Friday, August 20, 2010

Sichuan: Land of Abundance or Emptiness?

For thousands of years Sichuan, "Land of Abundance," has been recognized as China’s most fertile agricultural base. A new development model being pushed by the provincial government may forever change that. Yesterday I received an email from Maple describing a “pilot program” :

(In translation; 阅读中文原文)
My husband and I were in Chengdu’s Qingcheng Mountains last week, and visited some newly built peasant residences, all beautiful two-story small villas. A woman in her thirties very politely invited us into her house, and answered all my questions in detail.

Monument for a new peasant residence (photo by Maple Xu)

These new peasant residences were built after the [2008’s] earthquake. They look very handsome, however the residents are not victims of the earthquake – they did not have personal or property losses from the disaster. Rather, the new houses are the result of a pilot project taking advantage of the post-disaster rebuilding momentum. These “urban-rural synthesis overall planning” developments are government programs currently ongoing in Sichuan and Chongqing. Simply put, the peasants provide the land, and the government selects a developer to do the unified planning, design, and construction in an urban style. Each participating peasant contributes 2 fens(133.3 square meters) of land, and after the construction is complete, each gets 35 square meters of housing in return. The developer can use the remaining land in any way he wants. Thus, neither the peasants nor the government have to pay a penny, and the developer also gets practical benefits. All are happy.

The family we visited is a household of five. Using 10 fens (666.7 square meter) of their land, they exchanged for a small villa of 175 square meters with a beautiful interior. When asked how they’d make a living without land, the woman replied: 打工- migrant work. They still have a small portion of their land left, and they use it to plant vegetables for sale. Apparently, the woman and her family are very satisfied with their current living condition. After visiting her, I talked to two other people in the neighborhood, and got similar answers.
New peasant residence in Chengdu's Qingcheng Mountains
(photo by Maple Xu)

No farmland could be seen around the residences. There were only a few stalks of corn planted by the “rural home inn” (农家乐) where we stayed, in a small yard, probably smaller than your flower garden.

In my eyes, their life style is no different from that of city people. The peasants themselves also work in the city. But I don’t know if this is a good change. Farmland all turning into villas, vegetable patches become parking, where do we get food and vegetables from? My husband disagrees. He says peasants have the right to live the city people’s life. It is a trend of China’s agricultural reform: centralizing peasants’ scattered residences, and centralizing rural land management so as to bring it to scale. He also says nowadays China imports lots of grains, because the cost is lower than domestic production.

I can only speak intuitively that, when rural is not like rural, city is not like city, it is problematic. Now if you go to Sichuan’s rural areas, you rarely see a piece of farm land, let alone pigs and cows. That’s why when tourists come to Hainan, a relatively backward region, and see water buffaloes pulling plows in paddies, they exclaim, "Exotic!" The media and propaganda keep shouting about building great metropolises, about bringing China’s economy more in line with world standards, about world as one community and the earth as flat, et cetera – I can agree with none of them. If one day Shanghai becomes a clone of Paris, Chongqing a mirror of New York, wouldn’t life becomes meaningless? Look at today’s Chongqing, where hills are dynamited to flatten land, the rubble is used to fill in valleys, and the numerous high rises stand up like a forest. The “mountain city” has no mountain. The “fog capital” has no fog. Isn’t this extremely sad?

And here is a headline from last week’s media: “Sichuan forcefully advances rural tourism and the development of vacation agriculture.”

“Vacation agriculture”: instead of working the fields, peasants take care of tourists from the city. Nothing gets growing – can you call that agriculture at all?


Anonymous said...

I see this as a positive development. China currently has too many "peasants" or farmers working with low productivity. They can either all move into million+ cities (aka concrete deserts) or form smaller, more livable communities where they are. It makes me think of small towns in Canada, of just a few thousands of people. Not everyone farms--some people provide other services or work in other industries, and the quality of life is the same as city folk. The environment is much nicer too.

Xujun Eberlein said...

(Some readers continue to experience difficulties in posting comments here, and I'm very sorry about that. I've reported the problem to Blogger. A reader sent me the following comment and asked me to post for him. - Xujun)
zeitguy said...

I agree with you, somewhat, Xujun.

There is a lot going on here, however.

The displacement of current rural cultures is not the simple substitution of urban dynamics for older rural dynamics. Many rural dynamics have already been disrupted by industrialization of food production and centralization of food market decision making...which leaves the external form of rural agricultural lifestyle without the infrastructure, both economic and material, to support it. In addition you have the morale issue, or mores, of the community in flux, with newer generations impatient or disillusioned with their parents values, which do not reflect the new trade offs the younger generation faces.

Engels was radicalized by seeing the explosion of industrialization overwhelm even the urban cultures of his time in Manchester England. Today we don\'t have the shockwave of total population displacement that occurred in the 19th and 20th century, and part of the reason is that systems such as you describe here forestall the physical displacement of large populations, creating a buffer between the urban and rural areas in which more attenuated transitions can be made.

In physics, as you know, it is called the change of phase of a system. If it occurs in small physical area with great energy, it is a shock or an explosion. By diffusing the change across a broader area, and reducing the energy displacement, some forms of potential damage are avoided. It is not the solution that appeals to our romantic sense of the noble peasant with their autonomy and sense of the land protected by loose feudal controls and tight territorial boundaries. But we need to look beyond the romantic images of self-sufficiency upon the land, and recognize that the new globe we are inheriting has been systematized beyond anyone\'s control. Short of apocalypse, we need to find the sustaining buffers that allow transition from loose, decentralized rural economies to semi-urban consumer economies that do not enslave or dehumanize the populations. That problem is not even properly defined for us, much less solved.

The jargon of old ideologies tends to blind us to the dynamics, and therefore we feel powerless to save something even if it is already changed beyond recognition. How do we recognize what is good about what is new? You are someone I believe can achieve this task. It isn't easy, but nothing worthwhile is.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Administrative note: I've changed the comment setting to (hopefully) fix the problem. Please , if you can, let me know if it works.

vernezze said...

I'm not so sure. I lived in Chengdu for two years and Qingcheng Mountain, especially the back mountain, was one of the few natural places available. At least in my experience, "nature" is not valued for its own sake in China as it is in America. This trend only seems to make a bad situation worse.

Jocelyn said...

Great post, but sad. My husband often reminds me that China is going through many of the phases of development that the US did -- yet I have to believe that China can withstand much less rampant development (and subsequent loss of arable land) given how little arable land there actually is.

Luke Lea said...

Reading through your archives, I was particularly struck by this post, as rural development is a subject about which I have been thinking throughout most of my adult life. In particular I have been interested in the idea of "part-time jobs in the country," to give the name of the first book I wrote on the subject. I am wondering if this idea might work in certain parts of China, and whether the Chinese people might be attracted to it. Here is my web page on the subject: