Impact of WTO on China Farmers Questioned




More than a year after China joined the World Trade Organization, the impact on its farmers has been less than expected, a top government agricultural specialist said Monday.

Inefficient Chinese grain farmers were expected to be hit badly by imports of cheap foreign crops. Yet a small increase in China's corn and wheat harvests - and higher grain prices on international markets - meant imports were far less than expected, said Chen Xiwen, who works for the Cabinet's Development Research Center.

"Imported grain found it very hard to win in the Chinese market," Chen said at a news conference during the annual legislative session.

Meanwhile, labor-intensive agriculture such as ornamental flowers and some fishing industries, where China's low labor costs were expected to give it an advantage, haven't benefited as expected, Chen said.

He blamed non-tariff barriers erected by importing nations, including tougher hygiene and purity standards for products such as shellfish. China will work with farmers to ensure that their products meet standards imposed by importing nations, he said.

"We hope that when importing nations raise their standards, they do so with the safety of consumers in mind, not to block imports," Chen said.

WTO entry was expected to be both boon and bane for Chinese farmers, whose farms are in general smaller and are far less mechanized than their competitors in other countries.

With rural incomes stagnant and tens of millions of surplus rural workers, a severe impact could have threatened stability which the government has targeted as its prime concern in coming years.

About 800 million of China's 1.3 billion people are still categorized as farmers. But with millions of farmers migrating to the cities, it isn't certain how many still derive their main incomes from agriculture.

Chen said the WTO impact had also been lightened by policies such as tax rebates for exporting corn and eliminating fees for distributing grain to other parts of China. Chinese farmers exported 11 million tons of corn last year, against total imports of 800,000 tons of corn, wheat and other grains, he said.

Agriculture minister Du Qinglin said the government was improving farmers' lives by introducing higher quality varieties of wheat, rice, corn and oil crops, and promoting markets at home and abroad.

Grain production in 2002 rose by 1 percent to 457 million tons from 2001, while production of dairy products rose 20 percent, Du said. Fatandards, they do so with the safety of consumers in mind, not to block imports," Chen said.

WTO entry was expected to be both boon and bane for Chinese farmers, whose farms are in general smaller and are far less mechanized than their competitors in other countries.

With rural incomes stagnant and tens of millions of surplus rural workers, a severe impact could have threatened stability which the government has targeted as its prime concern in coming years.

About 800 million of China's 1.3 billion people are still categorized as farmers. But with millions of farmers migrating to the cities, it isn't certain how many still derive their main incomes from agriculture.

Chen said the WTO impact had also been lightened by policies such as tax rebates for exporting corn and eliminating fees for distributing grain to other parts of China. Chinese farmers exported 11 million tons of corn last year, against total imports of 800,000 tons of corn, wheat and other grains, he said.

Agriculture minister Du Qinglin said the government was improving farmers' lives by introducing higher quality varieties of wheat, rice, corn and oil crops, and promoting markets at home and abroad.

Grain production in 2002 rose by 1 percent to 457 million tons from 2001, while production of dairy products rose 20 percent, Du said. Farmers' incomes rose an average of 4.8 percent to 2,476 yuan ($302), in part through such sidelines as raising animals and fish.

China's strict household registration system is also being adjusted to make it easier for farmers to seek work in cities and receive government services, Du said. Critics say the only way to raise farming incomes and improve services in rural areas is to allow surplus labor to leave the countryside. Up to 200 million farmers are believed to have already left.

While Du said low crop prices, limited employment opportunities and low efficiency would continue to limit farming incomes, he said the outlook was positive.

"I don't believe agriculture in China is in trouble," Du said. "The overall trend is good."