Following the central government's call last year to develop a new countryside, there has been no shortage of data and debate from scholars and officials. But strangely, farmers, the intended beneficiaries of the program, seemed unable to emit an opinion.
"I searched the Internet and databases for days and found tens of thousands of essays in the field, but none was devoted to farmers' opinions on the massive campaign," said Ye Jingzhong, professor at China Agricultural University's Humanities and Development School.
Ye added he was not surprised by the absence of the farmers' voices, as he had seen China's farmers taken for granted for decades.
He and his team conducted surveys in eight villages across four provinces in February and July, with their findings recently published by the Social Sciences Academy Press in a book entitled Construction of the New Countryside: Farmers' Perspective.
This has led to a strong media response with major news portals and newspapers reporting it.
"Ye's book is of great importance as it addresses the farmers' perspectives on countryside development for the first time. If government bureaus, especially the local leadership, can draw lessons from the book, progress will be greatly facilitated," Wen Tiejun, an expert in agriculture and rural study with Renmin University of China, told China Daily.
China began the campaign to build a harmonious socialist countryside in 2006, calling for increased productivity, relative affluence, a pleasant social environment and democratic administration.
However, in their research, Ye and his team found an astounding range of viewpoints as what constitutes a 'harmonious countryside' varies from province to province.
For example, in east China's Jiangsu Province, the cradle of the country's township enterprises, farmers said they consider local factories with all having stable jobs and comfortable two-storey homes as the symbol of a new, harmonious countryside.
But in Hunan, an agriculture-based province, the view differed greatly. "Advanced agricultural production and better irrigation systems are vital for building a new countryside," a farmer said.
Ye commented: "Opinions on the new socialist countryside are so diverse among people of different genders, ages, regions and levels of education. Therefore, authorities should avoid applying stereotypes to all villages and use the limited amount of money for the most urgent projects peculiar to each village."
To his dismay, Ye found some local officials had already made the mistake of blindly copying others' models.
For instance, a village in Fujian Province in east China borrowed about 1.6 million yuan (US$204,400) to construct 50 villas for its villagers as local officials saw this as the basic symbol for the new countryside.
Had they consulted the farmers, the money might have been used to purchase equipment and fertilizer, rather than beautiful houses. Furthermore, the farmers are now unable to afford the loan repayments for the villas.
According to Ye, the reason many village officials made beautiful houses their symbol for the new countryside was misinterpreting TV programs.
"TV is the only information carrier for most villagers," Ye said. "What they saw as model villages on TV were exceptionally lined-up houses, broad roads and green forestry. This misled them."
Besides building new houses, some villages have invested heavily to beautify their forests. But the survey found that the most urgent need was to build waste management facilities.
The survey also found that few villages incorporate cultural offerings as many village leaders saw investment in this area as wasted.
Because of a lack of entertainment options, for example, many villagers chose gambling as their only way of killing time, with often tragic consequences.
The system of model villages also seemed to be a problem in Ye's survey as the models are based on already affluent villages.
"Their development experience cannot be copied by other villages," the research group quoted surveyed farmers as saying. "Also, input focusing on model villages may lead to a further imbalance of resources."
The survey also found that although the central government is investing hugely in the new countryside program, governmental bureaus above those of village level are misusing these funds.
As such, farmers said they experienced trouble getting loans for their agricultural products and over two-thirds of farmers said they could not get sufficient investment in their land despite being willing to develop it.
According to Ye, the central government's guidelines for new countryside development might be well-intended, but lackluster enforcement by local governments is severely harming their implementation.
Ye's research goal
The biggest goal of Ye's survey is to raise awareness of social needs and to listen to farmers' opinions while constructing the new countryside. Ye said he feels sorry that farmers, after having been ignored by development for so long, now don't believe in government promises to improve their lives.
"If the campaign can't motivate farmers to participate, it won't succeed," he said. "As long as they are involved and treat the campaign as their own goats and wheat, they will put their heart and soul into the program."
When the book was finished, Ye invited the various participating groups such as migrant workers' children and the farmers in his pilot villages to his seminars to share the fruits of his work. The reason, he said, is simple: "Doing research is actually a responsibility you shoulder for the group you interview."
(China Daily December 6, 2006)