Any US investor putting money into Chinese shares or ETFs needs to know what's happening in China's vast peasant heartland. What happens there has, across China's 3,000 years of history, determined the overall health of the nation. The good news: something new and important is happening that is lifting incomes and lightening the risks of China's huge peasantry.
It's commonly held that the biggest threat to social stability, and therefore continued Chinese Communist Party rule, is a growing gap between rural and urban China. City folks grow prosperous while peasants struggle along in something akin to Neolithic poverty. It's a comfortable shorthand for understanding today's China. But, it's also increasingly far from the truth.
Rural China is undergoing a very powerful, if little noticed, transformation, as more agricultural production shifts to a system where peasants work for guaranteed cash wage to grow food. This is increasing incomes, as well as removing much of the risk from the traditional system where peasants would live off tilling their own small plot of land, and so be subject to all the hardships and vagaries that frequent unfavorable weather or adverse markets could deliver.
To be sure, there is still a large gap in cash earnings of city and rural Chinese. This will likely always be true in China, as it is in the US and Europe. But, the gap in living costs is similarly large. You need far less money to live acceptably well in China's countryside. The health care and education systems in rural China are also undergoing very powerful change, getting both better and cheaper for locals. While you can't measure it precisely, because of huge differences in relative prices and purchasing power, my view is that the quality-of-life differential between city and rural China is fast getting narrower, rather than wider.
One primary force behind this change is the shift of more agricultural production to a wage-based system where peasants work as hired labor for the food, landscaping, Chinese medicine industries among others. In most cases, peasants are paid a guaranteed wage and given training as well as free fertilizer and pesticides to grow crops on their own land or fields leased by large companies. Beyond the basic wage, most will also earn bonuses depending on output. The bonuses may either be in cash or in kind: the peasant gets to keep and sell output above a pre-agreed minimum.
In Chinese, this rapidly-spreading agricultural contract production system is called 订单农业，"dingdan nongye". It means farming done to fulfill fixed orders, at a fixed price, rather than growing things subject to the vagaries of nature and day-to-day market pricing. Deng Xiaoping gave peasants back their own land to farm. This new system is reducing much of the risk and struggle associated with peasant toil.
In Europe and the US, governments guarantee farmers a minimum income. But, their way of doing this is through market-distorting subsidies and protectionism that leads to higher food prices for consumers. The Chinese system is manifestly better.
In the last three years, I've visited quite a few companies and farming areas using this system as a key part of their business model. It is working well by all accounts, and spreading very quickly across rural China. From what I'm told, there is never a shortage of local peasants eager to participate in schemes like this. At a stroke, these peasants become fully part of the cash economy. Not only is the risk eliminated of suffering through a bad year, but it's often possible for these peasants to work on, and profit from, a larger piece of land than their own small family plot.
In effect, this agricultural "putting out" system mirrors the way a lot of the manufacturing industry is organized in China. Manufacturing workers are given a fixed amount of work to do each month in return for a basic salary, and the promise of being paid regular bonuses for all output above the minimum. A similar system, for example, is in place at Foxconn, to encourage and reward all those thousands of workers turning out Apple iPads and iPhones.
In agriculture, this system solves perennial problems both of Chinese farming and the Chinese food processing industry - small farm size, and so a lack of scale production. One example: I'm friendly with the boss of one of China's largest brand-name "cellophane noodles" companies. They make vermicelli from sweet potato flour, a popular product across a lot of China. They need each year to secure an ever larger quantity of high-quality sweet potatoes. They can't buy or rent an adequate amount of the land to farm themselves. So, they rely on a large number of Sichuan peasants to grow for them, based on annual contracts, with a fixed salary and bonus.
A similar system is used by China's largest producer of certain roots used commonly in Chinese medicine. The company now has about 35,000 acres under cultivation in an area of Northwestern China most suitable for producing these medicinal herbs. The local peasants have been growing these herbs for centuries, but with variable quality and unpredictable yields. The company has systematized the growing process. The impact on local peasant incomes has been profoundly positive. In addition, it now means there is a reliable supply of high-quality pharmacologically-active plants being grown every year. The company provides seeds, fertilizer, and what's known in America as "agricultural extension" - experts who work with local peasants to make sure everything is being grown efficiently, using the correct amount of fertilizer and irrigation.
The owner of this Chinese medicine herbs business also owns the largest beef processing company in this region of China. Here too, the basic production process is the same - peasants raise the cattle for the company, following strict standards, in return for salaries and bonuses.
The Chinese government, which is attentive to the need to improve rural living standards, is generally supportive of this agricultural contracting system. In some cases, they will also rent farm land to companies on condition that they use this wage-based system to employ local peasants. I have no first-hand knowledge of any skullduggery here, of peasants being turfed off their own land, so that they must take jobs working for some giant food company. Does it happen? Might it happen? China is a big country, with half a billion peasants. But, my sense is that overall, this new agricultural production system is an optimal way to increase incomes and decrease the toil and hardships of farming in China.
Along with helping peasants to live better, and drawing more peasants back home from factory jobs in urban areas, it's also allowing agricultural processing companies to grow larger in scale, and increase the quality and distribution of their products. I have the opportunity to travel quite often in rural and semi-rural parts of China. I'm always struck, as an American, by the contrast between farmland in China and the US. America is blessed with so much fertile, flat and well-irrigated land.
In China, farmland discloses even to an untrained eye the fact it's been in continuous cultivation for longer than just about anywhere else on the planet. The land looks tapped out, and chopped into parcels too small for machinery or efficient growing. Nothing is going to change this. But, the new system of guaranteed wages, provided along with the necessary inputs or fertilizer and pesticide, is perhaps the most workable solution, as well as the one providing the most direct benefits to those who work the land.
Thirty-five years on, China's market economy remains the most successful engine ever for lifting masses of farming people out of poverty.