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Beneath the China Boom: Citizenship, Welfare, and the Making of a Rural Land Market

  • Julia Chuang

Julia Chuang, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Boston College, spoke about her ethnographic study of China’s dual growth mechanism in her talk, “Beneath the China Boom: Citizenship, Welfare, and the Making of a Rural Land Market,” on January 31, 2018.  As the second seminar in the Stanford China Program’s Winter Colloquia series, “An Expanding Toolkit: The Evolution of Governance in China,” Chuang elaborated upon the linkages among low-cost labor, rural land extraction, and welfare economics as China pivots away from export-oriented urban manufacturing towards domestic construction and real estate.
Chuang focused, in particular, on the interactions and contradictions between what she argued were China’s two models of development. The first model was exemplified by China’s urban manufacturing success in the 1990’s, made possible by the severe wage suppression of migrant workers who could withstand substandard wages by relying on income from their village farm lands. The cost of urban development was thereby offloaded onto the countryside via this unofficial “farm subsidy”; and, when combined with China’s fiscal decentralization, resulted in mounting rural fiscal deficits. Under this decentralized governance regime, reduced local government revenues coincided with increasing local responsibility for social welfare expenditures provided to rural citizens often employed elsewhere. Starting in the 2000’s, the second model of development took hold, she argued, as local governments increasingly began to rely on land expropriation and real estate development to climb out of debt and generate revenues. By 2010, in fact, 77% of local government revenues had come from land financings.
Chuang conducted an ethnographic study of two rural villages in Sichuan province where, in one village, villagers recruited as construction workers kept their farming land. In the second village, the local government had expropriated nearly 70% of rural land over 9 years; and workers were landless. Through her interviews with local families, government leaders, and migrant workers themselves, Chuang found that, contrary to classical Marxist suppositions, landless laborers with nothing but their labor power to sell fared poorly in their search for employment because they had lost the means of their subsistence. Rural land rights, thus, have become the focal point in the struggle between local governments in need of financing and migrant workers reliant upon rural wage supplementation. Chuang’s ethnographic approach, she argued, allows her to delineate the myriad connections between China’s villages and cities; and the complex inter-dynamic between China’s rural crises and urban economic growth.