December 1 , 2006
By Si Cook
Organization Programs Director
Mention China these days and visions associated with this vast nation vary greatly depending on your age, profession and knowledge of international issues. What the current AgLead VII Class found during their recent trip there was a land of contrast.
On Oct. 21-30, members of the current TFB AgLead VII visited this controversial land to get their own perspective of just what China is all about. What they found were night and day differences most Americans are not aware of.
One of the first impressions of China is the sheer number of people. The current population is between 1.3 and 1.4 billion inhabitants, making China the most populous country in the worldahead of India at 1 billion plus, and way ahead of number three, the USA, at a mere 300 million. The dynamics of living in a country with that many people are, to coin a phrase, foreign to us. We began our whirlwind tour of China in Beijing, the country's political center, and ended it in Shanghai, the country's financial center. What we saw in between was astonishing.
One of the first things that was impressed upon us was the infancy of our own country, compared to written history of more than 3,500 years in China. We were able to see part of the Great Wall, which once stretched more than 1,500 miles across China. We also were able to visit Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the site of the first Emperor's tombprotected by his "Terra Cotta" army. These sites all drove home the fact that we were visiting an ancient society that was indeed half a world away from what we were used to.
Agriculture, which was the main focus of our trip, is still of major importance to this still-developing behemoth. A full 70 percent of the population is still involved in production agriculture. The agriculture that we witnessed was still done largely by hand. Chinese farmers are allowed the use of one "Mu" of land per family member. A Mu is the equivalent of about .16 acres of land. Keep in mind that the Chinese government has instituted a one-child-per-family policy, and you see many farmers trying to make their living from less than one acre of land. The farms and villages that we were able to visit in Shandong Province were fairly primitive by our standards, but we were told that things are now much better than they had been in the recent past. The Chinese government has made an effort to make the rural agricultural life more pleasant and profitable so that vast numbers of the rural population do not quit farming and move to the citiesa trend that had already begun.
As we drove through the countryside, we saw farmers transporting everything from crops to livestock to building materials on everything from bicycles to tiny tractors with makeshift trailers. Farm trucks and larger modes of transportation being used for agriculture were few and far between. We witnessed grain being dried by spreading it out on the shoulders of brand-new paved highways, side streets and even on the roofs and courtyards of the farmers' houses. The only similarities to modern agriculture here in the states were the crops themselves.
In contrast to the turn-of-the-century methods we found in the country was the manufacturing capacity that we saw on the outskirts of the urban areas. We toured some of the largest textile mills in the world. More than 80,000 workers were employed in one facility. The showrooms of these giant corporations contain items with many of the brand names we recognize here. With an endless supply of eager labor, China is continuing to position itself as the world's factory. While we were allowed scant access to the workers, we were eagerly shown the very best that China has to offer in the way of manufacturing facilities. We viewed miles and miles of four-lane, curbed, lighted complexes that were awaiting the construction of new facilities. In spite of China's current reputation for manufacturing, our hosts tried to convey the idea that perhaps, "you ain't seen nothing yet!" After determining on our own that the national bird of China is the construction crane, we were inclined to agree!
China is indeed a land of contrast. At times, we felt as if we were in a third-world country. In rural areas, the limited means of transportation, the prevalence of hand labor instead of machinery and the small scale of individual agriculture all were indicative of a still-developing nation. In direct contrast to the primitive conditions in the rural areas was the technology and progress that we viewed in the cities of Beijing, Jinan, Xian and Shanghai. Beijing, which won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic games, is preparing to use that event as a sort of "coming out" party for this emerging world power. In this capital city, you will find indications of intense national pride that will match or exceed those of most other countries.
Shanghai represents perhaps the most remarkable contrast to the still-improving rural areas. Shanghai's population of 20 million-plus makes it one of the largest cities in the world. Within its borders you will find the largest seaport in the world, some of the tallest buildings in the world, as well as the fastest train in the world. The city itself is dazzling at night with a display of lights and sound that rivals New York City. We were told that China now has 20 billionaires and that, if current trends hold, it will overtake the U.S. as the world's largest economy within the next 20 years. This would have been hard for us to believe had we not been aware of facts such as the current $250 billion dollar trade deficit that China has with the U.S.
Opinions about China, and how best to deal with this emerging power, vary greatly here in the U.S. After visiting this countrya half a world away in geography, culture and ideologyour group came away with an invaluable education. We now understand a great deal more about this country, its people and its policies. The trip made us all realize even more how lucky we are to live and work here in America. The freedoms and opportunities that we take so much for granted here are still not enjoyed all over the globe. It is in our best interest, however, to continue to study and engage these different cultures. Our abundant production capacity here in the U.S., especially in agriculture, has made it necessary for us to seek international markets.
No matter what you think about China, its people or its politics, one fact is beyond reproachthey have 1.3 billion people, and those people have to eat. Can you think of a better potential market for our agricultural products?
Members of the AgLead Class visit with a Chinese farmer.
A worker hauls silage to cattle in this modern feedyard. Each day employees feed, water and clean the pens, by hand, at this 2,000 head facility.