China's big plans for its farmland

China’s campaign to achieve “rural vitalization”

It’s deeply ingrained in the Chinese psyche that one of China’s defining features is its agricultural traditions. China is an agricultural country, and agriculture is considered the backbone of the country.

For this reason, the Chinese government places utmost importance upon the country’s countryside, summarily called the “three rural issues” of agriculture, farmers, and rural areas. This newsletter looks at China’s vision for the future of the “three rural issues”.

China’s national legislature has recently adopted a law on the “promotion of rural vitalization”(中华人民共和国乡村振兴促进法). Containing 74 articles that mainly cover cropland protection and ecological environment protection, industrial development, urban-rural integration, and supportive measures, the law will come into force on June 1, 2021.

In this issue of the newsletter, your host will share with you some thoughts on China’s “rural revitalization strategy” (乡村振兴战略), which is crucial in understanding China’s development blueprint, and highlights of the law.

First, what is “rural revitalization strategy” and why making the law in the first place? According to Wang Ruihe, an official with the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, the law is aimed at “providing a strong legal guarantee for the full implementation of the rural revitalization strategy.”

The notion of “rural revitalization strategy” was first put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017. In a speech that was focused on “implementing the new vision of development and building a modernized economy,” Xi said as follows:

“实施乡村振兴战略。农业农村农民问题是关系国计民生的根本性问题,必须始终把解决好“三农”问题作为全党工作重中之重。

"Implementing the rural revitalization strategy. The issue of agriculture, rural areas and farmers is a fundamental issue related to the people's livelihood, and we must always make solving the "three rural issues" as the top priority of the whole party.

要坚持农业农村优先发展,按照产业兴旺、生态宜居、乡风文明、治理有效、生活富裕的总要求,建立健全城乡融合发展体制机制和政策体系,加快推进农业农村现代化。

To adhere to the priority development of agriculture and rural areas, in accordance with the general requirements of industrial prosperity, ecological livability, civilized countryside, effective governance and affluence, establish and improve the institutional mechanism and policy system for integrated development of urban and rural areas, and speed up the modernization of agriculture and rural areas.

巩固和完善农村基本经营制度,深化农村土地制度改革,完善承包地“三权”分置制度。保持土地承包关系稳定并长久不变,第二轮土地承包到期后再延长三十年。

Consolidate and improve the basic rural management system, deepen the reform of the rural land system, improve the contracted land "three rights" separation system. Keep the land contract relationship stable and unchanged for a long time, and extend the second round of land contract for another 30 years after its expiration.

深化农村集体产权制度改革,保障农民财产权益,壮大集体经济。确保国家粮食安全,把中国人的饭碗牢牢端在自己手中。构建现代农业产业体系、生产体系、经营体系,完善农业支持保护制度,发展多种形式适度规模经营,培育新型农业经营主体,健全农业社会化服务体系,实现小农户和现代农业发展有机衔接。

Deepen the reform of the rural collective property rights system, protect farmers' property rights and interests, and strengthen the collective economy. Ensure national food security and keep the rice bowls of the Chinese people firmly in their own hands. Build a modern agricultural industry system, production system and operation system, improve the agricultural support and protection system, develop various forms of moderate scale operations, cultivate new agricultural business entities, improve the agricultural socialization service system, and realize the organic connection between small farmers and modern agricultural development.

促进农村一二三产业融合发展,支持和鼓励农民就业创业,拓宽增收渠道。加强农村基层基础工作,健全自治、法治、德治相结合的乡村治理体系。培养造就一支懂农业、爱农村、爱农民的“三农”工作队伍。”

Promote the integrated development of one, two, three industries in rural areas, support and encourage farmers' employment and entrepreneurship, and broaden the channels for increasing income. Strengthen the basic work of rural grassroots, and improve the rural governance system combining autonomy, rule of law and moral governance. Cultivate a "three rural" workforce that understands agriculture, loves the countryside, and loves farmers."

To sum up what Xi said on “rural revitalization strategy,” first, the trio issues related to agriculture, rural areas and farmers (or “三农” in Chinese) are “fundamental to the national economy and the people’s livelihood,” whose solving must be regarded “a top priority in the work of the whole Party.”

Secondly, rural land contracting practices across the country will remain stable and unchanged for a long time to come. Since China adopted the household contract responsibility system in the early 1980s, the property rights of rural farmland have been divided into two layers: the ownership right that is collectively owned by a rural community, normally a village, and the use right, which is held by an individual household that contracts a piece of farmland from the village. While the existing law only states that a farmland use contract is valid for 30 years, Xi ensured in his speech that the contracts will be extended for another 30 years upon expiration.

