China in Transition

Solving Agricultural Problems in China and Japan
- More democracy needed in both countries

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

Although China has gained attention as the "world's factory," we should not forget that it is still an agricultural country with some 360 million farmers making up half of its labor force. Like Japan, China has little land in proportion to its population, and its agricultural sector is not internationally competitive. Yet, reflecting the difference in the degree to which they have a say in politics, the farmers of the two countries receive totally different treatment.

Due to the excess of labor relative to the supply of land and antiquated farming technology, the productivity and per capita income of Chinese farmers are extremely low. Furthermore, since taking power in 1949, the Communist Party has enforced a strict dual structure that relegates farmers to sub-class citizens relative to the urban population. Even to this day farmers have a low social status and their freedom of mobility is greatly restricted because they are bound to their family registers. They must also shoulder heavy fiscal burdens. Even if farmers migrate to the cities to find work, they face discrimination in such areas as taxation and the education of their children. Their income has stagnated because the good harvests of recent years, together with the increase in imports stemming from China's entry into the World Trade Organization, have pushed down the prices of agricultural products. Indeed, the widening of the income gap between farmers and urban dwellers is becoming a cause of social instability.

In contrast, farmers in Japan receive generous support that may even be considered super-national treatment in the form of preferential tax breaks and import restrictions. But with the farming population aging and shrinking as more and more young people move to the cities, agriculture in Japan is steadily declining despite the government's protectionist measures, as can be seen by the fall in Japan's ability to feed its own population.

The contrasting treatments received by the farmers in China and Japan illustrate the difference in the extent to which their opinions are reflected in their respective political systems. Under Japan's election system introduced after World War II, representatives of farming areas took the majority of the seats in the Diet, reflecting the distribution of population at the time. Despite subsequent industrialization and urbanization, this situation has remained unchanged, leading to the problem of vote disparity, in which the number of votes needed for a candidate to win a Diet seat is different depending on electoral constituency. At present, although the disparity has been reduced somewhat, in the most extreme case one rural vote carries the weight of roughly two urban votes in the House of Representatives, while in the House of Councilors it is the equivalent of about five urban votes. Under this framework, the opinions of farmers carry more weight in shaping government policies than other interest groups. Meanwhile, in China, it is a rule that agricultural areas need four times as many votes as urban zones do to get a representative on the National People's Congress, the country's parliament. In other words, the vote of a farmer is worth only one-fourth that of a city-dweller.

In order to correct such agricultural problems in China, the country must further develop such nonagricultural industries as manufacturing and services so that excessive farm labor can be absorbed. At the same time, it must do away with policies that discriminate against farmers and treat them as citizens in the true sense of the word. In the end, to fulfill these aims, the farmers' say in politics must be increased through democratization. In contrast, when Japan tries to proceed with domestic structural reforms and free trade agreements with neighboring countries, the government always comes to face strong opposition from the farmers. In order to break out of the stifling situation in which its economy currently stands, Japan must strive to create a real democracy based on the principle of "one-man, one-vote."

December 27, 2002

December 27, 2002