Social Support, Fairness and Civility in Rural North China
Existential subsistence relies on cultivating land, social security relies on mutual support among kinship and community members – this pattern of living arrangements has been practised by the peasants of China for thousands of years. Seventy years ago, the pioneer social anthropological studies by Fei Hsiao-Tung and Chang Chi-I (Earthbound China 1945:302) led to the academic conclusion that the exploitation of land is not a practical method for accumulating wealth. Currently, the sharp urban-rural disparities of income, mainly based on sectoral factors, bear testimony to the vulnerability of agriculture in the global market economy. Developing rural industry, which Fei and Chang promoted in the 1940s, does not always appear to be a substantial solution. By way of looking for prospective solutions to the agrarian problem, I refer to questions such as: What is the peasants' notion of land? How strongly are they are still bound to the earth? In which manner is the bond with land perceived and how is it expressed in daily life?
On the one hand, due to the population policy, the size of nuclear family is shrinking; on the other, villagers' incomes are increasingly dependent on labouring outside rather than within the functions of the family corporation. Against this background, can kinship still maintain its former validity? Do notions of kinship still dominate the basis of rural societal structure? What has changed essentially even if kinship and community still have the form and function of offering the necessary social support?
Document No. 1 of the State Council of 2004, which declares the governmental aim of ‘reducing the peasants' burden’ was a turning point in state rural policy. In the following years, a series of programmes were initiated with the aim of improving the quality of peasant life. In 2005, the rural health-care insurance system was introduced; since 2006, all financial burdens countrywide related to agriculture have been abolished. In some areas, the monthly subsistence allowances for rurally registered needy individuals are distributed and the provisions for the recipients of the five-guarantee-items have been comprehensively raised. Besides these individual-oriented programmes, the state is striving to improve the rural infrastructure by way of innovating electricity grids, encouraging the use of new energy sources such as bio-gas, and by improving irrigation equipment. The Charter of Peasants Cooperation Agency has been enacted since 1st July 2007, the economic cooperation of peasants seems to be encouraged, and the related rights and duties are regulated as well as protected through institutional arrangements. But how are all these well-meant rural policies implemented and perceived by the peasants? Are there any unexpected negative side effects? These questions are also being referred to in my research plan.
The central issue of my academic consideration is the demise of kinship as well as its impact on the societal transformation in rural areas. My aims are oriented more to understanding the special case of Chinese society than offering certain comparative aspects of social anthropology in general. Therefore my academic findings are exploring the following topics: 1) Living on land and living with land: the conjunction of agricultural policy and social security policy; 2) The unexpected bad side effects of well-meant rural policy; 3) Asymmetric flows of social support among siblings; and 4) The emergence of grassroots civil society on the basis of mutual support. Additionally, I am still interested in the question of how advanced technological products and minor technical innovations influence the villagers' habitus in their everyday life.