Friday, November 30, 2012

December Excerpt: The Threat and Promise of Rural Development in China by F. Thomas Trotter and Zhihe Wang

The Threat and Promise of Rural Development in China
F. Thomas Trotter and Zhihe Wang

China’s stunning economic and industrial growth is breathtaking in its scope. This was confirmed by the extensive coverage of the Beijing Olympic Games. The world saw the dramatic changes in the urban face of the nation. But behind the glittering landscapes lies an urgent challenge that is still to be faced. How will China feed its people?

The concentration of industrial enterprises in the eastern part of the nation has profoundly shaped the landscape. Ten cities have populations of about 10 million and urban growth continues. Yet the amazingly rapid modernization of China thus far has barely scratched the surface of the nation’s rural life. 

President Hu Jintao has asked the nation to work together on a project called “Building New Countryside” under the slogan “putting people first.” He has said, “the only way to ensure sustainable development of the national economy and continuous expansion of domestic demand is to develop the rural economy and help farmers become more affluent.”

But what will Hu’s “sustainable development” mean for rural China? China’s leadership faces a daunting problem. Acceptance of Western industrial models has proven extraordinarily successful in manufacturing. So the probability is that Western industrial models will offer agricultural planners an immediate solution. If so, there will be predictable catastrophic consequences.

The most dramatic consequence will be a vast dislocation of population. If peasant farming is replaced by corporate farming, productivity of labor would be increased. Indeed fully ‘modern’ agriculture in China would only require about 13 million farmers, or only 1% of China’s population. Then China would have to absorb the hundreds of millions of people who will become surplus labor in the countryside. It is estimated that nearly 800 million people would leave rural areas and move to cities. Or, to use a more dramatic illustration, an additional 80 cities, each with a population of 10 million, would be required.

Another consequence flows from the fact that modern industrial farming is driven by petroleum. Adding commitment to petroleum to drive agriculture is problematic given the present reality of scarcity of oil and the prospect of exhaustion of oil reserves in the foreseeable future. We now know that CO2 released from burning fossil fuels is negatively affecting the biosphere upon which all life depends.

Agricultural modernization means increased irrigation, and petroleum-based farming results in more pollution of water. Water is already scarce in northern China and much of what remains is polluted. The melting of the Tibetan glaciers due to global warming threatens water shortages in central China as well.

A further by-product of modern agriculture is soil degradation. With all our scientific ingenuity, the challenge of producing food without erosion and salinization remains. Pre-modern and modern agriculture present a history of environmental devastation. This on-going devastation is due to the 10,000 year old practice of cultivation. Plow any land long enough and it will turn into a desert of sand or a field of rock.

Is there an alternative to the dangers of industrial agriculture in China? Modernization of agriculture follows quite naturally from what some intellectuals are calling the “First Enlightenment.” This was based on following the European Enlightenment in adopting the mechanistic world view as the basis for development.

Mao and other 20th-century political figures correctly discerned that China needed to commit itself to Western methods of industrialization to become a modern nation. In that commitment, however, there was a tragic rejection of a culture that involved a way of life and an ethical consensus that had sustained the Chinese people for millennia. The most egregious evidence of the rejection of China’s cultural achievements was the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Partly in reaction to the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese began to re-appraise Chinese cultural values. These include respect for family and community, respect for the earth and other forms of life, respect for tradition and the rituals that hold people together, a sense of the spirituality found in harmony between people and nature, and a way of living (Shangquing) that provides peace in human affairs.

Contemporary industrialized society in China appears to have rejected these classical values and any form of Western ethic other than the private freedom in the market place. Many Chinese are now concerned about the future of a society that lacks any cohesive moral teaching.

The main reason for breaking with the Chinese tradition was that it had not encouraged the development of advanced science and technology. Recently many Chinese are re-thinking the possibility of linking traditional values with science and technology. Some have called this the “Second Enlightenment.” They have been encouraged to believe this is possible by their encounter with the Western philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Although Whitehead has been largely ignored in the West, eighteen Chinese universities have established centers to promote study of his thought.

You can read the rest of the article by picking up the December issue available now. Visit the Empirical website for more information about subscriptions, single issues, and submissions.

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