Friday, June 05, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: Farmers, their Incomes and their Labels


I recently read an article in the Chinese media indicating that rural incomes are set to fall this year for the first time since 1984. My post today deals with some of the difficulties I have with the article and some of the labels used by the reporting journalist. Please take a look at the ARTICLE LINK.

The article, as you can see from the link, opens with the statement that the income of "farmers" will grow by just 6% this year because of a drop in agricultural prices and rising unemployment. It follows by saying that farmers earned an average of US$680 last year, remember that is an AVERAGE - meaning there are just as many below that line than above.

The difficulty I have with the way this article opens is that the piece makes no effort to discuss "real income" which takes in to account inflation; the kind of rapid inflation that has paralyzed rural communities for most of this decade; only easing during the recent financial crisis due to generous government subsides. Without subsides, and including inflation, China's modernization which has supposedly lifted half a billion people from abject poverty is actually putting a lot of those same people back to the bottom of the pyramid due to inflation and increasing costs.

Inflation is a dirty word in China and although reported on widely it's often in relation to urban dwellers. Little is written or discussed about farmers who scrap by month to month and then suddenly face a 40% price increase in pork, the main meat staple in China; or maize, or fertilizer or petrol for their tractors or motorcycles. I can tell you from experience the situation is bleak. The situation gets even bleaker when we bring Health Care in to the fold, but I'll leave that for another blog.

I'm not an economist but I read somewhere that inflation in 2008 topped out around 14%, so if farmers salaries increaded in 2008 by 10% then there is a net 4% loss of real income due to inflation. And if 2009 incomes are set to rise 6% against 4% inflation (don't bet on it with the massive government stimulus package) then they'll barely be back at 2007 numbers, but from 2000 to 2008 inflation in China has been incredible because of rapid urban growth mainly. If rural incomes are set to grow at 6% what happens if inflation balloons again to double digits?

When ask how to boost rural incomes, Li Zhou, the Deputy director of the CASS Institute of Rural Development said that "It is difficult to boost the rural market when farmers cannot get rich quickly." That may sound like a common statement but there are a very painfully obvious signs here. First is that he talks about the rural population of China as a market, and not as a people scrapping by to make a living. Might the only interest of the urban elite to view the rural folks as markets to sell them fridges? How about empowering them with educational and economic opportunities that give them, and their children, more choice in life, might that be an option? The second is that getting rich quickly is all anyone seems to care about anymore, and because the rural population of China can't seem to do this they are cast aside at the expense of urban growth. Painful truths are rarely revealed in a government media full of smoke and mirrors.

To continue on, the article mentions a random note that farmers earn nearly 40% o their incomes from jobs in the city. But if you live and work in the city aren't you considered an urban migrant, or "someone who lives in the city"; not "farmer who works in the city"? China loves labeling people and for the unlucky, once you are a farmer you are always a farmer; even if you live in the city and work in a factory, or as a scooter delivery man for a pizza restaurant. This stigma and labeling severely crushes social mobility in China and contributes to a lot of discrimination and misunderstanding between the rural and urban residents.

I think it's safe to say that by definition you can't be a farmer and work in the city, yet the article makes no distinction in trying to explain the issue. This kind of thinking furthermore contributes to the social safety net crisis in China where by rural migrants in the city are treated as second class citizens not only by locals who look down on them, but by government institutions; meaning they aren't available for healthcare subsides, education for their children or old age pension. In order to receive such benefits rural migrants would have to return back to their rural homeland, at their own costs, where there are no jobs and little opportunity. To their credit the Chinese government is moving towards abolishing this distinction between rural and urban identity cards, but the process is too slow for too many.

One hilarious example is a fixer and assistant that I frequently work with in Shanghai. She is from northeastern China and moved to Shanghai because she wanted to work in the media industry. Her ID card indicates she is from a small town in Northeastern China so if she wants to open a bank account, an online investment trading account, or claim hospital insurance she needs to do all of his in her home "county" or "district", even though she's lived in Shanghai for almost 8 years. While she is far from being a farmer, hopefully this example gives you a glimpse at how even well educated, English speaking, media professionals have difficulties; imagine life for a relatively uneducated farmer looking for a manual labor job or low income earning office work. Mission impossible.

If you think I'm just a bitter foreigner living in China, then far enough. But my hope is that this example just sheds light on what the government distinguishes as journalism; being the non-threatening version. Are there great journalists in China? Absolutely. But their hands are tied. One told me recently that he had prepared a legal document indicating that his family had officially "disowned him", so that if there were government repercussions for stories he worked on only he himself could be reprimanded, saving his family from any further vindication. Imagine living and working under those conditions.

I wish I had more time to comment on news stories like this, I read them every day and think about working up a quick blog note, but then it becomes a long blog note and my "to do list" just gets longer and longer.

Ryan Pyle

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This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle