Growing Chinese cities squeeze nearby farmland

"Before liberation [1949]," the village leader said, "we had 4,000 mou [667 acres] of land, and our population was 1,600. Now we have 2,700 people, but only 1,700 mou [283 acres] of land."

The hot afternoon sun beat down on us as wiry Deng Shudong, deputy leader of South Village production brigade, led his visitors around the wheat fields and vegetable patches of his brigade.

"See those buildings in that clump of trees over there?" he said, pointing perhaps 1,000 yards eastward. "That is the heat-resistant materials factory, which has taken some of our land. Over there is the Luoyang Mining Equipment Company, and a workers hospital, and a workers club -- all built on land taken from us."

Mr. Deng's remarks highlight a growing problem in China: As industrialization and urbanization proceed, good agricultural land surrounding cities is taken for other uses. Meanwhile the population of the villages that have lost land to the cities increases.

What is the answer? Part of it is industrialization -- to a degree -- of the villages themselves, and more emphasis on sideline occupations.

Agriculture still takes most of South Village's manpower, but already 60 percent of the production brigade's income is from industry and sideline occupations.

The brigade runs a foundry, a brick kiln, dressmaking and embroidery workshops, a shoemaking workshop, and a farm machinery repair center. Sideline occupations include raising pigs and poultry and growing fruit trees. In agriculture itself, the brigade is shifting from wheat and maize to vegetables in order to take advantage of its proximity to Luoyang city.

By these means, Mr. Deng said, South Village has managed to increase its income by 8 to 10 percent a year for the last three or four years.

What compensation does South Village receive when the state requisitions its land for other purposes? Back in the brigade's modest reception room after a tour of the hot fields, Mr. Deng answered the question in detail, fanning himself vigorously as he spoke.

Basically, the brigade receives the equivalent of the grain that would be produced by the acquired land over three years.

More important from a long-term viewpoint, the state will give priority to residents of South Village when recruiting workers for the factory that is to be built. It also helps production teams -- subdivisions of the brigade corresponding to the hamlets that existed before the advent of communes -- to build small workshops processing things for the factory.

But commune members remain commune members. South Village, though right on the outskirts of Luoyang, remains a production brigade, part of the Gongnong commune. This means South Village must continue to pay for its own schools and its own health clinics -- a considerable financial burden for its members.

It also means that the city has no responsibility for finding jobs for members of South Village. The production brigade itself must continue to do so. And, even with the best effort in the world, the opportunities for employment in South Village are limited.

"It seems to me," this journalist opined, "that you suffer all the disadvantages of being engulfed by the city, without enjoying any of its advantages."

Mr. Deng's answer reflected the legendary patience of China's farmers. So far this patience has kept the country socially stable despite the disruptive effects of industrialization and urbanization felt by nearly all developing countries.

"Of course, it would be good for us," he said, "if our commune members could become ordinary citizens of Luoyang city. But that would mean the state would take on a greater burden, because people cannot be given jobs in factories right away. The only jobs they could give us now probably would be to sweep the streets.

"So the state's policy is for commune members to remain where they are. In all these things, the interests of three parties -- the state, the collective [ that is, the commune], and the individual must be reconciled. That means consultations. The needs of the state must be considered, but the state must take our needs into consideration also."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.