Agriculture: Bring back the landlords | The Economist

CHINA’S Communist Party has always had a problem with big landowners. In Communist culture, they are synonymous with evil. In January on the country’s most-watched television show—a gala at lunar new year—viewers were treated to a scene from a Mao-era ballet featuring young peasants fired with zeal for revenge against a despotic rural landlord. Some critics rolled their eyes about such a throwback to the party’s radical past, but few complained about the stereotyping of landowners. Yet when it comes to letting individual families control large tracts of farmland, Communist Party leaders are beginning to have a change of heart.

Since January last year the term “family farm” has come into vogue in the party’s vocabulary. It refers not to the myriad tiny plots, each farmed by a single family, that are characteristic of the Chinese countryside; but to much larger-scale operations of a kind more familiar elsewhere, such as Europe or America. The trigger for this was the term’s use in a Communist Party directive known as “document number one”, the name traditionally given to the party’s new-year policy pronouncement on rural issues. It said the consolidation of household plots into family farms should be given “encouragement and support”.

On his first trip outside the capital after being appointed prime minister in March last year, Li Keqiang visited a 450-hectare (1,110-acre) family farm in the coastal province of Jiangsu. He said that boosting production was impossible on the tiny plots that most rural households farm (the average is less than half a hectare). “It can only be done through concentrating the land into larger farms”, Mr Li said. With more government support, “the earth could yield gold”, he told residents; a notion that would surprise the 260m people who have left the countryside to work in cities over the last three decades. Many villages are now home mainly to the elderly and left-behind children. During a visit to Switzerland two months later Mr Li again stopped by at a family farm (of a more modest 40 hectares). Chinese media said he wanted to pick up tips from Europe’s “advanced experiences” in running them. Chen Xiwen, a senior party policymaker on rural affairs, was even quoted as saying last year that he would like China to have vast “family farms like America’s”, but that he was worried about the impact on rural employment if farmland were to be managed by so few hands.

As is often the case whenever party policy appears to shift in the countryside, reality on the ground had long been changing before official rhetoric began to catch up. (Peasants started dismantling Mao’s disastrous “people’s communes” before the party began formally doing so in 1982.) The exodus from the countryside has allowed entrepreneurial farmers to build up their holdings by renting land from neighbours who no longer need it. They have not been able to buy it since all rural land is owned “collectively” by villagers. But they have been allowed to take over the right to farm it, and keep any profits. The party does not harp on about evil landlords of yore, since the new big-farmers are, legally speaking, merely tenants. In March last year the agriculture ministry took its first survey of family farms, though it has yet even to define the term precisely. It found there were already 877,000 of them, with an average size of around 13 hectares. They covered 13% of China’s arable land. Since 2008 the area of farmland rented out to other farmers has more than tripled.

via Agriculture: Bring back the landlords | The Economist.

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