Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Poverty and Grain Concerns Top Rural Agenda

Winning the "war on poverty" is China's rural policy priority for next year, but worries about grain supplies received a surprising amount of attention at the "rural work meeting" for Chinese officials held last week. Trade with the United States does not appear to have been formally discussed, but the urgency to increase rural income and bolster profits for grain producers emphasized at the meeting appear to clash with China's commitment to import more U.S. commodities.

Officials were instructed to shore up rural infrastructure and water supplies, clean up village sanitation and housing, and improve rural education, health care, social insurance and public services. Poverty alleviation efforts are elevated as China rushes to achieve an "all-round moderately well-off (小康) society," an objective first articulated 40 years ago by Deng Xiaoping, amplified by Xi Jinping, and due to be achieved in 2020 according to communist party dogma. The party secretary of the State Council poverty alleviation office chaired this year's rural work meeting for the first time, presumably to stress the priority of anti-poverty work.

Anti-poverty efforts were prioritized in this year's "number one document" and cadres will double down on the job next year as they rush to ensure that the 2020 "well-off" objective is achieved. At a separate poverty alleviation work meeting held last week, it was reported that 2019 targets were met by reducing the impoverished population by 10 million and raising 340 counties above the poverty level. At the rural work meeting cadres were warned that they should be on guard to prevent people and places from slipping back into poverty.

Increasing rural income by moving people out of hopelessly impoverished regions and promoting rural industries are the core tasks. Companies have been instructed to help poor villagers start pig farms, fruit orchards and promote other business in impoverished areas and "actively" encourage entrepreneurs to launch business start-ups. The Agricultural Development Bank has special funds to buy up grain and cotton produced in regions targeted for poverty alleviation. Efforts will be made to create rural brands and sell products from impoverished regions via e-commerce and other new channels.

Other instructions were to "stabilize" employment of migrant workers, encourage returning migrants to start businesses and to strengthen efforts to recover their unpaid wages. These were also priorities during the 2009 economic slowdown and seem to indicate that the lower tier of workers have been hit hard by China's current economic slowdown and financial pressures on their employers.

Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu's comments on grain production at the rural work meeting suggested leaders are worried that the country's grain output is on a knife's edge. After reciting statistics about China's record grain harvest, Minister Han warned officials that grain production capacity is "still not stable." Han put officials on alert against declining earnings from grain crops and other persistent problems. In some regions, Han warned, local officials have not prioritized grain production and output has fallen.

In 2020 China will strengthen the role of grain production targets in job evaluations of provincial officials as part of the "governors' grain bag responsibility system." China will increase transfer payments to grain-producing counties, "improve" agricultural subsidy policies, continue subsidies for rice, corn and soybeans, and continue the minimum price policies for wheat and rice. The program to build high-standard fields and irrigation will move toward completion, and Han warned officials to improve monitoring and prevention capabilities to deal with probable outbreaks of fall army worms, droughts and floods. Han admonished officials to keep corn area stable as corn supply and demand become tighter, to continue the soybean revitalization plan, and actively increase supplies of high quality rice and wheat.

Officials were also instructed to accelerate the recovery of pork production, fully implement the "mayors' market basket responsibility system" for guaranteeing pork supplies, and carry out pork industry support measures. Building storage and transportation infrastructure for meat and other perishables is a related infrastructure initiative.

The collective land ownership in the countryside will be maintained, and collective property rights reform pilots will be advanced.

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