Thirdly, to develop appropriately scaled agricultural operations of various forms, cultivate new types of agribusiness, improve specialized agricultural services, and encourage small household farmers to become involved in modern agriculture. 

Fourthly, national food security must be ensured so that China always has control over its own food supply. It was not the first time and obviously will not be the last time Xi emphasized food security in his speeches. The following is an incomplete list of quotes by Xi on the subject in recent years:

In May 2020, he said: “For China, a big country with a population of 1.4 billion, the position of agriculture as the foundation of our economy can never be ignored or weakened. It is always true that we have food in hand and we don't feel nervous. Despite the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic, China's society has remained stable, thanks to the steady supply of food and important agricultural and sideline products.”

In March 2019, he said: “Cultivated land is the lifeblood of grain production. We will strengthen the primary responsibility of local governments, improve land law enforcement and supervision systems and mechanisms, resolutely curb illegal land activities, and firmly uphold the red line for farmland protection.”

In May 2015, he said: “Cultivated land is the most precious resource in China. China's basic national conditions, which have a large population and small land, determine that we must protect the cultivated land... It is necessary to implement the strictest farmland protection system, balance the occupation and compensation of cultivated land according to laws and regulations, promote the circulation of rural land in a standardized and orderly manner, and protect cultivated land like protecting giant pandas.”

In December 2013, he said: “Only when a country is basically self-sufficient in food can it grasp the initiative of food security and then control the overall situation of economic and social development. It is unreliable to rely on others to solve the problem of eating... Our foothold and focus are that we must never buy food or beg for food, and our rice bowls must be mainly filled with grain produced by ourselves.”

Your host would like to point out to you that when the “rural revitalization strategy” was first introduced, China was still in the middle of a campaign against extreme poverty (脱贫攻坚战). Now, since China has declared a “complete victory” in eradicating extreme poverty,” Xi said last December that the next move is to “comprehensively promote rural revitalization.” He also called it “a historic shift in the focus of the work on agriculture, rural areas and farmers.”

Though China has declared victory in eliminating extreme poverty, it still has a strenuous fight ahead against poverty. According to China’s State Council Information Office, the criteria for being lifted out of extreme poverty entail three aspects, widely known in China as “one income, two basic living needs and three accesses” (一收入两不愁三保障). To be more specific, in order to meet the standards, one must earn an annual income of around 4,000 yuan (616 U.S. dollars), free from worries over food and clothing, and has access to mandatory education, basic medical services and safe housing.

Some may question that China has set the poverty line (1.69 dollar per day) lower than the threshold by the World Bank (1.9 dollar per day), but as said by a senior official from China’s national administration for rural vitalization, as of the end of 2020, the per capita net income of China's registered poor population has reached 10,740 yuan (1,655 dollars, or 4.5 dollars per day), exceeding the international extreme poverty standard.

Anyway, the standards for lifting a person out of extreme poverty are quite low worldwide, including here in China, and it is possible for the person to slip back to extreme poverty. Therefore, the Chinese leadership has made quite clear in this year’s “No. 1 Central Document” (中央一号文件) that “extreme poverty elimination is not the end, but the starting point of new life and new struggle” (脱贫摘帽不是终点,而是新生活、新奋斗的起点”).

As some of you may already know, the first policy document issued by the CPC Central Committee each year is called the “No.1 Central Document.” Since 2004, the first policy document has focused on “三农” issues for 18 consecutive years. In this year, the document, entitled

“Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Comprehensively Promoting Rural Revitalization and Accelerating Agricultural and Rural Modernization,” stipulates as follows:

全面建设社会主义现代化国家,实现中华民族伟大复兴,最艰巨最繁重的任务依然在农村,最广泛最深厚的基础依然在农村。

To build a modern socialist country and achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, the most difficult and heavy task is still in the countryside, and the most extensive and deepest foundation is still in the countryside.

In the second half of this newsletter, your host would present to you the highlights of the law combined with background information from this year’s “No.1 Central Document” and other official sources.

1. Codifying the Chinese Farmers’ Harvest Festival (中国农民丰收节), which falls between Sept. 22 and 24 during the country’s agricultural harvest season.

The festival actually started in 2018 and is the first national festival specifically for the country’s farmers. As to why establishing the harvest festival in the first place, then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Han Changfu said as follows:

“It is conducive to further highlighting the important status of the trio works related to agriculture, farmer and rural areas (三农工作). It is conducive to enhancing the sense of honor, happiness and gain of hundreds of millions of farmers. It is also conducive to the inheritance and promotion of Chinese farming civilization and traditional Chinese culture.”

2. Establishing a rural revitalization assessment and evaluation system, an annual reporting mechanism for work, and a supervision and inspection system.

