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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.

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  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.

    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).

  5. 5.

    Baidu Baike is China’s largest online encyclopedia.

  6. 6.

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

  7. 7.

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

  8. 8.

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

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

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

  11. 11.

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

  12. 12.

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

  13. 13.

    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.

  14. 14.

    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.

  15. 15.

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

  16. 16.

    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).

  17. 17.

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

  18. 18.

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

  19. 19.

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

  20. 20.

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

  21. 21.

    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.

  22. 22.

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

  23. 23.

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

  24. 24.

    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.

  25. 25.

    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).

  26. 26.

    See Elanco’s website at:

  27. 27.

    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).

  28. 28.

    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).


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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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Schneider, M. What, then, is a Chinese peasant? Nongmin discourses and agroindustrialization in contemporary China. Agric Hum Values 32, 331–346 (2015).

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  • Peasant
  • Nongmin
  • Agroindustrialization
  • Discourse
  • China