Development, Government and governance, Trade and industry, Food & water | Asia, East Asia

14 February 2020

The distinct party colouring of China’s 2020 Document Number One shows it is bereft of ideas, and signals a coming year of stalled rural policy in China, Tristan Kenderdine writes.

On 5 February, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP) released the latest instalment of the annual rural China policy blueprint. Despite a hoax release in January, the real document, the first central policy document of the year, known as Document Number One, was released, titled Opinions on Prioritising ‘Three Rurals’: Key Work to Achieve a Comprehensive Well-off Society on Schedule.

‘On schedule’ refers to the policy timeline of delivering measurable economic milestones on China’s development trajectory to 2035, with 2020 being the end of 13th five-year plan period and 2021 the beginning of the 14th five-year plan period. 2021 is also the Centenary of the Communist Party of China.

Both dates should represent significant milestones towards the economic development of rural areas, but at the aggregate level, numbers are unlikely to be flattering to the CCP. This partly explains why this year’s document is slightly muted in terms of policy innovation and promises.

More on this: Revitalising the rural economy

Some of the document was released as part of the Central Rural Work Conference, held in Beijing from 20 to 21 December, and its Discussion Draft, in conjunction with 2018’s Rural Revitalisation Five-year Plan, which currently acts as China’s major rural economic blueprint. The rhetoric in this year’s Document Number One, though, has shifted distinctly from environment, rural finance, and land reform to poverty alleviation and rural governance.

Poverty alleviation is core to Xi Jinping’s rhetoric, and achieving lower poverty has been the backbone of the CCP’s legitimacy – although sometimes to the ridicule of outside observers.

If there were voting in China, then this would be the vote-buying policy of rural support and the shoring up of red-voting heartland. As such, it is no surprise that poverty alleviation is crucial to 2020 Document Number One. Disappointingly though, it takes up five full articles, sidelining other important issues.

2020’s Document Number One consists of just 27 articles in five sections, coming in much shorter than recent years. 2020’s document is also shorter on words, coming in at around 9,500 words, whereas 2015 was nearly 15,000 and 2017 was 12,000 words.

It’s in this context that the strong focus on poverty alleviation and rural governance is disappointing. By focusing heavily on poverty alleviation and rural governance, the document loses nine of its 27 articles to hollow policy rhetoric – something usually limited to the opening paragraphs of central documents. Thus two full sections feel like a waste of an already short document.

Along with being heavy on rhetoric, even the more practical policy dissemination was disappointing. The CCP trotted out its standard stuff: “benchmarking the well-off society”, “addressing rural infrastructure shortcomings”, and trying to “empower the village”, but nothing new that moves away from the past three years.

More on this: Beware the rural-urban divide

On one hand, rural water supply is highly prioritised, but in a party-prescriptive manner, nothing like the bold visions of 2016. It seems either policymakers are scared to take chances, or that senior people with good ideas have been sidelined by heavier-handed policy scribes.

Section five is the only area with any real policy meat, but rushes through rural finance and the balance of rural incomes, rural production and rural production reform, and land reform. It touches on developing high-quality rural talent, extending the science and technology economy into the rural areas, and addressing rural land and homestead contract systems. Small enterprises also make a significant appearance.

All of this should have been the main structure of the document. If these perennial issues had been sidelined by something important, like a bold environment plan, then that would have been fair enough, but no such plan exists. Instead, the document is heavy with party rhetoric, and any meaningful policy was hastily stuffed in at the end.

Despite its shortcomings, there are a number of interesting pilot programs promised by the document. They include a rural water system improvement pilot, a national digital village pilot, a number of rural finance initiatives, and five policy pilots on rural land reform.

Other innovations include the development of an agricultural cold-chain logistics network, which comprises a backbone of spatially planned logistics bases. This too is good to see.

In policy-making, small changes often mean that big-ticket items can become easier goals. In this year’s document, small, practical solutions are gone, replaced by big, intractable problems.

Unfortunately, 2020’s Document Number One reads more like a Soviet policy prescription than a set of innovative policy descriptions. This is in contrast to previous years, which brought forward policy innovations in rural governance, finance, productivity, and connectivity.

If the CCP has a plan to solve China’s rural problems, then it is not being communicated effectively. For the rural population, who need policy progress, 2020’s Document Number One feels like it is still standing on the edge, too afraid to jump in the policy pool.

“To succeed in ‘Three Rurals’ work, the party is key” is the opening line of the conclusion of the document. Ultimately, the CCP missed a chance this year with this blunt application of Xi Thought. In an hypothetical election, the rural community would likely still vote for Xi’s party, but they would be voting against their own interests.

Observers can only hope, for the sake of rural China, that this year is a blip, and that there are many people within the policy formulation machine who are willing to take risks on genuine rural policy innovation in the future.

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