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Who manages China’s ‘rural management’?

opinionWho manages China’s ‘rural management’?

Netizens have reported ‘rural management’ personnel have not only confiscated the chickens, ducks and geese raised by the villagers, but also intervened in how to farm the land, requiring the villagers to take an agricultural certificate, evoking public criticism and despise.

Recently, the word “rural management” or the so called “nongguan” (农管) has set the Chinese social media ablaze. Slogans such as “growing melons and vegetables in front and back of houses are prohibited”, “fine of over 100 million yuan for burning straw”, “certificate required for farming”, “farmers are not allowed to dry their quilts in their courtyards”, etc., are appearing across China’s countryside once again, thus bringing back focus on the “Three Rurals” (三农), i.e., agriculture, countryside and peasantry.
The so called “rural management” is an acronym for “Agricultural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Personnel” belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. It has been reported by netizens that “rural management” has not only confiscated the chickens, ducks and geese raised by the villagers, but also intervened in how to farm the land, requiring the villagers to take an agricultural certificate, evoking public criticism and despise. Netizens have argued that the personnel will end up making money, but this time they have targeted the poor. By the end of 2022, the agricultural comprehensive administrative law enforcement agencies at the city and county levels were established. According to the Chinese government, there are already 2,564 Rural Management organs spread across the country, with over 82,000 agricultural law enforcement officers on duty.
The establishment of the Agricultural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Personnel finds it origin in the “Deepening Party and State Institutional Reform Plan” issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in 2018. On 28 May 2020, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs issued a notice on the “Guiding Catalogue of Agricultural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Measures (2020 Edition)” listing 251 administrative penalties running into 99 pages imposed by the “agricultural management” personnel. Some of these require approval for sales and promotion of livestock and poultry including silkworms. The “Agricultural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Management Measures” were reviewed and approved by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in November in 2022, and came into effect on 1 January this year. The “rural management” is not a newly established institution, but integrates the administrative law enforcement functions of the internal institutions and subordinate units scattered in the local agricultural and rural departments. However, the question that has been asked is, if the original intention of the establishment of the “rural management” is to protect the rights and interests of farmers, then why is there opposition?
The “nongguan” has been compared to the notorious “chengguan” (城管) or the Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, which has been established in every city in China. Since the “urban management” officials are known for unleashing terror on the illegal urban vendors, the establishment of the “rural management” has also aroused similar anxieties. Some of the videos of the “rural management” have invited the fury of the netizens. In one video that is still available on Weibo, a rural management officer is heard saying: “Who do you think we the rural management officials are? What the traffic police cannot handle, we can handle. Empowered by special powers, we take action first and report the matter later.” Bad days ahead for farmers, comments a netizen on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. Certainly, since everything under heaven falls under the jurisdiction of the “rural management” there are apprehensions that farmers’ rights and freedom would be compromised and their choice to grow agricultural products would be scuttled.
The “rural management” have been provided with new uniforms and professional equipment, including walkie-talkies, cameras, recorders protective gears such as first aid kits, signal jammers, stab-resistant vests etc., from which it could be gleaned that the authorities are aware of the intensity of conflict between the “rural management” and farmers on the one hand and instil fear in the minds of farmers about rural law enforcement agencies. Going by the development history of their counterpart, the “urban management” in urban areas of China, the confrontation, especially during the initial stages of its establishment was the norm. There have been cases of “urban management” personnel being stabbed to death by the “illegal vendors” and vice-versa. On 21 April, a video circulated on the Internet showed a farm supervisor pushing down a tall tree planted in the courtyard of a villager’s house. While pushing the second tree, the farmer rushed out with a long stick and knocked down the supervisor.
In its defence, the Department of Laws and Regulations of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, on 18 April, stated that the law enforcement boundary of “agricultural management” is limited to “seeds, pesticides, veterinary drugs, feed, agricultural machinery, animal and plant quarantine and epidemic prevention, quality and safety of agricultural products, fishery administration and other fields.” This is to enforce the rule of law and to improve the level of professionalization and standardization of law enforcement in the countryside. According to statistics, from 2020 to 2022, comprehensive agricultural law enforcement agencies at all levels across the country have investigated and dealt with a total of 304,700 illegal cases of various types, mediated in 18,900 disputes, and recovered economic losses of 1.496 billion yuan. There is concern that each of the above administrative penalties could be a stepping stone for power expansion of the “rural management” personnel, therefore, “it is necessary to organize special training sessions so that law enforcement officers must thoroughly understand the spirit of the document, so that they do not exceed or abuse their powers during the law enforcement process,” argues Xu Daofa in Dongchu net.
Zhihu or the Chinese Quora has argued that growth in the cities has saturated, people’s wallets are empty and they are struggling with unpaid mortgages. But farmers do not have any problems with food and clothing, and they also don’t have much debt; no matter how poor they are, they still have a pumpkin field in their backyard, therefore, the countryside is a blue ocean that everyone envies. The key is to collect money, which has far-reaching consequences. For example, the “agricultural management” has discovered a new economic growth point called rural property tax, which at 18 yuan per year is not at all unreasonable. The 800 million farmers generate an income of 1.815 billion yuan. This is precisely why they want to take over the “Three Rurals” space.
Though the government has stated that comprehensive administrative law enforcement in agriculture will not interfere with normal production and the lives of farmers, and that the “agriculture management” personnel are not in charge of everything, its responsibilities are stipulated by law, and the specific scope is in the law enforcement “guidance catalogue” published by the agricultural and rural departments. However, their comparison with the “urban management” personnel as revealed by the videos on social media, does ring alarm bells in the countryside. The above guidelines and measures do give an impression that China may be gradually slipping back to the days of greater state intervention and toeing the “grain as the guiding line” and the “war is imminent” theory of the Mao era. Nonetheless, the violent enforcement may intensify the latent contradictions and give birth to the likes of Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, who revolted against the Qin dynasty following the death of Qin Shihuang.

* B.R. Deepak is Professor and Chair, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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