How is China ensuring food security for 1.4 billion people? | 24.11.2023

Dongsheng Explains No.6

How is China ensuring food security for 1.4 billion people?

Although pandemics, extreme weather events, and geopolitical conflicts have led to disruptions in food supply chains and rising international food prices, there is no shortage of food for the world’s population. However, hunger continues to affect millions of people. According to the latest State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World report, between 691 and 783 million people will go hungry in 2022. This is 9.2 per cent of the world’s population and 122 million more than in 2019.

The 1.4 billion people on the African continent, despite having 60% of the world’s arable land, face increasing food insecurity and severe famine. So how has China managed to produce approximately 25% of the world’s food, using less than 9% of arable land and 6% of fresh water to feed a population equivalent to that of Africa’s?

In this Dongsheng Explains, we explore some of the social, historical, and economic policies and realities that underpin China’s ability to feed its people, provide some stabilization of the global food market and continue to contribute to eradicating global food insecurity by feeding one-fifth of the world’s population.

How did the communist movement address the agrarian question?

China is a nation with millenia-old agricultural traditions, where the peasantry has always played a leading role. Because of its size, tensions in the land/population ratio determined the stability, the rise and fall of several dynasties; often was the case that the first national policy of a new dynasty focused on land redistribution and lowering taxes.

By the late 19th century, the Qing dynasty had been unable to stop abuses by foreign powers. Since 1840,  opium wars, Sino-Japanese wars and  unequal treaties raise the curtain of  “Century of Humiliation” and China’s territory was divided into military cliques controlled by Chinese warlords, which deepend the structural dependence of peasants on the landed gentry class. Compounded by natural disasters, this crisis led to a drastic decrease in resources, resulting in class polarization, famines, and peasant rebellions.

Mao Zedong, in his Analysis of Classes in Chinese Society (1926), described the vast majority of the Chinese population as the poor, semi-owner peasantry who compensated for the deficit by “renting land from others, selling part of their labour power, or engaging in petty trade”. The Communist Party of China (CPC) consolidated around these contradictions and began to organize the peasants, gaining enormous support in rural areas of the country. Addressing the agrarian question became one of the main goals of the Chinese Revolution, and even before coming to power, it began a process known as the Land Reform  (土地改革 pinyin: tǔdì gǎigé) to confiscate land from landlords and return it to the peasantry.

In 1949, finally in power, the CPC set among its main challenges to end hunger and increase the productive forces. To this end, in 1950 it promulgated the Land Reform Law (土地改革法 tǔdì gǎigéfǎ) to put an end to private land ownership, abolish the feudal production system, guarantee the right to peasant property, and unify the criteria for its distribution. From this, 47 million hectares of land was allocated to more than 300 million peasants throughout the country. With the available land per family being relatively small (approx. 0.5 hectares), the government promoted the Mutual Aid Groups and, later, the Agricultural Cooperatives, to encourage cultivation on a larger scale and to collectivize some of the tasks of production.

During the first nine years of the People’s Republic, agricultural production grew at an average annual rate of 7%, from 113.2 to 200 million tons, allowing for an increase in per capita grain consumption from 209 to 303 kgs. Even so, there were still problems of low productivity, lack of technology, and shortage of financing. The national industry had been devastated by decades of war and tool production capacity was reduced to small workshops producing sickles, hoes, and shovels. Practically all agricultural work was manual.

In the First Five-Year Plan (1953–1957), among the 156 major construction projects in the country was the construction of the first domestic tractor manufacturer. Its construction began in 1955 and was completed in 1959, and was based on Soviet technology. In the same period, the now renowned YTO group and the Chinese Academy for Agricultural Mechanization Sciences were founded.

China was still a poor and economically underdeveloped country, with huge regional imbalances, a huge and rapidly growing population, and an agricultural production that still did not meet the demands of the population and industry. In 1958, the government promoted the creation of the rural People’s Communes (人民公社 rénmín gōngshè), which completely collectivized agricultural production and replaced the agricultural cooperatives in the task of planning and maintaining the work unit.

Between 1959–1966, agricultural production fell sharply to 143 million tons in 1960, and it took six years to recover to the 1958 level. The government promoted technological development as the way to overcome the harsh situation. In 1963, at the Scientific and Technological Work Conference in Shanghai, Zhou Enlai set out the goals of the “Four Modernizations” (四个现代化, sì gè xiàndàihuà), which included the agricultural sector, and called on science professionals to contribute to its realization.

Heeding this call and sensitized by the unstable production of food in his country, the agronomist Yuan Longping had started working on improving rice productivity. In 1973, he succeeded in growing the world’s first hybrid rice, a variety that produced 20-30% more than conventional rice. By 1976, it was already massively cultivated. This was a momentous event for agriculture not only in China, but worldwide.

What was the basis for the recent modernisation of agriculture to achieve food security?

Until the end of the 1970s, policies affecting food security were limited to organizational changes, the relative price system, and partial liberalization of the commodity market.

After the beginning of the Reform and Opening-up period, more significant modernisation measures were adopted, and particularly in the agricultural sector, management through People’s Communes was replaced by the Household Responsibility System (家庭联产承包责任制 jiātíng liánchǎn chéngbāo zérènzhì). Collective land was reallocated to individual rural households and they were given relative autonomy over use decisions and crop selection. In the first period (1982–1984), families were allowed to own, use, benefit from, and dispose of (except for sale) the land for periods of up to 15 years, and then, from 1994 onwards, for up to 30 years. The aim was to give a guaranteed return on long-term investments made by the families to improve the land and production.

During this period, great efforts were made to attract technology and foreign investment, as well as create incentive programmes to increase agricultural production. Reforms in the countryside in the first half of the 1980s had positive effects on agricultural production, but soon problems of functionality arose, as the policy of high prices for agricultural products and consumption subsidies led to a deficit in the government budget.

During this period, China’s opening up and integration into world markets was seen as a necessary tactic, but it also brought with it numerous challenges and contradictions. Since its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, China has gradually opened up its agricultural sector, and the commercialization and internationalization of agriculture in China has increased dramatically. According to the WTO itself, in 2004, China became a net importer of agricultural products. This had serious consequences for domestic production (mainly of soybeans) and generated a very high dependence on very few countries.

Another challenge in this period had to do with land-use changes. The territory demanded for industrialisation and urbanisation of the countryside generated strong competition for arable land. From the 130 million hectares surveyed in the 1996 Agricultural Census, the figure fell to 121.6 million by the end of 2008.

What are the latest developments in Chinese agriculture?

China’s agricultural policies in recent decades have evolved to prioritise objectives beyond mere food production, such as increasing farmers’ income, ensuring food security, and improving environmental performance. Beginning with the 2018 adoption of the strategic plan called “Rural Revitalization” (乡村振兴 xiāngcūn zhènxīng), China has stepped up modernization of the agricultural sector and industrialization of rural areas to create economic opportunities that help narrow the gap between rural and urban dwellers.

On such efforts were the 2004 agricultural policies aimed at improving food security, which involved measures such as the elimination of taxes for more than 800 million rural farmers. In addition, the government increased direct subsidies by 10 per cent, totalling 11.6 billion yuan, to support the grain production of 600 million farmers in 29 provinces.

Another example of efforts to improve agricultural efficiency and food self-sufficiency as a national priority was the 2008 approval of measures to advance rural reform and development. The measures enabled 700 million peasants to sell, rent or mortgage their land, while property rights were not altered and the land remains collectively owned. This opened up the market for agricultural land-use rights transactions, which allowed peasants to earn an income to use for other activities, and buyers to increase the scale of production. To avoid the decrease of area devoted to production, the regulation also defined that land may never be used for non-agricultural purposes, which guaranteed at least 120 million hectares devoted to agriculture.

The protection and expansion of farmland is a central government priority for food security, so in addition to maintaining the “arable land red line” of 120 million hectares, the country invested in the construction of high-level irrigated farmland. In June this year, it issued 19 billion yuan in special financial bonds to support the construction of such land. Since 1949, China quadrupled the irrigated area, which by 2022 reached 68.6 million hectares (more than half of the agricultural area) and was responsible for producing three-quarters of its grain production and more than 90 per cent of cash crops.

