Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 331–346 | Cite as

What, then, is a Chinese peasant? Nongmin discourses and agroindustrialization in contemporary China



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.


Peasant Nongmin Agroindustrialization Discourse China 

China is the land par excellence of smallholder intensive cultivators. No other society on earth has the same unbroken history of a dense rural population practicing permanent, sustainable agriculture in the context of a great and enduring civilization.

—Robert McC. Netting (1993, p. 232).

Nongmin: peasant, farmer, rural folk generally.

—Definition of nongmin from Kieran Broadbent’s (1978, p. 182) A Chinese/English dictionary of China’s rural economy.

Introduction: peasants, smallholding, and development

In China, where industrial agriculture is wreaking havoc on the country’s water, soil, and food quality, and where roughly half of the population resides in smallholder farming communities,1 efforts to support small-scale agroecological farming would seem a logical development objective. Indeed, as Netting (1993) argues in the quote above, there is a strong precedent for “practicing permanent, sustainable agriculture” in China’s agrarian history. But rather than benefitting from the knowledges and methods that smallholders have accumulated over centuries for achieving high production levels without deteriorating local resources (King 1911), political and economic elites in the reform era tend towards a development trajectory that aims instead to eliminate smallholding as a social form. On the one hand, the state plans to decrease rural and agricultural populations through various forms of migrant labor. On the other hand, it aims to industrialize agriculture through direct policy and financial support for agribusiness firms (including credit and land access); through subsidies for industrial production technologies and inputs across farm size categories (including agrochemicals, hybrid seed, veterinary supplies and genetics, processing facilities); and through specialization and vertical integration. Whether authorities intend to eliminate smallholders outright, or to integrate them into markets via cooperatives and contracts (see Huang 2011), both are forms of dispossession, and both erode the reproduction of agroecological knowledge and practice in the wake of capitalist agroindustrialization (Schneider and McMichael 2010).

Certainly this industrial fixation is not unique to China, nor is the idea that the very meaning of modernization is replacing smallholder farming with large-scale commercial agriculture. This modernization imaginary hinges importantly on assumptions—found in both mainstream development economic models and in the work of Marxist academics, particularly of the peasant studies persuasion—that peasants are a drag on development, and/or as a difficult to define social class, are disappearing. Whether or not, and to what extent Chinese peasants are disappearing is not the central focus of this paper.2 Rather, the analysis presented here is about how peasants and small-scale farming are represented in political and popular discourse, and how those representations are related to the politics of China’s agricultural development model and trajectory. The paper attempts to bridge van der Ploeg’s (2013) notion that “[t]oday any discussion on the path to sustainability necessarily has to debate the role of the peasantries” (p. 4) with Day’s (2013b, p. 2) argument that in Chinese politics, “the peasant stands in for a broad range of political concerns,” reflecting and coproducing changing political economic conditions. The present study, then, aims to further clarify shifting politics on the figure of the peasant in reform era China, specifically in relation to state policy on rural development, and in the context of state- and agribusiness-led agroindustrialization.

My central argument is that peasants in particular and small-scale farming in general are used to stand in for the ills of China’s contemporary agrifood system, framing not only “the problem,” but suggesting also “the solution.” Put another way, in order for political and economic elites to propose industrial agriculture as China’s food (security and safety) and development solution, the peasant and the small scale of peasant production need to be cast as the problems. This framing project is accomplished in a double sense, through political and popular discourses that propose agricultural development as the opposite of the “permanent agriculture” the defines much of China’s rich agrarian history, and through the impact of those discourses on the material conditions of rural social reproduction by way of state policy. Specifically, nongmin is the word in Mandarin Chinese for both “peasant” and “farmer.” Discourses that construct nongmin as ignorant and backwards, and as an unsavory backdrop against which to gauge progress, are expressed in policies that serve to eliminate, dispossess, or integrate smallholder farmers vis-à-vis industrial agriculture. In this way, nongmin discourses underlie political economic restructuring, and at the same time, new capitalist logics reproduce those discourses, making them seem true. For the most part, smallholder farming is not supported in the current model,3 and smallholder farmers have most acutely felt the withdrawal of state support for social services such as health care and education. The idea that nongmin are backwards is a cultural and historical construction, but the reality that smallholder farmers lack basic supports is today a material certainty.

This negative image of the peasant has been around since the early twentieth century in China, taking on different political meanings under different political conditions. Currently, a new politics has emerged, in which portrayals of peasant backwardness are dialectically related to portrayals of the backwardness of small-scale agriculture. This is to say that in the context of state-led agroindustrialization, aimed at developing a robust domestic agribusiness sector to manage agrifood production, distribution, and profit and to compete globally with powerful transnational corporations (see Schneider 2013b), both peasants as a social form and smallholding as an agricultural form are targets for capitalist transformation. Framed as a response to broadly perceived rural crises starting in the 1990s, and to new agroindustrial crises including pollution and food safety, small farm size becomes another marker of the backwardness of the peasant, just as the peasant comes to even more profoundly signify the backwardness of China’s “traditional” agriculture (which may be one of the world’s longest standing sustainable agricultural systems). Whereas the relationship between smallholder farming and industrialization is typically understood through the lens of dispossession (McMichael 2006; Akram-Lodhi and Kay 2009; Walker 2006, 2008), my goal in this paper is to show that in addition to the material mechanisms that produce and reproduce capitalism, there are also discursive constructions that coproduce them. In this moment, the dialectic of peasant-and-small-farming backwardness presents not only an immediate threat to rural people and environments through various forms of dispossession, it may also conceal possibilities for alternate modernizations, based on agroecological farming and socially just agrifood systems.

To better understand the ways in which nongmin is framed in popular and political discourse, and how these constructions relate to policies for industrializing agriculture and rural livelihoods, I conducted a critical discourse analysis, which is the empirical centerpiece of the paper. It is not an all-encompassing survey of nongmin, but seeks to provide a sense of how looking down (kanbuqi) on peasants is more than an unfortunate corollary to modernization—instead, widely accepted distain and disregard for smallholder farmers is a key component to how modernization projects proceed. Before detailing the methods and results of the study, the next section provides a brief historical overview of the meanings and uses of nongmin in China since the twentieth century.

