From Cultural Revolution to Comparative Advantage

08 / 2004

Born in Shanghai, raised in Beijing, son of an intellectual, the story of Zhang Xiaoshan’s relationship with agriculture began in 1966, the year of the Cultural Revolution, when he was supposed to graduate from high school. As a “born and bred city boy” Zhang was anything but apt or inclined to become Professor and Director of the Institute of Rural Development, part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

A total victory for Mao Tse-Tung’s revolutionary forces changed the course of history and the lives of millions of students who were to participate in “go-down” re-education programs of the young revolution.

According to Zhang, almost an entire generation of Chinese students was to be reoriented toward a life respectful of the fundamental system of agricultural production in the distant countryside, severed from their families and their social context, from their urban “luxury” and the “decadence” of their capitalistic and intellectual origins.

The national orientation and the future of the individuals in China was determined by a reversal of the pre-revolutionary system of hierarchy:

“It was a very hard experience, physically and psychologically… the focus was on the class struggle, we were treated not according to ability or personality, but according to class. College became accessible to the children of workers, farmers, and soldiers. If you didn’t have the ‘good background’ you were sent to the countryside and you stayed in the countryside.”

Zhang stayed in the countryside. He was sent to The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, bordered to the north with both the Republic of Mongolia and Russia. It is the third largest Chinese province (over 1.1 million square kilometres or 424,736 square miles) but not very populated. The province has about 24 million inhabitants today.

In his new home Zhang had “no background” and knew hunger, cold and cultural exile. The Climate in Inner Mongolia is very different during the year. Winter is cold and can be very long, with frequent blizzards. Usually summer is short and the growing season fairly intense.

Zhang’s life became an outwardly “public life”: cooking, cleaning, cultivation, working long hours as a part of the production team. In retrospect, he mentioned during our interview that agricultural workers and farmers “had no incentive to work harder.” Neither fortunes nor property were to be had and, as a result, the productivity of farms was perhaps not optimal because of the “free-rider problem.”

“Production of Luxury crops was criticized and farmers suffered a lot,” commented Zhang, reflecting on the ideological changes between the early post-revolutionary China of strict discipline and auto-sufficiency, and the market oriented China of today.

Zhang spent ten years in the inner Mongolian region, working as an agricultural labourer. He had virtually no contact with his family and little hope of one day returning to an urban lifestyle. He spoke of his “hunger for knowledge” during this period and stated that he was “not free to study, but every time I found some books I devoured them. I studied late into the night to keep thinking critically, to try and become more human even if I knew there was no hope…”

He exercised a discipline of self-study in maths and English, attempted to augment his technical knowledge. When the “Gang of Four” instituted the “restoration of the education system in 1977” he was among the 7 million students to take the entrance examination which he described as “very difficult” for students with very little academic experience.

Thanks to his self-discipline, which could have been considered a form of dissidence in the pre-reform China, Zhang passed the entrance exam and entered the Inner Mongolian Teachers College. He experienced a “very dramatic change in daily life… from farmer to college student… from labour to study.”

Zhang began his graduate studies in his early thirties and soon was assigned to a post at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. His work at the academy was fairly open and unlike the research institutions attached to the ministries that are obliged to “express the interests” and conclusions of the state, the teachers and researchers of the Academy had more freedom to “follow their own judgement.”

“In the past we had some positive and negative experiences, they thought that we should attain optimum growth” when as a researcher he was interested in “harmonizing the gap between rich and poor. You can’t expect cities to flourish and forget about the rural communities, you must consider social equity.”

With a tone of resignation, Zhang observed that “China has made the decision to modernize. To ensure rapid economic growth the share of agriculture in the national economy must decrease” contrary to the demand for agrarian reform expressed by countries in Latin America. Zhang refers to the “reduction of the price of inputs and the lengthening of the chain of production”, the close observation of “efficiency indicators” allowing China to “develop its competitive power for products on world markets” and the need to “increase labour productivity.”

The “rural labour force” in China consists of 490 million farm workers with, in the last few years, over 100 million shifting to urban areas. 60% of rural households live entirely from farming and another 37% have a direct connection to agriculture either through seasonal temporary labour (17%) or through hobby or subsistence farming (20%).

Hence the restructuring of Chinese agriculture, with the largest agrarian population in the world and an official policy to dramatically reduce farm populations to increase productivity, risks to create waves of extraordinary proportions from a social, ecological and economic point of view.

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