Another of China’s central agricultural policies is its strategic plan for the revitalisation of the seed industry. China is virtually self-sufficient in wheat and rice seeds, but not in soybeans and maize, mainly because the average yield of China’s soybean and maize varieties is only 60-70% of the yield of fields in the United States. Experts indicate that the contribution of improved seeds to yield increases in China is only 45%, leaving much room for improvement from the level of more than 60% in developed countries in the West. Aiming to narrow these gaps, the government proposed a review of regulations governing genetically-modified crops last November.

Advances in agricultural mechanisation are also responsible for China’s increased self-sufficiency. The country went from building its first tractor in 1955 to having more than 8,000 companies producing agricultural machinery and equipment by 2022, 2,200 of which exceed 311.6 billion yuan in business revenue. Domestic manufacturing has basically covered all categories and can produce more than 4,000 kinds of agricultural machinery. Since the founding of the country, the mechanisation rate of agriculture has grown 70 times. In 2022, the subsidy policy for the purchase and application of agricultural machinery enabled farmers, agricultural production, and management organisations in purchasing more than 3.8 million sets of agricultural machinery from more than 4,000 domestic enterprises.

Scientific and technological developments have also played an important role in this regard. The information infrastructure in agriculture and rural areas has been modernised gradually but significantly. Modern information technologies, such as the Internet of Things, satellite remote sensing and big data, have been popularised and applied in the sowing and breeding industries, and significant results have been achieved in crop rotation and fallow monitoring, remote diagnosis of animal and plant diseases, precise operation of agricultural machinery, drone flight control and precise feeding, etc.

Finally, the war in Ukraine and the escalation of tensions with the United States significantly reinforced the government’s priority on grain self-sufficiency. Although it is completely self-sufficient in soybeans for human consumption, the country imports more than 80% of the soybeans it uses for animal feed and oil, with Brazil being the largest source of imports with almost 60% in 2022, while the US ranks second with 32.4%. As for maize, China imported 20.6 million tonnes last year, equivalent to 7.4% of domestic production, and according to customs data, 72% of supplies came from the US. In 2021, imports of this cereal reached a record 28.35 million tonnes, with 70% coming from the US and 29% from Ukraine.

Efforts to reverse this situation are numerous, such as the aim of increaseing the area under soybeans and oilseeds by 666,000 hectares this year; reducing the share of soybean meal in animal rations from 14.5% to 13% by 2025; providing subsidies for the production of these grains; and diversifying supplier countries, prioritising BRICS countries. In the medium term, according to a report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, the country plans for the self-sufficiency rate of maize to reach 96.6% by 2032, which would reduce annual imports to 6.85 million tonnes. In soybeans, according to April announcements, the country aims to increase domestic soybean production by 75 kg/ha this year and will use soybean productivity as a yardstick for judging officials’ performance.

How has China dealt with hunger and nutrition?

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, comprehensive food productivity has experienced a dramatic growth, making the historic leap from chronic shortages to a basic balance between supply and demand. Total national grain production increased six-fold from 113.2 million in 1949 to a record 686 million tonnes in 2022. Per capita food holdings are 483 kilograms, higher than the internationally recognised food security line of 400 kilograms.

Between 2000 and 2017, China significantly reduced undernourishment, with the affected population falling from 16.2 per cent to 8.6 per cent. This progress was facilitated by a substantial increase in annual per capita income from US$ 330 to US$ 9,460 in the same time period. In particular, China was responsible for two-thirds of the overall decline in undernourished people among Asian nations from 2010 to 2017.

This has been made possible in large part by China’s targeted poverty alleviation initiative, which succeeded in lifting nearly 100 million people out of extreme poverty by 2020 by adopting an integrated, multidimensional approach to food security. China’s current rural revitalization strategy is a continuation of efforts to improve rural areas and rural life, and to secure the supply of agricultural products, cereals in particular. 

The economic development that China has experienced in recent decades has, for better and for worse, brought about changes in people’s diets. In rural areas, studies show that children have experienced remarkable growth thanks to access to more nutritious and healthier food. In particular, 13-year-olds grew by an average of 7.5 cm and gained 6.6 kg from the average of a decade ago. Moreover, among the 200 countries and territories surveyed, China recorded the largest increase in male height globally between 1985 and 2019. Meanwhile, in more developed areas, the average diet underwent marked changes: fat intakes increased, meat intakes tripled between 1990 and 2021, and salt intake of 11 grams per day is among the highest in the world. As a consequence, between 1990 and 2015, heart disease almost doubled and childhood obesity reached 8.3%, one of the highest values in the world.


Having to feed one fifth of the world’s population gives China a very important position in the global food market. The immense changes that the country has undergone since its creation have had an impact on the way food is produced, distributed and accessed. While China is the world’s largest producer of almost all fresh food and staple grains, challenges remain around production and consumption.

On the production side, the country seeks to increase mainly self-sufficiency in soybeans and maize, feed grains that have suffered from a structural imbalance in domestic supply and demand due to the continued rapid increase in demand for protein-rich food. Due to the current geopolitical landscape, this is among the top national priorities, as mentioned by President Xi Jinping “The Chinese people must firmly hold the rice bowl in their own hands”.

In terms of consumption, China has focused on raising national awareness of conservation; advocating simple, moderate, green and low-carbon lifestyles; opposing extravagance, wastefulness and overconsumption; undertaking in-depth food-saving actions such as the “Clean Plates” campaign; and creating greener organizations, families and communities.

Another important contribution to the world’s population has been the definition of sharing its agricultural knowledge and technology with the world, especially among the countries of the Global South, from the sharing of heat-tolerant wheat varieties in Sudan and Yuan’s high-yielding hybrid rice in Madagascar and Liberia to the creation of key joint research institutions in Kenya and the recent commitments to cooperate on agricultural industrialization at the 15th BRICS Summit.

China’s political definition of self-sufficiency in food is a relief for the world’s population. If it were not to do so, the pressure it would put on international food prices could unbalance the market, leaving many lower-income countries in completely fragile food situations. The promotion of a modest civilization and the tradition of the majority of Chinese people to consume diets low in animal products also contributes to this.

China, with its millennia-old agricultural civilization, historical famines, management of scarce resources, elimination of extreme poverty and technical agricultural innovations, can contribute greatly to addressing the challenge of world hunger.

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The Belt and Road Initiative at 10: Debt Trap or Development? | 07.08.2023

Dongsheng Explains No.5

The Belt and Road Initiative at 10: Debt Trap or Development?

Ten years after its launch in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has emerged as “the largest infrastructure and development project in human history”. An extensive network of agreements demonstrates the global reach and acceptance of the initiative. By 2021, China had forged Memorandums-of-Understanding (MOUs) with 140 countries and 32 international organizations. Notably, 46 of these MOUs were with African nations, 37 in Asia, 27 in Europe, 11 in North America, 11 in the Pacific, and 8 in Latin America. Today, the 151 countries participating in the BRI collectively encompass around over 60% of the global population and their combined economies represent around half of the world’s GDP. 

Nevertheless, the mainstream Western media has promoted a narrative of the BRI as having a negative or insignificant impact on the Global South, as part of a scheme to debt-trap these nations. In response to Bolivia’s recent agreement with Russian state nuclear firm Rosatom and China’s Citic Guoan Group to develop its largely untapped resources of lithium – a resource of increasing importance due to its use in rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras, and electric vehicles – US Senator Marco Rubio tweeted: “Whether it’s through China’s BRI, debt-trap policy, or other false promises, nations in our region must remain vigilant of the threat of doing business with Beijing.”

Despite a range of policy makers and researchers debunking Belt and Road Initiative activities as “debt-trapping” – even by World Bank researchers who described the BRI as “largely beneficial” – Western and allied groups have continually stoked fears and misunderstandings of what the BRI is and the role it is playing in the world.

In this issue of Dongsheng Explains, we look at the BRI, its historical development, the implications for the countries involved, and the debt-trap narratives.

What is the BRI?

For over 2,000 years, Eurasia and parts of Africa connected with China through the ancient Silk Road (丝绸之路 sīchóu zhī lù), a network of trading routes that moved goods such as tea, silk, gunpowder, and paper across the regions.

