Women, food sovereignty and 'green jobs' in China

Ariel Salleh

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/115

As social and ecological costs of global free trade add up, and domestic economies around the world fail to meet citizen's needs, alternative models of provisioning emerge from unexpected quarters. For example, in parts of China, women are showing how 'food sovereignty' might be realised together with environmental and cultural flourishing. These 'green jobs' already enact the rhetoric of Rio+20 − the call of business, governments, and UN agencies for a 'green economy'.

Maoist communalism in farming, heath, education, and welfare largely disappeared with the 1980s reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Chinese socialism now assimilated aspects of neoliberalism as its leaders sought to position the country among major international powers. This move to economic competitiveness lives on in popular motivational slogans like 'Democracy is a means of Entrepreneurship!' and 'Let's All Get Rich Together!'

The outcome has been that China's surplus in GDP terms is as phenomenal as the growth of elegant cities like Hangzhou and Chongqing. But the regional cities fund public housing and welfare through the so called 'rationalisation' of rural settlement and land speculation, while investment in urban high rise construction runs to excess.

Party officials and corporate partners have developed complex inducement schemes for peasants to give up small holdings. The process is a form of internal colonisation and primitive accumulation, emulating the historical rise of capitalism. But formation of a class structure that took hundreds of years to mature in Europe, is here compressed into a few decades. All levels of government design opportunities to foster a new middle class of entrepreneurs, while the displacement of landed peasants fosters an industrial working class dependent on consumerism for survival.

In the cities, these migrant factory workers encounter indifferent labour conditions and few citizenship rights. So too, families are often broken apart as children stay back in the village with grandparents. Central government subsidies to privately owned factories result in local air, water, and soil pollution. And as livelihood resources are turned over to industrial parks and export oriented monocultures, people face rising food prices.

It is said that China, a once self-sufficient agricultural nation, is heading for a future where only a quarter of its population will live in rural areas. The official solution is again neoliberal − with leases of overseas farmland to meet domestic needs already underway in Africa and Australia. As in the capitalist West, the global impact of carbon pollution from massive transcontinental food shipments is backgrounded.

The domestic costs of Chinese market socialism are also sidelined, yet these costs exacerbate social inequalities as they are transferred from the centre of institutional power to the periphery. The externalisation takes the form of an extraction of surpluses − economic and thermodynamic: a social debt to inadequately paid workers; an embodied debt to women family caregivers; and an ecological debt drawn on nature at large.

This uneven development is threatening to erupt in class conflict. The Western media increasingly reports uprisings of migrant workers, and peasants claiming to have been cheated in land deals. And indeed, as urban workers organise around industrial exploitation, a new interest in peasant livelihood arises among village cooperatives and credit unions, NGOs, and intellectuals. A movement for rural reconstruction, documented by economist Wen Tiejun and Peace Woman scholars Lau Kin Chi and Chan Shun Hing among others, looks to Kerala for socialist inspiration, and to the Andean peoples of South America who press constitutional rights for nature as the basis of living well (buen vivir).

The Maoist revolution introduced modernisation with the promise of high yields through hybrid seeds, artificial fertilisers and pesticides, animal anti-biotics, irrigation and electrification. Three decades later, Deng would encourage a return to family based production but continued the agro-industrial 'green revolution' approach guided by government technical advisors. Today, many Chinese women refuse the violence of chemical farming − both environmental and medical fallout. As they say, 'nurturing the land is like nurturing a child'.

Organic farming cooperatives

In mainland provinces like Yunnan, Sichuan, Shanxi, Hebei, and on the islands of Taiwan and Hong Kong, women are setting up organic farming cooperatives. They are re-examining traditional Chinese agricultural methods, using trial and error, observation and reflection, to regenerate their ecosystems with work that is really green. Their philosophy is at once ecological, feminist, and socialist, joining the logic of sustainability to the logic of community building, economic equity, and peace.

Bypassing the cynicism of government experts and often machine-minded farmer husbands too, these women seek the exhilaration and joy of embodied labour. They work in reciprocity with nature, developing their own animal based bio-liquid sprays for orchards and paddi fields; giving up weeding, leaving ground covers in place to encourage water retention, and composting green manure to re-energise soil organisms. They try to protect water catchments by opposing dam construction, and to preserve groundwater quality by converting waste oils into soaps.

Alongside subsistence produce of rice, oil, fish, chicken, pork, vegetables and fruit, plant medicines are promoted, as well as recyclable handicrafts like woven slippers, fishnets, or bamboo furniture. Some women manufacture and sell pure soy sauce and vinegar; others make weekly household produce deliveries to their communities by bicycle or van. As these pioneering Chinese women peasants, many of them city based, meet to compare crop yields and soil fertility, they also build up their own analytic skills and self-empowerment through cooperative learning networks.

Public outreach follows, with workshops and street stands to educate passers-by on the need to replace toxic industrial agriculture with clean local eco-sufficient provisioning. And there are cultural benefits to this place-based sustainability science: one group runs a 'happy kitchen' serving 'slow food' to students while honouring the names of peasant workers who grew it. The aim is to restore a sense of succession, celebrating the skills of earlier generations and passing these on.

Like ecological feminists on many continents, these women offer a grounded understanding of peace and security and an opportunity to heal socialism. Theirs is a politics that runs deeper than cultural differences, its first premise being that political wisdom and strength 'grow from everyday life' and from being part of 'the cycle that never stops'. The movement for rural reconstruction and food sovereignty in China dovetails with international alternatives to the failing global economy like commoning, solidarity economics, bioregionalism, permaculture, degrowth, urban community gardens, subsistence, and the principle of buen vivir. Here is a 'green economy' and 'green jobs' in the true sense of the word.

Ariel Salleh visited China in 2011. Her books include 'Eco-Sufficiency & Global Justice: Women write political ecology', London: Pluto Press, 2009: www.arielsalleh.info