What, then, is a Chinese peasant?4

Just as there is no simple or static definition for the term “peasant,”5nongmin is also a complex and multi-layered category. In perhaps its most straightforward contemporary use, nongmin is a legal and administrative category, reflecting the institutional separation between rural and urban household registration, or hukou (Zeuthen and Griffiths 2011). Nongmin can refer to anyone with rural hukou, meaning anyone who was born in a legally defined rural area, regardless of whether he or she actually lives there for most of the year (explained further below). People with rural hukou are excluded from certain rights enjoyed by people with urban hukou, but are also granted the right to use collective village resources such as farmland. While hukou is a powerful structural signifier, the meanings and uses of nongmin go far beyond this legal categorization. Table 1 illustrates various meanings and uses of nongmin. I constructed it based on Chinese policy documents, media reports, online encyclopedias, scholarship, and my personal interviews and conversations with government officials, academics, farmers, and people in rural and urban China from 2009–2012.
Table 1

Nongmin categories, meanings, and uses in contemporary China

Nongmin categories

Meanings and uses

Legal/administrative category

“holder of agricultural hukou

Occupational category


Identity category


Social category

“peasant” (low social rank)

Political category

“unfit for politics”/“uppity”

Historical category


Cultural category

“backwards”/“low quality”

Psychological category


Way of life category


Farm size category

“small-scale farmer”

Farm labor category

“householder”/“family labor”

Farm production category

“subsistence”/“petty commodity producer”

Development category


As Table 1 suggests, what it means to be a Chinese peasant varies depending on who uses the term nongmin, and for what purpose. Of course, not all meanings are created or expressed equally. The following excerpts from the Baidu Baike6 entry for nongmin illustrate some of the most pervasive discourses on peasants in China today:

In China, the evolution from “peasants to farmers” (nongmin to professional farmers) is far from complete. The existence of a large number of farmer-identified people, more than the fact of China’s large population of people actually working in the farm fields, deeply reflects our country’s current state of underdevelopment. Or, more precisely, if the latter fact signifies that industry is underdeveloped, then the former means that society is underdeveloped. The proportion of people identified as “nongmin” far exceeds the proportion of people actually engaged in agricultural business, clearly illustrating that China’s social development has lagged behind industrial development.7

Whether in research or in the context of everyday life, when people discuss nongmin what comes to mind is not just a type of occupation, but also a social rank, an identity or quasi-identity, a mode of survival, a community and social organization, a cultural mode, and a psychological structure.8

While the above narratives fail to provide a specific definition of the peasant, it very clearly communicates that whoever the peasants are, they are members of a low-status, low-value, pre-modern group, and their very existence symbolizes a state of underdevelopment and backwardness in Chinese society. These statements suggest the social and political context within which policy to regulate rural people and rural practice is made, and that nongmin constructions are part of the dominant political discourses about development more generally. The language in these entries also reflects a central goal of agricultural development policy, which is to eliminate non-market economies and move peasants from the fields to the factories, while supporting state and private agribusiness firms to deepen capitalist penetration in agriculture.

Nongmin in the 20th century

Politics on the image of the peasant are not new. However, compared to the millennial-scale history of smallholding in China, the emergence of the word nongmin is quite recent. Cohen (1993) situates the term’s first appearance in written and spoken Chinese in the early the twentieth century, the result of Meiji-era Japanese modernizers translating literary works from “the West” into Mandarin Chinese. Before that, terms for rural and agricultural identities and relations within China had no feudal referent, but instead related to agriculture and/or to households.9 As English language authors who were writing about China from outside the country in the 1920–1930s shifted their discourse from “farmer” to “peasant,” nongmin became the increasingly common translation. By the 1940s, it was the predominant way to describe and construct the countryside (Hayford 1998).

Scholars differ on the figure of the peasant in China through the twentieth century. For Cohen (1993) and Hayford (1998), narratives of peasant backwardness were relatively static across the century, used as a form of political and ideological discrimination, and as a category of othering. Their analyses propose that anti-peasant sentiments animated early twentieth century cultural and political projects to redefine a new and modern China in relation to an old and feudal one, and to construct peasants as part of a structural problem that could only be overcome through revolution. For Cohen, Hayford, and others, these essentialized images of the “ignorant” and pre-political peasant were central to the various ways in which intellectual elites constructed visions and models of modernity (see also Han 2005). When extended to the reform era, Day (2013b, p. 15) argues that this line of argumentation “tends to depoliticize the role of the peasant in Chinese liberalism,” and occludes the “continual reinvention of the peasant within the political context of the postsocialist era.” Day’s is a finer-grained analysis that goes beyond a general and flat image of peasant backwardness to analyze how Chinese intellectuals from different ideological camps have framed the peasant in various moments of reform,10 and how framing is used to both reinterpret Chinese history and to suggest development trajectories. He traces narratives from the 1980s when the peasant was at once, “a figure of stagnation and dependency as well as an embodiment of successful reform in process” (Day 2013b, p. 5); to the early 1990s when peasants were seen as surplus labor in relation to Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs) and as victims (and protestors) of declining agricultural prices and rising input costs in relation to agroindustrialization; to the late 1990s and up to the present, when peasants were characterized as sources of crisis along with rural China more generally. According to Day, throughout the twentieth century,

All narratives of historical change or progress entailed either the transformation of the peasant into something new or the understanding of the peasant as a revolutionary actor who could take part in the transformation of society (Day 2013b, p. 3).

My analysis in this paper builds on Day’s approach, examining narratives of the peasant in relation to agroindustrialization—an important component of contemporary notions of progress and development in China, and of the structured marginalization of poor farmers. This is a particular politics in a particular context that goes beyond a generally negative image of the peasant. Instead, discourses on the peasant express the blame erroneously laid at the feet of peasants and small-scale farming for the crises of industrial agriculture that currently plague China’s agrifood systems. In terms of rural and agricultural development, these are key contradictions of the present moment.

Nongmin discourse analysis: methods

In order to understand the foremost nongmin discourses in China today, and how they are expressed in policies related to agroindustrialization, I conducted a critical discourse analysis following van Dijk (2003) that examined the way social power is enacted and reproduced through text and talk in social and political contexts. I conducted the analysis in three stages.

First, I read and coded policy documents, speeches, and statements from central government officials to identify recurring and dominant discourses about nongmin.11 The materials I selected for analysis followed O’Brien and Li’s (2006) conception of central policy, which they argue, must be understood in its broad, Chinese sense. O’Brien and Li (2006, p. 5) state that central policies “include essentially all authoritative pronouncements, ranging from Party documents, laws, State Council regulations, and leadership speeches to editorials by special commentators in prominent newspapers,” and can be both general guidelines and/or specific regulations. I used the Ministry of Agriculture website,12 texts of official speeches published online, and the following predominant central policy documents:
  • 11th Five Year Plan (2006–2010),

  • 12th Five Year Plan (2011–2015),

  • Outline of Poverty Alleviation and Development of China’s Rural Areas, 2000–2010,

  • Outline for Development-Oriented Poverty Reduction in China’s Rural Areas, 2011–2020, and

  • Provisional Measures for Administration of Identification of National Leading Enterprises of Agricultural Industrialization and their Operation Monitoring (2010).

Of particular interest and relevance was the Building a New Socialist Countryside (shehuizhuyi xinnongcun jianshe) (NSC) macro development policy that first appeared in the 11th Five Year Plan, and continued in the 12th (Ahlers and Schubert 2009). Relevant because the stated goals of the policy are to (1) increase rural income, and (2) transform the countryside through urbanization and a gradual reduction of the rural population, the NSC is contested, precisely because whether it is more policy (implying actual regulation from guidelines contained within it) or discourse (implying it is mostly “hot air,” a set of guidelines that are lofty ideals, and policies that are “paper dragons”13) is unclear.