In recent years, the peoples historical aspirations for the routes have been reanimated as the BRI, also known as the One Belt, One Road initiative, a vast infrastructure and economic development project proposed by the Chinese government. Prior to its official launch, two infrastructure-led-development and connectivity projects, launched in the early 2000s, formed the basis of the thinking around the BRI: the Western Development Program to promote economic growth and tackle inequality in western China and the “China Goes Global” policy where state-owned enterprises looked to engage foreign financing and expand their global trade and activities. After decades of industrial development and economic reform, China did not have a fixed roadmap for the next phase of development but rather took the approach of “crossing the river by feeling the stones”.

By 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping officially launched the BRI, which was described as aiming to enhance connectivity and promote economic cooperation between China and countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In 2017, after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which highlighted the importance of foreign investment, innovation, and cooperation, the BRI, as a flagship project, was elevated. In 2017, its importance was cemented with its inclusion into the Communist Party of China’s amended Constitution in the section covering its objectives around internationalism, described as aiming to build a community of “shared interest” and to achieve “shared growth” through “discussion and collaboration”.

The initiative is named after the “Belt,” which refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the “Road,” which refers to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, each pointing to its land-based and maritime components. With the aim of overcoming obstacles to development and raising the productivity of societies in many regions of the world, the BRI seeks to revitalize and expand on the concept of the Silk Road through the construction of infrastructure and industrial manufacturing capacities. In Africa alone, between 2000–2020, China built more than 100,000 kilometers of roads and railways, around 1,000 bridges, nearly 100 ports, and more than 80 large-scale power facilities, as well as 130 medical facilities, 45 sports venues, and more than 170 schools. 

It also includes the promotion of trade and investment among participating countries and the development of economic corridors in contrast to only building conventional economic unions and zones – such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (valued at US$62 billion), which connects Gwadar Port in Pakistan to China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. The significance of economic corridors lies in how they, as the Asian Development Bank puts it, “provide important connections between economic nodes or hubs that are usually centered in urban landscapes” and the “network effects they induce”. In principle, all of this strengthens regional connectivity and integration not only between urban and rural spaces, but between historically “central” and “peripheral” regions.

For the Global South who remain underdeveloped due to the colonial and neocolonial global financial systems, the BRI’s main goal of poverty alleviation – especially given China’s recent eradication of extreme poverty – confronts pressing needs. The BRI has proposed to accomplish this through the multiprongs of enhanced connectivity, trade and investment opportunities, regional economic integration, infrastructure development, technology transfer and knowledge sharing, cultural exchange, and people-to-people connectivity.

What does the BRI mean for China? 

The Belt and Road Initiative is a significant foreign policy project of China. It aligns with the principles of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics as demonstrated in four ways. 

Firstly, it is a manifestation of China’s long-term planning and strategic vision and the broader goal of promoting social stability, economic development, and cooperation with other countries. 

Secondly, the BRI is driven by the Chinese government, reflecting its active role in state-led development and its emphasis on strategic infrastructure investments. 

Thirdly, the BRI incorporates elements of both planned and market-driven economic approaches. While the Chinese government provides funding and support for many projects, private Chinese companies also participate in the BRI initiatives, contributing to the development of a global network of economic cooperation and trade. A driver behind this was that, after a decade in the World Trade Organization, China accumulated a huge trade surplus, and after the 2008 financial crisis (when China bought hundreds of billions of US bonds), Beijing had a massive amount of dollars that could be invested abroad. This provided Chinese companies – especially SOE’s, funded by China Development Bank, China Eximbank etc. – with an important source of foreign reserves for investment capital, enabling them to expand trade globally.

Lastly, the BRI reflects China’s emphasis on global cooperation and its aspiration to increase its contributions to international diplomacy, in line with the principles of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. This is evidenced by the investment in government administrative infrastructure – such as either building or refurbishing parliaments in at least 15 African countries, including the Republic of Congo, Liberia, Mozambique, the Seychelles, and Guinea Bissau. The diplomatic implications are also evidenced by some of China’s infrastructure-driven security approaches with the construction of public infrastructure in regions that suffer from internal instability and conflict – such as in the case of the China-funded, US$329 million Ethio–Djibouti Transboundary Water Project, designed to bring fresh water to over 700,000 people in Djibouti.

Is the BRI an effective strategy towards development?

The world lags behind the goal of achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, as few states have been able to meet their financial obligations and the so-called “Developed Nations” refuse to contribute anything substantive; the poorer countries would require at least an additional $4 trillion in investment per year to do so.

The options provided by the West through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been exhausted. New proposals – most of which seem to frame their projects in competition rather than collaboration with China – like the US’ Build Back Better World (recently repackaged as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment) and Europe’s Global Gateway have not shown substantive results – the later has even been described as a “failure” by Western foreign policy analysts.   

Though there is a view that assessing a project of this scale after a decade sets certain limitations on quantifying its impact qualitatively, the BRI has clearly impacted global development, both materially and conceptually. This is particularly important for the Global South, where centuries of colonial and neocolonial policies of underdevelopment have left countries with untarred hazardous roads, little-to-no public infrastructure, and few sources of energy supply and generation; what Guyanese political thinker Walter Rodney described as “a product of capitalist, imperialist, and colonialist exploitation” where countries of the Global South were taken over directly or indirectly by the Western capitalist powers. “When that happened,” he explained, “exploitation increased and the export of surplus ensued, depriving the societies of the benefit of their natural resources and labor.” 

The BRI strategy has shown significant success, supported by compelling data. Though investment dropped over the pandemic years, since it began in 2013, BRI projects have totaled US$962 billion, with more than half (US$573 billion) going to construction contracts, and the rest (US$389 billion) spent on non-financial investments. The impact of the BRI on China’s outbound foreign direct investment (FDI) has seen a dramatic increase where China’s outbound FDI has almost doubled between 2012 and 2020 to US$154 billion, securing China’s position as the world’s leading overseas investor. By September 2021, China’s total trade value with BRI partner countries increased to US$10.4 trillion. Today, it is estimated that there are more than 1,700 BRI projects completed or in development.

Much like global development trends, there are areas that can be improved. For example, though projects engaged in renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro) increased by 50% in 2022, fossil fuels constitute 63% of Chinese BRI energy engagement abroad.

Is BRI indebting the Global South?

Widely peddled by Western media and politicians as the main impact of the BRI in the world, the debt-trap narrative obscures certain facts, the first being that many participating countries in the BRI came to it locked in Western-issued debt incurred not only by decades of borrowing almost exclusively from Western lenders, but debt incurred from several mechanisms of colonial expropriation and extraction. The wealth of international financial institutions and Western countries comes from centuries spent economically exploiting the countries and people through colonialism and then through the set up of financial mechanisms (particularly during the 1980s Structural Adjustment Programs) that have maintained and deepened unequal economic relations rather than solve them. If we understand the concept of debt trap where a country accumulates unsustainable levels of debt, often due to borrowing large sums of money from another country or international financial institutions, then the accolade more accurately goes to the West. 

While China is the African continent’s biggest bilateral creditor, most of Africa’s total public debt is held by private Western creditors. Out of sub-Saharan Africa’s overall public debt, which stands at US$945 billion, Chinese entities hold only 8%, equivalent to US$78 billion. Half of Africa’s public debt is domestically issued, while the other half is owed to external actors, totaling US$427 billion. Among these external actors, China accounts for 18% of the debt. The remaining one-third of the debt is divided between bilateral official partners, international finance institutions, and Eurobonds, each contributing an equal share.

The approach and goals of Chinese funding has a different quality. Unlike IMF financial agreements, Western commercial investment, and overseas development assistance, Chinese funding does not come with constrictive conditionalities. Western lenders have and continue to propose rigid, austere conditions – such as privatization of the economy, commodification of public resources, and deregulation of economic activity of private international capital – that undermine the sovereign development of countries. 

Lastly, evidence of more favorable terms comes in the various agreements signed by China, but more than that, it comes from China’s theory of patient capital. Previously having been adopted within the boundaries of China, it has gradually emerged as a major investor outside its territory, with the China Export-Import Bank and China Development Bank being major participants. The loans that these state agencies provide are long-term investments and are not on short repayment schedules. These loans are given to release infrastructure bottlenecks and, in so doing, support social development. Borrower countries are given flexibility (from restructuring loans to writing-off interest free loans), as benefits are forecast to come in the long-term. For example, prior to investment, it was known that 30% of the investment in Central Asia and 80% of the investment in Pakistan would not be recovered. 

