Michael Webber is a Professorial Fellow in the Department of Resource Management and Geography at the University of Melbourne, and a member of the Association of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. His book, Making Capitalism in Rural China, published by Edward Elgar (2012), is based on fifteen years of fieldwork in multiple regions of China. Carolyn Cartier, Professor of Geography in the China Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, was a discussant in the ‘author-meets-critics’ session devoted to the book at the 2013 Association of American Geographers meeting, in Los Angeles. Here she reflects on the significance of Webber’s book as a rare contribution to the literature on environment and development in China.—The Editors
Rapid local change in China makes geographical research seem like the art of the snapshot: scholarship on places in contemporary China often results in accounts of what is already part of the past. Indeed, so much of what constitutes ‘China geography’ in and about China is about planning. Departments of geography in Chinese universities have turned into urban and regional planning institutes that regularly undertake development plans for local governments. In China today, the fields of urban and economic geography are increasingly understood in terms of planning for the future and transforming places in step with the state’s modernisation goals.
These changes mean that geographical studies which analyse urban and economic transformations in historical perspective, using standard historico-geographical method, are disappearing off the scholarly map in China. This is what makes the appearance of any historically informed geography of China a welcome arrival and subject of particular interest. Michael Webber’s new book, Making Capitalism in Rural China, ostensibly concerns the formation of capitalist relations of production in rural areas, and certainly the title captures this era’s valuing of the economic. Yet the book refreshingly leads to a broader set of comparative questions about environment and development in rural and former rural areas, in several different regions and across different types of local industry.
In the first chapter of the book, ‘Development is not a dinner party’, Webber observes ‘There is no one story of development in rural China. Rather there is a set of stories about specific, concrete changes in particular places and stories about new ways of organizing production which are also different in their particular places.’ (p.13) This commitment to the local risks inviting the complaint of economic geographers about problems of the idiographic, i.e. giving attention to local conditions at the expense of general understanding and theoretical abstraction. Webber also restricts his definition of capitalism to ‘production’ and specific ways of producing goods – which is likely to raise questions among both Marxian and neo/liberal theorists. However, the narrative style soon demonstrates its analytical and historical value. Rather than attempting to reproduce some kind of new economic model of rural development in China, Webber assesses the changing organisation of rural production in relation to existing analytical literature on capitalist formation. Using a conversational style, he guides the reader through his field sites – in Shandong, Jiangsu, Hubei, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan and Xinjiang – describing their present conditions in the context of China’s longer twentieth century transformation. The combination of deep and broad coverage yields a book that addresses the interests of both specialists and general readers.
The case studies cover milk production in Inner Mongolia; township and village enterprises (TVEs) in Jiangsu; households evicted for the construction of the Three Gorges Dam; households impacted by grazing bans in Inner Mongolia; impacts of water pricing on farmers in Shandong; sustainable tourism in Yunnan; and economic outcomes for rural migrants in urban Xinjiang. Webber’s accounts are stories that link complex rural transformations with global economic influences – demonstrating how capitalism acquires different characteristics or forms within the same country. He treats economic and environmental developments through complex spatial transformations, whether though movement of people or resources, and impacts on multiple interrelated places.
Everywhere in Asia the state’s renewal of land for industrialisation has forced reorganisation of rural production. The process often compels small holders to move or sell their property. Still, the production of perishables such as dairy products requires geographical diversity, especially in the absence of efficient transportation. Webber shows that milk production in China also remains characterised by different modes of organisation. Considerable dairy farming takes place in Heilongjiang and Hubei, while agriculture in these provinces is relatively diversified compared to Inner Mongolia where natural grasslands of the steppe environment support grazing. How is milk production organised in Inner Mongolia? By all possible modes: ‘State-dominated and petty capitalist milk processors hang on, but processing is dominated by corporatised SOEs and private companies, both of which presuppose capitalist models of internal organisation and behavior.’ (p.40) Moreover, increased monitoring spurred by China’s melamine scandal (of 2008) is favoring large enterprises at the expense of independent producers.
On reflection, since China’s urban populations increasingly demand information about product quality and origins, will independent dairy and milk producers be able to maintain market share? China’s industrialisation in the era of globalisation has resulted in the co-existence of what were once sequential economic relations – pre-industrial dairy farming and production now encounter post-industrial urban consumer demand for specialty and organic products. One supposes that it won’t be long before some entrepreneur comes up with plans for gourmet tourism to Mongolian dairy farms for artisanal cheese.
For China scholars who followed the rise of TVEs in the Su’nan or southern region of Jiangsu in the 1980s and 1990s, chapter three brings up-to-date the story of proletarianisation. From TVE success, political-economic elites widely engineered enterprise privatisation, making former collective workers wage laborers. In the 1990s, the state praised TVEs for their role in industrialisation without urbanisation – the slogan of the era was ‘leave the fields without leaving the countryside’ or li tu bu li xiang 离土不离乡. By 2009, Webber found that in his research sites, former villages and towns of Suzhou, no one was farming. Widespread loss of land together with rural-to-urban land use conversions accompanied and propelled proletarianisation. Webber notes simultaneous mergers of villages and incorporation of towns into urban districts, yet we should consider how such changes are not simply jurisdictional transfers. Rather, territorial changes usually mark significant shifts in the state governing apparatus giving the state greater power to manage both land and local industry. Of course such relations are difficult to research, and as Webber observes, he could not find ‘anyone’ in his field sites ‘willing to explain how enterprises … were sold or at what price’. (p.52)
The tourism industry in China occupies a particularly interesting position in state-society relations for it has produced patterns of development around the state’s perception of what constitutes distinctive places or monuments in China’s civilisational history. Chapter Seven features Webber’s research on tourism in Dali Bai, an autonomous prefecture in northwestern Yunnan, and provides an account of increasingly uneven development in tourism-dependent regions. Webber evaluates how state planning for tourism contributes to uneven development by selection of particular tourism sites at the expense of general economic development. Government representations of tourist sites guide visitors to select places, which then become ‘surrounded by dependent and insignificant hinterlands’. (p.187) Enforcement of environmental protection measures around Erhai, a picturesque lake, prevents the local population from raising fish in ponds or quarrying local rock deposits, which has produced negative impacts on household income. New conservation measures in the tourism-led development strategy also limit diversification in the local economy.
Webber’s work, with its concerns for people, places and natural resources, is emblematic of the tradition of human-environment relations in geography, and its contemporary fields of nature-society relations and political ecology. Unlike rural studies or agricultural economics, research in human-environment relations is focused on place transformation and human activity. It seeks to discover how multiple factors of qualitative change are involved in defining the relationship of humans to their natural environment. As a general field of research – and one that sits at the core of geography – research in human-environment relations spans the divide between human and physical geography.
It became established in the early twentieth century, in association with the decline of environmental determinism, but it is not a common approach in China geography. Its critical dimensions, including concern for sustainable rural livelihoods, challenge state modernisation directives. Yet its inclusion of concern for livelihoods is one that state modernisation shares insofar as this concern mirrors the quanmian xiaokang 全面小康 or ‘all-around moderate prosperity’ approach in contemporary Chinese governance for developing areas.