Reaching for the sky through rapid reform – not revolution

We drove back from visiting villages in the rural areas in the south of Hebei Province last night, passing through two police check-points on the way into the city – an indication of the level of excitement in Beijing at the moment as it gears up for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, due to start today (18th October).  The congress, only held every five years, is a significant event in the political system, laying out the policy direction for the future and appointing people to senior government positions.  This Congress is seen as particularly significant given the progress made over the last five years under Xi Jinping, China’s President.

Banner proclaiming 19th Congress of the CPC
Local paper in Heng Shui

According to the China Daily News (17th October 2017), President Xi (who is also General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee), has led reforms in six key areas (economy and ecology; democracy and the legal system; culture; social issues; building the party; discipline and inspection).  A key focus has been reducing corruption and ‘extravagance’, and reducing ‘luxurious lifestyles’ among officials in the Party itself.  On the front page of the same newspaper are two shorter articles, one noting the role played by a Chinese satellite in helping to measure the first gravitational waves ever detected, and above it a story about a family moving from a hut made of mud-bricks to a new apartment under a village re-settlement programme.  The implementation of social programmes to improve the lives of some of the poorest people, while reaching out into the furthest reaches of space is an illustration of the ambition and energy we are seeing in this country

Having been in China for a total for 5 days now it is clearly still too early to claim any great understanding of such a huge country and the transformation of the economy and society which is happening. But we have achieved a small insight into the level of activity in relation to agriculture and water.  Over the last couple of days we have travelled from the centre of Beijing with its skyscrapers, traffic jams and crowded streets to the rural villages around Heng Shui City, a four hour drive to the south.  At every stop our hosts have extended their hospitality, though it has been interesting to note that the new CPC rules on extravagance are often mentioned by local officials and carefully followed.  It gives some insight into the strong vertical linkages between administration at the most local level and the central government.  The talk at meal times always mentions the upcoming Congress as officials look forward to hearing what the future holds for them.

Discussing irrigation with officials from Jin Long Agricultural Park, Hebei Province, China


Our focus on water and agricultural production also reflect, on the ground, what China is trying to achieve more broadly.  The area of Hebei province we are visiting suffers from severe water shortages, partly due to upstream activities reducing river flows to the area, but also from excessive groundwater abstraction.  Two examples illustrate the different approaches being explored to find solutions to long-standing problems.  In the first instance a visit to one small village to talk to local officials and farmers illustrated the potential for a locally conceived programme that aimed to reduce agricultural water use.  Applying a relatively simple approach of estimating water use levels through electricity consumption, then requiring upfront payment followed by refunds for small-scale farmers that reduced water use, the programme has managed to reduce the overall quantity of water used by the village for irrigation.  The programme was a key factor in changing farmer behaviour in two main ways: through a reduction in the area planted to the most ‘water-hungry’ crop (wheat), and also by raising farmer awareness of the significance (and cost) of excessive groundwater pumping which resulted in changed behaviour in the way irrigation water is applied.


The second example is of a large, vertically-integrated agricultural company which has entered into agreements with farmers from seven villages to rent their land.  This has enable consolidation of land into one large block and investment in spray and sprinkler irrigation equipment.  The old wells used by farmers have been capped and irrigation water is now pumped through pipes from large holding ponds to where it is needed rather than through channels that fed flood irrigation systems.  The outcome has been a 20% reduction in water consumption.  The agricultural corporation has also invested heavily processing facilities and a nutrient cycling system, providing jobs for farmers who receiver income as well as rental income from leasing out the land which they have rights to farm.  The approach has doubled yields of crops in some cases, increased livestock production (lamb, beef, pigs, donkeys), enable methane generation from waste and production of fertiliser.  The agricultural corporation is illustrating the capacity of what might be achieved through farm modernisation.

The two examples illustrate, in a small way, some of the activity going on in China.  There is a desire for change, and a lot of energy here, not just in Beijing but also in the provinces.  The young people, in particular, are hungry for new ideas to deal with the range of environmental and economic problems facing the country.  But the scale of the country is enormous, and difficult to grasp on such a short visit, it will take significant investment of time and resources to achieve improvements across the whole nation.