China’s Agriculture Sector: Past, Present and Future


You can say a lot about the development of a nation by analyzing its agriculture sector, more specifically the percentage of its GDP represented by agriculture. In China’s case, the fact that agriculture went from representing roughly 50% of China’s GDP prior to Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 reforms to less than 10% at this point, with its industrial sector increasing by more than 200% and services following suit makes it clear just how much China has grown.

Still, even in the present, the agricultural dimension of China’s economy is a force to be reckoned with in light of the fact that over 300 million individuals earn the living in this field (no pun intended). As with many other industries, China is currently the world’s #1 country by agricultural production but, of course, this status quo can also be considered a function of its 1.4+ billion population to a reasonable degree.

While China has a tradition in agriculture that spans not centuries but downright millennia, let’s not dwell too much on the (very) distant past and, instead, analyze things in a post-PRC framework. More specifically, it’s worth noting that the structure of China’s agriculture from a legal perspective changed dramatically after the Communist Party of China won the civil was, with landlords losing control over their land, which was awarded to individual farmers instead.

However, this fragmentation would not last for long, with China gradually organizing farmers into groups so as to increase efficiency and ultimately output. As of 1956, farmers once again lost control of their land after a very brief experience in that respect, with the government organizing the agricultural sector as collective farms, in a fashion similar to what one could have observed when it came to other nations run by communist parties.

While many expected the output results to be spectacular after these attempts at increasing efficiency, that was hardly the case. In fact, in the aftermath of Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” initiative which revolved around setting overly-optimistic output goals, China found itself without the food necessary to feed its own citizens, resulting in the famine with the largest number of victims in the history of mankind, with estimates ranging from 14 million deaths according to government estimates all the way to 43 million according to more recent analysis efforts. Why? Simply because in an effort to please Mao, the administrative sector over-estimated output numbers, which led to China exporting considerably more agricultural products than it should have, leaving it without adequate supplies for the needs of its own population.

Unfortunately, the agricultural dimension (like most of the other sectors) was anything but efficient in 1978, when China started implementing dramatic reforms across a wide range of sectors. Agriculture was, of course, included in Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations. As a part of the so-called Family Production Responsibility System, a lot more autonomy was provided to the average farmer. Simply put, a farmer essentially leased land from the collective and had to meet a certain quota. It was without a doubt a game-changer that farmers were allowed to use their land as they saw fit as long as the quota in question was met.

Furthermore, massive agricultural infrastructure investments took place, especially in light of the fact that the average farmer didn’t even have the very basics at his disposal, for example access to electricity. That gradually changed, with irrigation systems being implemented, mechanization solutions increasing efficiency/output and so on.

As time passed and agriculture became (far) less labor-intensive, a massive redistribution of labor inevitably took place. In light of China’s aggressive industrialization, a mass demographic phenomenon involving the migration of workers from rural to urban areas started unfolding. On the one hand, the people in question are now able to earn considerably more than they used to make through inefficient agriculture-related activities. On the other hand, as the rural to urban migration process continues, the farmers who are left behind cannot help but notice the increasing wealth gap between rural and urban areas. As such, socio-economic issues inevitably end up following such dramatic demographic mega-trends.

Despite issues such as the previously mentioned one which are inevitable, China aligning itself to the global trends pertaining to agriculture was and is inevitable as well. At the end of the day, as a country becomes more prosperous, it’s pretty much a given that the percentage of its GDP represented by agriculture goes down dramatically. Furthermore, some of the same trends are manifesting themselves when it comes to (certain types of) industrial production, with the service sector growing more and more as China’s economy matures and moves toward higher value-added output.