In 2021, China pledged to redistribute US$10 billion, or 23% of its IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDR) to African countries compared to US$100 billion or 20% of SDR redistribution to emerging markets committed by other G20 countries, such as France, Italy, the US and the UK. The difference in priorities is clear: China is only one country (US$ 33 trillion GDP PPP) while the G20 includes the 19 largest economies (combined GDP US$100 trillion GDP PPP) in the world.

What is next for the BRI?

The Third Belt and Road Forum in 2023 will reportedly be held in September this year. The previous forum held in 2019 had 200 countries participating and concluded with deals being signed worth more than US$64 billion. Though predictions of what will happen this year vary due to the stagnation of finance and investment seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, that went from US$68.7 billion in 2021 to US$67.8 billion in 2022, some policy researchers believe this might see the project rebound and revitalized, particularly due to a “strong Sino-Russian geostrategic partnership” that has arisen within recent shifts in the global geopolitical landscape. With nations queuing to join BRICS, new regional vehicles gaining traction, the proposal of complementary initiatives such as the Global Development Initiative (2021), and Global South nations having become significantly involved in Chinese diplomatic and economic relations, the BRI forms part of a different set of geopolitical and socio-political aspirations that are already altering the international order that favours a Global South-led world system. 

Ten years after its launch, the BRI represents an alternative platform (outside of the US-led West), that has not only assisted individual countries to develop but has catalyzed stronger regional and multilateral formations, more independent of lines drawn by colonialists or supervision by the West under ill suited models. Creating alternatives for much-needed finances, political leverage, and regional integration prospects, projects like the BRI serve to mitigate some of the ill effects of neoliberal economics – in so doing, “loosen the screws” of the global financial system in which the West trapped much of the world  – while opening up more room for the Global South to contemplate and build alternative paths to development.

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Why are there no slums in China? | 10.07.2023

Dongsheng Explains No.4

Why are there no slums in China?

With over 20 million inhabitants each, Shanghai and Beijing are among the “hypercities” of the Global South, including Delhi, São Paulo, Dhaka, Cairo, and Mexico City, far surpassing the “megacities” of the Global North like London, Paris, or New York1. Walking the streets in China’s cities, you will however, quickly notice one marked difference – the absence of large slums or pervasive homelessness that is so common to most of the rest of the world. 

Slums were not uncommon in Chinese cities a few decades ago, from the precarious working class districts of 1930s Shanghai to the shanty towns of British-occupied Hong Kong in the 1950s onwards. How did China manage to develop in a way that decreased mass housing precarity?  What are the structural reasons behind it?

This issue of Dongsheng Explains looks into how the Chinese government deals with homelessness, how this issue relates to socialist construction, and how China confronts the challenges posed by rapid economic development, urbanization, and the migration of recent decades.

Why did mass urbanization not create large slums in China?

When reform and opening up began in the late 1970s, 83 percent of China’s population lived in the countryside. By 2021, the proportion of the rural population had fallen to 36 percent. During this period of mass urbanization, over 600 million people migrated from rural areas to cities.

Today, there are 296 million internal “migrant workers” (农民工, nóngmín gōng), comprising over 70 percent of the country’s total workforce2. Migrant workers became the economic engine of China’s rapid growth, which created the world’s largest middle class of 400 million people. 

This historic migration came with many challenges, including the emergence of “urban villages” that had poor living conditions and inadequate infrastructure. Although basic amenities – such as running water, electricity, gas, and communications – were provided, sanitation, public services, fire safety, and other such amenities resembled that of rural villages. Due to lower rents and the lack of other affordable housing, urban villages are largely inhabited by migrant workers. 

With the acceleration of urbanization in the 2000s, the Chinese government began to promote large-scale transformation of the old areas of the cities, focusing on renovation of historically deteriorated neighborhoods and the removal of dangerous housing. Between 2008 and 2012, 12.6 million households in urban villages were rebuilt nationwide3. At the same time, efforts were made to construct public rental or low-rent housing. For instance, in Shanghai today, families of three or more people with a monthly income of less than 4,200 yuan per person can apply for low-rent housing, with the monthly rent being just a few hundred yuan (or five percent of monthly household income). In 2022, the central government announced the construction of 6.5 million units of low-cost rental housing in 40 cities, representing 26 percent of the total new housing supply in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025)4.

Indeed the explosion of rural-to-urban migration in recent decades is not a phenomenon unique to China. While understanding that there are different definitions of “slums” used by countries and international organizations, they all point to the same tendency:  since the 1970s, slum growth outpaced urbanization rates across the Global South. China’s efforts to upgrade existing precarious housing or build new affordable housing does not, however, explain why China did not develop slums like in so many other countries. Urbanization in China, therefore, must be understood within the context of socialist construction.

What is the “hukou” system and what does it have to do with socialism?

One unique characteristic of China’s urbanization process is that, although policies encouraged migration to cities for industrial and service jobs, rural residents never lost their access to land in the countryside. In the 1950s, the Communist Party of China (CPC) led a nationwide land reform process, abolishing private land ownership and transforming it into collective ownership. During the economic reform period, beginning in 1978, a “Household Responsibility System” (家庭联产承包责任制 jiātíng lián chǎn chéngbāo zérèn zhì) was created, which reallocated rural agricultural land into the hands of individual households. Though agricultural production was deeply impacted, collective land ownership remained and land was never privatized. 

Today, China has one of the highest homeownership rates in the world, surpassing 90 percent, and this includes the millions of migrant workers who rent homes in other cities. This means that when encountering economic troubles, such as unemployment, urban migrant workers can return to their hometowns, where they own a home, can engage in agricultural production, and search for work locally. This structural buffer plays a critical role in absorbing the impacts of major economic and social crises. For example, during the 2008 global financial crisis, China’s export-oriented economy, especially of manufactured goods, was severely hit, causing about 30 million migrant workers to lose their jobs. Similarly, during the Covid-19 pandemic, when service and manufacturing jobs were seriously impacted, many migrant workers returned to their homes and land in the countryside.

Beyond land reform, a system was created to manage the mass migration of people from the countryside to the cities, to ensure that the movement of people aligned with the national planning needs of such a populous country. Though China has had some form of migration restriction for over 2,000 years, in the late 1950s, the country established a new “household registration system” (户口 or hùkǒu) to regulate rural-to-urban migration. Every Chinese person has an assigned urban or rural hukou status that grants them access to social welfare benefits (subsidized public housing, education, health care, pension,  and unemployment insurance, etc.) in their hometown, but which are restricted in the cities they move to for work. While reformation of the hukou system is ongoing, the lack of urban hukou status forces many migrant parents to spend long periods away from their families and they must leave their children in their grandparents’ care in their hometowns, referred to as “left-behind children” (留守儿童 liúshǒu értóng). Though the number has been decreasing over the years, there are still an estimated seven million children in this situation. Today, 65.22 percent of China’s population lives in cities, but only 45.4 percent have urban hukou. Although this system deterred the creation of large urban slums, it also reinforced serious inequities of social welfare between urban and rural areas, and between residents within a city based on their hukou status.

How does the Chinese government deal with homelessness?

In the early 2000s, the issues of residential status, rights of migrant workers, and treatment of urban homeless people became a national matter. In 2003, the State Council – the highest executive organ of state power – issued the “Measures for the Rescue and Management of Itinerant and Homeless in Urban Areas”5. The new regulation created urban relief stations providing food rations and temporary shelters, abolished the mandatory detention system of people without hukou status or housing, and placed the responsibility on the local authorities for finding housing for homeless people in their hometowns. 

Under these measures, cities like Shanghai have set up relief stations for homeless people. When public security – the local police – and urban management officials encounter homeless people, they must assist them in accessing nearby relief stations. All costs are covered by the city’s fiscal budget. For example, the relief management station in Putuo District (with the fourth lowest per capita GDP of Shanghai’s 16 districts and a resident population of 1.24 million), provided shelter and relief to an average of 24.3 homeless people a month from June 2022 to April 2023, which could include repeated cases6.

Relief stations provide homeless people with food and basic accommodations, help those who are seriously ill access healthcare, assist them to return to the locations of their household registration by contacting their relatives or the local government, and arrange free transportation home when needed.

