Traditionally the economic mainstay of China, agriculture remains the most important sector of the national economy, supporting the majority of the population, though its importance is decreasing. Only about 10 per cent of China’s total area is arable (mostly located in eastern China), and nearly all this land is under cultivation. Almost half the cultivated land is irrigated; indeed, China has more irrigated land than any other country. Despite great gains in annual output since 1949, rapid population increases have made per capita increases much less significant. For example, between 1952 and 1979, the annual grain output expanded by 103 per cent, but per capita grain production increased by only 20 per cent. By 1979, although new areas were brought under cultivation (especially in Dongbei and north-western China), the loss of cultivated land to non-agricultural uses was even more rapid, and with the great increase in population, the per capita average was reduced from 0.18 hectares (0.45 acres) in 1949 to only 0.11 hectares (0.26 acres).
The consistent rise in output and yield in China can be attributed in part to increased efficiency. By 1979 China’s rural population of approximately 838 million had been organized into about 52,000 people’s communes. As a socio-economic unit the commune received production targets from the state and ensured that these targets were met. The commune was divided into several production brigades, each of which was subdivided into production teams. Each of these levels could hold land, tools, and other production materials under communal ownership, and each carried out a range of activities. Some six million production teams represented the basic accounting units of the system.
Under the commune system it was possible to organize large-scale agricultural experimentation for scientific farming, to plant crops in areas where soil and other natural conditions are most favourable, and to develop irrigation and drainage on an efficient scale. Although land was collectively owned, each rural household usually had access to a small private plot, which it was free to use as it pleased. Autonomy was also granted to production teams and individual households to market products after official targets were met.
In the early 1980s, in an effort to erase China’s perennial food deficit while allowing an increase in average per capita food consumption, the Chinese government once again restructured the agricultural sector. The system of communes and production brigades was largely dismantled, and the household became the principal unit of agricultural production. Under this “responsibility system”, each household, after contracting with local authorities to produce its quota of specified crops, was free to sell any additional output on the free market. Such sales represented about 60 per cent of Chinese agricultural output in the late 1980s. "China" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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