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Sixth European Conference
Agriculture and Rural Development in China

Source: IIAS Newsletter, Author: Jacob Eyferth

The ECARDC network was set up in 1989 in order to facilitate exchange between European scholars and non-academic specialists who work on different aspects of Chinese rural development. Since the first meeting in Aarhus, ECARDC has been convened in Leiden, Giessen, Manchester, and Paris. In the first week of January 2000, it was Leiden’s turn again. The conference was organized by Dr E.B. Vermeer, Dr P.P.S. Ho, and J. Eyferth, all of whom are from the Sinological Institute of Leiden University. Generous financial support was received from the Research School CNWS, the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW), the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), the Leiden University Fund (LuF), the Foundation for the Promotion of Cultural Relations between the Netherlands and China, and the Beijing Office of the Ford Foundation.

The ECARDC functions as an open forum for people interested in contemporary rural China, whatever their disciplinary and institutional background. Apart from university scholars ­ agronomists, economists, sociologists, geographers, sinologists, and anthropologists ­ it addresses people working in development agencies and Chinese state research institutes. The principal aims of ECARDC are to provide, at two-yearly intervals, overviews of recent developments in rural China, and to bring together scholars who work in different countries, some of whom do not previously know each other. ECARDC especially welcomes contributions by Chinese PhD students working at European universities.

Forty-seven participants from Europe, China, and Israel delivered 34 papers on a wide range of topics. The three conference days were divided into five panels: ‘Policies and Institutions’, ‘Rural Economy’, ‘Agriculture and Animal Husbandry’, ‘Social Dimensions of Rural Change’, and ‘Rural Industrialization’. Bowing to the pressure of time, most panels had to be split into two parallel sessions.

Like previous meetings, ECARDC 6 was characterized by intense discussions in small groups, which went on in between and after the sessions. The conference covered a wide range of topics, from irrigation agriculture in the dry northwest of China to commercial farming on the tropical island of Hainan, and from village studies to an analysis of national statistics. This conference saw a shift away from a previous emphasis on the ‘local state’ as the prime mover of rural development, towards a more decentralized, multipolar view. Several trends were pointed out: administrative reforms have made local governments more professional and accountable (Edin); private and public agencies are taking over functions previously fulfilled by the state (Pennarz); reforms of property rights are disentangling local governments from the firms they previously controlled; rural entrepreneurs are emerging as a distinct social group with a political agenda of their own (Yep).

The idea of the ‘state as business corporation’, typical of the 1980s and early 1990s, is not dead; T. Cannon even argued that local power is becoming more entrenched. In a paper on ‘the peasants’ (tax) burden’, Li Xiande showed that local governments still have considerable power which is often used in ways detrimental to the interests of the rural population. At the same time, market forces have broken down some of the barriers erected under Maoism, most visibly in the growing mobility of the rural population (Murphy, Lai). The transition from scarcity to oversupply in many sectors also limits the scope for rapid growth strategies of the type that characterized the 1980s and early 1990s. The shadow of world markets loomed large in the background of several papers (Zhang Xiaoyong, Guo Jianchun, Tillmann); China’s expected admission to the World Trade Organization will expose its inefficient agriculture to international competition, with unpredictable consequences.

As China’s problems are becoming more similar to those of other developing countries, interest is shifting to such issues as gender equality (H. Zhang, Y. Song), agricultural extension (Wu), and the environment. In six papers (Runnstrom and Brogaard, Ho, Pennarz, Sanders, Heggelund, Kirkby and Bradbury), the last topic formed one of the main foci of the conference. No unifying theme emerged in the final plenary discussion. There was a broad consensus that rural China is becoming more complex and diverse, and that old generalizations no longer apply. Politics, which have long held centre-stage in the study of rural China, have receded into the background as increasingly more decisions are made in the boardrooms of enterprises or development agencies. At the same time, the diffusion of decision-making opens new spaces for genuine political disagreement and debate. Several participants stressed the need to identify and analyse the diverse societal interests that have emerged in the 1990s. There was also a call for greater theoretical sophistication in a field where much research is done simply to catch up with rapid changes in the area of study. Now that data collection is less of a problem, researchers should be able to devote more time to analysis. The final hours of the plenary session were devoted to discussing plans for future meetings and publication. Dr T. Cannon agreed to organize ECARDC 7 at Greenwich University in 2002. The organizers of ECARDC 6 promised to see a selection of conference papers through to publication. The first round of editing is currently under way. After revisions, ten to fifteen papers will be selected for publication. The conference organizers will approach publishers in August or September 2000. It is hoped that the conference volume will appear in 2001. *

Jacob Eyferth is a PhD candidate and researcher at the CNWS, Leiden.
E-mail: j_eyferth@let.leidenuniv.nl