Linking China’s degraded lands, its stimulus package and unemployed college graduates

Linking China’s degraded lands, its stimulus package and unemployed college graduates

Walter Parham, Ph.D.

May 2009

China’s population now is about 1.33 billion and increasing 8 million each year ( At the same time the amount of China’s arable agricultural land continually decreases from uncontrolled development, and land degradation. Land degradation has reached 78 percent for croplands, 72 percent for forest land, and 90 percent for grasslands (Ren, 2007).  A joint report by China’s Ministry of Water Resources, the Academy of Sciences, and the Academy of Engineering states that “China has lost more than 33,000 sq km of arable land in the past half century due to soil erosion” (SCMP, 11,26,2008). In addition, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) reports that China’s polluted land accounts for one-tenth of the country’s arable land (China Daily, 11/11/06).

The amount of arable land in China was 132 million hectares in 1995 (IIASA, 1999) and 121 million hectares in 2007 (SCMP, 11/14/08). China’s food imports recently have surged (SCMP, 12/4/2008). A study conducted by 10 ministries and departments projects that China’s will need to maintain at least a 120 million hectare minimum for grain production  to supply a bare minimum to feed its population over the next twelve years (SCMP, 11/14/2008). The plan, drafted during China’s 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) (SCMP, 11/14/2008) established a level of arable land to be set aside as untouchable to assure a 95% self-sufficiency in grain production until 2020. China’s Minister of Land and Resources stated that “The (120 million hectares) of arable land is the high-voltage red line which nobody can touch. Anyone who approaches that red line will not get off lightly” (SCMP, 7/13/2007).

The current global economic crisis caused a major decline in Chinese exports. Like the United States and other world governments, China has implemented its own stimulus plan which is intended to boost China’s flagging economy. China plans to spend about US$59 billion (4 trillion yuan) on infrastructure projects over two years (, 11/10/08). The severity of China’s economic situation is made clear particularly by its decision  to push infrastructure projects at the expense of maintaining its “red-line”, 120 million ha of arable land (SCMP, 12/4/2008).

China’s Ministry of Land and Resources, nevertheless, vows to retain the arable land as it expands infrastructure construction. Such construction is likely to bring about a surge in demand for the use of agricultural land for development projects. In the face of this situation China says that it will: implement a responsibility system to protect and preserve arable land; assure that “every inch of arable land consumed by construction will be set aside somewhere else”; and try to increase arable land by reclamation, arrangement, and exploitation. And to assure success, they will: watch changes in land use from satellites, ground inspection, and by monitoring the internet; stop any illegal land use and punish exploiters harshly; and put in place an accountability system (, 12,4,2008).

Finding additional arable land to replace “every inch” of arable land consumed by construction poses a significant problem in light of the study by the ten ministries and departments noted above. Some evidence exists that the arable land will come from China’s promotion of farming activities in other countries. Over the last few years, China has encouraged Chinese companies to lease or buy land in other countries to raise food and biomass crops for likely export to China (, 2008). Such countries include Australia, Kazakhstan, Mozambique and the Philippines (, 2008), Zambia, Brazil, and Laos (Marks, 2008), Myanmar, Cameroon, and Uganda (Now Public, 2008), Venezuela and Tanzania (African Agriculture, 2008), and Cuba (, 4/30/2008).

Unemployment in China, now as high as 30 million, has resulted largely from factory closings (SCMP, 12/17/2008; 12/19/2008). As many as 30 million people have returned to the countryside (SCMP, 4/23/2009) where employment opportunities on farms and in small towns also are poor. Additional factory closings are expected and are causing increased concern up to the presidential level.  In December 2008, the People’s Daily reported that concern exists that possible civil unrest from factory closures could threaten the Communist Party rule (SCMP, 12/18/2008).  Such concern has been expressed again recently by President Hu Jiantao, and Vice-President Xi Jinping (SCMP, 2/2/2009).  Xinhua, China’s state-run publication, stated that 2009 is a critical time for China’s stability because of likely protests and riots by unemployed migrant workers and jobless recent university graduates, serious concern of society for the growing rich-poor gap, farmland disputes, and continued government corruption (SCMP, 1/7/2009).  Some 3000 police chiefs and 2000 county Party leaders have been summoned to Beijing by the Party’s Central Committee to participate in 20-day training courses on how to quell riots and maintain security (SCMP, 4/29/2009).