I coded relent sections of these texts by looking for language, words, and ideas that were common across the documents, and then collected similarly labeled passages into categories, which I consolidated, organized, and distilled into the six discourses examined in the next section. Throughout the process of coding, I focused only on those passages that related directly to smallholder farmers and rural and agricultural livelihoods.14

After identifying the six discourses, I studied their appearance in political documents, media, and in more common, everyday application. Using Baidu (the number one search engine in China), I searched for the occurrence of discourses in major Chinese newspapers published online.15 I used BaiduBaike, the country’s largest and most used online encyclopedia,16 as a source for how words and concepts related to the discourses were commonly defined. Because the more than 3.5 million articles on Baidu Baike are built by registered users, and are censored to be in line with government regulations (Woo 2007), they provide valuable insight into the reproduction of discourses in widely accessible Chinese media. I also consulted interview transcripts and notes from my fieldwork on the politics of industrial livestock development in China, as well as discourse analyses conducted by other scholars.

The goal of this stage of the research was not to present a complete exposition of all the ways in which nongmin was used, nor to catalogue all, or even the majority, of its appearances in politics, media, and everyday use: instead, the goal was to document dominant nongmin discourses, in order to better understand how they were used to justify the industrialization of agriculture as the “modern” solution to a “traditional” problem. In the final step, then, I returned to policy documents to examine just that. I re-read relevant central policy texts from the first stage of the analysis, and added others (including official documents, white papers, speeches, and regulations), analyzing how nongmin discourses related to agroindustrialization. In addition to looking for isolated instances, I also studied how the discourses worked together to form a coherent “master discourse” that effectively communicated central government and Ministry of Agriculture definitions, plans, and goals for regulating and structuring the roles for smallholder farmers and rural livelihoods in the management of modernization and development. The next section explores each of the six discourses in turn.

Nongmin discourse analysis: results

My analysis revealed three main and three supporting nongmin discourses. The main discourses were: (1) “peasants are low quality,” (2) “relieve the peasants’ burden!” and (3) “peasants are surplus labor.” Sub-discourses that related to and supported the main discourses were: (1a) “the countryside is backwards, traditional, and ugly,” (2a) “peasants are rural consumers” and (3a) “peasants are passive.” Individually, each discourse shaped and was enacted in specific policies and regulations. When combined, the discourses outlined a particular model of development, with explicit goals, methods, and outcomes. I summarized a “master discourse” about agricultural development from my analysis as:

In the reform era, and particularly in the context of increasing inequalities between people in urban areas and the countryside, China’s so-called “three rural problems” (sannong wenti) of agriculture, rural society, and peasants are best solved using a model that integrates urban and rural development (xietong fazhan). Measures that link industry and agriculture; that equalize land rights, financing, services, infrastructural development, and dividends across urban and rural areas; and that modernize agriculture and transfer surplus rural laborers to work in cities will bring about positive changes. Namely, these coordinated urban–rural development directives will increase rural income, relieve peasants’ burdens, and transform agriculture, the countryside, and peasants from their current states as “traditional,” “backwards,” and “low quality,” into an integrated agrifood system that is headed by domestic agribusiness firms, uses modern and industrial markets and methods, and increases China’s global competitiveness.

The three main and three supporting discourses that underlie this master frame are analyzed in the following sections.

Discourse 1: “Peasants are low quality”

The discourse that most pervasively and profoundly shapes understandings and regulations of smallholder farmers and rural livelihoods is the “peasants are low quality” discourse. Part of a broader fixation on quality, or suzhi, in the reform era, this discourse is couched in concerns for improving the quality of individual farmers, of nongmin more generally as a group, and of the Chinese population as a whole. Suzhi discourses are powerful. As Tamara Jacka argues, “in post-Mao China, quality (suzhi) has become a key element in a range of discourses on development and the achievement of modernity and national power” (Jacka 2006, p. 589), and “suzhi is very much a part of contemporary public culture, being reproduced by numerous different social actors an in a variety of popular, as well as official, discourses” (Jacka 2009, p. 524). The most common targets for suzhi discourse in China are peasants, migrant workers, women, and “ethnic minorities,” and scholars have interrogated suzhi politics in relation to population policy, education reform, and neoliberal governmentality.17 There are, however, no studies to date of how suzhi relates to agricultural development and the political economy of agrarian change.

“Peasants are low quality” in popular use

The most explicit expression of the low quality discourse is in the language of Chinese popular culture and everyday conversation. The word nongmin itself is often used to connote that a person is backwards, unsophisticated, uncultured, ignorant, and of “low quality” (mei suzhi): calling someone a nongmin is a common insult. Interestingly, the word for “dirt” or “earth” in Mandarin Chinese (tu) carries similar connotations, used disdainfully to indicate that a person is from the countryside, and lacking in intelligence and sophistication (Chao 2009, p. 26–27). Nongmin, and the simultaneous reproduction of the low quality discourse, is typical in Chinese movies, television, and literature, and is pervasive in widely accessible news media, including Xinhua news outlets and CCTV 7, the agricultural channel on China Central Television.

During my fieldwork, I frequently encountered the low quality discourse directly. It came up during interviews with university researchers, managers, and executives at large-scale pork production and processing companies, individuals involved in framing and/or analyzing agricultural policy, representatives from various agribusiness firms, migrant workers, and smallholder farmers themselves. In almost all cases, when I asked about smallholders, I was told that rural areas were backwards (luohou), that smallholder farmers were of low quality (mei suzhi) and in need of training and civilization, and that the large nongmin population was one of China’s biggest problems. Farmers themselves shared these ideas with me as statements of fact, indicating the deep and ongoing internalization of this particularly powerful narrative. When I asked a smallholder farmer in Hebei province if I could interview her, she said, “Why would you want to interview me? I don’t know anything. I’m just a nongmin.”

The Baidu Baike entries for peasant (nongmin), backwards (luohou), rural way of life (nongcun shenghuo fangshi), Three Rural Problems (sannong wenti), and modern agriculture (xiandai nongye) all contain elements of suzhi and the low quality discourse. These texts communicate the idea that peasants are essentially ignorant, mentally deficient, and lacking “culture” (wenhua). What’s more, as a “traditional” and incompetent group, the narrative is that in order for China to achieve a modern agriculture and society, peasants either need to be trained in the ways of modern (read: industrial) agriculture, or to cease to exist as a social category.

“Peasants are low quality” in policy

Whereas in popular culture and everyday conversation, talk and text of nongmin is overtly condescending, it is often more polite in official discourse and in policy. In a white paper issued by the Information Office of the State Council in 2001 titled, Rural China’s Poverty Reduction,18 the following was given as one of the main difficulties in rural areas:

Although the development-oriented poverty reduction drive has greatly changed the poverty and backwardness of the vast impoverished rural areas, there has been no qualitative change either in the basic production and living conditions of the poverty-stricken peasant households, or in the social, economic, and cultural backwardness in those areas (emphasis added).

