'A Glass of Milk Strengthens a Nation': Law, Development, and China's Dairy Tale
Posted: 22 Apr 2020 Last revised: 30 Jun 2020
Date Written: April 20, 2020
Historically, China was a soybean nation and not a dairy nation. Today, China is the world’s largest dairy importer and third largest dairy producer, and dairy has surpassed soybeans in both consumption volume and sales revenue. This article investigates the cultural, political, socioeconomic, and legal factors that drove this transformation, and building upon fieldwork in two Chinese counties, examines the impact of this transformation on China’s several hundred million farmers and ex-farmers. The article makes two observations. First, despite changes of times and political regimes, China’s dairy tale is a tale about chasing the dreams of progress, modernization, and national rejuvenation, even if chasing these dreams would entail cultivating a Chinese taste for milk, collectivizing or privatizing agricultural production, or opening up markets to foreign competitors or adopting a statist industrial policy to help Chinese producers compete on the global stage. Second, China’s dairy tale reveals a lesser-known aspect of China’s tale of globalization and some of its social, economic, and political ramifications. While China is known to have benefited enormously from globalization, globalization also exposed Chinese farmers to systemic income insecurity, job losses, social dislocation, and community disintegration—like farmers in much of the global South and workers in some manufacturing sectors of the global North. My fieldwork in the two Chinese counties seems to indicate some unexpected political consequences of China’s trade opening and some global causes of China’s recent moves toward “hard authoritarianism.” I argue, rather tentatively, that similar to what is happening in many parts of the world, the economic insecurity and social dislocation experienced by rural Chinese citizens may also be creating a welcoming environment inside China for a political strongman and a state-dominated industrial policy, and arguably, for a turn away from liberalism.
Keywords: farming, dairy, cultural change, agricultural production, economic insecurity, industrialization
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