It can be difficult to remember today, but before 1978—the beginning of the reform era—famines struck China with depressing regularity. Many (or perhaps most) of them were human-induced. That certainly goes for the terrible famine of 1959-1961, which resulted from Mao Zedong’s so-called “Great Leap Forward” economic development program. A key element of this murderous social experiment was the forced collectivization of farmers into enormous People’s Communes consisting of thousands of households. Intended to bring about food security and income levels approaching those of the United Kingdom (the Soviet Union wanted to surpass the US, so Mao targeted the UK), it led instead to the starvation of some 20-50 million people. No one knows the true number.
China’s government is still pursuing the dream of food self-sufficiency, with less success than ever. The more food China produces, the more food Chinese people eat—and then some. Rising prosperity has led to a shift from undernourishment to obesity as Chinese people consume more meat and high-energy processed foods. In today’s connected world, people routinely eat food from all over the world, yet self-sufficiency remains the holy grail of Chinese government agricultural policy. Like their comrades of sixty years ago, today’s Communist Party planners are willing to impose hardships on the countryside if they believe it will help the country meet its meaningless food production targets.
For Zhan Shaohua of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and author of The Land Question in China: Agrarian Capitalism, Industrious Revolution, and East Asian Development, the key challenge facing China’s planners should not be rural food production but rural income generation. The government wants to force people off the land to make way for large-scale agribusiness (the “agrarian capitalism”’ of the subtitle), but that would just create an insecure urban underclass like you see in South Africa or Brazil. Instead, Zhan advocates small-scale, mixed-use rural development. He argues that small-scale intensive farming can produce more food than large-scale agribusiness, but that is beside the point. China’s real goal, for Zhan, should be to use its land to provide livelihoods for as many people as possible.
Zhan marshals a lot of evidence to show that rural households are best placed to know what’s good for themselves—and, incidentally, for the country as a whole. His case studies include historical analyses of two sites in China (one in the rich eastern province of Jiangsu, not far from Shanghai, and the other in the remote northern province of Inner Mongolia), plus comparative analyses of rural land use in South Africa (large-scale agribusiness) and the Asian tiger economies of South Korea and Taiwan (small-scale mixed use). It’s hard to argue with his conclusion that putting small farmers in charge of their land is good for small farmers, and it is only a short step from there to the conclusion that it’s good for society, too. If China is doomed to remain a middle-income country like Brazil or South Africa, it is probably better for it to have a moderately prosperous “peasantry” (to use Zhao’s term) living on the land than a dispossessed urban underclass living away from it.
It is possible, however, to dispute his contention that broad land distribution is good for development. It proved good for his comparative cases of South Korea and Taiwan because, at the time of their land reforms in the 1950s, they were poor, rural societies in which most people had at least some connection to farming. As a result, land reform meant a boost to ordinary people’s incomes, which raised living standards and increased demand for local manufactured goods. Today’s China is neither so poor nor so rural. Higher rural incomes would be good for rural households (including the many households with one foot in the countryside and the other in the city), but it wouldn’t put the country on a new development trajectory. The days when small rural enterprises could compete in global supply chains are over.
For Zhan, “the land question in China, simply put, is whether rural smallholders should maintain land rights in a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing economy.” The answer, simply put, is that if China really did succeed industrializing and urbanizing, land would no longer be a question. Land only remains an important policy issue because China’s development has stalled at a point where there are still hundreds of millions of people who depend, wholly or (more often) partly, on farming. In that situation, Zhan is probably right that it’s better to give these rural households the resources to support themselves than to roll the dice on eking out a few more bushels of grain production by consolidating their smallholdings into large commercial farms.
Barring some kind of economic armageddon, China will never again face mass starvation. But it faces the challenge of rural poverty every day, and for many rural households, land is the best insurance policy. Allowing people to make a living in the countryside is unlikely to produce a revolution, “industrious” or otherwise. But it may give them a better chance at a decent life. As China’s four decades of export-fueled economic growth come to an end, access to land might become a crucial safety net for millions of demobilized factory workers with nowhere else to go.