The state, capital and peasantry in the agrarian transition of China: the case of Guangxi sugarcane sector

Zhang, Jin


Food security is a critical issue. There are different policies and projects designed and applied to achieve food security in many countries. However, whether these policies and projects are feasible and effective is dependent on local conditions on natural resources and socio-economic relations. This research aims to evaluate the sugarcane intervention project for sugar supply security in China, more importantly, to examine the interaction between the state intervention project and the dynamics in Chinese peasant farming. The analytical framework combines rural sociology and political economic perspectives. The research contains five chapters that cover through macro-level political economic analysis to micro-level sociological study.

Chapter 2 examines the macro structure of the agricultural and food sector in China. It shows that the agricultural production in China shows multiple modalities, and these modalities have different social production relations. The domestic agricultural structural change (more high-value products and less low-value products) is partly result from the diet’s structural change of Chinese people, and partly from the rapid increase in land rent and labour price in China. The domestic changes are further linked to China’s oversea agricultural activities.

Chapter 3 shows the interaction between the Chinese peasant farming and the state agricultural intervention projects. The chapter takes sugarcane production as a case. It first systematically studies the state intervention policies on sugarcane production over different time periods since the People’s commune period. Focusing on rural society and peasant farming, the chapter shows that the sugarcane intervention project brought large capital external to the rural committees into the local sugarcane production activities. However, the emergence of capitalist sugarcane farms squeezes the social-economic conditions of small peasant farms.

Chapter 4 to 6 focus on the micro-level dynamics in agricultural production and rural society. Chapter 4 examines the capital accumulation strategies in the sugarcane production intervention project. New technologies, political intervention and speculation activities have become the new capitalist accumulation strategies in agricultural production in China. Chapter 5 examines the agricultural labour and migration issues in sugarcane production. It shows the transition of three waves of cane-cutting migration, which is due to the fact that when labour-selling peasants obtained enough income to invest in their own farms or other rural production activities, they consequently refrained from migration. Chapter 6 focuses on the rural land institutions in the sugarcane production zone, with particular attention on the new registration of rural land usufruct rights since 2013. The chapter shows that the new registration of rural land usufruct rights not only failed to improve the current state of affairs characterized by ownership disputes and distribution conflicts within rural communities, but also created new problems related to large-scale land transfers to capital holders external to rural communities.

This thesis shows a strong characteristic of science-practice collaboration. Theoretically, it is a breakthrough of combining macro approach of political economy and micro approach of rural sociology; practically, it points out that the Chinese state’ intervention projects on its domestic agricultural production for the national food security goal are problematic regarding the small peasant livelihoods and rural development.