How Can China Revitalize its Countryside?
By Yongnian Zheng

How Can China Revitalize its Countryside?

Mar. 08, 2023  |     |  0 comments

In his report at the 20th National Congress, President Xi Jinping pointed out that the most arduous and demanding task in building a socialist modernized country still lies in rural areas. The comprehensive promotion of rural revitalization is also one of the essential driving points in the ongoing National Two Sessions in China, and it is also the top priority of China’s modernization with Chinese characteristics.

Last year, the report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CCP) emphasized the importance of rural revitalization, reflecting a high level of attention to this issue. On the first day after the Chinese New Year, the government of Guangdong Province China held a conference on high-quality development throughout the province. It proposed the "One Hundred Counties, One Thousand Towns, and Ten Thousand Villages High-Quality Development Project" (from now on referred to as the "Hundred-Thousand-Ten Thousand Project") specifically for rural revitalization.

I believe that China’s rural modernization has entered a new stage. In the past, China talked about the "three rural issues", but now it has shifted to "three aspects of rural modernization,” namely, agriculture, countryside, and farmers. This shift from “issues” to “modernization” represents a shift in thinking and ideology. China used to emphasize the "three rural issues" because some believed that urbanization and industrialization would solve these problems. However, it is now clear that actual development works differently. Emphasizing these three aspects of rural modernization does not mean that all these rural issues will disappear. Instead, it highlights how agriculture, rural areas, and farmers can achieve modernization. The three rural issues are a perennial phenomenon, and their modernization is a long-term development process. In this process, China needs to design these three aspects of rural modernization well and implement and develop plans effectively.

Therefore, I propose a three-tiered approach to modernizing China's agriculture, rural areas, and farmers.

Philosophical Consideration

The first level is philosophical consideration, which is the most important. Modernizing China's agriculture, rural areas, and farmers requires philosophical consideration as a foundation. One must first engage in philosophical thinking about these issues before one can solve the problems of agriculture, rural areas, and farmers at the policy level.

Today, countries around the world are facing various conflicts of values. For example, the West is confronted with multiple radical ideologies, while in the Middle East, extremist religious thought is impacting the world. What is the current global value system? Given that the old value system is no longer effective, what should the new value system be? In the West, some countries are experiencing a revival of conservative thought. For instance, many European countries are abandoning the former "cultural pluralism" and turning to re-emphasize mainstream social values or traditional values. Traditional religious thought is regaining influence in some Middle Eastern countries, particularly Turkey.

In fact, China has also experienced a similar situation, but to a varying degree. At the level of society, there are serious signs of division among various social ideologies. Therefore, if China wants to answer the question of how to reconstruct its value system, there is a question that needs to be directly addressed, namely, whether the traditional value system that has been established based on agricultural civilization and has existed for thousands of years should still be preserved. China's "Teachings of Confucius and Mencius" is a product of an agrarian society. The traditional value system formed over thousands of years combines Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. How can this be continued today? If it is to be continued, what values should be preserved? And how can these values be modernized and developed to achieve their full potential?

Compared to other East Asian cultures such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, and even China's Taiwan and Hong Kong, these societies have preserved traditional agricultural values and ideas passed down for thousands of years. Many people visiting these societies find they bear a resemblance to Chinese traditions. Although Singapore is a city-state without agriculture, Lee Kuan Yew advocated Neo-Confucianism and Asian values in the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, Lee Hsien Loong even discussed whether Singapore should establish nursing homes like China. Nursing homes are not consistent with Confucian traditional values. In the value system of agricultural civilization, the family is crucial, and it is the responsibility of the family to care for elderly members. Lee Hsien Loong’s thinking is very insightful. As China emphasizes cultural confidence and self-confidence, many thoughts are at risk of being westernized. For example, 'family' is the core and the vehicle of Confucian civilization. However, since the introduction of the reform and opening-up policies, people's attitudes toward the family have changed significantly. Many of the policies implemented in China are not conducive to the development of the family, leading to today's dilemma: on the one hand, the family is best suited to address critical issues such as elderly care, child protection, and childbirth; on the other hand, there is a tendency to transfer these responsibilities to the state and society, which are unable to solve these problems.

Therefore, for China to develop effective policies, it is necessary to engage in philosophical reflection on its past agricultural civilization.

Theoretical Consideration

The second consideration involves theoretical thinking. This can be divided into several elements. We need to clarify the issues related to these aspects: the organizational systems of the government, society, and economy, as well as the relationships between these three. In other words, we need to study two issues. First, what are the economic, social, and political systems of traditional agricultural civilization like? How do economic, social, and political governance form, operate, and develop? Second, how are the government and social relations of traditional agricultural civilization handled? How is the relationship between the government and the economy handled? How is the relationship between society and the economy handled?

The research conducted in the past, such as Kung-chuan Hsiao’s study on the rural system of Qing Dynasty China, I believe is still fascinating today. For example, the discussions on the government, village autonomy, and economic organization in rural areas today are also the same discussions that have taken place in China's thousands of years of history. Despite the enormous changes in rural areas from traditional to modern times, why have these three significant structures not changed? In other words, we can start from these three aspects to understand how to move from traditional to modern times. This is a regeneration problem for rural areas in the process of significant transformation, and we need to study it carefully. Otherwise, we will not understand the past, and it won’t be easy to understand the present or the future.

Policy Consideration

The third level is the consideration of policy. Why did we emphasize philosophical and theoretical thinking earlier? Because if there is insufficient thinking in these two aspects, it is difficult to do well in policy thinking. The following major issues should be discussed at the policy level.

First, a crucial question must be answered: Who are the exemplars of agricultural civilization? Are farmers the only models of agricultural civilization?

