Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


china-rice-terrace

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.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.