China has traditionally been a big agriculture power. Although its rural population has been reduced by one third in the last 30 years, it still accounts for 56 percent of the country's total population. Agriculture, the countryside and farmers are still strategically significant to the country's overall reform and opening up as well as its economic and social development. But they also have posed longstanding problems during the course of China's modernization.
During the winter of 1978, farmers in Xiaogang Village in east China's Anhui Province were the first to contract farmland to each household, starting China's rural reform. Over the past three decades, great changes have taken place in agriculture and the countryside. The rural economy has been transformed to a market-oriented one from a planned one. Agriculture has embarked on new paths toward modernization. And farmers' living standards have improved significantly.
The rural reform has become a historic turning point in China's history of agricultural development by greatly increasing farmers' income. Between 1978 and 2007, the annual per-capita net income of Chinese farmers grew from 134 yuan ($20) to 4,140 yuan (about $600). As of January 1, 2006, China scrapped the agricultural tax, which had been levied in the country for 2,600 years. This policy not only has alleviated the economic burden on farmers to the tune of 50 billion yuan ($7.35 billion) annually, but also has demonstrated social equity and fairness.
The government has always attached great importance to issues in relation to agriculture, the countryside and farmers. During the past 30 years, the Central Government issued various policy documents on rural development. These documents confirmed the achievements of rural reform and clarified the goals of the rural economy's development, promoting agricultural modernization and a thriving countryside with a focus on securing material benefits and respecting the democratic rights of farmers. A document published at the beginning of 2008 in particular emphasizes improving farmers' livelihoods. Under the guidance of these documents, great changes have taken place in China's countryside.
China's process of rural development will not be entirely smooth sailing in the years ahead, and there continue to be many aspects of it that have failed to live up to people's expectations. Compared with urban development, the country's rural development is unbalanced. Farmers in some areas have not shaken off poverty. It is difficult for farmers to receive medical services. Education in some rural areas has fallen behind other parts of the country. Social security for migrant workers in cities is not sound. Under the current global economic crisis, many of these workers face unemployment and have no land to farm after they return home. Hence China still has a long way to go to ensure that farmers throughout the country can lead comfortable and prosperous lives.