Alexandra Harney’s assessment (Harney, 2008) of China’s workers who manufacture the multitude of today’s low-cost, labor-intensive products sold worldwide provides some insight into urban-to-rural migration.  The first generation of rural migrants who moved to factories in China’s coastal provinces was primarily farmers.  Many of the second generation of rural migrants, children of China’s one-child policy, moved directly from high school to the factory cities for employment.  They do not consider themselves for the most part to be farmers and do not want to take up the hard that life farmers face.  Even if they return home to practice farming the supply of available farm land has diminished considerably largely precluding this choice.

Other young people left the countryside to attend college.  Current estimates are that job opportunities for this year’s six million college graduates will be forty percent lower than that of last year.  The President of Nankai University, one of China’s best schools, said that the graduates of top universities will suffer the least but the opportunities for employment of graduates of lesser colleges and universities will be a problem (SCMP, 3/8/2009).  In addition, another three million graduates from recent years are still unemployed (SCMP, 3/11/2009).

China’s central government is concerned about the small number of employment opportunities for this year’s college graduates.  The State Council will assist those graduates with subsidies and social security if the graduates find employment in rural areas or with small firms.  In addition they will offer financial support to graduates who start their own businesses.  The government may also give those graduates who gain employment as rural village officers, teachers, and doctors, priority later if they attend graduate school or apply for civil-service jobs.  Competition for civil-service jobs is keen.  This year alone there were 800,000 applicants for just 13,500 civil-service positions (DZWWW.COM).

The government has provided a small number of rural teaching positions to attract college graduates back to the countryside and some of these include temporary positions in remote schools and villages (SCMP, 3/20/2009).  The government has also encouraged students nearing graduation to postpone graduation and to continue their studies and research (SCMP, 4/17/2009).  President Hu Jintao even wants graduates to look for grass-roots jobs in the devastated Sichuan earthquake area or perhaps even teach there (SCMP, 4/5/2009).  Today, only six percent of China’s people hold college degrees (Huang, 2009).

With the current scarcity of employment opportunities in cities and rural areas, and with the large size of China’s stimulus plan, how might recent graduates contribute to solutions to the variety of environmental damages the rural areas have undergone or may undergo?  The head of the NGO Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs warned the government not to use the old model of “develop first and clean up later” as stimulus activities go forward.  He expressed concern that infrastructure projects will require cement, steel, coal, and power, all sources that will likely expand major pollution problems (SCMP, 1/2/2009).

A study by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF, 2009) reported that 49 percent of China’s college graduates in 2005 received degrees in natural sciences and engineering.  These degrees include: agricultural sciences, biological sciences, earth sciences, atmospheric and ocean sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, and computer sciences.  It seems likely, therefore, that perhaps one-half of college graduates who choose rural employment or are likely to choose rural employment, would have appropriate training and interests to address rural environmental problems.

Some 8.8 percent of the stimulus funds, US$ 5 billion (about 35 billion yuan) is intended to be spent on “ecology and environment” (Perkowski, 2008).  The funds could be used to improve degraded lands and thus expand available agricultural land.  A blend of these “ecology and environment” funds with the available intellectual resource of two or three million, new, unemployed college graduates in natural sciences and engineering might play an important role to assure that infrastructure development affecting China’s farmland is carried out wisely.

My own experience in China has been in its tropical/subtropical parts related to the improvement of the damaged renewable-resource base (soils, water, vegetation, and wildlife).  I have met and worked cooperatively on renewable-resource issues periodically for forty years with many Chinese graduates from all of the degree categories listed above.  This seems like an appropriate time for the government to call on unemployed college graduates, their diverse faculties, national, regional and local government agricultural leaders, and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to prepare and implement a comprehensive action plan for using the stimulus “ecology and environment” funds in a productive way in rural China.  Local involvement would be essential to accommodate for ecological and cultural differences.

