The term “common prosperity” has once again emerged at the forefront of Chinese economics as it cements its place in President Xi Jiping’s rhetoric. At its core, China’s goal of common prosperity focuses on combating economic inequality in a country torn by wealth disparity, specifically between its urban-rural sectors. As an all-encompassing term, China’s attempts to achieve this elusive goal of common prosperity have long varied in their strategies. Historically, China’s policies have targeted the rich, trying to bring them down to meet the lower and middle classes, but rural land consolidation provides a new perspective in which the Chinese government seeks to push the lower classes up the economic ladder.
Internal migration often goes hand in hand with the desire to economically mobilize, but China’s rural-to-urban migration is occurring on a massive scale. On paper, this movement significantly improves China’s productivity. China’s per capita GDP has increased by over 24 times what it was in 1978, paralleling the 17.9% urbanization rate. However, research from Chen (2020) and others proves that increased urbanization fuels the rural-urban income gap. In other words, the 82 million urban migrant workers that have contributed to China’s huge economic growth have, at the same time, put President Xi Jiping’s goal of “common prosperity” further out of reach.
Chinese scholars have long pushed for accelerated urbanization to close the gap while simultaneously sustaining upward economic growth. They argue that increased urbanization, in turn, increases the need for rural services and fuels new public services in rural areas. However, this ignores many factors. For one, the Chinese government has recognized the need to stabilize their agricultural supply despite the depleting availability of rural farmers. Furthermore, China must ensure that the basic infrastructure and services in their cities are able to keep up with this huge influx of people. A city passport, or hukou system continues to prevail to manage this balance. And because certain benefits are only available for passport holders of that city, disparities between migrant workers and urban citizens in large cities range vastly. This includes large differences in pensions, medical insurance, maternity leave, and health insurance, which in turn exacerbates wealth inequality and challenges the purported message of “common prosperity”. Turning their attention to the rural provinces, China’s efforts to induce rural revitalization may help to kill two birds with one stone by increasing equality and lessening the burden on urban infrastructure.
Rural land consolidation has existed since 1990. It is the process of combining small farms into larger ones, solving problems of land fragmentation. By reordering these plots of land, it opens up others that may otherwise have been occupied or unusable due to spacing issues, thereby maximizing efficiency. The multiple goals of comprehensive land consolidation can be found below, including steps such as land arrangement and land development in order to create industrial revitalization and ecological livability.
On an economic level, past studies from provinces such as Jiangsu indicate the process of rural consolidation in China has been effective, raising the amount of agriculture produced and increasing employment opportunities in targeted areas. Further evidence suggests that through land restoration and reclamation, comprehensive land reconsolidation has improved overall ecological health. With this restructuring and economic growth, China has increased its infrastructural efforts in rural communities to tackle structural issues, in part to entice otherwise migrating workers to stay in this growing agricultural market; “the Chinese government has supported the construction of rural primary, secondary schools and higher vocational schools for the poor areas to improve the education of the poor and block the intergenerational transmission of poverty.”
While statistics bureaus have seen a sharp drop in migrant workers, is difficult to measure whether the influx of workers returning home is due to COVID-19 precautions or the industrial boom created by rural revitalization. Only time will tell how many migrant workers stay in the rural provinces following the pandemic and how many return to the factories. However, so long as there is a sizable rural-urban income gap, rural citizens will be incentivized to leave for better pay, and attaining common prosperity may be a more slow and arduous process than the data shows.