August 21, 2020, by Ingenuity Lab

Rural Revitalisation in China – Dr Bin Wu

Note: this blog is based upon an edition and reshaping of an interview from the YouChange China Social Entrepreneur Foundation, one of most influential NGOs in China specialised in social innovation and entrepreneurship for poverty alleviation, female empowerment and community development in rural China.  

Rural revitalisation has been increasingly popular among policy makers and scholars of urbanisation in the past decade. This is particularly true in China where it  has become a national strategy, and we have witnessed increasing participation and contribution from multiple stakeholders, including governmental agencies, enterprises and social organizations. From the perspective of community engagement, HGI’s Dr Bin Wu investigates the role a global university, like University of Nottingham (UoN), can play in promoting rural revitalisation and harmonious society in China.

Rural revitalisation is a newly emerging phenomenon in China, and as such there may be different interpretations of its implementation by the government. With large scale migration from rural to urban areas, brain drains, and depopulation in the countryside, China is eager to combat decline in rural areas. One such interpretation, for instance, is  ‘rural gentrification’, or urban rich moving to the countryside, which happens in many Western societies.

To simplify, the future of rural China could go one of two ways. One is a glut of luxury residential complexes for rich people in rural areas, like Shanghai’s “foreign concession” 100 years ago, which is segregated from local rural people, another is that many artists or urban people with empowering vulnerable people in their mind, go to the countryside and integrate into the local society as a “new villagers” to help locals design and build new countryside for common future.

So, how can we judge the success of China’s rural revitalisation? In this regard, perhaps the current situation in rural areas of the UK or other Western countries can provide us with a frame of reference. In the UK, for instance, just 1.031% of its workforce work in the agricultural sector, but 16.35% of its population live in the countryside. An important conclusion is that the current countryside in the UK is not a farmer’s countryside, and this is very important for us to think about the future of rural China, including the pathways and dynamics of rural development.

When we consider the vision of rural China and its rural revitalisation, we may need to establish some basic principles. For example are there universal values which transcend Eastern and Western culture, such as protecting the environment, animal and ecological diversity?

Another example is how to treat history, cultural diversity, and the rights of indigenous peoples – after all, China has an extremely complex cultural system dating back 5,000 years. It may therefore be impractical or even misleading to use the British or Western model to guide the strategic design of the rural revitalisation in China.

A challenging issue for rural revitalisation is the upgrading of environmental standards. This is because without clean air, water and pollution-free land, human beings cannot survive, or their health cannot be guaranteed. So the environmental challenge should be a key priority for rural revitalisation studies. In addition, rural revitalisation does not mean that all villages should be retained and revitalised.

A question arises here: which villages should be retained and continue to develop while others allowed to decline or disappear in the future? In this sense, rural revitalisation and rural decline are two different sides of the same process. It asks us to take an objective and neutral standpoint to reduce prejudices and subjective arbitrariness.

In the economic sense, rural revitalisation is the process of the redistribution and reallocation of population and labour between rural and urban areas in China. Our long term aim is to find the most appropriate ways to protect and use rural land and ecological resources, including how to transfer farmland from current smallholder farmers to big private farmers or cooperatives, which is closely or interwoven with other dimensions or conditions about how to cultivate a “new generation of farmers”, increase investment or inflow of science and technology, and reverse  talent flow from urban to rural areas.

Despite so many uncertainties in this process, one thing is certain – that rural China needs to attract and retain such people who are able to protect the environment and make farmland more productive, and meanwhile help local people better to participate in and benefit from rural community development and sustainability.

What role does the University of Nottingham can play in the long discourse of China’s rural revitalisation? As outlined in my previous blog post, we are currently working with Sichuan Agricultural University on a GCRF (Global Challenge Research Fund) project focusing on empowering small farmers via cooperative development in China.

The University of Nottingham creates a rigorous academic atmosphere and talent development platform for young people to understand and make a contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through as activities such as academic papers, blogs, international conferences, joint funding applications and project management.

It would be a good opportunity for students and academics to talk about China’s experience and stories, and also create conditions for their own professional development. This is the role and value of the University of Nottingham in facilitating social innovation and rural revitalisation in China through a close collaboration with the YouChange Foundation.

The ultimate goal is that we can work together to promote the development of social sciences in general, and social innovation and rural development in China and other developing countries in particular.

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