Wasteland: A Chinese Village that’s Undergoing Rapid Change

News Abroad
tags: China

Michael Meyer is the author of “ In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China.”

In a northeast China village called Wasteland, elderly Auntie Yi frowns at the latest improvement to her village: a lawn. The green stripe borders Red Flag Road, a line of grey cement slicing through table-flat rice paddies. “The company did this,” she scoffs. “Eastern Fortune Rice widened the road, it put up the streetlights, and it dug up the poppies I had planted with my own hands and seeds in favor of this.” She kicks at the sod. “My poppies were orange and yellow and red.” She points at the jade ocean of ripening rice around us. “This is just more green.”

We often think of Chinese companies buying up and transforming real estate outside the country, such as a recent deal with Ukraine that more than doubled its overseas farm acreage. But a larger shift is happening internally. Recently, on the eve of the Chinese New Year, the Communist Party released its “No. 1 Central Document,” or most important policy paper. For the twelfth year in a row, it focused on rural reforms, including the consolidation of family-farmed plots into large-scale, managed enterprises. In a word: agribusinesses.

Chinese farmers face daunting statistics: Increased imports aside, one-fifth of the world’s population feeds off one-twelfth of the planet’s arable land. And that number is shrinking: In the past 30 years, an area the size of New York state has been plowed under for urbanization, while in 2014, the government announced that soil equal in size to the area of Maryland was too contaminated for planting.

The solution is to scale up, like the United States did. In 1935 it had 6.8 million farms; today one-third exist, and less than 1 percent of Americans farm full-time. (In 1993, the U.S. census stopped counting farmers: their number had become “statistically insignificant.”) Size matters: to be “economically viable,” the US government advises that a Corn Belt farm requires two to three thousand acres of row crops. Now, only 9 percent of the total farms produce two-thirds of America’s output.

China is following suit. In the central province where The Good Earth was set, American agribusiness giant Cargill recently opened an operation named Site 82 that breeds, slaughters and processes 65 million chickens a year. “Peanuts on the scale of China,” according to its manager. But the business – which employs 4,000 locals -- is a government-backed model of safe production, with uniform feed and antibiotics, as opposed to a single shipment of meat produced by hundreds of farmers. And a few miles from Wasteland, where the average family plot is 1.5 acres, ground has broken on a Singapore-backed “superfarm” whose 500 square miles is equal in area to Los Angeles.

Standing on Red Flag Road, Auntie Yi bristles at the developments. Though in retirement she looks – in a padded silk jacket, cloth shoes and a bucket hat – like a hip art teacher, Auntie Yi was once a village cadre whose politics were forged from a lifetime in the region formerly known as Manchuria. Her family survived the Japanese occupation, the “liberating” Soviet soldiers who pillaged Wasteland, and then the Chinese civil war battle that had them ducking in their thatched-roof cottage as bullets tore through paper-paned windows. As a young woman in the 1950s, she witnessed land reform that broke up manorial estates and redistributed farmland to poor families such as her own, in a place whose paddies were dug by hand from soil as rich and saturated as spent coffee grounds. Auntie Yi’s hands are proudly hennaed with this earth. “This is our village,” she says. “And we can take care of it ourselves.”

But can they? For all their pioneer spirit, the older generation has passed down a disdain for farm work. Children are urged to study, instead, and test into a university. There is no equivalent of a 4-H Club. Nor is there talk of contributing to the collective. In the newly built middle school, where I volunteered as an English teacher, the posted propaganda isn’t the usual bromides from Chairman Mao, but Confucian analects pondering how to become a virtuous man.

China has now spent more years dismantling a Marxist society than building one. After Mao died in 1976, so did his diktat of communal farming. By 1984, families could grow and sell their own crop in exchange for handing a portion to the state, on plots guaranteed for fifteen years, a period extended to 30 years in 1993. Mandatory grain procurement ended in 2001, and all agricultural taxes were abolished in 2006.

Wasteland’s farmers have enjoyed nearly a decade of freedom to plant and sell as they wish. With its single annual crop of rice – some of it organic – the village is comparatively prosperous, with garden-fronted homes and a single paved road that used to be brightened by Auntie Yi’s planted poppies.

“I used my own money to buy the seeds,” she reminds me. “Long before Eastern Fortune Rice started spending money on the village, I planted those poppies so the road would look nice.”

She points to the tallest structure between her house and the foothills. The company’s billboard commands: BUILD THE NORTHEAST’S TOP VILLAGE. “All we hear is develop, develop, develop,” Auntie Yi says. “But how do you know when a village has developed just enough?”

Eastern Fortune paid for the road to be widened, and planted the stripe of lawn that leads to its new hot spring resort. Next came a horizon of cranes, building walk-up apartments that the company offered to farmers in exchange for their homes. “Eastern Fortune Rice expects everyone will move into those,” Auntie Yi says. “Once you agree, they’ll tear your house down and plant rice there. We’ll become dependent on the company. We just stopped being dependent on the government.” Rumors floated that Eastern Fortune even planned to rename the 300-year-old village -- after itself.

Regardless, Wasteland was already a company town. Eastern Fortune offered farmers an annual payment to lease their land and sell the harvest. The figure is fifty percent higher than the average Chinese farmer’s annual earnings, which in 2014 rose for the eleventh-straight year to an all-time high of 9,892 yuan ($1,580). But everything is at an all-time high in China, including the price of rice. Contracting one’s land means betting against the market. It also means losing a house’s garden and chicken coops that provide secondary income, as well as food for the family table.

“The government expects companies to lead the ‘backward’ peasants to change,” Auntie Yi fumes. Perhaps the old official in her misses shouldering that responsibility? But while many in Wasteland have eagerly leased their land and moved into the apartments, the holdouts – mostly older, lifelong famers – instead want stronger legal protections so they won’t be coerced into signing the agreement. They also want the freedom to mortgage, sell, and invest in larger and better acreage, the way urban Chinese can play the real estate market.

Yet land is owned by the state, and talk of privatization has been muted in favor of conglomerated, company-managed farms. In Wasteland, Beijing’s imprimatur is seen via a billboard that shows then-president Hu Jintao smiling not with a group of farmers in the field, but with a group of managers at the headquarters of Eastern Fortune Rice.

For Chinese New Year, the company gave farmers an oversized calendar which included ancient poems such as “Sympathy for Farmers”: A farmer weeding at noon/His sweat drips to the field soon/Anyone with rice on a tray/Owes it to his toiling day. The accompanying photo shows Eastern Fortune’s threshers and mechanized rice polishers. The calendar also holds traditional couplets such the New Year’s saying: Reflect on the past months/and sign contracts at once.

To Auntie Yi, that sounds pushy, even in verse. She refuses to move into the new apartments, and wept the day the digger arrived to tear out her poppies. (The operator avoided her gaze as she scolded him. In China, politics is personal.) A week later, a new batch of workers arrived to lay the sod, as green and groomed as a cemetery lawn. That night, under the cover of darkness, Auntie Yi lodged her protest. She eased down on her elderly knees and planted twice the poppy seeds as before. Come springtime, her patch of Red Flag Road will bloom a riot of color once more. 

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