In 1978 China’s government initiated a major change in the agricultural economy. It began a rapid transition from communal agriculture to the household responsibility system, which returned the responsibilities and incentives associated with farming to the farmer rather than the commune. This was the beginning of the market-friendly reforms that led to the transformation of agriculture, industry, and transport in a remarkably short time.
These market-oriented reforms have also stimulated a continuing economic revolution in China, with growth rates exceeding 10% in many years and an intensive period of infrastructure build-out (roads, high speed rail, telecommunications).
Much has transpired in the Chinese countryside since 1978. Rural incomes have risen; significant numbers of rural people have transitioned from farming into better-paying market and logistical activities; and many millions of young people have exited the countryside in search of work in manufacturing and construction. On balance, how has this tumultuous 35 years affected the quality of life for China’s rural population?
In 1990 William Hinton offered his own predictions about the effects of the rural reforms in The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-1989. Hinton believed the future was dire for China’s peasants, as they would be squeezed by market forces into even lower-productivity farming techniques and the wealth of the countryside would be extracted by urban elites. Hinton was a continuing supporter of collective agriculture because he believed it permitted economies of scale and more reliable support for the welfare of the people in the countryside. It seems that no one in China continues to advocate this view.
Deng Xiaoping took a different perspective. He believed that all of China would benefit from the accumulation of wealth created by market incentives. His famous words — “To get rich is glorious” — legitimated the workings of the market in creating inequalities. And he evidently believed that these processes of economic growth and market incentives would be good for the rural sector as well as the urban sector.
So how has it worked out? How has China’s agricultural economy performed in the past three decades? Is China food-self-sufficient? Have rural people gained income? Is rural poverty falling significantly? What is the trend in the quality of life of China’s rural populations? And what happened to the range of income inequalities in the countryside?
Here are a few important data points.
First, it appears to be true that China has made rapid progress in reducing poverty in its population. According to Li Xiaoyun’s tables below, just under 13% of China’s population lives in extreme poverty at incomes lower than $1.25 per day in 2011. (The next three slides are taken from an extensive presentation on China’s poverty strategies by Professor Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University; link.) This is a dramatic reduction from an estimate in excess of 80% at this level in the late 1970s. This means that rural incomes have risen substantially since 1978.
Moreover, there have been nationally coordinated programs of poverty alleviation that have been supported by meaningful levels of central and provincial resources.
Here is a very interesting poverty map for Yunnan Province in the southeast part of the country (link):
Second, it is also true that China’s income inequalities have increased sharply during the same period. The share of income flowing to the poorest 40% has fallen from 20% to 14% from 1990 to 2009. Studies indicate that the Gini coefficient for income inequality has risen sharply during that time. It seems likely that wealth inequalities have increased even more. Here are charts documenting the rise of income inequalities in China from the 2005 China Human Development Report (link):
Third, food security has improved. China is a net exporter of rice (link) and has substantially increasing its production of pigs and poultry, and it has not suffered famine or extensive malnutrition since the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959. Nutritional levels throughout poor areas have improved in the past twenty years, although there are still significant levels of underweight or stunted children under 5 (fig. 3.14, CHDR 2005).
What has been less visible to the western public is the dynamics of life quality that these changes have created in the countryside. What is needed is disaggregated studies of quality-of-life indicators like education, health, nutrition, and longevity. World Bank reports and China’s own major statistical reports do not highlight these kinds of data. However, the UNDP has prepared six triennial reports on China’s performance with respect to the Human Development Index (link), and it turns out that Chinese researchers are in fact doing careful work on the task of measuring these characteristics in rural areas. Three leading Chinese scholars focused on poverty alleviation (Wu Guobao, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Liu Minquan, Peking Univerisity; Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University) provide a good snapshot into a world of policy research currently underway in China.
How are the government’s pronouncements about poverty alleviation viewed by the Chinese public? I had a very interesting conversation with a man in his thirties in Taiyuan, Shanxi on this question. He is employed in a semi-professional job. His view was very skeptical. He believes the government says it is working toward helping the poor and reducing inequalities, but he doesn’t think these efforts are very broad. His view is that anti-poverty programs are directed towards just a few locations and a relatively small part of the rural population. And he thinks it is very unfair that the inequalities between rich and poor are increasing so rapidly. When I asked him what he thought the greatest problems were that China faces, he listed these: a one-party state that gives ordinary people no voice in the issues they care about; a lack of freedom of expression; and the unfairness of increasing inequalities between rich and poor. This was a very frank assessment by one person which perhaps sheds some light on how many young people are thinking in China today.
(Here is a 2003 volume on poverty alleviation in China published by the Development Studies Network in Australia, including a number of valuable research articles on the subject; link. The China Health and Nutrition Survey conducted by the Carolina Population Center and the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is also a valuable data source; link.)