id21 viewpoints

Getting to grips with development in rural China

id21 invites development workers, activists and researchers to contribute their points of view on development issues. James Keeley , Institute of Development Studies, comments on development in rural China:

The pace of China's rise as a global superpower often amazes visitors, with cities seeming to transform themselves overnight. However, this is only one side of modern China: most rural areas remain overwhelmingly poor. While urban development is undoubtedly important, the development of rural China is a far greater challenge.

The rise of rural-urban inequality in China is a more significant, if less reported, story than the nine percent annual economic growth rates focused on by the media. In 2004, average urban incomes were six times that of rural incomes. This disparity is the highest in the world; tackling this should be China's development policy priority.

Recently, the Chinese government has prioritised rural problems. The last two ‘Number One’ documents, which identify key government policies, have focused on rural development and agriculture. The 2004 document announced - to great surprise - plans to abolish the controversial agricultural tax within five years. The government has also promised to provide funding for all children to complete their basic education. Other recent laws tackle a range of rural issues, including village organisation and land management. A law for Protection of Villagers' Rights is currently under discussion. Other government initiatives are having positive impacts, such as wasteland auctions and resettlement schemes (see id21 summaries by Ho and Merkle). Furthermore, rural people are helping themselves through exciting farmer innovations and organisations (see id21 summary by Wu).

These recent developments are encouraging, but important challenges remain. Government legislation to promote people’s rights is important, but awareness of these rights remains extremely low in rural areas; many villagers do not know that their children have a right to nine years of basic education, or that certain fees and taxes are illegal. Even where people do know their rights, it is often difficult to enforce them. While the introduction of village elections could increase empowerment, village governance is often criticised as ineffective.

So how can rural China develop further? There several policy options, but many have potential problems.

The challenges for policymakers in promoting development in rural China are daunting. Whether the Chinese government and local organisations can achieve equitable growth, better governance, and effective realisation of rights for rural people, while also managing rural-urban transition, is an unanswered question. Rural-urban inequality is already a source of unrest in China; in worst-case scenarios it could grow and threaten political stability. Given the size of China, such unrest would have much wider effects. These might include impacts on neighbouring Asian countries and on global security and economic growth. Successful development policies are vital if change in China is to be smooth and peaceful.

James Keeley
Institute of Development Studies

Tel +44 (0)1273 606261
Fax +44 (0)1273 621202
Email j.e.keeley@ids.ac.uk

May 2005

'Income inequality in China', Institute of Economics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, by Li Shi, 2004

'Fifteen arrested in blood selling scandal', China Daily, 14th April 2005

'An Investigative Report on the Chinese Peasantry, Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe, Beijing, by Chen Guidi and Chun Tao, 2004 (in Chinese)

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Views expressed on these pages are not necessarily those of DfID, IDS, id21 or other contributing institutions. Articles featured on the id21 site may be copied or quoted without restriction provided id21 and originating author(s) and institution(s) are acknowledged. Copyright © 2009 IDS. All rights reserved.

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