As stipulated in the “No.1 Central Document,” provincial Party committees and governments should report annually to the Party Central Committee and the State Council on the progress of implementing their measures to revitalize the rural areas. And most importantly, it is required to incorporate how local authorities consolidate the results of poverty eradication into the assessment of rural revitalization.

3. Implementing the protection system for “permanent basic farmland”(永久基本农田).

According to a guideline document issued by China’s State Council on food security, the Chinese government has implemented an overall plan for land use throughout the country. It strictly controls the occupation of cultivated land, especially high-quality land.

“We have implemented a complete and special protection system for permanent basic farmland, and designated more than 103 million hectares of permanent basic farmland,” said the document in 2019.

According to official data, at present, the country has 134.88 million hectares of cultivated land, an increase of more than 4.8 million hectares over 1996. There are more than 117 million hectares sown with grain, an increase of about 4.5 million hectares over 1996.

The 2021 “No.1 Central Document” has elaborated on the protection of farmland. Your host has summed up here some key points for your information:

a. To strictly prohibit the illegal occupation of arable land and the greening and forestation which is against nature;

b. To strictly control the occupation of arable land by non-agricultural construction, and promote the rectification action against  building houses on arable land in rural areas;

c. To clearly prioritize the use of arable land, with permanent basic farmland being focused on food production, while general arable land mainly being used for food and cotton, oil, sugar, vegetables, and other agricultural products and forage and feed production;

d. To strictly control the conversion of arable land to forest land, garden land, and other types of agricultural land;

e. To implement a new round of high-standard farmland construction planning, and by 2021 to build 100 million mu (or 6.67 million hectares) of high yield and stable production of high-standard farmland.

4. Establishing a sound mechanism conducive to the stable growth of farmers’ income.

According to data offered by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s rural residents’ per capita disposable income reached 17,131 yuan in 2020, with the growth rate outperforming urban residents for 11 consecutive years.

However, as said by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, the absolute gap between the income of urban and rural residents is still widening, the income gap between regions is still obvious, and it is still very difficult to promote sustainable income growth of farmers.

As farmers’ income is closely related to the modernization of agriculture, your host would like to talk more about this aspect.

The second chapter of the law was dedicated to industrial development in rural areas. In Article 12,13 and 16, the law stipulates that local governments at all levels should promote the integration of rural industries, promote the establishment of modern agricultural industry system, production system and business system, and promote the construction of digital countryside “based on the advantageous characteristic resources of the countryside.”

In the “No.1 Central Document,” more details are offered in this aspect. The following is the key points filed by your host:

a. On improving the ability to guarantee the supply of food and important agricultural products: to stabilize subsidies for grain farmers, so that there is a reasonable return on grain cultivation; to improve the minimum purchase price policy for rice and wheat, and improve the subsidy policy for corn and soybean producers; to encourage the development of silage corn and other high-quality forage feed, stabilize soybean production, and take measures to develop oilseed rape, peanuts, and other oil crops; to accelerate the construction of modern breeding system; to optimize the layout of agricultural trade, implement a diversification strategy for agricultural imports, and support enterprises to integrate into the global agricultural supply chain.

b. On strengthening modern agricultural science and technology development and material equipment support: to implement the renewal support and modernization of large and medium-sized irrigation districts; to adhere to agricultural science and technology self-reliance and self-improvement; to construct a number of innovations based platform for agricultural technology; to support universities to provide intellectual services for rural revitalization; to build a National Tropical Agricultural Science Center; to enhance the capacity of independently developing agricultural equipment, and to support research, development, and manufacturing of high-end intelligent, hilly mountain agricultural equipment; to carry out subsidies for agricultural machinery operations.

On building a modern rural industrial system: to build the whole agricultural industry chain, and keep the main body of the industry chain in the county, so as to grant farmers more share of the value-added income of the industry; to cultivate leading agricultural enterprises; to construct modern agricultural industrial parks, agricultural industries, strong towns, and industrial clusters of advantageous characteristics; to promote the construction of exemplary science and technology parks for the integrated development of the primary, secondary and tertiary industries in rural areas; to create about 500 exemplary zones for agricultural modernization by 2025.

c. On promoting the development of a modern agricultural operation system: to focus on the two types of business entities of family farms and farmer cooperatives, and encourage the development of diversified and appropriately scaled agricultural operations; to develop family farms;  to increase support for qualified farmers’ cooperatives; to introduce advanced agricultural varieties, technologies, and equipment to small household farmers; to enhance education and skills of farmers; to attract urban talents to rural areas for entrepreneurship and innovation.

This Newsletter is penned by Lu Jiafei, a contributor to Beijing Channel, and edited by Zhao Wencai