There is nothing to cure you of the romance of farming like a visit to a poor farming community. As someone whose grandparents came off the farm, I have a healthy respect, even a reverence, for what farmers do. But it is hard, backbreaking work, unremitting and too often unrewarding. Rice cultivation is even more labor intensive than the produce-and-animal-husbandry of my ancestors. Anyone who can force themselves to get up in the morning and spend all day in a rice paddy deserves your utmost respect.
The farmers we visited are, we're informed, about average for China these days. They have running water, electricity, and cable television. Each person farms about 1.5 mu, or roughly a quarter of an acre, with three seasonal crops: two of vegetables, one of rice. The fact that they can get three crops out of that little amount of land tells you why China has so many people.
The annual income per person is about 10,000 RMB, which has allowed a fairly massive upgrade of lifestyle for the villagers--most of the villagers seem to have their own homes, with new appliances. The journalists gawked at the small one-room dwelling that had once been the main house, and now served as a kitchen; the host, clearly embarrassed, hurried us into the three story house he built himself four years ago, replete with shiny tile and new furniture.
There's something about farmers everywhere that reminds me of my relatives, and this house seemed to reflect that kinship: simple, comfortable, and easy to clean up the tracks of dirty shoes. The poverty of developing countries often manifests itself not in squalor, but in an absence of stuff that niggles at you until you finally realize what's missing. What's missing is the decorations on the walls, the extraneous furniture, the piles of lightly used possessions that populate even the poorest homes in the United States. Chinese farmers have televisions and refrigerators. They do not have collections of refrigerator magnets, fourteen remote controls to televisions long since junked, cable bills and cable knit sweaters that never fit right.
Yet even this level of income is achieved by substantial government intervention. In part to slow the pace of urbanization to a manageable level, in part because they're worried about food security, and in part presumably just because they don't want the farmers to starve, the government offers some pretty hefty subsidies to rural communities. The crop prices are supported above market levels; the houses, appliances, and someday cars, are acquired with substantial discounts through government programs. According to our hosts, without those subsidies, it's not clear that there would be anyone left on Chinese farms. Chinese agriculture is amazingly productive, as I mentioned, but it's also amazingly labor intensive, and tends to be done on a small scale; they can't compete with the massive farms of North and South America.
It's hard to find a good word to say for farm subsidies, but here's one: the country can't urbanize any faster than it already is. The major cities are choked with traffic; the minor cities don't yet have the commercial infrastructure to absorb so many new workers. Keeping these folks decently on the farm may be cheaper than keeping them on welfare in the cities. The question is, do these farm subsidies really serve as a temporary way to manage growth? Or do they become, as they have in the US, a permanent, and expensive, program?
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is a columnist at Bloomberg View
and a former senior editor at The Atlantic.
Her new book is The Up Side of Down