A tale of two Chinas

The deep divide between urban and rural China

Kerry Brown

Economics and finance, Government and governance | East Asia

29 March 2016

China’s rural population wants a better economic deal and equal footing with urban China. But as Kerry Brown writes, the division is deep with modernity and equal wealth in China’s countryside still an immense step away for many.

China’s era of Hu Jintao, the country’s supreme leader from 2002 to 2012, seems to be fading by the day. Terms like ‘scientific development’ and `harmonious society’ sound like language from an age long over. Hu himself, along with his premier Wen Jiabao, have slipped from public life.

One of the phrases rolled out in the Hu era was `new socialist countryside.’ This figured in the 2006 Five Year Programme, which ran until 2011. It occurred in speeches Hu and his colleagues made at the Party Congress in 2007, when it was first clear that Xi Jinping stood in pole position to take over from Hu in five years’ time. All of that came to pass.

Under President Xi, where does `new socialist countryside’ as a concept now stand? Hu and Wen certainly tried to lift the burden on the rural areas. As the 2010 national census showed, half of Chinese people, despite years of breakneck development, still classed themselves as living in non-urban China. Even for a developing country, this is a high proportion. And for many, the benefits of reform and opening up had never seemed to flow fully to them. Life in many rural areas, particularly in central and western China, remained hard. Agriculture was largely unmechanised, and the business model, with smallholdings remaining the norm, was largely pre-modern.

Hu and Wen did address one key issue: they removed tax burdens on farmers, a source of huge resentment. But through the infamous household registration system, in place since the 1950s, Chinese were restricted in where they could live, and how. In a country where 230 million people were classified in the 2010 census as migrants, the vast majority from rural areas moving to work in cities or towns, a large number of people were consigned to insecurity and uncertainty. They were, in their minds at least, second-class citizens.

And it is in the realm of the mind, rather than bureaucratic practice of social fact, that this rural-urban division matters most. `New Socialist Countryside’ was primarily an attempt to demonstrate the Party and government were attempting to forge not just a pro-urban modernity, but a rural one too. Mao Zedong’s armies, and his ideological bias, may have been constituted more by peasants and peasant issues. But their imaginations about the future were filled with cities, factories and machines. The countryside was the place everyone wanted to leave. And the peasant emperor Mao pursued policies like the Great Leap Forward that inflicted desperate misery on rural China.

Modernity in rural China was, and remains, an immense step. It has arrived in some places, is still to come in others. But the division between those Chinese who regard themselves inwardly as rural, and those who regard themselves as urban, remains deep. In essence, to use the late Benedict Anderson’s much quoted idea, China is two vast imagined communities.

The first is service-sector working, urban, consuming, and replicating the good, and bad, of Western-style lives as quickly as possible. The second is primary-industry focused, higher saving, more conservative, more cautious – rural China.

More on this: China’s new urbanisation | Chunlai Chen.

Rural China has to live with a slightly ambiguous message from the Party. On the one hand, the Party built its powers on it, said it supports it, and positions itself as its champion and voice. On the other hand, removing as much of rural China from the picture would suit the Party fine. The quicker it has 70 to 80 per cent in the cities, living the urban life, the better. At the very least, this will be one of the principle goals of the second of Xi’s centennial landmarks, marking the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party in 2049.

Rural China returns this ambiguity. It is the source of most protests, and anger in farmers in particular has risen over the last two decades, fueled by land grabs by officials, and poor management and governance. Rural China did not take part in the 1989 protests, but since then there have been tens of thousands of mini uprisings. It was not appeased by the 1998 Organic Village Election Law, nor by the new socialist countryside rubric. In the end, rural China wants a better economic deal, to be placed on the same plane as the privileged urban spaces. It feels it merits this.

Of all the tasks the Xi leadership has undertaken, the task of forging a new consciousness among rural Chinese people is key. They still have a huge role to play. The integration of their economy into the modern, international one has to happen. The question is how? Rural Chinese have to become consumers on the same scale as their urban counterparts. They have to have the same quality of health and social welfare. It is probably possible, but only after a long time, and only after forging a new mentality where rural Chinese feel more cared for and respected.

This forging of a new mentality is perhaps the most important thing about the household system reforms, now being implemented by Xi. In a sense, they do propose a new deal for the countryside. There are signs that people are starting to return to their home roots, leaving the cities and looking for a better life back where they started.

Keeping hold of rural plots of land is a big economic deal in China now. In terms of being a source of wealth creation, it may well be that rural China is starting to figure much more strongly, and in this way it will find a route to the respect and status it always feels it has been denied. Xi’s policies for the cities have been closely observed. But it is in the countryside where the most important initiatives are being pursued.

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Brown, K. (2016). A tale of two Chinas - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: http://www.policyforum.net/a-tale-of-two-chinas/

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