A brief illustration of what might be done in South China follows; other ideas and modifications to the overall concept above belong in the hands of of the Chinese groups already mentioned.  Many South China universities and colleges that deal with tropical/subtropical environmental issues and how to bring degraded lands back into productivity have existing programs in the combined teaching and research of agriculture and ecology, “agroecology”, and forestry and agriculture, “agroforestry”.  Such programs are a blend of many academic specialties and are designed for effectiveness even down to the level of the smallest farm.  The recent natural sciences and engineering graduates  could work cooperatively with such centers.  Faculties in these fields could determine geographically where basic data need to be collected by graduates related to important field problems.  Stimulus funds could be used to support recent graduates in the field while they collect needed data and identify problems needing attention.  University and college faculties could provide a backstop for the graduates by communicating with them and providing advice on rural problems.  Environmental NGOs could help provide local field contacts for the graduates and could assist the graduates with an explanation of local cultures and their agricultural techniques.

Perhaps China’s stimulus package holds employment opportunities for college graduates in the natural sciences and engineering to conduct needed environmental assessments and improvements of china’s degraded lands.  With the large amount of stimulus funds being made available at the same time that a major intellectual resources is standing ready, China could be in a position to address the pressing issue nationwide of extensive degraded lands.  Cooperation and innovative thinking among the suggested partners could reap important, long-term benefits for China.

References cited

African Agriculture, 5/11/08, Chinese debate pros and cons of overseas farming investments,, 2008, “Seized: the 2008 landgrab for food and financial security”,

China Daily, 11/11/2006, “Report: farmland is polluted”., 4/30/08, Outbound agri-investment lures China’s enterprises,, 12/4/2008, “China not to sacrifice arable land for infrastructure construction”,, 11/10/08, “China seeks stimulation”,, Chinese Government’s Official Web Portal, 7/18/06, “China faces “serious” soil pollution: SEPA”,

Harney, A., 2008, The China Price, Penguin Press, New York, 336 p., “China rolls out fresh policies to help college graduates find jobs.”

IIASA, 1999, Arguments-trends: arable land,, “Reasons for international changes in the ratio of natural sciences and engineering degrees to college-age population.

Huang, C., Feb. 4, 2009, “China’s surge of college graduates finds white-collar work elusive”, Christian Science Monitor.

Marks, Stephen, 12/11/08, China and the great global landgrab, Pambazuka News,

Perkowski, J., 2008, Managing the Dragon, Crown Business pub., 336 p.

Ren, H. et al., 2007, Degraded ecosystems in China: status, causes and restoration efforts, Landscape Ecol. Eng., v. 3, p. 1-13.

SCMP (www.South China Morning, 7/13/2007, “‘Red line’ in fight for farmland”.

SCMP, 12/26/2007, “Land loss threatens food safety”.

SCMP, 11/14/2008, “Beijing’s goal: 95pc self-reliant in grain to 2020”.

SCMP, 11/26/2008, “Alarming rate of soil erosion puts grain security, ecosystem at risk.”

SCMP, 12/4/2008, “Preservation of farmland put on back burner.”

SCMP, 12/17/2008, “Returning migrant workers put strain on home provinces.”

SCMP, 12/18/2008, “Beijing frets over threat of instability.”

SCMP, 12/19/2008, “Mass influx of migrants triggers job fears inland.”

SCMP, 1/2/2009, “Slowdown makes it more difficult to hit green targets.”

SCMP, 1/7/2009, “Stark warning from Xinhua on threat of mass social unrest.”

SCMP, 2.2/2009, “Hu calls for PLA loyalty as fear grows of trouble ahead.”

SCMP, 3/8/09, “Heads of five top universities tell of collapse in jobs for graduates.”

SCMP, 3/11/2009, “Minister says at least 20m jobs needed.”

SCMP, 3/20/2009, “50,000 jobs for teachers a boost for rural areas.”

SCMP, 4/17/2009, “Beijing tries semantics to paint better jobless picture.”

SCMP, 4/23/2009, “30 mil jobless migrants left cities, adviser says.”

SCMP, 4/29/2009, “Part officials, police chiefs called to Beijing to begin antiriot training.”

SCMP, 5/4/2009, “Leaders urge students to seek employment in countryside.”, Dec. 14, 2008, “The latest ‘must have’…foreign agricultural land”.

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