- Rural Development in Transitional China: The New Agriculture
The dramatic changes that have come to rural China have been no less remarkable than the widely recognized economic, social, and cultural forces that have transformed China's urban areas. The authors of this very welcome edited volume believe that "the past two decades in China have witnessed the fastest change ever and anywhere of a rural economy and society" (p. 2). Few scholars interested in economic development and social change would argue with this assessment, and there are many lessons to be learned from rural China's experiences. [End Page 123] Underscoring this basic premise, the chapters that make up Rural Development in Transitional China (most if not all of which were initially presented at the Sixth European Conference on Agriculture and Rural Development in China) offer detailed insights on a variety of issues and outcomes central to the often-mercurial road China has followed while successfully helping more than 200 million out of chronic poverty.
There are many excellent recently published English-language summaries intended to document the impact of policy changes and the emergence of a market economy on the people and places of rural China. Despite the general title, it would be a mistake to assume that this book follows this popular and conventional road. While a number of important national issues and policies are addressed in many of the eleven chapters, from my perspective those chapters reporting results from detailed case studies are the noteworthy strength of this volume. There are six chapters based on fieldwork, intensive interviews, and surveys that provide rich detail directly focused on issues genuinely central to farming, farmers, and the other residents of rural China.
From the outset, it is important to recognize that taken collectively the authors of most of these chapters represent many decades of experience and research in rural China. This firsthand understanding of specific problems that affect different types of citizens living in specific places is what makes this an important book. Summaries have their place, but the clarity made possible from field studies is essential if the spatial diversity of China's rural development experience is to be more fully understood. The problems facing the residents of rural China vary dramatically based on location, class, and opportunity. There are many "rural Chinas"—and generalizations across the board are as often incorrect as accurate. Increasingly, solutions to specific problems are also local in nature, with support or resistance from national and local state agency emerging as but one factor determining eventual outcomes. Indeed, the farm families living and working in the countryside and all the residents of China's towns and small cities in the hinterlands are acutely aware of how location has impacted the ways their lives have been transformed over the past quarter century. The chapters that make up the book give readers a chance to see how policy, program, and the spatial integration of specific regions into the national economy play out "on the ground." The detail provided in most of the chapters brings readers closer to understanding the complexity of problems that rural Chinese must address at the present time.
The organization of the volume is as one might expect. The first chapter, written by the editors, succinctly summarizes the most important policy changes and outcomes of the post-reform era while introducing the remaining chapters and setting the "stage" for the remainder of the book. This is not only reasonable but also necessary if the book is selected as a text. The structural, legal, and institutional reforms that have stimulated the many changes to rural China are myriad. Certainly, the Household Contract Responsibility System, the "opening [End Page 124] up" of rural areas to domestic and international investment, the explosion of rural industries (especially township and village enterprises or TVEs), and the decentralization of decision making (local state corporatism) are all widely recognized as critical components. These are covered in the first several...