Farmer with geese at a Shanghai Commune. The plight of the countryside after the Great Leap Forward was placed of the shoulders of Chairman Mao. The loose alliance of intellectuals, activists, officials, and members of the public that make up the New Rural Reconstruction Movement blame the plight of the countryside in the twenty-first century on globalization and neo-liberal policies. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
The New Rural Reconstruction Movement refers to mainly non-governmental efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s to improve the governance and conditions of China’s countryside. The movement has been greatly influenced by the work of public intellectuals such as agricultural scholar Wen Tiejun, who argued against a reliance on neo-liberal economic strategies.
The New Rural Reconstruction Movement (Xin nongcun jianshe yundong 新农村建设运动) (NRRM) grew from a loose alliance among intellectuals, activists, officials, and members of the public in the 1990s and early 2000s that called attention to the plight of the countryside, whose problems they blamed on globalization and neo-liberal policies which relied on market incentives. Although leaders were inspired by international counterparts (especially those in Kerela, South India, an agrarian area with an extremely high literacy rate), used a range of cosmopolitan theory, and saw China’s rural problem in global terms, in their choice of a name they evoked China’s own Rural Reconstruction Movement of the 1920s and the 1930s. Rather than joining opposition to the government, NRRM encouraged and supported official reform efforts and prodded China’s leaders to address the problems.
In their analysis, they determined that China’s rural problem grew out of economic reform programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s which gradually dissolved the commune system in order to allow small-scale family farmers to enter the market. At first, farm family income grew rapidly, but growth leveled off by the mid 1980s. While government planners turned their attention to promoting export growth and as urban families enjoyed rapid rises in their standard of living, individual farm families now were expected to pay for schooling, health care, and social welfare, responsibilities which originally had been the commune’s. In addition, farmers faced price fluctuations; pollution from chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and local small-scale industry, much of which was owned by outside investors; insecurity of land tenure; lack of accountability among local officials; growing corruption; and inequalities between the areas which had access to the sources of growth (such as large cities and coastal provinces) and rural areas, especially inland ones.
Starting in the early 1990s, farmers protested more often and about a wider range of issues. In 1994, there were 10,000 protests, according to China’s Public Security Ministry, in 2003 there were some 58,000, and in 2005 there were 87,000 incidents of protest involving an estimated 3.76 million people. In eastern China, where urban expansion made land more valuable, protests no longer focused only on traditional complaints such as taxation and corruption, but on the seizure of farmland by local officials for roads, power plants, dams, factories, waste dumps, and housing projects for city-dwellers.
As these protests gained strength, a generation came of age that had gained practical experience during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and had trained in the intellectually cosmopolitan period of reform. As these government administrators, members of Party think tanks, and academics expanded their knowledge of western political theory and increased their contacts abroad, their thinking went beyond (but did not totally reject) Maoism, especially its concerns with social equity. They observed that rural problems were not unique to China but also occurred in other developing countries, leading them to conclude that Mao’s leftist policies and the Cultural Revolution were not the cause. In fact, a New Left group suggested that China’s rural problems had grown after the rejection of Maoism and the adoption of pure reliance on the success of the market, that is, not from the failure of open trade policies such as those suggested by the World Bank, but from their very success in creating wealth among limited groups. Accordingly, in the years leading up to China’s entering the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, there was growing concern among activists that to enter the WTO would be unfavorable to China’s farmers.
According to Wen Tiejun, NRR’s leading theorist and organizer, the Maoist policy of economic independence from the world capitalist system had been necessary, and the government had successfully fostered industrialization, but these policies left villages in a weak position. The breakup of the commune produced individual plots too small to use technology efficiently and farmers were once again at the mercy of economic planners who favored exports, heavy industry, and the cities over the countryside. To solve these contradictions, further market reforms were not the right strategy. Rural life had to be reconstructed. Wen, born in Beijing in 1951, spent eleven years in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution before becoming a field worker and researcher for the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1987 he became dean of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development at People’s University in Beijing, where he founded the Center for Rural Reconstruction. Wen coined the term sannong wenti (“three rural problems”), which includes nongmin (“farmers” or “peasants”), nongcun (“villages” or “rural society”), and nongye (“agriculture”). He and his associates did not want to be called part of China’s New Left, especially in the aftermath of the 1989 anti-government democracy protests. Still, many NRRM members shared New Left doubts about World Bank neo-liberal policies and the pure reliance on market strategies.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, a loose grouping of university faculty, researchers in government research institutes, officials, and independent journalists created an urgent awareness of village problems. Li Changping, a township party secretary, created a furor with his letter to Premier Zhu Rongji explaining the plight of peasants burdened with taxes and local officials. Li told his story in a bestselling book, but he left his village in frustration to look for work in Shenzhen, the Special Economic Zone which epitomized globalized market capitalism. Cao Jinping, a professor of sociology at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, spent years conducting field research and interviews in Henan Province. His 2005 book Huanghe bian di Zhongguo advocated organization from the top down, waiting until the peasants had been uplifted to eventually give them power. Yu Jianrong, a rural development scholar, focused on the areas of Hunan Province which Mao had studied in the 1920s. Like Mao, Yu declared that farmers were not passive or ignorant but canny in their organization of protests and knowledgeable of laws and regulations. Li Yuanxing, a professor of sociology at Anhui University, echoed the arguments developed by Liang Shuming, Fei Xiaotong, and others in the 1930s, concluding that China, unlike the west, could not rely on urbanization to take rural workers out of the village to work in factories. The widest impact was made by two independent journalists, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, whose indignation roused the public. Their series of dramatic reports in the respected journal Dushu exposed petty village despots who tortured and even murdered farm leaders for challenging their illegal acts. In one month the public bought 100,000 copies of their book, Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha (Beijing: Renminwenxue, 2004) translated as Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants (New York: Public Affairs, 2006).
