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Country profile - China

china

With a fifth of the world's population, roughly half of them farmers, it is not surprising that China has the largest agricultural economy in the world. The country can be imagined as having three main sections: the western 'half', which extends high and sparsely populated across central Asia, and the eastern half, further divided by the Qin Ling range into northern and southern parts, where the vast majority of China's 1.2 billion people live. South of the Qin Ling range, China is semi-tropical; rainfall is relatively abundant and the growing season is long. Rice is the predominant grain crop, traditionally grown by meticulous, labour-intensive nurturing, the seedlings transplanted from seed beds into irrigated paddies, allowing two or three crops per season. Much of the soil is acidic red clay, but irrigation and heavy fertilizer use - both organic, and chemical - have earned Chinese farmers high yields. The highest grain yields in the country come from the south, for example the Sichuan basin and the lower Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) valley. Non-staple crops include cotton and tea; potatoes and wheat are grown in the hilly areas.

North of the Qin Ling range is a temperate area, and although the soils are better than in the south, yields are lower because of the shorter growing season and the colder, drier climate. The most important agricultural area in this part of the country is the North China Plain, which extends across several provinces. Winter wheat and maize are the most common grain crops; half of China's wheat and a third of its maize come from here. The area is fertile, and although it used to suffer from frequent floods and droughts, water conservation measures have lessened this problem. Further to the north east farmers grow spring wheat, maize, rice and soybeans, which are exported to many Pacific Rim countries.

The impact of reform

Since 1978 China has seen huge social and economic changes. Twenty years ago an estimated 71% of Chinese were rural farmers. That figure is now down to 51%, reflecting both urbanisation and growth of industry in the rural areas. Another key shift has been from a command economy, under tight government control, to a more liberalised, market-based economy. In the past farmers were grouped into communes, to which land and quotas for grain production were assigned. The grain was bought by the government at low prices in order to continue the supply of cheap food to the urban population. While the Chinese government has kept self-sufficiency in grain as a strong guiding principle, control of that production has been increasingly decentralised. Land is now assigned to households for fixed periods, such as fifteen years. Quotas have come down, and households are able to sell surplus grain at market prices. There has also been encouragement for local marketing and inter-provincial trade. Some regions have become pilots for further reforms; in Zheijang province, eastern China, farmers are now free to choose what they grow, and many are turning away from grain to more profitable vegetable and fish production. Farmers in this region have indicated that they would rather buy good quality rice from other parts of the country than depend on their local varieties, that have a short growing season, and are consequently less tasty. It is likely that some coastal provinces will be following the same path.

Feeding the people

A question that has proved controversial for a number of years, is whether China can go on feeding itself, despite its increasing, and increasingly urbanised, population. China's highly impressive economic and agricultural growth, at rates of around 6% for agriculture and 8% for the economy generally since 1978, has been possible only at the expense of the environment. In the last two years, harvests have fallen to below the national requirement, forcing the government to eat into its massive grain stores.

Water is a key constraint: north and north east China has over 40% of the population and nearly 60% of the cultivated land, but only around 15% of total water resources. In the North China Plain, the water level in the deep aquifer is falling every year, making extraction more costly. Wastage and pollution of water are other major problems (See New Agriculturist:News). It is estimated that 60% of water in canal and field irrigation systems is lost to evaporation, and China's poorly maintained water infrastructure leads to further huge losses. Much of the water that does reach China's fields is polluted, either by large quantities of untreated sewage from the urban areas, or by industrial pollutants. Such pollution is regarded as an unavoidable cost of economic expansion. Industry has been permitted to pour waste water directly into rivers; this water has gone on to damage soil fertility and introduce dangerous heavy metals into food crops.

Land is another constraint to production. China has around 22% of the world's population but only 7% of the arable land. In addition, large areas have been lost, for example through excessive ploughing in the north, which has created a vast dustbowl, and through urban and industrial expansion in the south-eastern coastal provinces, this latter on fertile land that formerly supported multiple cropping.

Future prospects

However, many researchers conclude that if China invests sufficiently in agriculture it will be able to continue supplying most of its food needs. Simulations by Rozelle and Rosegrant suggest that a 5% increase in government investment in agriculture would make China a net exporter of 31 million tons of cereal by 2020. Although China has virtually no extra land that could be used for cultivation, improved use of fertilizers, more efficient irrigation and progress in the use of genetically modified crops all offer ways to increase production. Already over 1 million farmers in China are growing GM cotton, maize and soybeans at lower costs. Predicted changes in climate could have a net benefit for China, increasing temperature and precipitation in the north, allowing greater yields of maize and wheat. Meanwhile, more extreme weather in the south would further the need for improvements to dams and flood management systems. If, as some forecast, China's harvests do not improve, and the country has to import significant amounts of grain, the effect on world food markets could be severe, driving up prices, and increasing the difficulties faced by food insecure countries.

Statistical information
  • Country: China
  • Capital: Beijing
  • Area: 9,596,960 sq km
  • Population: 1,273,111,290 (2001 est.)
  • Population growth: 0.88% (2001 est.)
  • Languages: Standard Chinese or Mandarin, Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), Xiang, Gan, Hakka dialects, minority languages
  • Labour force: agriculture 50%, industry 24%, services 26% (1998)
  • GDP: US$4.5 trillion (2000 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$3,600 (2000 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 15%, industry 50%, services 35%
  • Population below poverty line: 10%
  • Major industries: iron and steel, coal, machine building, armaments, textiles and apparel, petroleum, cement, chemical fertilizers, footwear, toys, food processing, automobiles, consumer electronics, telecommunications
  • Land use: permanent pastures 43%, forests and woodlands 14%, arable land 10%, permanent crops 0%, other 33%
  • Natural resources: coal, iron ore, petroleum, natural gas, mercury, tin, tungsten, antimony, manganese, molybdenum, vanadium, magnetite, aluminium, lead, zinc, uranium, hydropower potential (world's largest)
  • Agricultural products: rice, wheat, potatoes, sorghum, peanuts, tea, millet, barley, cotton, oilseed, pork, fish
  • Export commodities: machinery and equipment; textiles and clothing, footwear, toys and sporting goods, mineral fuels
  • Major Export Partners: US 21%, Hong Kong 18%, Japan 17%, South Korea, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Singapore, Taiwan

Date published: January 2002

 

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