In this passage, “low quality” and “backwardness” are used to describe social, economic, and cultural conditions, separate from poverty reduction and improving rural livelihoods. This suggests the deeper meanings of the discourse, which defines peasants as systematically and structurally deficient.

In the course of the present analysis, I found that policies and measures related to the low quality discourse could be categorized around two major goals: one, to improve the quality of farmers through education and training; and two, to modernize agriculture. The first goal was articulated in the following policy documents that I analyzed in the first part of the study: the 11th Five-Year Plan, Building a New Socialist Countryside, Two Exemptions and One Subsidy (free rural compulsory education), the 12th Five-Year Plan, the Outline for Poverty Alleviation and Development in China’s Rural Areas 20002010, Outline for Development-Oriented Poverty Reduction in China’s Rural Areas 20112020, and the Provisional Measures for Administration of Identification of National Leading Enterprises of Agricultural Industrialization and their Operation Monitoring. It also figured prominently in two other important documents: the section on Issues Pertaining to the Development of China’s Agricultural and Rural Economy19 in the 2008 Decision of the CPC Central Committee on Major Issues Concerning Rural Reform and Development,20 and the 2102 Views on Supporting the Development of Lead Enterprises for Agricultural Industrialization.21

The second goal, of constructing a modern agriculture to improve the quality of farmers, was clearly expressed in all of the political documents I analyzed for this study. The central government’s conception and model of modern agriculture is based on promoting industrialization through vertical integration, contract farming, and agribusiness firms called dragonhead enterprises, and using “modern” methods, techniques, and tools to transform and improve the quality of agriculture, the countryside, and peasants (Schneider 2013a). Casting “backwards” farmers and rural areas as the problem helps to set up the agroindustrial model as the clear and only solution.

Supporting discourse: “The countryside is backwards, traditional, ugly”

The notion that smallholder farmers are backwards is mirrored in a related discourse that the countryside shares similar features. Sannong wenti, or the “Three Rural Problems,” emerged in the late 1990s as a concept to describe the three pillars of China’s rural crisis: agriculture (nongye), rural society (nongcun), and the peasants (nongmin). In discourse surrounding sannong wenti, the problems of rural areas are largely identified as problems of tradition. For example, in the Baidu Baike entries for sannong wenti, rural way of life, and modern agriculture, the countryside is defined as an antiquated place where traditional agriculture and forms of cultural and economic exchange reign supreme, resulting in a kind of backwardness that is a drag on efforts to modernization. In more polite political conversation, Zhang Hongyu, head of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Rural Operation System and Operation Management Bureau urged the adoption of modern technology to transform traditional agriculture (Cui 2014),22 and former Premier Wen Jiabao talked about the need to improve the appearance of the countryside (Chen 2006). It is important to note that when Premier Wen in particular promoted the NSC development policy, linked to the “appearance of the countryside” (nongcun xingxiang), he said in speeches and interviews that the focus of policies must be on “substantial” development, and not just “appearance.”23 Still, what precisely “substantial development” means is a question, and one that suggests backwards conditions in rural areas.

This discourse plays out in policy aimed at improving the appearance of the countryside, sometimes in ways that could actually improve the lives and livelihoods of rural people, other times in ways that are more likely to increase profits for the agribusiness firms that sell inputs and control value chains, and still other times in ways that seem more about “saving face” than making real progress in reducing poverty. For example, parts of the 12th Five Year Plan, Building a New Socialist Countryside, and the Outline for 20112020 call for improvements in rural infrastructure: these policies aimed at “improving the appearance of the countryside” may prove beneficial for farmers and rural people. However, these documents also propose “adopting modern technology to transform traditional agriculture” as a way to substantially improve appearances. There is some question as to whether this transformation is in the best interest of smallholder farmers, or is primarily a way to increase agribusiness profits and corporate penetration in rural markets. Another enactment of this discourse in policy comes in the form of developing rural tourism and leisure, and constructing “clean and tidy” (cunrong zhengjie) and model villages for aesthetic improvement. These measures appear in the 12th Five Year Plan and Building a New Socialist Countryside. While they potentially create income opportunities for the few households that can become involved in rural tourism through nongjiale (rural bed and breakfast-like operations) and related businesses, they seem more likely to be a way of keeping up appearances. In the worst cases, these models can conceal the reality of rural poverty by presenting a well-manicured experience of the countryside for (mostly urban) visitors to enjoy.

Discourse 2: “Relieve the peasants’ burden!”

While smallholders are approached with disdain in many expressions of the low quality discourse, they are also variously characterized as the people who have borne the brunt of government taxes and political corruption in discourses that call to “relieve the peasants’ burden!” Hardly a new concern, China’s leaders have called for lightening the imposition of fees, fines, local taxes, and assessments on villagers since at least the late 1980s, primarily in response to peasant protests concerning taxation and financial burdens meted out by rural governments (Bernstein and Lü 2003; Chen and Wu 2006; Day 2013a, b; O’Brien and Li 2006; Walker 2006, 2008). In my analysis, this discourse figured prominently in the Baidu Baike entries for nongmin and sannong wenti, and was also a common theme in Xinhua news items. The discourse animates policies that call on governments to either increase farmers’ income, or reduce their financial stress by making public services more accessible. The clearest example is the Rural Tax and Fee Reform, which the central government enacted in 2006 to abolish the agricultural tax entirely (Göbel 2010).24 The New Rural Cooperative Medical System (Pan et al. 2009), the Rural Social Security System (diabao) (Gao 2010), the Two Exemptions and One Subsidy (free rural compulsory education) (Gao 2010), and the Farmers’ Professional Cooperative Law (Augustin-Jean and Xiue 2011) are all measures intended to directly “reduce the peasants’ burden.” Additionally, the government has been promoting a version of “value chain integration” since 1998, when dragonhead enterprises (longtou qiye) first appeared in central policy (Zhang and Donaldson 2008).25 This model is based on state support for commercial agricultural processors as “lead firms” to contract with farmers for raw materials. Raising farmers’ income is a stated goal of the model, though increasing profits and consolidated control of the agrifood system for agribusiness are more easily demonstrable results (Schneider 2013a). Whether any of these policies have been successful in relieving peasant burdens is highly debatable, and is beyond the scope of this paper.26

Supporting discourse: “peasants as rural consumers”

As central authorities try to reposition the country in the global economy, they have taken up the task of constructing the rural consumer. Officials want China to move from being a country that relies on an export-led economy, to becoming a country with substantial domestic markets (for example, Xi 2013). An important part of expanding domestic demand has been aimed at increasing rural purchasing power. In 2005, although rural China had 60 % of the national population, rural consumer spending accounted for only 33 % of total retail sales (Su 2009, p. 133). Consumption in the countryside has grown, such that rural China is now considered an important market opportunity for investment, in part because of reports that say consumers intend to increase household spending (Gould 2014), and in part because of government programs to spur rural markets. For example, between 2007 when the program began, and 2012 when it ended, the Rural Home Appliance Subsidy resulted in the purchase of 298 million appliances in rural areas, worth 720.4 billion Chinese yuan ($115.7 billion). When the program expired at the end of 2012, it was considered a success, as evidenced by the saturation of the rural appliance market (Chen 2013).

