How Village Co-ops Are Remapping China’s Rural Communities
One morning in June 2019, after offloading his cucumbers at the market, Xu Wenfeng turned his electric tricycle toward Xuhuanglu Village’s town square. The sun’s rays were already sharp enough to prick his skin, but he found the square crowded nonetheless. The people, just like Xu, were members of the village’s Baimeng Cooperative, which was holding its annual members’ meeting that day. The event began with village officials arranging members into two teams for a game of tug of war, after which they handed out fertilizer worth a total of 30,000 yuan ($4,300) — a gift from the local government, the cadres proclaimed.
Amid cheers and laughter, the meeting officially got underway. Xu Zhendong, a native son who found financial success in Shanghai before being recruited by local Communist Party officials to return home and become Xuhuanglu’s party secretary, broke down the year’s production figures and highlighted a number of success stories. On the list was Xu Wenfeng, who, like many locals, is a distant relation of Xu Zhendong’s, and who was one of the first villagers to join the co-op. Afterward, the village cadres invited those in attendance to a nearby restaurant, where everybody ate and drank together.
Over lunch, Xu Zhendong — who is also the co-op’s director — told me that these kinds of get-togethers used to be rare in Xuhuanglu. After China abandoned the socialist commune system in the 1980s, the villagers went back to working their own plots of land. During the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, the community generally only convened for weddings or funerals. According to Xu Zhendong and some of the other cadres I spoke with, cooperation between villagers only began to increase again after the co-op’s establishment in 2011, and the members’ meeting has since become an important community event.
Baimeng is the fruit of a 2007 law that provided state support for the development of so-called farmer’s specialized cooperatives (FSCs). By February 2018, the number of these organizations had exploded from 26,000 to over 2 million. That same month, FSCs counted over 117 million rural households as members, or roughly 48% of all rural families.
Underlying the rapid expansion of FSCs like Baimeng is the Chinese government’s desire to reform the small landholder system that has dominated life in the Chinese countryside for millennia. Although my research into the model suggests that challenges remain — including a lack of trust in co-op management, unrealized goals, and the historical scars of the collectivist period — it’s not all bleak. Baimeng is an example of how new co-ops are fostering intra-village cooperation and collaboration.
The state sees FSCs as a way to increase agricultural efficiency through integration both horizontal — by combining small farms into larger, more efficient entities — and vertical — by bringing together the production, processing, storage, transportation, and sales into one industrial chain. In the process, agricultural officials hope to transform the country’s scattered landholders into large-scale farms, realize economies of scale, and improve farmer bargaining power.
Village Party Secretary Xu Zhendong founded Baimeng in 2011 in an effort to turn the area’s economic fortunes around. Most of the co-op’s revenue comes from produce, and over the past eight years, the co-op has built 72 winter-proof greenhouses and an additional 164 steel-pipe greenhouses atop land voluntarily transferred from villagers. It then leases them back to residents to grow vegetables.
This has not fundamentally transformed the small landholder system. Prior to the establishment of the co-op, villagers generally controlled four plots of less than one mu (roughly 0.16 acres) each. Winter-proof greenhouses generally require at least 4.5 mu — too big for most farmers to build. Although the co-op has increased the average size of member farm holdings to between 4 and 5 mu, this is still far below the state-designated family farm threshold of 20 mu for greenhouse farming.
As for vertical integration, although co-op members agree that the joint purchase of fertilizer, pesticides, and other agricultural tools — as well as unified logistics and sales systems — would indeed enhance farmers’ bargaining power, so far, none of these goals have been realized. One key problem has been a lack of trust in local government and cadres.
When Xu Zhendong founded the co-op, he emphasized that it would be a nonprofit entity. However, many farmers remain skeptical of collective enterprise. Although he was one of the first to join and maintains a close relationship with Xu Zhendong, Xu Wenfeng told me he had no interest in sharing his profits with other residents or village institutions.
In addition, Xu Wenfeng said that farmers generally prefer to go it alone when it comes to farming and selling their produce. They value the ability to choose which pesticides and fertilizers to use, when to harvest, and how to transport and sell their produce, and they don’t want to cede these rights to the co-op.
The problem is partly historical. Although the co-op can help farmers by giving them greater bargaining power on the market, it also deprives them of the right to make their own decisions concerning agricultural production and operation. This is particularly unacceptable to those who experienced collectivized agriculture during the Maoist period. For that generation, the loss of decision-making power to the communes is associated with widespread poverty and hunger.
Yet, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the co-op has been a failure. The excitement on display at the members’ meeting was genuine, and one of the main reasons Baimeng has retained popular support is by being rooted in the community.
Most of Baimeng’s over 100 member households live in Xuhuanglu. I was told by both Xu Zhendong and a number of villagers that, prior to the co-op’s establishment, the village was in crisis. The lack of industry caused many younger residents to leave, and the village itself was heavily in debt. Public goods were scarce, there was little cultural life, and gambling was rampant. Relations between households were strained, while those between local cadres and residents were distant.
The co-op proved a turning point in solving these problems, many of my interview subjects told me. In addition to the creation of a high value-added greenhouse industry, the co-op has helped villagers who’ve left the village in search of work in the city, as well as those too old to farm to contract out their land use rights to those willing and able to farm it.
The co-op has also helped rebuild trust among the village community, and villagers have gradually begun to set aside their doubts about village leadership and buy into the notion of increased cooperation. In 2011, for example, a number of co-op members saw their fields flooded. The co-op leadership and early members banded together to stem the floodwaters and ensure the greenhouses would be finished on time. Shortly afterward, more villagers expressed an interest in joining.
The cooperative has also given villagers a platform where they can share knowledge, express their feelings, and collaborate with one another. For example, the annual members’ meeting has become a village mainstay, and it’s helped create and maintain a sense of collective identity. Among other side projects, Xu Wenfeng told me that some members have formed groups to breed their own seeds.
In short, the success of Xuhuanglu’s FSC is less a story of commercial or economic progress, and more about the ways in which it’s helping rebuild the village’s social capital while fostering social solidarity and community resilience. This may not have been what the government had in mind back in 2007, but when considered against the backdrop of an increasingly hollowed-out countryside, these and other, similar projects have not just practical significance, but real social value as well.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Houses and sheds belonging to Baimeng Cooperative, Shandong province, 2017. Courtesy of Liao Yue)