n the past decades, China has experienced an unparalleled period of economic growth. As rapid industrialization and urbanization absorbed surplus labor from vast rural regions, it helped lift hundreds of millions of people, mostly rural residents, out of poverty. But at the same time, it led to other problems, including an increased rural-urban income gap and large numbers of children left behind in rural communities by parents who sought to work elsewhere. As young people flocked to urban areas for jobs, rural areas have seen profound demographic changes, as the elderly, children and sick and disabled were left behind.
Rural residents still account for 41 percent of China’s 1.4 billion population. Promoting rural development will remain a major challenge for the Chinese government in the coming decade.
After China declared it had eradicated extreme poverty in December 2020 by having lifted 100 million people out of extreme material deprivation since 2013, the authorities’ priorities have shifted from poverty alleviation to “rural revitalization.” On February 21, China’s central authorities issued this year’s “No 1 central document.” Traditionally focusing on agricultural and rural issues, this year’s paper outlined three priorities in China’s rural policy: consolidating and expanding poverty-reduction achievements, making progress in rural revitalization and pushing forward the modernization of agriculture and rural society.
To achieve these goals, China should first aim to transform the smallholder model of China’s agriculture, which has become increasingly unviable and unsustainable. It is estimated that there are still 200 million smallholders in China, considered one of the most vulnerable groups. Under this traditional agricultural model, rural areas do not offer sufficient and attractive employment opportunities to retain a vibrant labor force.
While the government should continue to address the rural-urban imbalance through increasing medical, educational and infrastructure spending, it should take advantage of China’s booming internet sector to adopt a more active approach to push forward the strategy of digital agriculture. China released a digital agriculture plan in January 2020, setting up ambitious targets for 2025, including having the agricultural digital economy account for 15 percent of China’s agriculture value-added, to sell 15 percent of agricultural products online and to expand internet access to 70 percent of rural areas.
In the past year, selling local agricultural products via livestreaming on e-commerce channels is gaining strong momentum in rural markets. Livestreaming not only allows farmers to conduct marketing more efficiently, but it also provides an instant and interactive option for consumers to discover locally-grown products.
Many tech companies have launched digital agricultural initiatives. In 2020, Alibaba Group developed five digital agricultural processing centers capable of processing 1 million tons of fresh agricultural produce and products.
Other than promoting the marketing, transportation and logistics of agricultural businesses, digital technologies have great potential to promote the productivity of the entire agricultural sector.
In the four-month Smart Agriculture Competition organized by Pinduoduo and China Agricultural University in late 2020, four technology teams which used data analysis, intelligent sensors and greenhouse automation produced about three times the yield of strawberries grown by three teams of traditional cultivators. It showed the potential of precision farming technologies in improving crop yields at the production end.
In the following years, China’s rural policy will tilt toward the transformation of the production model to build both a modern agricultural sector and a modern rural society. Only when farming can provide decent employment and rural villages become desirable places to live will there be a revitalization of China’s rural communities.