Let Them Know It’s Christmas

December 20, 2015

Following up from last week, I want to report a few more observations from my China trip. Last week I gave a short description of the sad conditions existing in my friend Xu’s home village. As I noted, by global standards, these farming families are not doing badly. An annual income of $5000 would be well above the global standard of poverty (roughly $1000 per year), not to mention the World Bank definition for extreme poverty ($500). A half century ago China experienced a famine of historic proportions. Xu recalls this time from his childhood when his mother was reduced to begging for food with shame and horror. Other reports of the three year famine period indicate the consumption of corpses and even the murder and cannibalism of strangers and children. The estimated death toll ranges from 20 to 45 million people. The Chinese government has not cooperated with scholars who have attempted to understand the root causes of their Great Famine, insisting that it was a simple natural disaster. That debate aside, it is important to note that those days seem long past in present day China. The aura of sadness and resignation in Xu’s village notwithstanding, people not only have enough to eat, they can afford some technological conveniences—like scooters and farm equipment.

Indeed, I’m sure on reflection that some of the dejection I was picking up was being projected by Xu, who was telling stories about happier times in his own childhood. He talked of how there had once been a stream that flowed through the village, and how his family had survived over the winter months by fishing. The stream is long gone, and when I asked why he wasn’t sure. Something to do with restricted water flow from a reservoir not far away. Similarly, he pointed to a shallow pond overgrown with brush and told of how it had once been an attractive swimming hole for village children. As we walked along the dirt trail that ran between the walled household compounds, he passed what looked like an overgrown vacant lot saying that this was the village center. In his youth it would have been filled with children, but as I wrote last week, there are no children in the village today. All the families with children have abandoned their farms, seeking a better life in cities.

It seems that people in China are fairly mobile these days, though I also pieced together a story about how they are supposed to seek authorization for such moves. Failing to do that, they lose access to some of the benefits that are supposed to be guaranteed by the socialist state. Now here I have to caution blog readers that I’m no China specialist, so take all this with large doses of salt. I infer that either the inducements of the city or the despondency of rural life (likely a combination of both) are enough to override any incentive to maintain the official status that entitles many Chinese to benefits. But the result is that one hears talk of homelessness and vulnerability within this socialist state that is very much like that of dispossessed people in neoliberal societies like our own. If the Great Famine is past, that does not mean that everyone is food secure.

I also talked to a couple of “farmers” who are, in fact, very much like our absentee landlords. They have contracted with farm families to secure the right to use their assigned plots (remember, the Chinese government owns all the land, but families retain alienable rights to farm it). It was one of those good/bad years in China. Growing conditions were good, but with a glut of commodities, the market for farm produce is weak. One of these investor/farmers I met talked about the high cost of farm labor, the low return on crops and concluded that she had lost her capital and would not be doing this kind of farming in the future. Another one told me that there were still opportunities to sell crops to the government at above market prices, providing a kind of farm support very reminiscent of what we do here in the United States. The fact that these two reports are somewhat contradictory just testifies to the difficulty of piecing together any concrete story about what is happening in China today. Or maybe it’s just my own limitations as an observer an analyst.

To quote Bob Geldof and Midge Ure,

Oh at Christmas time, it’s hard, but when you’re having fun There’s a world outside your window And it’s a world of dread and fear Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears.

Feed the world? Maybe not as straightforward as one might think.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University