What, then, is a Chinese peasant? Nongmin discourses and agroindustrialization in contemporary China
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For centuries, China’s farmers practiced agriculture in ways that sustained a high level of food production without depleting or deteriorating local resources. These were smallholder farmers, who came to be called peasants, or nongmin, in the early twentieth century. Narratives on the figure of the peasant have changed dramatically and often in the intervening years, expressing broader political debates, and suggesting the question, “what, then, is a Chinese peasant?” This paper attempts to answer that question in the context of reform era China (post-1978). Using a critical discourse analysis of nongmin in contemporary political and popular discourse, the paper aims to further clarify politics on the figure of the peasant in China today, specifically in relation to state policy on rural and agricultural development. The central argument is that in addition to complex meanings and uses of nongmin, a Chinese peasant is also a social category used by political and economic elites to stand in for the ills of China’s agrifood system, and to promote a model of development that tries to separate the country’s current trajectory from its long agrarian history. In the context of state-led agroindustrialization aimed at developing a robust domestic agribusiness sector, both peasants as a social form and smallholding as an agricultural form are targets for capitalist transformation. Put another way, political discourses define peasants and small-scale farming as China’s agrifood “problems” for which further capitalist industrialization is posed as the only and inevitable “solution.” The paper concludes by arguing that changing China’s current trajectory away from the crises of industrial agriculture will require also changing the discursive frame: it is agroindustrialization that is the problem, for which nongmin and China’s tradition of smallholder farming are part of the solution.
KeywordsPeasant Nongmin Agroindustrialization Discourse China
The author wishes to thank Philip McMichael, Alice Pell, and Harriet Friedmann for comments on earlier versions of this paper. She is also grateful to three anonymous reviewers for their insightful remarks and recommendations.
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