Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2008

The Role of Agriculture in China's Development: Past Failures, Present Successes and Future Challenges

Jikun Huang, Keijiro Otsuka

January 2007

Asia-Pacific Research Center


In a book assessing the development of China during the People's Republic era, it is of interest to know how well agriculture has performed and the role that it has played in the development process. Has China produced food and other commodities that have contributed to China's growth? Has it been successful supplying labor to the off farm sector? How has agriculture contributed to the rise in rural incomes and growth, in general? In short, one of the overall goals of this chapter is to document the performance of the agricultural sector and use the criteria of Johnston and Mellor to assess how well the agricultural sector has done.

This chapter, however, seeks to go further than describing the achievements and shortfalls of China's agricultural economy; we also aim to identify the factors, both domestic policies and economic events as well as foreign initiatives, that have induced the performance that we observe. To create an agricultural economy that can feed the population, supply industry with labor and raw materials, earn foreign exchange and produce income for those the live and work in the sector and allow them to be a part of the nation's structural transformation requires a combination of massive investments and well-managed policy effort. The process can only proceed smoothly if an environment is created within which producers can generate output efficiently and earn a profit that can contribute to household income. Policies are required to facilitate the development of markets or other effective institutions of exchange. Although the sector is expected to contribute to the nation's development and allow for substantial extractions of labor and other resources, large volumes of investment also are needed. Investment in education, training, health and social services are needed to increase the productivity of the labor force when they arrive in the factories. Investment is needed in agriculture to improve productivity to keep food prices low, allow farmers to adopt new technologies and farming practice as markets change, and to raise incomes of those that are still in farming. Investment is needed in technology, land, water and other key inputs that are in short supply. In this chapter we seek to point out both policies that have facilitated the performance of the agricultural sector and those that have constrained it.