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A Longji rice terrace in Longsheng county, Guilin, China. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Rural China Is Dying

• November 23, 2013 • 6:47 PM

A Longji rice terrace in Longsheng county, Guilin, China. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Everybody is leaving the farm for the city as China moves from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.

This time, it’s not the birth rate, stupid. Rural China is dying. The culprit is outmigration. Leaving the farm for the city:

China’s leaders are being urged to take urgent action to save thousands of historic villages from extinction amid reports that more than 900,000 villages were abandoned or destroyed in the first decade of this century. …

… “It’s ironic that some villages survived thousands of years of war and disasters but have disappeared in peacetime through demolition or people’s short-term views,” Prof Li Huadong said in an interview with state media.

Prof Li, whose group was founded in June this year to draw attention to the disappearing communities, told The Telegraph protecting Chinese villages was about far more than preserving “old houses and folk art”.

It was, he said, about facing up to the “spiritual and moral crisis” that China’s rush towards modernity and materialism had created.

“In our old rural society we had moral standards, ancestral halls and family discipline based on close-knit relationships. All this has been wiped out,” he said. “The DNA of our culture is in the villages. If our villages are destroyed, Chinese people will cease to be Chinese people.”

Emphasis added. Without the villages, China will expire. The nation used to be agricultural. Now, it is industrial. The land use patterns, which places show up on the map, depend on the economy. People follow jobs.

Less hands are needed in the fields, freeing up labor to go to the cities and work in factories. Next, less bodies are needed in the factories, freeing up labor to freelance? Mechanization allows more production with less people. Unwanted labor migrates to where it is wanted. China priming that pump:

A reform to give China’s farmers clearer rights to their land portends big changes, giving them a new way to raise money and boosting the economy far beyond the farm. …

… Under the change, farmers would gain as would the government’s goals of promoting urbanization and improving agriculture. With more security to their land and the rights to mortgage some of it, farmers could better fund their migration to cities or invest into expanding and mechanizing their farms.

“If you don’t give them a chance to make use of that capital, which is often the only asset they have to their name, you’re condemning a lot of farmers and their children to remain in poverty,” said Mark Williams, an economist at research firm Capital Economics.

China isn’t trying to save its rural soul. The goal is to speed up urbanization. China gave up on collective farming. Agrarian Marxists suck at feeding the hungry. The independent plots of food production only go so far. In rural areas, China will unleash das kapital. Mortgaging real estate, farmers buy combines and other machines that allow for economies of scale. A huge harvest justifies slim margins while pushing more labor off of the farm and into the city.

The global migration to the city is mostly rural-to-urban as developing countries ramp up manufacturing. In the United States, that’s old hat. Financial deregulation unleashed das kapital in the realm of manufacturing. Less people are needed to produce more industrial goods. Urban America was dying. Now, Chinese cities are hell with the lid taken off. The able can’t get out of big city fast enough. Next up, China’s roar of the locavore.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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