Wen Tiejun, a professor with the Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, speaks at a session on rural areas during the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018 on April 9 (DUAN WEI)
Wen Tiejun, 67, sees himself as a typical middle class Chinese male. Five years ago, very much a wealthy urbanite, he made a decision which shocked those around him by selling the family's multi-million-yuan property in downtown Beijing and relocating to a village in southeast China's Fujian Province.
"There is no pollution [here in the village], only fresh air, clean water and safe food. This is [a better] life," he told Beijing Review.
That idyllic lifestyle was something Wen, an agricultural economics expert, found in abundance as a delegate to the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Annual Conference 2018 on Hainan Island, especially clean air, top-level infrastructure and public services.
Wen's decision to return to the countryside is mirrored by his academic research achievements and career turnaround. In 2013, he left a position as head of the School of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development with the prestigious Renmin University of China in Beijing and joined the lesser known provincial Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. His reasons for the change were twofold. Wen sought a better lifestyle, as well as wanting to achieve concrete results in his research on promoting rural revitalization, which aims to make agriculture a lucrative industry. He intended to turn farming into an attractive profession and transform rural areas into beautiful places to live.
The Central Rural Work Conference at the end of last year made a major strategic shift from a focus on urbanization over the past decades to achieving rural revitalization in the 21st century. "This is extremely important as it truly places agriculture and rural development as China's priorities," Wen said at the session on Marginalized Rural Asia during the BFA Annual Conference held from April 8 to 11.
Rural prosperity vital
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held in October 2017 highlighted rural issues and proposed the strategy of rural revitalization. A timetable and roadmap were released to translate the vision into reality two months later in the Central Rural Work Conference. "Revitalizing rural areas is a strategy China has made to adapt to new situations in the vast countryside," said Han Changfu, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, at the conference.
Rural areas and agriculture have entered a new era. Statistics by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs show that China's annual grain output exceeds 600 million tons for the past five consecutive years. The annual per-capita disposable income in rural areas reached 13,432 yuan ($2,139). The contribution rate of technological advances in agriculture surpasses 66 percent, showing China's agriculture is shifting from being resource driven to technology driven. In addition, public services and infrastructure in rural areas are also improving.
However, the challenges of inadequate development in rural areas and imbalanced urban-rural relations are significant. "Most notably, the quality of agriculture needs to be improved; the momentum to increase farmers' income is weak; and the income disparity between urban and rural areas is still large," said Han.
Rapid urbanization over the past few decades has seen the Chinese countryside lose its productive working-age residents and become desolated in some areas. The latest data by the National Bureau of Statistics showed that China's migrant workers totaled 169 million in 2016, nearly 30 percent of the total rural population.
Han said to promote the development of rural areas and agriculture in tandem with urban progress, the life of its farmers needs to be improved. "China cannot be a strong country if there is desolation in rural areas," he said.
For Wen, the rural population and market hold great potential for the future of a prosperous China. "Agriculture is the foundation of the nation. It is the reason why China has withstood one crisis after another, like the global financial crisis in 2008 and the devastating SARS epidemic in 2003," said Wen.
Despite being imperative, it is no easy task to translate the vision of rural prosperity into reality. However, in rural matters, Wen is a problem solver. His solution is to introduce the concept of a "sixth industry" for farmers to increase their incomes from businesses related to agricultural production in addition to their agricultural income, by cooperating with commercial and industrial sectors to integrate production, processing and marketing, and to combine agriculture with tourism and other service industries in rural areas. The concept was first created in Japan.
"Instead of treating agriculture as a single industry, the 'sixth industry' approach makes farmers gain wider added value and enables the sustainable development of agriculture and rural areas," Wen explained. He has adapted the concept so that it meets China's local conditions.
"I like to call it a synthesis of recycling agriculture, innovative agriculture and immersive agriculture," Wen said. According to his explanation, recycling agriculture means changing the way the sector develops, which currently focuses on dependence on the land and use of chemical fertilizers. Innovative agriculture means finding the cultural connotations in agriculture and using that to attract urban residents, young entrepreneurs and investors. Immersive agriculture aims to help farmers earn money from urban dwellers who want to experience agricultural and rural activities. "Fresh air, clean water and a beautiful landscape in rural areas are big assets, but were ignored in the past. Now, with urban residents demanding a green and idyllic lifestyle, these assets could be materialized," he said.
To make the synthesis work, Wen believes China's affluent middle class is vital. "They have the demands to consume such services and possess the necessary capital and expertise in management and sales," he explained. According to the Global Wealth Databook 2016 released by the Switzerland-based Credit Suisse Research Institute, China has the largest middle class in absolute number, totaling 109 million.
A drone sprays pesticide over a field in Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, on April 10 (XINHUA)
However, despite the important role the middle class can play in future rural and agricultural development, this does not mean that farmers will be marginalized. The plan is to empower farmers so that they can reap the added value accrued by them.
To this end, they need expertise and insurance. The good news is that businesses are keen to get involved. This includes New Hope Group, a leading private agricultural enterprise from southwest China's Sichuan Province. "My company will provide financial support to train 100,000 farmers in the next five years," Liu Yonghao, Chairman of New Hope, announced at the BFA. The company will also invest 50 billion yuan ($7.96 billion) to promote a rural revitalization strategy over this period.
In addition, "insurance will help rural businesses weather natural or market losses through risk control," said Miao Jianmin, President of the People's Insurance Co. Ltd. The company is also participating in the establishment of a social security network in rural areas so that low-income rural residents will not suffer impoverishment brought about by market uncertainties and natural disasters.
To support startups by rural households and migrant workers in the agriculture-related sector, the company has tailored microfinance services by combining insurance and financing. "For example, startups can use their insurance policies as collateral for acquiring loans," said Miao.
These support services have borne fruit. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, as of 2017 there had been 7 million migrant workers and university graduates who had returned to their hometowns and started agriculture-related businesses. The number is on the rise, something that is sure to motivate Wen in his ongoing quest. (Reporting from Boao, Hainan Province)
Copyedited by Francisco Little
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