In addition to building a “harmonious society” and improving rural livelihoods, policies in Building a New Socialist Countryside to increase rural incomes are at the same time aimed at expanding rural (market) consumption and creating a class of rural consumers to help fuel the country’s economic growth. The 12th Five-Year Plan also calls for increased domestic consumption (Casey and Koleski 2011), including from rural consumers.

Discourse 3: “Peasants are surplus labor,” or “coordinated urban–rural development” (CURD)

While the previous discourses relate primarily to definitions of farmers and rural livelihoods, this third discourse adds conceptions of how to define and manage development, how to integrate rural and urban places and people, and how the three rural problems fit into the resulting model. The quote below from the Ministry of Agriculture’s annual development report in (2009) clearly expressed these relationships:

A strategic task that China is facing in the next step is to build the new socialist countryside, pursue a path of modern agricultural development with Chinese characteristics, strive for integrated development between cities and countryside, economy and society.

In the past few years, the government has defined urbanization as an important development goal, enacting polices to promote and speed rural-to-urban migration. The space of this paper is not enough to meaningfully engage the complicated politics of urbanization. Instead, this section concentrates on how those politics inform nongmin discourse and its relation and agricultural development.

Emergence of the “CURD” discourse in policy

At the 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2002, authorities declared for the first time that the countryside was key to achieving moderate prosperity, and that socio-economic development must incorporate both urban and rural areas. Since that time, a series of goals intended to promote urban–rural integration have been rolled out in central policy documents, including the Number 1 papers from 2004 to 2009, the Outline for 20112020, the 12th Five-Year Plan, and the Decision by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on Some Important Issues Regarding the Promotion of Rural Reform and Development in 2008. Coordinated urban–rural development (CURD) became one of the leading discourses coming from the central government, the Ministry of Agriculture, widely accessible news media, and central policy.

“CURD” as a development model

According to Professor Ye (2009) of the Department for Rural Economy at the Research Office of the State Council, the basic tenants of the CURD plan are to use urban industry to support rural agriculture, equalize rights and services across rural and urban areas, and modernize agriculture to release surplus rural laborers for employment in urban areas. Some scholars argue that these moves signal that China’s national development policy may be shifting away from rural extraction for industrial production and urban bias (Looney 2011; Su 2009). Surely this idea is one of the goals of the discourse. However, while it may be true that CURD is a profound departure from the Maoist conception of agriculture supporting industry, this argument only holds if extraction refers only to money and financial flows. Considering the discursive elements of CURD as a development model, it seems that rural extraction remains, but is taking a human form: CURD calls for surplus laborers to migrate from the countryside to the city in support of industry, a corporeal form of extraction.

As a development model, CURD aims to improve poor rural and agricultural livelihoods by relieving peasants’ burdens, modernizing agriculture, and importantly, increasing household income through migrant labor. These plans fit with the call to eventually abandon self-sufficient agricultural production altogether, in exchange for wages and industrial labor. Put another way, CURD (and related policies) proposes that the best way to improve agricultural livelihoods is to eliminate them.

“CURD,” surplus labor, and hukou

CURD, especially as a development model, is complicated by hukou, the household registration system in China, which assigns different legal classification to rural and urban citizens. Hukou classification for rural people is related to the difficulty in defining who counts as farmers. People born in rural areas, regardless of the family’s occupations, are classified as “agricultural,” while those born in cities are “urban.” Many of the inequalities expressed along urban–rural lines are the direct result of hukou, as social and public services like education, health care, and pensions may be unavailable to rural residents, or available only in vastly inferior forms. Hukou is particularly problematic for migrant workers who, even if they have worked in a city for 10 years, are still legal residents of their home village, and entitled to social services only in that place. This has resulted in mass inequality, exploitation, and poor conditions for migrant workers from all parts of China (Shi 2010; Wong 2011).

Despite these challenges, CURD is based precisely on the notion of peasants as surplus labor for work in the cities. Labor migration has been so successful as a development scheme that the share of income in a rural household that comes from non-agricultural sources—mostly wages from migrant work—is rising rapidly. In 1990, the figure was 22.3 %, and by 2004, it had risen to 52.4 % (Zhong 2011). The figure is no doubt higher today, and will continue to rise as peasants are increasingly transformed (discursively and materially) into surplus labor for urban factories, construction sites, restaurants, and sex work (Pai 2012; Shi 2010).

Hukou classification is important when considering the lives and struggles of the rural poor and migrant workers, and is also vitally important to include in analyses of the effectiveness of rural policies. Hukou elicits a number of puzzles in this context. For instance, if counted according to hukou classification, do rural population statistics reflect the reality of the number of people living in the countryside? When statistics show increased rural income, do those numbers reflect successes in rural development policies, or are they more the results of remittances from migrant work?

CURD (and related policies) does address some of the issues surrounding hukou. In recent years, hukou reform has been on the central government’s docket, with pilot projects in several cities including Chongqing. Authorities are experimenting with allowing some rural residents to change to urban hukou, especially in small- to medium-sized cities (Zhong 2011). Presumably, persons of “higher quality” will have the opportunity for urban hukou, while those of “lower quality” will remain rural peasants and migrant workers.

Supporting discourse: “Peasants are passive”

The discourse of integrated urban–rural development, which relies on the existence of a mass of surplus rural laborers for industrial production, rests on the assumption that those farmers-turned-laborers are passive. This discourse is related to the top-down nature of policy implementation in China, and here, in Building a New Socialist Countryside and CURD in particular. In these plans, the central government defines objectives and guidelines, and is the ultimate evaluator of success or failure. Provincial governments set up broad development programs based on central directives, which they pass down to cities and counties for further specification. County governments then translate guidelines into specific projects that are executed in townships and villages. In this last stage, county officials are expected to cooperate with township and village officials, though this is a goal more in theory than in practice (Ahlers and Schubert 2009). In any case, villagers have very-little-to-no voice in the process of reform (Su 2009, p. 6), even as rule is increasingly decentralized.

The notion that peasants are passive recipients of regulations and developments that come down from above is especially visible in discourses, policies, and controversies surrounding farmers’ professional cooperatives. For example, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) reports that local governments have directly set up approximately 70 % of the country’s rural cooperatives (Ma 2008; Looney 2011). Similarly, Han (2007), a central policy researcher from the NDRC, found that most cooperatives in China were established either by government agencies or leading enterprises, and that very few were set up by ordinary farmers (Han 2007). These top-down procedures relegate smallholder farmers to ever-more subservient positions with little control over their own livelihoods.

