see from social media postings, and as corroborated by government policy announcements.
This enforcement force has always been in place, but until now, it has been spread across various government agencies related to agriculture. The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (农业农村部) said that by the end of 2022, county-level governments consolidated enforcement officers scattered across multiple departments should form so-called “Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Brigades” to strengthen enforcement efforts. According to the Ministry’s “Guiding Categories of Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement in Agriculture (2020 version)”, nongguan brigades have 230 administrative penalty powers (行政处罚) and 21 administrative coercive powers (行政强制), covering all aspects of agricultural production such as seeds, feed, fertilizers, agricultural machinery, pesticides, livestock, slaughter, and agricultural products across the board. Administrative penalties involve fines, and administrative force involves the use of coercive measures, such as detention and confiscation of property.
Document No. 1 does not just give orders for grain production. It is an anything-and-everything edict, from infrastructure to poverty eradication, from increasing farmers’ income to agricultural technology, from rural industries to governance systems, from Party leadership to talent training. The stated goal is to build “a strong agricultural state, revitalize the countryside, and modernize agriculture in a comprehensive manner.” It’s very much in line with Xi Jinping’s grandiose leadership style and his belief in a top-down, “whole-of-country” (举国体制) approach.
It seems that Xi Jinping is setting out to reinvent China’s countryside and agriculture, and is ready to follow through on this ambition, not by market dynamism, but by force and repression.
But the livelihoods of Chinese farmers are precarious, and have always been — structurally and by design. After establishing its rule in 1949, the CCP carried out land reform, nationalizing the peasants’ private land and installing a dual system of urban vs. rural population, turning peasants into state tenants whose rural household registration (hukou) did not allow them to take residence in the cities during Mao’s era. To this day, they have truly been China’s second-class citizens, building the gleaming new China and manning factory production lines, but enjoying few social benefits. Their children can’t even attend public school in the cities where they work.
Determined to change their fate of starvation, 18 peasant families in Xiaogang Village, Fengyang County, Anhui Province (安徽凤阳县小岗村) secretly signed a contract among themselves to “divide the land to households” (包干到户). In Beijing, Party Central reluctantly accepted the practice and implemented it across the Chinese countryside in the 1980s. For more than 40 years, farmers have been farming on a family basis as contractors, and their obligation is to “give enough to the state, keep enough for the village collective, and keep the rest for themselves.” But over the years, as the country’s economy grew exponentially, this policy, once a celebrated liberation from collectivization, has gradually become a shackle around their necks, as the income from farming is so miniscule that they must pay the state with their hard-earned money from manual jobs in cities to meet their obligations.
Recently retired Prime Minister Li Keqiang said that 600 million people in China have a monthly income of only 1,000 yuan (about US$140), and an income survey by China International Capital Corporation (中金公司) shows that about 200 million Chinese have a monthly income of 500-800 yuan (about US$70-116), and another 220 million Chinese have a monthly income of less than 500 yuan. The vast majority of them are rural.
Nominally speaking, rural land is owned collectively by the villagers, but ordinary Chinese farmers have neither the power to participate in deliberations nor to make decisions about affairs concerning their land. That power lies entirely in the hands of government-appointed, often overbearing and corrupt village cadres. Although the law gives farmers the right to elect grassroots leaders, they have never been able to actually exercise this right, and several major rural protests demanding the election of village cadres over the past two decades or so have been crushed, with farmers who took the lead being punished. The most famous case is the Wukan incident that received wide media coverage worldwide in 2011.
You cannot say that the CCP does not “care” about the farmers: every year in the early 1980s, and then from 2004 to the present, the No. 1 document of the central government has been about the countryside and the farmers. Improvements have been made over the years, including alleviating taxes on the rural population, and starting providing nominal health care and retirement pension. But the one thing the CCP would not allow farmers to have is full control of their own production as well as the marketing of their production.
Sun Dawu (孙大午), a star agricultural entrepreneur in Hebei Province, suggested to the State Council in as early as 1998 that the way to increase farmers’ income lies in production plus the ability sell their own products, but the problem is that the main agricultural products are all state monopolies, and producers have no control over their production. Those who raise pigs have no right to slaughter them; those who grow cotton have no right to run a cotton business; and those who grow grain have no right to sell grain. Because they can’t do business with what they produce, Sun Dawu said, the truth about the countryside is that farmers lack things to do to generate income, and the state has never relinquished its monopoly on major agricultural products. Moreover, it subjects farmers to harsh and convoluted regulations — in Sun Dawu’s words, “eight men wearing big-brimmed hats overseeing a farmer wearing a broken straw hat.”
A quarter-century has passed since Sun Dawu’s call for “a third liberation for farmers,” and now, nongguan wearing camouflage uniforms and armed with riot shields and sticks have descended on the countryside. Sun Dawu himself, an iconic figure in China’s era of reform and opening up, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in July 2021 for a land use dispute between his agricultural conglomerate and a state farm, and his 5-billion yuan Dawu Group was then quickly “auctioned” off cheaply to a “company” that had been registered for only three days.
Watching videos of geese escaping the nongguans’ sticks, diggers digging up crops and ponds, and chainsaws felling trees, people ask: Why is Xi Jinping doing this? Some say it’s to prepare for war and brace the regime for international sanctions; others say local governments have run out of money and are fleecing farmers; still others say that, with renewed efforts for land use transfer (土地流转), Xi Jinping may be taking steps to reintroduce some form of collectivization in rural China.
Whatever the Chinese government’s plan is, and however it will pan out, this much already seems to have become clear: what little space the Chinese farmers have been granted over the past years, they stand to lose much of it again, without the slightest say in the fate that awaits them. We hear their sighs and cries, and see their anger and helplessness.
Update: During the State Council Information Office press conference on April 20, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs reported that, “In the 1st quarter, construction of high-standard farmland and other key projects has progressed quickly. By the end of March, 19.42 million mu (about 3.2 million acres) of high-standard farmland and 3.22 million mu (about 530,452 acres) of high-efficiency, water-conserving irrigated areas have been built.”
China’s Ministry of Public Security Issues a Three-Year Action Plan to Bring Xinjiang-style ‘One Police Station to Every Rural Village or Urban Grid Block’ Nationwide by the End of 2025, April 3, 2023.
A Protest Song Has Emerged in China — It’s the Communist Anthem, March 5, 2023.