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Community building in rural China integrates econonomic, cultural factors

FU CAIWU | 2017-12-14
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Six villagers,with an average age of over 70, team up to become clean volunteers for 10 years in Xujiayao Village of Zhangjiakou City in north China’s Hebei Province, attracting more young peoples’participation and reinventing the collective indentity of the village.


The report of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China mentions the implementation of the rural revitalization strategy to accelerate the modernization of agricultural and rural areas. Agriculture, rural areas and farmers are fundamental issues concerning the people’s livelihood. Furthermore, rural areas have served as a stabilizing force for maintaining and developing Chinese culture. So these problems must be solved if the rural China is to retain its cultural characteristics and to beautify the countryside while integrating into the process of industrialization and urbanization.

Since 2012, a research group from Wuhan University has conducted surveys of the development of Chinese rural culture, concluding that the rural areas must think strategically to simultaneously build the economic community and the cultural community, and the latter acts as the internal impetus for rural reconstruction.


Cultural effects of migration
As a structural transformation that is part of China’s modernization, the massive and sustained population flow from rural to urban areas is irreversible. The amount of migration from rural to urban areas is growing rapidly, according to a survey conducted by the research team from Wuhan University in winter 2016 covering 33 administrative villages in 19 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, between 2011 and 2015, the average number of outbound migrant households in China has increased from 19 to 36. The figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics also show the rate at which the rural population has moved. For example, the rural population in China dropped from 731.60 million, nearly 56 percent, in 2006 to 603.46 million, around 44 percent, in 2015, and the trend is accelerating.

The massive flow of population from rural areas to cities and between regions, to a certain extent, has affected the economic structure of traditional rural society and cultural community based on blood relations and geographic distance, because the rural elites, including skilled laborers and cultural talent, are the first to move to cities. Their migration removes the foundation of rural culture while altering the traditional structure of social relations in rural China, according to the aforementioned survey.

Rural cultural community
After consistently observing a variety of rural villages spanning Hubei Province and Henan Province, the research team from Wuhan University discovered that the rejuvenation of the contemporary Chinese countryside should integrate economy and culture, building economic and cultural community in rural China through the following ways.

The first way is to reinvent the cultural identity of villages, which will provide a driving force to rebuild villages. In the village acquaintance society, common goals of villages could be set and strived for, and voluntary projects also could be designed to inspire their sense of responsibility and sense of ownership, guiding villagers to restore the concept of cooperation and cultural identity. Research institutions, folk arts organizations and volunteer groups—these NGOs with advantages in professional knowledge and development concepts—might be introduced into the villages to aid with planning and cultural reconstruction.

The local government of Xiangfan, a city in the northwestern part of Hubei Province, invited an environmental NGO to carry out pilot projects on ecological culture in its suburb Yanhe Village, Gucheng County, in September 2003. The organization designed a blueprint for fostering ecological culture and began training villagers at the end of the year. In March 2003, waste classification in Yanhe Village was implemented and the village was designated the First Environmental Protection Village in Xiangfan. This process gradually strengthened the cultural identity of villagers, boosting economic development and cultural prosperity.

The survey also found that village reconstruction as well as a sense of cultural identity was achieved through cleanup and rural environment remediation. For instance, Xuzhiwan in Wuhan was a destroyed and dilapidated traditional village with toilets surrounding the village and piles of garbage everywhere. In 2013, young people were encouraged to return to their home village to voluntarily conduct a cleanup campaign on the weekends, and the number of volunteers increased from five to 30 in one month. The collective identification of villagers gradually returned and their sense of shared identity was further strengthened through the establishment of the love fund and dining hall for seniors.

The second way to build communities is to scientifically design the rural industrial chain and establish economic cooperatives among the villagers to foster a sustainable development mechanism that recognizes the mutual dependency and complementarity of economic and cultural development.

The survey showed that rural tourism, characteristic agriculture and agritainment have become new trends in rural industry while selling online and offline operates as a new channel for rural commerce. Farmers’ professional cooperatives and crowdfunding these innovative models have been widely implemented in village construction and achieved remarkable results. The effective operation of the village economic community also supports village autonomy to some degree.

The agricultural industrial chain is the economic pillar of the village. Tea cooperatives were set up in Yanhe village to build industry chains for tea and characteristic planting industry chain, which aims to build a circular economy model that combines farming with animal husbandry. By integrating village with industry, the program provides villagers with work and families with income.

Also, the rural self-governing organizations that take the new generation of country squires—country gentlemen who have contributed to the social development of the countryside—as the core should be improved to rebuild the management order of the village.

County squires can form a unique body of governance in rural China because of their familiarity with the countryside as well as their close ties to the interests of the village. As local elites of rural society, therefore, they can play the roles of leader and designer in rural development. For example, the country squires of Xuzhiwan who led the village to the gradual rejuvenation envisioned in the village’s development plan and projects by convening meetings that overcame villagers’ suspicion and doubt, building trust that ultimately led to action. Relying on their extensive network of contacts, the country squires also invited designers to conduct planning for their village. In addition, volunteers from Wuhan University and other colleges were brought in to train the villagers and assist in the implementation of plans.

Ongoing surveys show that the pursuit of a collective cultural identity of villages is the prerequisite of village reconstruction, rural self-governing organizations and a characteristic industrial chain supported by country squires form the basis of village rejuvenation, and the expectation of market returns and the overall capital investment planning of local governments act as external incentives while building integrated cultural community and economic community as well as the innovation of incentive mechanisms constitute the endogenous driving force for village development.


Cultural strategic management
Implementing China’s guidelines on preserving and developing excellent traditional culture, the profound impact of social transformation on rural areas should be clearly recognized, and construction mode of rural culture should be innovated, setting strategic direction of promoting villages’ cultural community building in concert with the economic counterpart, as well as pursuing the alliance between culture and economy.

In light of diversified rural cultural circumstances, classification management tactics should be employed by government from the macro level. The survey noted that only some villages with good locations and rich cultural heritage have the reverse complementarity of values with the urban lifestyles, therefore, which are likely to make into the modern villages characterized by primitive landscapes, modern functions, unique industries and return of culture. In villages lacking unique resources and country squires, the massive outflow of population amid rapid urbanization leads to an increasing tendency toward “hollowing-out” and they may ultimately disappear completely. And this process will not stop until, hopefully, China could basically achieve an integrated urban-rural structure by 2030.

Therefore, caution must be used and particular attention must be paid to the policies and measures that allocate public cultural facilities standardly based on administrative villages and formatting management.

We should comprehensively assess the village’s environment, cultural resources, economic base and location to predict the development trend of the villages at this stage. And then benchmarking of public policy will be set up and classification management will be carried out, meaning different policies for multiple village types: villages with modern function, traditional villages with resources and endangered villages.

In addition, as supportive measures and policies, government should step up efforts to purchase public services from non-profit cultural organizations and open public resources including public funds, professional data and special programs to the abovementioned cultural organizations.
In short, the efficient methods of modernizing rural China include: conforming to rural development trends; establishing a rural governance system that combines self-government, rule of law and rule of virtue in line with the guidance of the 19th National Congress of the CPC, and innovating the model of village governance.

Fu Caiwu is a professor from National Institute of Cultural Development at Wuhan University.