The passive peasant discourse is relevant here, as policies are framed in a way that assumes—and in fact relies on the idea—that villagers will accept what is defined for them, and should not be consulted or empowered in the process of development. The incidences of rural protest and petitioning on the one hand (Chen and Wu 2006; O’Brien and Li 2006), and the emergence of the New Rural Reconstruction movement on other (Day and Hale 2007; Hale 2013b), challenge this discourse. Day (2013b, pp. 154–155) argues that New Rural Reconstruction (NRR), “a comprehensive attempt to transform rural social relations and rebuild rural community culture, was a major intervention by intellectuals and rural activists” who saw “the market and market fundamentalism as the main causes of rural crisis.” NRR might be thought of as a counter-hegemonic project, that includes experimental farmer-led cooperative programs, specifically targeting villages that experienced high levels of peasant petitioning and protest prior to Rural Tax and Fee Reform.

Gender: the missing discourse

Gender has been conspicuously missing in discourses and policies regarding smallholder farmers and agricultural development. In 2011, in the State Council white paper that summarizes the Outline for Development-Oriented Poverty Alleviation in China’s Rural Areas 20112020, there is passing mention of gender. The document reads,

The state has included development-oriented poverty reduction schemes for ethnic minorities, women, and the disabled in its planning, made unified arrangements for their implementation, given priority to their implementation when all conditions are equal, and strengthened support for these groups.

This is telling of how the central government considers women in policy. Rather than engaging gender in terms of different roles, expectations, opportunities, and constraints for men and women, the language in this document suggests that women are disadvantaged in ways similar to “ethnic minorities” and “the disabled,” groups who are notoriously marginalized in China. The needs and struggles of women, who are responsible in large part for rural agricultural production, as well as the reproduction of rural households, are not addressed.

Gao Xiaoxian, the secretary general of the Shaanxi Research Association for Women and Family, argues that in mainstream Chinese discourse, “women have low quality,” and that the tone of the discourse is one of blaming women for situations like poverty (Gao 2008, p. 21). Especially in agriculture, women’s income is significantly less than men’s income. They are less educated as a group, and are subject to patrilocal residence after marriage, which often breaks their social networks. Land and asset ownership is also unequal along gendered lines, with women who marry outside of their home villages missing out when land is redistributed, leaving them and their children landless (Li et al. 2008). At the same time, there is a historical legacy that treats women as “the second gender,” subordinate and inferior to men. This, when combined with the peasants are low quality discourse described above, creates a double negative for rural women in policy and in lived experience.


In China, as elsewhere, narratives on peasants and development underlie and co-produce material forms of dispossession, with notions of rurality and backwardness being used to justify the taking of land and the removal and/or denial of support from “inefficient” smallholder producers in order to implement industrial agricultural systems. The logic here is comparable to what White et al. (2012) refer to as “crisis narratives” that drive contemporary land grabs, the so-called new enclosures of our time. The authors argue that state and private actors around the world use narratives that combine fears over growing scarcity (of food, land, and resources) and impending catastrophe (related to food, energy, and climate) to justify large-scale land investments. These narratives are typically enacted in the push to redefine “empty” or “marginal” lands as new frontiers for (large-scale monocrop) production, ignoring the quality of the land, and more importantly, disregarding the people who derive their lives and livelihoods from those lands. Crisis narratives are often successful as justification for land grabs, in part because they clearly define a problem (scarcity), and propose a solution (land acquisition for “modern” production). Peasant discourses in reform era China, like the ones I have analyzed in this paper, are similar: they emerge from notions of crisis—first sannong wenti and now also food safety and socio-environmental crises—and they define peasant and smallholder farming as the problems for which industrial agriculture is the only and obvious solution.

China’s pork sector is useful for exploring these dynamics, as industrialization of pig farming in the reform era reflects the broader goals and politics of China’s agricultural development model. Starting in 1979, pork became the most produced and consumed meat in the world, driven by Reform and Opening in China the year before. In this context, agribusiness firms emerged, import restrictions on production inputs and technologies were relaxed or removed, and market logics began to replace state planning. These changes ignited the massive expansion of pork production that continues to the present moment. In 2012, Chinese farmers and companies produced 50 million metric tons of pork from a domestic swineherd of 660 million hogs. This was half of all the pigs and pork in the world, twice the amount of pork produced in all European Union states combined, and five times the amount in the United States. Authorities considered the pork sector a model of successful agrifood development in China, in part because of massive production increases through industrialization, and in part because vertically and horizontally integrated domestic agribusiness firms manage production, processing, and distribution, while smallholder production has declined precipitously (Schneider and Sharma 2014).

At the same time, however, the crises of industrial agriculture have emerged. Three examples from the pork sector illustrate how discourses on the figure of the peasant and smallholding propel agroindustrialization, especially in the face of real and perceived crises. First, with the rise of industrial pork, manure has become the number one source of water pollution in China today (China Pollution Source Census n.d.). Although the Ministry of Agriculture acknowledges rapid intensification of livestock production as the source of the problem, it is less clear in identifying industrial confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as the primary cause. Officials and researchers in the pork industry who I interviewed in China in the period from 2009–2012 told me that yes, water pollution is a problem associated with CAFOs, but the real problem is smallholder farmers who are dispersed across the country, are hard to monitor and regulate, and whose “low quality” of education and training means that they operate using “traditional” methods and do not understand how to dispose of manure properly. In addition to these narrative sentiments, the highly uneven promotion and application of methane digesters across farm type is also telling. Following policy supports and subsidies, the Ministry estimates that about 35 million of the approximately 140 million rural households in China currently use methane digesters to produce cooking gas and fertilizers for home use. In 2010, however, less than 1 % of the more than 4.2 million large-scale livestock farms in China employed digesters to deal with manure (Schneider 2011). While digesters provide multiple benefits to peasant households, they are not addressing the country’s manure-based water pollution crisis.

Although there are multiple-thousands of smallholder pig farms, they are not the source of massively excess nitrogen and phosphorus that cause blue-green algae blooms in China’s waterways. Smallholder, or backyard, pig farmers produce fewer than 10 pigs per year and tend to process manure either directly through a digester or indirectly through crop production. Large-scale commercial operations, on the other hand, raise thousands of hogs together in enclosed structures on single sites, with some producing and processing upwards of one million hogs a year. These so called “factory farms” are the point source of the problem. As a result, while manure continues to be a resource for smallholder farmers, even as they increasingly use synthetic fertilizers for crop production, it has become a serious management problem for commercial operations. This is a profound shift in the meaning of manure, the practices associated with it, and the agroecological implications of its excess. The manure crisis is the direct result of industrial livestock production, but is commonly blamed on the “backwardness” and “unruliness” of peasant production.

