Village in the City – the effects of urbanisation on farmers and their land in Guangzhou, China.
China has long had a complex relationship with agriculture. Maoist saw the farmer as a pillar of the socialist work ethic. Food production was once a cornerstone of the early five-year plans established under the Maoist regime, which had a famously disastrous effect.
Yet China’s relationship is now undergoing a dramatic change. One that is creating an ongoing shift towards a more service based economy and is resulting in the steady rise of the Chinese middle class.
In 2008, China set out to merge Guangzhou and its eight neighbouring cities, into one megalopolis.
This is a move that has seen the most rapid urbanisation in human history. In doing so, the city has moved away from its agricultural roots to become a contemporary tech hub. It is now one of the largest exporters of electronics and auto-parts in the world.
So what happens to those farmers who have been left behind?
Whilst in Guangzhou, we set out to meet some of the few farmers who have stayed. We wanted to learn what they had to say; and in effect, what that said about Chinese culture and the opportunity for brands.
Amongst the sky-high concrete jungle and below the intertwining lanes of tarmac rests acres of farmland. The horizon, a sea of approaching cranes and skyscrapers casts a long shadow over the fertile land.
The land is divided into micro farms the size of two adjacent 5-aside football pitches. A manageable scale for farmers without the access to industrial machinery. They make enough food to live off; what’s left they sell.
For many of the farmers, it’s a matter of when they’ll have to move rather than if.
Though perhaps there is some hope for those who remain. Towards the end of 2014, the government passed a law prohibiting cities from encroaching any further onto existing farmland; the law has slowed down the process – however cities continue to build outwards, consuming arable land in the process.
Many of the villagers will be saddened to lose their land, however Cheng, a farmer we spoke to, has a more optimistic dream:
“Farming is hard work, at least my children can have better jobs.”
In the last 20 years the proportion of China’s population living in urban areas has jumped from 26% to almost 60%. This growth has meant that in just the last 10 years 160 million farmers have lost their land due to rapid urbanisation.
“You won’t find a farm in Guangzhou, Guangzhou is a city”
When asking where we could find the farmland one local laughed us off: “You won’t find a farm in Guangzhou, Guangzhou is a city”, even our local translator was perplexed. With the city having grown so quickly, many of the residents have only lived there a handful of years and are disconnected from the pockets of society that live on the outskirts.
What does this say about China and what does this mean for brands?
As the farmers are forced to move into urbanised areas to pursue alternative lines of work; people from different cultural backgrounds are mixing and having to live side by side.
This is where brands have a real opportunity in China. Brands can help citizens find the common ground between one and other; they can be the soil moulding everyone together, creating one united culture.