Away from the Soil: Migration and Change in Rural China
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China’s migrant population may prove to be the most important factor in the country’s social and economic change now and in the coming decades. A fairly large body of research has examined the roles of migrant workers and their families in cities, and some researchers have attended to impacts of migration on rural communities. However, the ways in which outside work have affected agricultural practices and rural residents’ attitudes toward agriculture have received less attention. Given the immense impact outmigration has already had on rural communities and its continued scale, migrant labor should be at the core of studies of rural as well as urban areas in China.
Many rural development scholars stress that rural residents have a deep connection to the land and traditional ways of life which is undermined by modernizing forces; however, behaviors suggest that rural residents may prefer non-farm work to agriculture. In a research project funded in part by the II, I investigated the relationships between labor migration, changes in agricultural methods, and attitudes toward rural life. Through 40 interviews conducted in three counties in Jiangxi Province in summer 2006, I explored whether rural residents migrate as a short-term alternative to support a continued existence on their land, or as part of a strategy to extract themselves permanently from agriculture.
Background: Agricultural Development in China
China’s market reforms began in agriculture, with liberalization of land use rights allowing farmers to plant sideline crops they could sell on the market in addition to their planned quotas. Gradually produce price controls were relaxed, though staples such as grain and cotton continued to be heavily managed by the state. The early 1980s saw bumper crops and dramatic increases in agricultural incomes. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, however, the momentum of development shifted to town-and-village enterprises and foreign-invested firms, and later to increasing privatization and agglomeration. Agricultural prices stagnated and fiscal reforms that spurred rural industrialization left localities unable to develop such industries strapped for funds. Also facing heavy agricultural taxes and rising prices for agricultural inputs, many farmers experienced increasing financial straits.
By the first years of this decade, rural problems attracted the attention of China’s central leadership; the “three rural problems”—the troubles of the peasantry, the poverty of villages, and the hazards of agriculture—became centerpieces of public rhetoric. Since then, in an effort to increase returns to agriculture and ensure stable harvests of staple crops, the central government has slashed agricultural taxes and introduced subsidies for grain production, mechanization, and rural social services.
However, these policies may not be sufficient to make agriculture deliver for its practitioners, as benefits from tax cuts and subsidies have not kept pace with rising prices for agricultural inputs. In many places most rural household income comes from non-farm labor, particularly migrant labor in cities. Cheap labor from the countryside is important to urban industrial growth, household incomes, and rural government revenue, and governments at local and central levels continue to encourage labor migration, while coping with its effects at home.
Under such circumstances, a key question is what impact outmigration has on rural communities. A handful of studies has shown positive pecuniary effects. Less is known about the effects of the absence of young and able workers on rural life and agricultural practices; local expectations about migrants’ return or continued absence; and the ends of migrants’ urban pursuits.
Jianxi Province: A Case Study of Outmigration
Jiangxi, an inland province in southeast China, was historically known as a “great grain-producer”; now it is known as a “great labor-exporter.” According to the provincial Department of Labor and Social Security, the number of people involved in “export of labor” to other provinces more than doubled from 2.43 million to 5.02 million from 2000 to 2004, from a total population of just under 43 million.
Outmigration has a distinct effect on the makeup of rural communities. In every village I visited, there were few if any residents between the ages of 20 and 50. Most were reported to be working in the provinces and cities of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Shanghai, and Beijing, although some were in cities within Jiangxi. Contrary to assertions that outmigration leads to a “feminization of agriculture,” men and women had migrated in equal numbers, with couples often leaving together (and sometimes taking their children). The result was geriatrification, with land and labor left to older residents.
Among remaining villagers, I encountered two typical situations. In the first, elderly relatives tended the land and children of working-age couples who had outmigrated. If those remaining found they could not perform all agricultural labor themselves, they hired local laborers during peak seasons. In the second, migrant families rented their plots to other residents who had taken charge of several households’ land. This strategy was facilitated by changes in property regulations that allow rural residents to transfer use rights.
Home Improvement and Agricultural Mechanization
In places I visited, migrants often invested their initial gains in home improvements. Their largest investment is to construct new houses, usually replacing old ones with sloping tile roofs with flat-roofed structures of three or four stories. A house is often a rural family’s largest asset, both financially and as a sign of status; it serves as shelter and symbol for migrants’ relatives when the builders are away, and as a safety-net should migrant employment fail. In several places ostentatious dwellings stand empty as monuments to the owners’ distant success.
Some migrants who return to their original residences use their outside income to reduce agricultural labor expenditure by investing in new agricultural technologies. These include simple technologies such as seedling-beds that simplify rice planting, as well as new fertilizers, pesticides, and agricultural machinery. Of these, investment in mechanization yields the greatest return. For example, the Zhu family of village C near Ji’an relocated to Beijing in the early 1990s. All of Mr. Zhu’s siblings have since migrated to Beijing and stayed. The Zhus used some of their income from outside work to purchase a motorized reaper. This reduced their work load during harvest and enabled them to earn money harvesting other villagers’ rice crops for a fee. Mr. Zhu plans next year to rent out his land to other croppers, migrate to Guangxi to work in the tourist industry, and return only during the rice harvest to market this service.
Severing the Bond to the Land
Another consequence of migration is the final rending of bonds between migrants and the land. In only a small proportion of the households I interviewed had migrant family members returned for more than the annual spring festival holiday. In most cases, migrants had been away for several years and established long-term residence where they worked. Usually, respondents said that workers had no plans to return.
Few respondents saw a future in agriculture. Most say that while preferential policies have made crop cultivation more palatable, in the end agriculture is difficult and unprofitable—or simply “no good” (buxing). When asked what they expected would come of their land when the elderly were no longer able to work it and the younger generation did not return, many simply shrugged. Some uttered the customary phrase, “Falling leaves return to their roots,” suggesting that aging migrants would retire back to their homes. Others said that in time they would lease their land away for good. In an interesting turn on property rights restrictions in China, one respondent said, “The land doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to the government. When we leave, the government will find a way to dispense with it.”
The Chinese often declare that theirs is a rustic culture, growing out of China’s long history as a predominantly agricultural society. For the past 20 years, however, there has been a growing exodus from rural livelihoods. Some observers argue that if enabled to engage in “democratic deliberation,” rural publics might opt against growing market hegemony in favor of a more locally rooted development; my recent data from Jiangxi suggest otherwise. These findings show rural people seeing little potential in agriculture for satisfactory improvement of their lives. They envision for themselves and their children a future unshackled from their paddies, living in urban areas with higher incomes and modernized lifestyles.
The testimony of villagers in Jiangxi indicates that resources obtained through migration are used first to invest in home improvements and agricultural mechanization, and second to sever completely the bond between migrants and the land they formerly farmed. While in their daily lives these villagers exhibit strong ties to the land, given the opportunity they would readily cut these ties and relocate entirely—just as many of their neighbors already have.
John Zinda is a master’s candidate in resource policy and behavior at U-M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.