Second, policy responses following the Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS, or porcine blue-ear disease) epidemic that wiped out millions of hogs in China in 2006 and 2007 reveal how an animal health crisis was turned into justification for deeper industrialization. The State Council’s Views on Promoting the Development of Live Pigs and the Stability of Pig Markets from 2007 laid out measures to increase state support for large-scale, industrialized, and standardized pork production as a way to stabilize the industry and protect against shocks in the wake of the PRRS epidemic (Wang and Watanabe 2008). Measures included direct payments for sow insurance and disease prevention, compensation for disease losses, subsidies for seed-breeding live pigs, investments in production infrastructure and market monitoring systems, rewards for counties that significantly increased production, and financial incentives for leading agribusiness firms to ramp up production and processing in the aftermath of the epidemic. Smallholders were eligible for sow insurance in 2008 only, and were largely outside the subsidy arena in all other areas.

In addition to increasing production by boosting the national swine herd from 40 to nearly 50 million hogs, the distribution of subsidies also restructured the sector. After dedicating 2.5 billion RMB ($366 million) to subsidize large-scale production facilities and specialized “pig barns” in 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture reported that farms raising more than 50 hogs per year accounted for almost 60 % of total slaughter, up from less than half in 2007 (Woosley and Zhang 2010). At the same time, the number of rural households that raised pigs declined rapidly (by 50 % in 2008 alone), while the production share of large-scale commercial farms skyrocketed (Li 2010; Schneider 2011). The PRRS crisis further propelled industrial production, building in part on discourses that painted the peasant as ignorant of animal health and hygiene issues in particular, and inefficient in general.

Finally, food safety in China’s pork sector is another useful example of peasants being blamed for industrial agriculture’s problems. In the spring of 2011, authorities found that Shuanghui (Shineway), the country’s largest meat processor, was buying pigs that had been fed “lean meat powder” (shouroujing) for its processing operations (Shuanghui’s “lean meat powder” incident 2011). “Lean meat powders” are a class of growth-promoting drugs, used in the industry to speed an animal’s conversion of feedstuffs into meat with a high muscle-to-fat ratio. The powders in the Shuanghui scandal were clenbuterol and ractopamine, growth-promoting feed additives that were developed by firms in the United States, and have been used in US industrial livestock systems since the early 1980s. Clenbuterol was originally developed as a decongestant for people with respiratory problems, but has since been used as a controversial “weight-loss wonder drug” for humans (Guest 2007), and as a lean meat promoter in livestock. Because clenbuterol residue in meat can cause dizziness, nausea, hypertension, and other symptoms related to toxicity in humans, its use as a feed additive is banned in the United States, as it is in China. Ractopamine, by contrast, is illegal in China, but a routine component of industrial pig raising in the United States, where it is sold under the trade name Paylean by a division of Eli Lilly called Elanco.27 In the case of ractopamine, China’s food safety standards are higher than those in the US.28

Public opinion about pork safety issues reveals much about the impact of anti-peasant discursive politics. A recent study found that urban consumers in China prefer pork from large-scale industrial operations, which they view as more modern, of higher quality, and safer than pork from smaller-scale or “family farms” (De Barcellos et al. 2012). In light of “lean meat powder” and other food scares, rising distrust in the safety of food in China is no surprise.29 What is telling, however, is the incongruity between beliefs about the source of food safety breeches, and the reality. Consumers in the urban supermarket study reported feeling more at ease with industrial pork, primarily because they believe industrial operations use more sanitary methods and are easier to monitor and regulate on issues of food safety. These beliefs are based on negative representatives of peasants, and not on peasant or smallholder practice. For instance, it is highly unlikely that small-scale farmers (1) can afford to use “lean meat powders,” (2) can produce pork that is lean enough to meet commercial market standards, or (3) are selling their pigs to integrated companies like Shuanghui. Specialized household farmers who raise 50–1,000 head per year, typically in conjunction with vertically integrated processors, are more likely to use these kinds of feed additives, as are large-scale, capital-intensive commercial operations (Schneider 2011; Schneider and Sharma 2014). To put this point another way, urban consumer confidence in industrial pork signals that smallholder production has successfully been defined as a threat to the agrifood system (through political and popular discourse), while industrial agriculture stands in for modernity, progress, and safe, responsible food production.

The perspective of a small-scale farmer that I interviewed in Sichuan province in 2011 offers a different take: Mr. Wang told me that when he travels to cities, he is afraid to eat meat because companies use drugs and chemicals in production and processing, and he does not trust that government regulatory oversight can effectively monitor or enforce food safety standards inside agribusiness operations. For him, the only meat that is safe to eat is the meat that he or his neighbors raise; it is the meat raised by people who are not nongmin that raises concern.

In each of these examples from the pork sector, peasants and small-scale farming are scapegoats for agroindustrial crises. In the process, public and policy support for industrial production grows, as does the power and profit of domestic agribusiness firms, and the pollution of China’s agrifood system.


One way to answer the question of “what is a Chinese peasant?” is to put the figure of the peasant in relation to agricultural development policy, as I have done in this paper. From this approach, we can say that in addition to the 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 China’s current moment from its long agrarian history. Building on Day’s (2013b) approach, these discourses on the peasant transform nongmin and their small-scale of production into the cause of China’s agrifood crises.

However, that industrial agriculture is the most modern and efficient form of production is not a foregone conclusion. Neither is the assumption that “traditional” farming is static and the opposite of progress. Quite to the contrary, studies of agroecology and the success of peasant social movements demonstrate that smallholder, locally embedded farming systems can be much more efficient, advanced, resilient, and adaptive than their industrial counterparts (Altieri 2008; Borras et al. 2008; de Schutter 2011; Holt-Giménez 2002; Lin et al. 2011; Perfecto et al. 2009; Pretty 2007; Rosset et al. 2011; Weis 2010). While it is overly simplistic to compare “large” and “small” farms, or “industrial” and “agroecological” forms of production, these two poles serve as ideal types that are important for unraveling the most pressing social and ecological issues in agrifood systems. And these inarticulate categories are precisely the ones that are reproduced in nongmin discourses in China. One goal of this paper has been to suggest that the relationship between peasants and industrialization is mediated by discursive representations and hegemonic narratives (in the Gramscian sense) of peasants and smallholder farming that co-produce material mechanisms of dispossession. Nongmin discourses in China are useful in this regard.

I have argued that the ways in which nongmin is constructed has important political significance, and relates to the management of material conditions in China. CURD and the Building a New Socialist Countryside policies that are continued in the 12th Five-Year Plan for 2010–2015, are intended to restructure agriculture in such a way that the goal of agricultural self-sufficiency once prevalent in rural areas is abandoned in exchange for urbanization and subsequent depeasantization. Central authorities hope that these processes will at once alleviate rural poverty, develop a robust and vertically integrated domestic agro-industrial sector, further promote urban industrial development, and enhance China’s competitiveness in global markets. These goals, and the measures enacted to achieve them, rely on a set of ideas about peasants and smallholder farmers that are embodied in political discourse. As my analysis reveals, these discourses suggest that smallholders are backwards (lagging behind, traditional, detestable), of low quality (culturally and psychologically deficient and in need of improvement), passive (enough to be herded into migrant work without complaint or preference, and with very little political interest or participation), and form both an army of surplus labor for industrialization and a pool of untapped domestic consumers who will help shift China’s import–export balance. The policies that result often look more like policies to create wealth for a few, than to create the “common prosperity” called for in the 11th Five-Year Plan (Fan 2006): state policy props up agribusiness firms and agroindustrialization, and also displaces, dispossesses, and/or seeks to eliminate smallholder farming. This transformation is a profound departure from the once “unbroken history of a dense rural population practicing permanent sustainable agriculture” (Netting 1993, p. 232), to instead a contemporary history of deepening crises of industrial agriculture that affect both rural and urban people and places. Changing this trajectory will require changing the discursive frame: it is agroindustrialization that is the problem, for which nongmin and “traditional” agriculture are part of the solution.


