Image of Photo of man in fields

The other half billion: rural development in China

The China Centre lecture on Thursday 3 June 2021 was given by Professor Robert Ash, Emeritus Professor at SOAS, University of London, and Founder and Professorial Research Associate of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS.

Agriculture is central to understanding China's history. Ensuring that one-fifth of the world's population has enough to eat has been the key preoccupation for China's rulers over the course of more than 2000 years. China has fed this huge population on only around 11% of the world's arable land with 6% of its water supply. The unique features of China's agriculture, with a central role for water supply, are key to understanding why China has been a united country for most of that time.

Professor Ash's lecture reminded the audience that agriculture remains centrally important for China's policy-makers even though around three-fifths of the population now lives in urban areas. Failure of agricultural policies were the principal cause of China's famine in 1959-61.

China's rural reforms between 1978 and 1983 made a major contribution to the huge reduction in poverty in China during the era of Reform and Opening-up. Despite the greatly increased diversification of Chinese people's diet over the past forty years, food grain supply remains the key issue in China's agricultural policy. Despite increased food imports in recent years, notably soya beans, imports supply less than 2% of China's grain consumption.

Professor Ash emphasised the huge differences between the nature and performance of agriculture between different regions of China.

Topics covered in the Q&A session included: food safety; environmental challenges in the Chinese countryside; the role of the USA in China's food imports; and the consequences of the changing age structure in China's rural areas.

Professor Robert Ash is an Emeritus Professor at SOAS, University of London, and Founder and Professorial Research Associate of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS. Before his retirement in 2020 he was a Professorial Fellow of the SOAS China Institute and Professor of Economics with reference to China and Taiwan. From 1986 to 1995 he was Head of the Contemporary China Institute at SOAS; during 1997-2001 he was Director of the EU-China Academic Network.

From 1999 to 2013 Professor Ash was Director of the SOAS Taiwan Studies Programme and its Centre of Taiwan Studies. In 2012 he received the Freedom Medal of Diplomacy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the ROC Government in recognition of his efforts on behalf of Taiwan Studies in the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

Professor Ash has held visiting research and teaching positions at universities in Australia, Hong Kong, France and Italy. He has been researching China for more than 40 years and has published widely on development issues relating to China, as well as on Taiwan and Hong Kong.