Upon returning home, the local county-level government is responsible to help the homeless people, including contacting relatives for care and finding local employment. For a very small number of people who are elderly, have disabilities, or do not have relatives nor the ability to work, the local township people’s government, or the Party-run street office, will provide national support for them in accordance with the “method of providing for extremely impoverished persons”, which is stipulated in the 2014 “Interim Measures for Social Assistance”. The content of the support includes providing basic living conditions, giving care to impoverished individuals who cannot take care of themselves, providing treatment for diseases, and handling funeral affairs, etc.

This series of relief management measures ensure that administrative law enforcement personnel in the city do not simply expel homeless people from the city, but must guarantee that they receive proper assistance, in terms of housing, work, and support systems.

What are the current challenges of urbanization, migration, and inequality?

While creating relief centers is an important advancement, it is clear that shelters are not a structural solution and they alone cannot meet the needs of a metropolis like Shanghai of 25 million people, let alone the country’s 921 million urban residents. The government has been implementing many structural reforms to address inequality, and to make the cities and the countryside more liveable.

In his report to the 20th National Congress of the CPC, President Xi Jinping said: “We have identified the principal contradiction facing Chinese society as that between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life, and we have made it clear that closing this gap should be the focus of all our initiatives.”7 The unbalanced and inadequate development points to the gap between the countryside and cities, between underdeveloped and industrialized regions, and between the rich and poor. 

On a broader scale, the anti-poverty campaigns – highlighted by the eradication of extreme poverty in 2020 – and the rural revitalization strategy have helped alleviate the pressure of migrant workers moving to the cities. The government has invested substantial funds and resources, using diversified ways to alleviate poverty beyond income-transfer schemes, including developing rural industry, education, health care, and infrastructure8. These measures fundamentally improved the living and employment environment in rural areas and created more opportunities so that people have the option to stay and work in the countryside. For example, every year, more migrants are returning from cities back to their hometowns, which increased from 2.4 million (2015) to 8.5 million people (2019). 

Over the last decade, China has implemented reforms to balance the easing of hukou residency requirements and to improve the social welfare of migrant workers, while ensuring that urbanization and population distribution responds to the country’s needs. Since 2010, major cities have gradually relaxed the household registration restrictions for school admission, allowing children of migrant workers to attend public schools like children with local hukou. Furthermore, according to the 2019 Urbanization Plan, cities with populations below three million people are required to remove all hukou restrictions, while bigger cities (under five million) can begin to relax restrictions. The 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) and the country’s economic strategy until 2035 focus on redistributing income through tax reform, reducing the gap between the rich and poor, and removing the barriers that prevent millions of migrant workers from enjoying the full benefits of urban life. In 2021, the government invested US$5.3 billion to relax the hukou residency rules, and to also boost urban migrants’ spending power as part of the country’s “dual circulation” policy9

These efforts to tackle the “three mountains” of the high cost of housing, education, and health care faced by all Chinese people, including migrants, is at the center of the government’s vision and policy reforms towards “common prosperity” for all its citizens and the building of a modern socialist society.

  1. A metropolitan area that has a population between 20 million and 40 million is called a “hypercity,” and between 10 million and 20 million is a “megacity.”
  2. Migrant workers are workers whose household registration is still in rural areas and who are engaged in non-agricultural industries or leave their hometowns for work in another part of the country for at least six months of the year.
  3. General Office of the State Council, ‘Opinions of the State Council on Accelerating the Reconstruction of Shantytowns’, July 12, 2013.
  4. China State Council Information Office, ‘40 cities to add 6.5M units of gov’t-subsidized rental housing’, January 11, 2022.
  5. China Executive Meeting of the State Council’, ‘Measures for the Rescue and Management of Itinerant and Homeless in Urban Areas’, June 18, 2003.
  6. Shanghai Putuo District People’s Government, ‘Rescue of Itinerant and Homeless people’, June 2022 to April 2023.
  7. Full text of the report
  8. See the study, “Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China”
  9. Andrew Korybko, ‘China’s 14th Five-Year Plan prioritizes dual circulation, innovation’, October 30, 2020.

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Is China’s housing market in trouble? | 29.05.2023

Dongsheng Explains No.3 | May 2023

Is China’s housing market in trouble?

In recent years, China’s housing issue has been prominently featured in the Western media. Rapid urban development, skyrocketing prices, the dependency of local governments on land revenues, and the most “shocking”, the rumored bankruptcy of the real estate giant Evergrande, 13 years after the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2008 shook the world economy, aroused the attention of financial analysts everywhere. However, what is the actual situation of the real estate market in China and what is the government doing?

How has the housing question been addressed historically?

When the Chinese people, led by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China (CPC), founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, it was amongst the poorest countries in the world. In 1950, only 10 countries had lower per capita GDPs than China, and only 11% of its 552 million people lived in urban areas. As industrial development increased, the cities also grew rapidly. Particularly after the reform and opening up, migration from the countryside to the cities became a constant social phenomenon. By 2022, China’s urban population had expanded to 921 million, accounting for 65% of the total population.1

Moreover, the number of cities with over 1 million people has grown from 90 in 2000 to 167 in 2020, while urban areas of less than 1 million have fallen from 172 to 130, suggesting that the population has concentrated in bigger urban centers.2

The combination of a massive population with a growing income and the boom of the urban areas has significantly driven housing development, which has undergone great changes since 1949.

Soon after the establishment of the PRC, urban land was nationalized and housing was withdrawn from circulation. For more than 30 years, China had a socialist welfare housing system, where housing units were built and managed by government agencies, public institutions, or state-owned enterprises (SOEs), etc.  In the early 1980s, 75% of urban households in China lived in public rental housing.

With the reform and opening up, the Chinese government decided to develop the real estate industry. Beginning in 1978, the State’s investment policy began shifting from a single State budget to the joint investment of the State, enterprises, and individuals. This new policy spurred development in the housing market, most notably after 1992 when  the socialist market economy was established. By 1997, 9.64% of total social fixed asset investment was in real estate development. The urban housing market gradually formed and the living conditions of residents improved significantly, with the per capita housing construction area increasing from 6.7 square meters in 1978 to 17.8 square meters in 1997.

Since 2008, economic growth has slowed and the real estate sector has faced adjustment. During this period, the government has paid more attention to the role of macro-control policies such as taxation and attached great importance to the construction of subsidized housing to meet the needs of low-and-middle-income people. The massive scale of China’s housing market is still present, but its growth has slowed down.

Who is running the real estate development in China?

With the formation of the socialist market, private capital in the real estate industry increased quickly. In 1993, there were only 505 private construction companies in China; this grew to 18,259 in 2001 and more than 122,000 companies by 2021. Gradually, public and collective ownership of construction companies was substituted by private capital. By 2021, private capital, both foreign and domestic, accounted for 86% of the gross value added in construction, totaling 25.2 trillion yuan (US$ 3.9 trillion), and accounted for 89.6% of the 52.8 million people working in construction. 

Collectively owned companies, which are township-based units, owned by the villagers and managed by a villagers’ committee, peaked at 29,872 units in 1997 and has decreased since then.

What is the relationship between the real estate industry and local governments?

Since 1953, rural land ownership has remained collective, while urban land ownership has remained public. Since the 1990s, local governments could  “sell” (transfer) the right to use the land to qualified entities. Revenues generated from this practice, such as land-related taxes and income from state-owned land transfers, are  now commonly known as “land finance”, which accounted for 89% of the local public budgetary revenues in 2018.

Professor Zhao Yanjing points out that local governments use the land finance to invest in infrastructure and enhance public services, which increases land value. The government spends the income from land finance on urban construction, such as utilities development, roads, hospitals, and schools, thus turning suburban land into new urban areas. As urban construction expands, housing prices rise, pulling land prices up as well. 

In 2019, China’s urban home-ownership rate reached 96%, one of the highest in the world, compared to the US’s 64.2% and Japan’s 61.9% in 2017. For Brazil and South Africa, that rate was 72.5% and 69% respectively. Among the home-owning households in China, 58.4% owned 1 property, 31% owned 2 properties, and 10.5% owned 3 or more properties.  High demand for housing, particularly in large metropolises where housing shortages worsened, has served to push house prices even higher. At the same, many smaller cities and rural areas have housing surpluses as a result of people moving to larger cities and leaving many new housing developments empty, estimated today at 50 million vacant housing units. According to Beike Research, the average housing vacancy rate surveyed was around 12% in 2022.