Anti-globalization protesters in other developing countries argued that the rural crisis was not local or temporary or superficial, nor could it be addressed by further economic development or urbanization. NRR called for a turn away from reliance on economic strategies, especially capitalist economic strategies, in favor of cultural and social reconstruction. In 2002, NRR activists visited the People’s Science Movement in Kerala, India. The Kerala movement included Maoists and took inspiration from Gandhi and from Mao, but Kerala had achieved social revolution without the violence of China’s Cultural Revolution. Kerala’s high literacy rates, successful health system, and economic progress were the result of large numbers of trained organizers working from the bottom up and organizing on a community level.
Wen Tiejun disagreed with rural economists who argued that private land ownership rights, specialization, and increased marketization would leave the farm community better off. Wen and his colleagues concluded that only through cooperative economics could farmers overcome their structural handicaps of small scale and inefficient technology. Although they were inspired by these foreign examples, they chose as their model the wide range of domestic cultural, economic, and political reforms that Y.C. James Yen had developed in the 1930s. In 2003 Wen and his colleagues took the opportunity to put their theories into practice by establishing the James Yen Institute of Rural Reconstruction headquartered in Zhaicheng Village, in Ding County, Hebei Province, where James Yen’s headquarters were during the Republican period (1912–1949). The James Yen Institute was among a number of NGOs which recruited college graduates and local activists to organize rural schools, clinics, and cooperatives in order to develop new community institutions and foster community consciousness. The reform groups also conducted clinics to introduce organic farming and appropriate technology to compensate for dangerous overuse of pesticides and chemicals. However, the most important change was the development of rural consciousness. Despite these reforms, it became clear that effective reform was possible on a small scale and could not be spread on a national scale, nor could private groups deal with the problems of labor surplus and migration, corruption, inefficient technology, reform of land rights, and discrimination.
When Wen Jiabao’s national administration came into office in 2004, public intellectuals and party elites agreed that a rural crisis existed but there was no consensus on what to do about it. Premier Wen declared to the National People’s Congress in March 2004 that “constructing a New Socialist Countryside” (jianshe shehuizhuyi xin nongcun) was the “most important of all important issues.” (Renmin ribao; People’s Daily Overseas edition, March 5, 2004, quoted in Thogersen, p. 230). His discussion revolved around “three rural problems,” those described by Wen Tiejun. Wen Tiejun was widely consulted both in China and abroad as he deepened his critique of Western style development. In 2008 the party announced plans to allow farmers to buy and sell land rights, but it remained to be seen whether individual ownership and increased marketization could address the concerns raised by Wen and others without a substantial government commitment to local community organizing and social investment.
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Chen Guidi, Wu Chuntao. (2006). Zhongguo nongmin diaocha [Investigations of China’s peasants]. Beijing: Renminwenxue [Renmin Press], translated as Will the boat sink the water? The life of China’s peasants. New York: Public Affairs.
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Wen Tiejun. (2007, Summer). Deconstructing modernization. In A. Day, & M. A. Hale (Eds.), Chinese Sociology and Anthropology, 39(4), 10–25.
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Source: Hayford, Charles W.. (2009). New Rural Reconstruction Movement. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1598–1601. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Farm child hides in the wheat stack in the countryside of Sichuan Province near Mount Emei. The mainly non-governmental efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s of New Rural Reconstruction Movement strive to improve the governance and conditions of China’s countryside. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.
New Rural Reconstruction Movement (X?nnóngc?n Jiànshè Yùndòng ???????)|X?nnóngc?n Jiànshè Yùndòng ??????? (New Rural Reconstruction Movement)