  1. 1.

    Sixty to seventy percent of China’s population, or 800–950 million people, have rural hukou (explained below), which defines them legally as rural residents. However, because migrant workers are kept from legally settling in the urban centers where they are waged laborers, the number of people actually living in rural areas is closer to 50 % (see Tumbili 2015). The vast majority of rural people are engaged in some kind of smallholder farming, in addition to small plots in peri-urban and urban areas.

  2. 2.

    On peasant differentiation in the reform era, see Zhang and Donaldson (2008, 2010). On contemporary peasant organization and struggles against capital and the state, see Hale (2013a, b) and Tumbili (2015). On rural activism and peasant politics throughout China’s 20th century, see Day (2008, 2013a, b).

  3. 3.

    The situation of smallholder support arguably improved during the Hu-Wen administration. Even so, in many agricultural sectors, government subsidy programs target mid- and large-scale enterprises. For example, smallholders in the pork sector are not eligible for subsidies or government supports, save for erratic emergency insurance programs, as in the wake of the 2006 blue ear pig disease outbreak (see below).

  4. 4.

    This title builds on van der Ploeg’s (2009) question, “What, then, is the peasantry?” which he poses in relation to decades of modernization projects and theories that have obscured the peasant and peasant farming. Ploeg’s project is to answer the question by theorizing “the peasant condition” as one of struggles for autonomy, and “the peasant mode of farming” as a multiple and coherent set of practices and approaches to social production and reproduction (van der Ploeg’s 2009, p. 23). My purpose in this paper is not to propose a working definition of nongmin, but to explore its use in relation to the politics of agricultural development.

  5. 5.

    For typical uses of peasant as a historical category for analyzing capital-labor relations, or as a farm size classification, see for example Akram-Lodhi and Kay (2009), Bernstein (2010), Bramall and Jones (2000), So (2007), and Zhang and Donaldson (2010).

  6. 6.

    Baidu Baike is China’s largest online encyclopedia.

  7. 7.

    From Baidu Baike (in Chinese). English translation from the original Chinese text is my own (19 March 2014).

  8. 8.

    From Baidu Baike (in Chinese). English translation from the original Chinese text is my own (19 March 2014).

  9. 9.

    These words included nongfu, nongding, nongjia, nongren, zhuanghu, and zhuangjiahan.

  10. 10.

    Day (2013b, p. 7) analyzes the following three groups of intellectuals in reform era China: liberals (ziyoupai) who promoted market reforms and increased citizens’ rights as the solution to the problems associated with reform, the new-left (xinzuopai) who claimed that the market had become too dominant and workers and peasants had lost too much power, and mainstream economists (zhuliu jingji xuezhe), also referred to as “neo-liberals” (xin ziyouzhuyizhe) who proposed the state should play an administrative and stabilizing role in the creation of a market economy.

  11. 11.

    I conducted the initial data gathering and analysis in 2012 and updated the results in early 2014.

  12. 12.

    The Ministry of Agriculture of the People’s Republic of China is at (Chinese), or (English).

  13. 13.

    The language of “hot air” and “paper dragons” in relation to the NSC are direct quotes from people I interviewed in China.

  14. 14.

    Other prominent discourses deal with scientific development, creating a harmonious society, sharing common prosperity, ensuring food security, promoting ecological and safe agriculture. All of these discourses impact rural and agricultural development policies. However, in order to produce a more focused analysis, I included only those discourses with the most direct relevance to understanding constructions of nongmin.

  15. 15.

    There are over 2,200 newspapers in China today ( I limited my search to Xinhua News, the official press agency of the central government and the largest news agency in China.

  16. 16.

    Baidu Baike is the second largest Internet encyclopedia in the world, after the English language version of Wikipedia (Woo 2007).

  17. 17.

    See Jacka (2009) for a useful review of scholarship on suzhi discourse. For analyses of suzhi discourse as intimately linked to the particular politics of capitalist transformation and processes of citizenship in the reform era, see Anagnost (2004), Day (2013b), Jacka (2006, 2009, 2013) and Yan (2008).

  18. 18.

    This white paper is related to Outline1 (2000–2010). Translation is my own.

  19. 19.

    “Issues pertaining to the Development of China’s Agriculture and Rural Economy” section of the Decision (2008) document is available at (in English).

  20. 20.

    Decisionof the CPC Central Committee on Major Issues Concerning Rural Reform and Development is available at (in English).

  21. 21.

    Views on Supporting the Development of Lead Enterprises for Agricultural Industrialization is available at (in Chinese).

  22. 22.

    One of the primary tasks of the Rural Operation System and Operation Management Bureau (nongcun jingying tizhi yu jingying guanli si) is “modernizing” traditional agriculture.

  23. 23.

    See, for example, the text of an interview from 2013 at

  24. 24.

    For a historical look at the development of rural taxation reform, see Göbel (2010, 2011), Sato et al. (2008), and Su (2009).

  25. 25.

    Dragonheads first appeared in the Decision of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on Several Major Issues in Agriculture and Rural Work, issued by the Third Plenary Session of the 15th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, October 1998.

  26. 26.

    For instance, if “relieving the peasants’ burden” means increasing rural income (which is an open question), it is difficult to demonstrate that Building a New Socialist Countryside reforms have been successful. Remittances from migrant labor are the primary source if increasing rural income, and more than half of the peasants surveyed in a Chinese Academy of Sciences study said the reforms were inadequate and inefficient in improving their livelihoods (Liu et al. 2011).

  27. 27.
  28. 28.

    In July 2012, Codex Alimentarius adopted international standards for ractopamine residues in food. Ractopamine is legal in 26 countries, including the United States, Brazil, Australia, Canada, Mexico, the Philippines. Conversely, China joined the European Union, the Russian Federation, India, Turkey, and others in voicing strong opposition to the standards, calling for an all-out ban of the additive, and reaffirming their existing bans on ractopamine-fed meat imports (Beek 2012).

  29. 29.

    Food safety concerns—more than concerns for environmental protection or farmer livelihoods—also motivate consumer participation in “alternative food networks” in China, such as community supported agriculture (CSA), home delivery schemes, farmers markets, and buying clubs (Scott et al. 2014).



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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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)The HagueThe Netherlands

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