How is the government addressing the problems in this industry? 

The trigger for the 2007-08 financial crisis was the bloated housing market, especially in the Global North, (not only in the US, but also in Britain, Spain, Ireland, and other countries), a result of pushing mortgages even to consumers who would obviously not be able to pay them back. Not only did the so-called sub-prime mortgage market, which had reached entirely unrealistic values, collapse, but, because these mortgages had been packaged into derivative products in financial markets in such forms as collateralized debt obligations and collateralized loan obligations, this collapse brought, in its wake, the collapse of other financial markets and left many banks and other types of financial institutions facing disaster. However, the Chinese State will not allow that type of financial speculation; it is attempting to avoid a bubble and prevent a crash as opposed to banking bailouts after the crisis breaks out.

In August 2020, amid a mature real estate market, the Chinese government issued the regulation known as the “three red lines”, which provide three key indicators of the financial health of real estate developers. The regulation caps these companies’ ratio of debt to cash and equity and assets, and promotes  sustainable growth of the sector. The government called on companies to reorganize their finances by 2023, classifying them as “green” if they meet these healthy-finance criteria and thus allowing them access to new credit. 

Evergrande, the second largest real estate developer in China, garnered the most attention. By December 2020, the Evergrande Group’s debt had accumulated to US$300 billion, and its liability-asset ratio was 84.7%, above the 70% established in the three red lines.3 

As the company was struggling to pay back its debt, and in order to  avoid misuse of the funds, two local governments took control of Evergrande’s revenue, and since August 2021, eight other provinces have requested that Evergrande place pre-sales revenue into custodial accounts as the cash-strapped developer put hundreds of unfinished projects on hold. The Chinese government is taking control of the company’s revenue and resolving the issues before a debt crisis explodes. 

The 5% cap on the annual growth rate of rent increases improved the living conditions of all Chinese households and further slowed the otherwise explosive price hikes. The bottom line of the regulation is that, as president Xi Jinping said at the 19th CPC National Congress, “houses are for living, not for speculation.” 

Besides controlling price speculation, the Chinese government has promoted a series of policies for the development of social housing in order to facilitate and ensure access to housing for the younger generations and those with lower purchasing power. The Xiamen government, in Fujian province, reduced the market price by 45% of 4,000 apartments. The Henan government bought 1,050 flats from Evergrande, whose construction was interrupted due to its liquidity issues. In general terms, the Chinese government is supplying 6.5 million new low-cost rental housing in 40 major cities, which started in 2021-2025, to ease housing difficulties for 13 million young people; tier-one cities like Beijing and Shanghai will supply a total of 1.87 million units of low-cost rental housing. In 2021 alone, 936,000 units provided housing for 2 million young people in 40 cities. 

Slowing housing demand, a result of uncertainty during the pandemic and increased geopolitical tensions, and these new regulations, restrained some speculative behavior in the market. The profitability of these real estate developers was impacted; but as their business model is based on indebtedness, while fruitful during fast market growth, as the sector matures, it can represent a serious risk for the system. 

Amid the slowdown of the Chinese economy in 2022, the government eased a series of measures, and provided economic stimulus to the real estate sector: postponing the deadline for the assessment of the three red lines, extending the deadline for the banks to reduce their ratio of outstanding mortgages and property loans to total loans, and cutting China’s mortgage interest rates

In the wake of this stimulus, after 18 months, housing prices are increasing; this can be seen as a sign of a recovery of the demand in the previously depressed market. Nevertheless, property investment in 2022 fell by 10%, and 5.7% in the first two months of 2023; land “sales” plunged by 29% in the first two months of this year, after a drop of 53% in 2022, suggesting that the real estate sector will need more time to return to steady growth.


China’s housing market moved on a parallel path with the overall economy: at unprecedented speed and scale. Its development, however, has reached a more mature stage in recent years and it is struggling to maintain previous growth rates. The government controls enacted to stabilize the financial security of real estate developers, the brake on speculation, and the development of indemnificatory housing projects for low-income groups and young first-time home buyers, aim to treat real estate as the people’s rights to both housing and sharing in the fruits of development, and came at a crucial point. The Chinese government has shown flexibility in allowing companies “to breathe” amid a tough market. However, they aren’t willing to allow speculation in the long term, especially when, due to its size, it could lead to devastating shocks in the overall economy. This process should lead to a more sustainable business model, less speculation in housing, and the elimination of the “rotten fruits” in China’s immense real estate sector.

  1. This rate is still lower than that of developed countries such as South Korea (81%), US (83%) or Japan (92%), and also lower than developing countries such as South Africa (68%), Mexico (81%), Brazil (87%) or Argentina (92%).
  2. In China, statistically, “urban areas” include cities and towns whose basic authorities are residential committees; while “rural areas” include townships and villages that are based on villagers’ committees.
  3. Very low values of this ratio indicate that there is idle capital, and very high values indicate excessive indebtedness.

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Tianxia: All Under Heaven | 23.04.2023

Dongsheng Explains No.2 | April 2023

Tianxia: All Under Heaven

Tianxia (天下, tiānxià) or “all under heaven” is a concept that can be traced back four thousand years. Its appearance as a major category of Chinese thought only began in the early Warring States period (475-221 BCE). Tianxia is a complex, contested, and constantly-evolving concept. It embodies a range of meanings, from geography (demarcating a governed territory), to morality (defining political legitimacy), to subjectivity (representing the aspirations of the people), to politics (providing a vision for a world system), and much more. Much like the southern African philosophy of ubuntu (“humanity”) or the Latin American concept of buen vivir (“living well” or “life in harmony” ), tianxia centers on an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life and the betterment of our world community as a whole. 

What is the meaning of tianxia? What makes the concept so enduring through millennia? And most importantly, what possibilities does it hold to help confront some of the greatest challenges that China and the world face today?

Why did the concept of tianxia emerge?

During the Eastern Zhou (771-256 BCE), a tumultuous period of constant conflict between states in China, tianxia had a territorial meaning; it represented a land mass of many countries governed by the “Son of Heaven” (天子, tiānzǐ). The ancient Chinese did not know for certain the size of tianxia – the various states’ territory amounted to less than half of today’s China’s – but they had no doubt they were at the center of civilization. Ancient documents tracing back to the Shang dynasty’s (1600-1066 BCE) sage-rulers suggest that tianxia did not only refer to a land mass, but also served as a political vision for an ideal world of harmony amongst states.

In the Zhou dynasty (1066-256 BCE), a period of huge unrest and military conflict, tianxia was institutionalized, transforming it from a political vision into a system of governance. This system is defined by three elements: The first is that the tianxia system must guarantee that all states involved receive more benefits through their participation than by remaining independent. Secondly, the system relies on mutual dependency and reciprocity among all of the states. Finally, the tianxia system must develop a set of common interests, beliefs, and projects  to ensure its universally-shared character.

What is the “heavenly mandate”?

Under tianxia, political power comes from tianming (天命, tiānmìng), a “heavenly mandate” or “heavenly-invoked order”. This mandate, however, is neither eternal, divinely-granted, nor solely based on military or economic might. During the ancient Shang dynasty (1600-1066 BCE), this mandate was thought to come from the will of heaven, or “the God in Heaven” or shangdi (上帝, shàngdì). Shangdi was not a monotheistic deity, and  was linked to the spirits of tribal ancestors. From the Zhou dynasty onwards, this heavenly mandate turned its focus towards the people, specifically, the “shared aspirations of the people” or minxin (民心, mínxīn). In order to claim political legitimacy, a ruler must have earned the support of the tianxia’s people. The loss of minxin is justification for revolt and revolution. The rise and fall of dynasties, spurred by peasant rebellions to mass natural disasters and military mutinies, represent  this loss in the heavenly mandate, and thereby the rulers’ political legitimacy.

How does tianxia differ from Western concepts of governance?