It is necessary to consider the historical development of modernization in the world, particularly in the West, to answer the question of who the exemplar of agricultural civilization is. Even though modernization has often led to the destruction of rural societies, European societies have historically emphasized the importance of countryside, recognizing it as a carrier of traditional values rather than a symbol of backwardness. In contrast, China needs to improve this thinking, often viewing rural areas as less important or outdated.

This perspective has resulted in degrading the value system produced by agricultural civilization. I believe that for thousands of years, the carrier of agricultural civilization has been the entire population, not just farmers. This remains true today, where farmers continue to play a crucial role in carrying forward agricultural civilization, but urban residents have also become an increasingly important exemplar. Urban residents must recognize the importance of agriculture, rural areas, and the traditions that have developed around them to ensure the continuation of agricultural civilization. With this recognition, it is possible to determine the direction of agricultural civilization.

Therefore, the question is how to make urban residents bearers of agricultural civilization and its values. This is a problem that requires careful consideration. East Asian societies like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have highly developed urbanized economies while retaining traditional values. China should examine how these societies have made urban residents exemplars of agricultural civilization. In addition, Vietnam is rapidly modernizing while strengthening its Confucian civilization instead of abandoning it.

Second, China needs to reform or even abolish the household registration system. Although China has a household registration system now, there has been no such system for thousands of years in China's history. The household registration system as we know it today only emerged under special historical conditions after the founding of the People's Republic of China. Most people in China's traditional agricultural civilization lived in rural areas and did not have the concept of household registration or residential status as we have today. Instead, they had a class concept, namely "scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants," an idea of labor division rather than an identity concept based on household registration. Moreover, these four classes were open, especially the "scholar" class, where one could move up the social ladder through imperial examinations. After the founding of the PRC, the household registration system emerged for various reasons, such as state-led industrialization. I believe there should be no restriction on farmers or urban residents based on household registration. There should only be a difference in labor division, not in identity. In the future, concepts such as rural and urban residents should suffice without needing a household registration system to differentiate identity. Although China has implemented multiple rounds of local reforms of the household registration system, it still needs an overall national reform, which is to abolish the urban-rural identity system.

The third point emphasizes the need to abolish the identity system in China to achieve a bi-directional flow between urban and rural areas. Historically, China has had a bi-directional flow between urban and rural areas for thousands of years, allowing agricultural civilization to be transmitted. The four traditional social classes of "scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants" all returned to their place of birth after achieving success in other areas. This was an advantage of China's traditional society that persisted for thousands of years.

Today, most of the high-quality resources are concentrated in the cities, and there is no reason farmers should not have the opportunity to enjoy these resources by moving to the cities. This would also be necessary to narrow the urban-rural gap and achieve what China calls “common prosperity”, or inclusive growth. However, it is important to note that the rural areas will remain. On the contrary, allowing the urban middle class, especially the upper-middle class, to go to the countryside and practice the traditional Chinese way of life passed down for thousands of years is essential. This would lead to a more balanced and sustainable development of society through the bi-directional flow of people between urban and rural areas.

Fourth, if we want to achieve bi-directional flow, the land system must be reformed to achieve urban-rural integration. China's "Hundred-Thousand-Ten Thousand Villages Revitalization Plan" is not only about revitalizing rural areas in isolation, but it must also consider urbanization, industrialization, and rural revitalization. This is a very significant undertaking. The reform of the land system has several main purposes. First, to achieve intensive land use in rural areas. Currently, there are too many people occupying the land. Still, the land is very fragmented, and farmers cannot solve the problem of sustainable development by working on a small piece of land.  Second, farmers want to move to the cities but do not want to give up their land in the countryside. This so-called "selfishness" is easy to understand, and the reason behind it is that city life is uncertain. The social security system in cities needs to be better established, and various policies have yet to truly integrate farmers into urban life. Therefore, in the process of urbanization, the interests of migrant farmers must be considered. Not only should identity restrictions be abolished, but also urban-rural planning should be carried out for them. Only when public services issues such as social security, medical care, education, and housing are solved through planning can farmers truly achieve urbanization.

When implementing a bi-directional flow, we need to encourage social capital in the broad sense to enter rural areas. Currently, people see the revitalization of rural areas coming from the capital of those entrepreneurs, whether state-owned or private. However, more than having the capital of current entrepreneurs are required. We must emphasize and pay more attention to the dispersed and large urban middle-class groups. On the one hand, they can bring capital, and their capital is relatively dispersed and will not cause excessive concentration of land resulting from a few entrepreneurs entering the countryside. On the other hand, their visits to the countryside are also cultural exchanges, which can help solve the serious problem of cultural deprivation in rural areas. The current outflow problem in rural areas is not only the outflow of capital and population but also because farmers come to cities to buy property and send their children to school. Also, urban middle-class visits to the countryside can help solve the problem of cultural deprivation. For thousands of years, the rural gentry has solved China’s problem of cultural poverty. Therefore, the current trend of urban people moving to rural areas through capital and cultural infusion is re-creating a contemporary "rural gentry." Many places are restoring the so-called "gentry system,” but it is difficult to achieve modern agricultural civilization through these mobile or temporary "gentry."

I believe that the modernization of agriculture, rural areas, and farmers correspond precisely to the three levels of modernization issues that I have been discussing: the material, institutional, and human levels of modernization. From a global perspective, successful modernization involves the synchronous and coordinated development of all three levels, while unsuccessful modernization focuses only on one or a few aspects. Suppose the modernization of agriculture corresponds to the material level of modernization. In that case, the modernization of the rural governance system corresponds to the institutional level of modernization, including the bi-directional flow of urban and rural populations. At the same time, the modernization of the human level corresponds to cultural and social life modernization. The great revitalization of rural areas is an essential part of the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. China must think from multiple levels to work well on this great project.