The tianxia system emerges from a history quite distinct from other ancient models of an empire or statehood, such as the Greek Republic or the European nation-state. The Greek system, for example, centered around the idea of the polis, or the city-state, and is one of national politics where there is a clear distinction between states, between private life and a public realm, and between the individual and the state. Conversely, the idea of tianxia has neither an “inside” nor “outside”, but defines an all-inclusiveness joined together by the rule of the Son of Heaven. The political framework of Western civilizations is based on a structure in which the individual is the basic political subject and the nation-state – often ethnically-defined – is the largest sovereign political unit. However, according to Chinese political philosophy, the family – rather than the individual – is the smallest political unit, with tianxia as the highest level, transcending the level of the state. 

In the conception of tianxia, each individual has responsibility and relationality to a greater humanity. In the Confucian tradition, the individual is emphasized primarily in the highly-valued practice of learning and self-cultivation in the service of the family, the state, and the world – a tradition that has been incorporated by the Chinese communists in the praxis of “criticism and self-criticism”. Tianxia was not only articulated in the Confucian tradition, but extended to other Chinese schools of thought. For example, Mozi (c.470-391 BCE)(墨子, mòzi), founder of Mohism during the Hundred Schools of Thought (百家争鸣, bǎijiā zhēngmíng) period, is one of the Chinese philosophers who wrote the most about tianxia, using this word over four hundred times in his works. Later texts by Mencius, Xunzi (荀子, xúnzi), and Han Feizi (韩非子, hánfēizi) referred to the common cultural ideal of a unified territory with a single ruler. 

According to Confucius, the tianxia system is voluntary and non-coercive. States outside of tianxia can participate in the system if they deem it to be beneficial to them,  as long as they voluntarily follow the tianxia system’s frameworks and standards, i.e., “forms and norms” (礼乐, lǐyuè, which literally means rites and music). Confucius suggested that the way to attract people outside the tianxia system is to satisfy the needs of the people already within it. 

What is the role of multi-ethnic unity in tianxia?

In 221 BCE, tianxia was finally unified with Qin Shi Huang (or “the first emperor of the Qin empire”) (秦始皇, qínshǐhuáng) as its ruler. The Han dynasty that followed (202 BCE–220 CE), then built the empire model into a prototype of China’s modern nation-state, or a forebear of the China we know more than two thousand years later. However, the concept of tianxia originated much earlier than those dynasties, and was never understood as a narrow ethnic concept centered around “the Han people.” Today, the Han people – one of China’s 56 official ethnicities – comprise 92 percent of the population, but this identity was an invention of the times, as people began to self-identify with the “golden age” Han dynasty. Tianxia is not only a political concept defined by states borders , but also a cultural concept defined by forms and norms. Ethnic groups in the periphery are welcomed, but are not forced to follow those forms and norms or become part of the tianxia system; they also bring innovations into the system. This dynamic process has continued for two thousand years and has shaped the multi-ethnic society of China today.

How does tianxia help us understand modern China?

This concept of tianxia helps in understanding the emergence of modern China, which has been able to maintain relative territorial integrity and resist dissolution, despite diversity and differences. In the early modern period of the 19th century, during a period of continuous decline of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) due to imperialist incursions, warlordism, and economic decline, many scholars sought out new ideas to transform Chinese society. Kang Youwei (1858-1827), a Confucian reformer and a key figure behind the Hundred Days’ Reform (百日维新, bǎirì wéixīn) in 1898, looked to the Confucius classics. He wrote the Book of Great Unity (大同书, dàtóng shū), which was posthumously published in 1935, in which he divided the world’s development into three stages: an “uncivilized” stage, an intermediate or xiaokang (小康, xiǎokāng) stage, and the final stage of great unity (太平世, tàipíng shì). According to Kang Youwei, who supported the restoration of the monarchy but rejected the Western nation-state model, the highest goal  was the abolishment of states and inequality, creating a world in common by all (天下为公, tiānxià wèigōng).

Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), founding father of the modern Chinese nation, helped overthrow the last imperial dynasty of the Qing with the 1911 Xinhai Revolution. Rather than turning away from the Confucian tradition at large, like Kang Youwei, he mobilized support to establish the Republic of China under the banner of “a world in common by all ” (天下为公, tiānxià wèigōng) – a new republican interpretation of the “heavenly principle”. Rather than dissolve the structures and ideas of the imperial dynasties, the transition from empire to a modern state drew from, modified, and built on the past – from Confucian principles like tianxia to the centralized bureaucratic governance to the meritocratic education and examination systems.

What is the relationship between Marxism and tianxia?

As national consciousness awakened, particularly sparked by the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal May Fourth Movement of 1919, Marxist ideas bloomed and inspired the formation of the Communist Party of China and associated mass movements and organisations. During the war of resistance against Japanese aggression, Mao already understood that  for Marxism-Leninism to take root in China, it must take on a Chinese character. In The Role of the Chinese Communist Party in the National War (1938), he wrote, “Our national history goes back several thousand years and has its own characteristics and innumerable treasures. But in these matters we are mere schoolboys. Contemporary China has grown out of the China of the past; we are Marxist in our historical approach and must not lop off our history. We should sum up our history from Confucius to Sun Yat-sen and take over this valuable legacy” (published in 1965). From Sun Yat-sen’s vision of “Five Races, One Republic” – Han, Manchu, Mongol, Hui, Tibetan – to Mao Zedong’s call for a grand unification of the peoples of all ethnicities in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, a clear connection can be seen with the long tradition of state-building based on the unity and rule of all under heaven.

Mao Zedong also pointed out that all empires in history went through the cycle of gaining and losing tianxia, which led to their demise. To end this historical cycle, the CPC should act under the guidance of Marxism. In 1945, Mao emphasized  that “the ruling party should accept the supervision of the people”. Seventy-seven years later, Xi Jinping said that the ruling party should constantly revolutionize itself in order to avoid this historical cycle. According to Marx, one of the fundamental things that distinguishes the proletarian revolution from other revolutions is  the process of self-criticism, by which it  continually strengthens itself. By innovating on Marx’s theory and combining it with China’s history, the CPC and its leaders have given a new meaning to “owning tianxia“.

What is tianxia’s relevance today?

At the end of 2020, with the eradication of extreme poverty, China entered the period of xiaokang – or a moderately prosperous society – one of the two centenary goals of the Communist Party of China. It is not a coincidence that the Confucian term of xiaokang, or the age of rising peace, was chosen. The current vision, laid out by the government for its domestic policy, is “common prosperity” (共同富裕, gòngtóng fùyù), and for the world is a “a community with a shared future for humanity” (人类命运共同体, rénlèi mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ), both sharing strong associations with the spirit embodied by the Confucian  – and communist – vision of a world in great unity (天下大同, tiānxià dàtóng). Both political visions point toward a more just world in which the wealth of tianxia is more evenly shared among its inhabitants, between the North and South, the developed and the underdeveloped countries, the rich and the poor.

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The Two Sessions (Lianghui) | 21.02.2023

Dongsheng Explains No.1

The Two Sessions (Lianghui)

Dear reader,

After more than a year and a half and 76 Chinese Voices issues, we have decided to improve the format to bring you a better analysis of China’s social, political, and cultural reality.

Therefore, we’re very excited to launch the first issue of our latest publication, Dongsheng Explains. Each month, we will publish an original article that introduces core concepts, processes, and phenomena in China that we think are of interest to international readers. Each topic, chosen by the editorial team, aims to deepen our collective understanding of Chinese society, history, and contemporary reality. In addition, each publication will be accompanied by an explanatory video, uploaded on our YouTube channel.

We hope you like the first issue of Dongsheng Explains on the Two Sessions (Lianghui). Please read, watch, share, and tell us what you think!

Dongsheng editorial collective

Next month, China’s annual “Two Sessions” (两会, liǎnghuì) will take place, at which the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) will hold back-to-back meetings and set the direction of the country for the year. These two political platforms are core parts of China’s unique political system and Chinese-style democracy. According to the first article of China’s Constitution, “The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants, but how does this political leadership and “people’s power” work in practice? In China, there are two channels of political representation: First, the substantive and material representation through the Communist Party of China (CPC) governed by a top-down democratic centralist structure; and second a procedural representative channel through the NPC, led by a bottom-up election process. Linked to this is the CPPCC platform for democratic and broad-based consultation.

Breaking down China’s political system

Under China’s political system, the collective leadership at all levels – with the exception of the Hong Kong and Macao Special Administrative Regions – is structured in the same manner and is represented by the Party Committee (党委, dǎngwěi), the People’s Congress (人大, réndà), the government (政府, zhèngfǔ), and the Political Consultative Conference (政协, zhèngxié). All four together are commonly known as the four sets of teams (四套班子, sìtào bānzi), and are ranked in a way that reflects the order of leadership of these four political institutions in China.

  1. The Party Committees are CPC authorities established in administrative areas. After reform and opening up, the CPC’s leadership over the state, especially in government affairs, had weakened to a certain degree. However, from the 18th CPC National Congress onwards, the CPC has reasserted the political principle of upholding and strengthening Party leadership on all fronts, which has been enshrined in the constitution of the Party as well as that of the country.
  2. The People’s Congresses are the organs of state power under the CPC’s leadership and were established in 1954 to provide the Chinese people with a formal and procedural representation channel from the local to national levels. The People’s Congresses exercise oversight of government operations (administrative and judicial), enact, amend, and supervise the implementation of laws and regulations, elect and dismiss government officials, and review and approve government work plans and budgets. The Congresses are democratically elected; the deputies at the county and township levels are directly nominated and voted for by the people. Candidate nomination is a rigorous process, ensuring the representation of the local demographics (e.g., occupation, place of residence, gender, age, political affiliation, etc.) and broad participation by the people at the grassroots level. Each lower-level People’s Congress elects the members of the Congress of the next level up. In essence, the system of the People’s Congresses is the key vehicle through which the people’s democratic dictatorship is exercised, as defined by the Constitution.
  3. The governments are administrative authorities under the People’s Congress system as well as the executive organs of the Congresses. This means that government officials are appointed by and accountable to the people through the Congresses, which receive and approve work plans and proposals submitted by the governments. 
  4. The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) is a key institution for multi-party cooperation and political consultation, establishing a united front of the Chinese people under the CPC’s leadership. The CPPCC is a political consultative and advisory body without legislative or executive power, composed of representatives from the CPC, eight democratic parties, mass organizations, ethnic minority groups, other sectors of society, and invited individuals. Seeking a broad-based popular consensus across sectors of society through consultative democracy, at both the central and local levels, it is a unique pillar of China’s socialist political system. 

The history of the Two Sessions in China’s socialist political system

The Two Sessions, held annually at the Great Hall of the People (人民大会堂, rénmín dà huìtáng) in Beijing, is a national event for political mobilization, and an important opportunity for central leaders to exchange ideas with local officials as well as grassroots representatives. The national meetings are preceded by the provincial Two Sessions that summarize, plan, and make decisions on local affairs, and prepare for the national sessions.   

On the eve of the PRC’s establishment, Mao Zedong convened the first CPPCC in September 1949, with 662 participants from 46 political parties and groups. This meeting laid the legal foundation for the formal establishment of the PRC and defined the nature and the political system of the state. In this convening, national resolutions were adopted, including for the national flag, national anthem, national capital, and calendar era, and it elected the head of state and state organs. In the earliest years of the PRC, since an official parliamentary system was not yet constituted, the CPPCC acted as the supreme organ of state power. Since the First NPC was convened, which passed the Constitution of the PRC in 1954, it has become the formal parliament and the supreme organ of state power, while the CPPCC remains, to this day, a consultative united front organization.

What is the multi-party system in China?

Many people do not realize that China has a multi-party political system. The eight patriotic democratic parties were established before the PRC’s founding as part of the united front strategy. These parties continue to play a key role in a consultative capacity in the CPPCC, and include: 

  1. The Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (中国国民党革命委员会, zhōngguó guómíndǎng gémìng wěiyuánhuì) developed from the Left Kuomintang that supported the CPC before China’s liberation in 1949.
  2. The China Democratic League (中国民主同盟, zhōngguó mínzhǔ tóngméng) is principally  composed of cultural figures.
  3. The China Democratic National Construction Association (中国民主建国会, zhōngguó mínzhǔ jiànguó huì) is mainly comprised of entrepreneurs and participants in the economic sectors.
  4. The China Association for Promoting Democracy (中国民主促进会, zhōngguó mínzhǔ cùjìn huì) chiefly represents the educational sectors.
  5. The Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party (中国农工民主党, zhōngguó nónggōng mínzhǔ dǎng) is predominantly composed of medical and health practitioners.
  6. The China Zhi Gong Party (中国致公党, zhōngguó zhì gōng dǎng) is primarily comprised of overseas Chinese who have returned home and representative figures with overseas connections (also acting as the China chapter of the Hongmen, a worldwide Chinese secret fraternal society).
  7. The Jiusan Society (九三学社, jiǔsān xuéshè) is largely composed of those in the science and technology fields.
  8. The Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League (台湾民主自治同盟, táiwān mínzhǔ zìzhì tóngméng) represents proponents of socialism from the Taiwan region.

What is the role of the mass organizations in China?

Other CPPCC representatives come from the Communist Youth League, the Federation of Trade Unions, the Women’s Federation, the Youth Federation, the Federation of Industry and Commerce, the Association for Science and Technology, the Taiwan Compatriots Friendship Association, the Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, and other mass organizations. Also included are representatives from art and culture, science and technology, the social sciences, the economic community, agriculture, education, sports, media, medicine and healthcare, international amity, social welfare, and other specialized sectors as well as from ethnic minority groups, the Hong Kong and Macao regions, religious communities, and so on.

The mass organizations play an important role in all levels of society. For example, the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) played a key role in the campaign to eradicate extreme poverty in China, from the grassroots to the national levels. They conducted surveys of rural women in key poverty-stricken counties to understand their conditions, which were then incorporated into the government’s Targeted Poverty Alleviation (TPA) program. The ACWF formed not only part of the country’s leading governmental bodies overseeing the TPA program, but also organized its base-building work, both online and offline, to contribute to the success of the program, from the 900,000 WeChat “sisters” chat groups to the 641,291 village-level grassroots organizations across the country.

What happens prior to and at the Two Sessions?

All members of the NPC Standing Committee and the CPPCC National Committee have a five-year mandate, in line with the term of the CPC National Congress. The NPC meeting is a follow-up to the 20th CPC National Congress that was held in October 2022, which elected the members of the Party’s top leaders from the Central Committee members to the General Secretary. At the NPC, deputies will elect the country’s President and Vice President and vote to approve the President’s appointment of the Premier of the State Council, according to the list of nominees suggested by the CPC Central Committee. Prior to the Two Sessions, public opinion is solicited on specific legislation, which undergoes a review by various sectors of society. For example, on January 1, 2021, China’s first comprehensive Civil Code was enacted, with 1,200 articles covering property, marriage, inheritance, and personality rights, among other areas. Over a four-year period, the legislative process received 2,956 opinions from 1,241 representatives in 13 rounds of consultation with NPC deputies in addition to the three rounds of centralized study by NPC representatives over five years. There were ten rounds of online public consultation, having received 1.02 million opinions from over 420,000 citizens. The legislation was finally voted on and passed at the NPC session in 2020.

The current NPC and CPPCC and its achievements

The incumbent 13th NPC runs from 2018 to 2023, and its 2,980 deputies are comprised of the following: 2,119 (71.1%) are members of the CPC and 861 (28.9%) are either from the eight democratic parties or are non-partisan individuals; 468 (15.7%) are workers, including those in industrial and agricultural production; 742 (24.9%) are women; and 438 (14.7%) are from ethnic minority groups. In China, 91.1% of the population belong to the Han ethnicity, while the 55 other ethnic groups comprise 8.9% of the population, which means that minority groups are overrepresented in the NPC.
The current 13th CPPCC National Committee, whose term also runs from 2018 to 2023, is made up of 2,158 representatives from all walks of life, and those who are not CPC members account for 60.2%. CPPCC members are nominated and recommended by parties and groups and are elected through consultation with the CPC.


The upcoming Two Sessions will be an important political event in China, especially since it follows the 20th CPC National Congress, as leaders of state bodies will be elected. The system of National Congresses is an innovation and a pillar of socialist governance in China to ensure that the people have representation and oversight over their government. The CPPCC plays a complementary role in providing broad-based consultation on and consensus by Chinese society. Both political platforms emerged from China’s historical conditions and necessities, and have continued to evolve over the last seven decades of socialist construction and governance.

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