The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected rural migrant workers in China.  As the first epicenter of the outbreak, China locked down nearly the entire country from late January through early March 2020. This is a time when millions of migrant workers return to their urban workplaces from rural homes after celebrating the Lunar New Year with their families. These homesteads are often hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

By late March, 100 million migrant workers had returned, but a total of 25 million remained jobless in the countryside, according to the estimates of the Chinese government. Those who made it to the city have also been facing the headwinds of the pandemic, which forced the closing of many factories, construction sites, restaurants, and small businesses, where most migrant workers used to find work.

In April 2020, a survey of 1095 migrant workers in Shaanxi, a migrant-sending province in northwestern China, found that about half of the respondents reported negative impacts of the pandemic on their business or employment, which means lower income or instability of jobs.[2]

Perhaps more disturbing than the impact of the pandemic is a policy initiative in Shandong Province in eastern China to replace villages with urban-style residential compounds and force peasants to resettle in these densely populated areas. The province-wide initiative, outlined in May 2020, aims to significantly reduce the land for rural houses so that cities can have more land for expansion.

The initiative has met a fierce social backlash from not only peasants, but also scholars, news media, NGOs and even some officials of the central government. The policy has been widely criticized for its intention to take away peasants’ land rights and its pernicious effects on peasants’ livelihoods and rural communities.

The two events have highlighted a grim reality confronting 290 million rural workers in China, including 120 million local nonfarm workers and 170 million migrant workers who travel long distances to find work. Jobs in the city have become increasingly unstable and precarious due to the informalization of the urban labor market and exacerbated by unpredictable hazards such as virus outbreaks and economic crises. At the same time, their rural roots are also facing unprecedented threats from local governments and powerful urban capital, who are keen on turning rural lands into financial assets for revenue and profit.

Previously when rural migrant workers have lost jobs in the city, they could retreat to the countryside to rely on land and community support, at least for a short period of time. During the 2007-8 financial crisis, for example, 25 million migrant workers lost their jobs and stayed in the countryside for at least half a year.

Rural support has also alleviated the impact of COVID-19, particularly when few migrant workers have access to unemployment benefits from the government.  The loss of land and rural support would do away with this last safety net and greatly amplify the impacts of future hazards.

In my recent article “The Land Question in 21st Century China,” I show that a new land reform has been emerging in China since 2013. This new land reform is a reversal of land redistribution, intended to transfer land rights from peasants and rural migrant workers to large producers and urban investors.

Regarding farmland, the Chinese state throws its support to large units of production, including agribusiness, corporate farms, and large family farms. Small farmers are forced to transfer their lands to these large units for land concentration and agricultural scaling up.

As far as rural non-farm lands are concerned, the state, in alliance with large financial and industrial capital, intends to liquidate these into financial assets for trading in the market. This also entails villagers and migrant workers losing land, wherein their rights to the land are taken away through financial transactions.

Besides state and capital interests, neoliberal and modernist discourses have played a role in the push for the new land reform. Among proponents of the reform are those who advocate for free markets or agricultural modernization. Free marketeers hold that villagers can sell or mortgage their land holdings and permanently resettle in the city and that the emergence of a free land market in the countryside and a free labor market in the city will stimulate economic growth and improve the conditions of villagers and migrant workers.

Agricultural modernists regard large-scale agriculture as the only way to agricultural modernization, which they believe will lead to productivity increase and economic growth. In China, rural lands are collectively owned by villages, and land usage rights are held by rural households.

While free marketeers call for the privatization of rural lands, agricultural modernists are content with collective ownership as it does not hinder the transition to large-scale agriculture. Despite this difference, both camps push to transfer land rights away from smallholders such as small farmers and peasant households.

There has emerged a countermovement against the push for land concentration, as evidenced by the backlash against the policy initiative of Shandong Province. Opponents of the new land reform argue that the current land system should be upheld because the combination of household farming and wage employment ensures social stability and provides a source of cheap industrial labor force.

Rural reconstructionists take a step further and call to organize peasant households into cooperatives to counter the intrusion of large agricultural capital and the dominance of corporate power in commodity chains. They dispute the proposal of urbanization and agricultural modernization and argue that the expansion of the city cannot accommodate the huge rural population in China, which still totals 700 million if migrant workers are included.

The new land reform and the countermovement have given rise to a new round of rural struggles over land and livelihood security. These struggles constitute an integral part of the movement of the Chinese working class, of which the 290 million rural workers are a major force.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the conflict between capital and labor on this front. On the one hand, economic slowdown and the disruption of global expansion of Chinese capital have triggered the crisis of capital accumulation at home, forcing the state and capital to seize rural lands for a new source of accumulation. The policy initiative in Shandong Province, though radical, is an example representing a nationwide trend.

On the other hand, the pandemic has further undermined the security and stability of urban jobs, forcing rural workers to rely on land and rural community support for family reproduction as well as a significant source of income.

The rural struggles of the Chinese working class hold implications for Marxist theories of labor. While urban factories continue to be key sites of worker militancy, the countryside and farms have emerged as a significant new front of contention between capital and labor.

The conventional theory of proletarianization, which perceives the struggles of migrant workers as a response to “unfinished or incomplete proletarianization” while insisting on full proletarianization as a natural path, needs to be reconsidered. New theories and perspectives are called upon to account for the connections between spatially separated labor and land struggles and for the urgency to protect workers’ livelihood security in a precarious era.

Shaohua Zhan is an Assistant Professor of Sociology, Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of The Land Question in China: Agrarian Capitalism, Industrious Revolution, and East Asian Development.

This article draws upon his recent piece “The Land Question in 21st Century China: Four Camps and Five Scenarios.” New Left Review 122 (2020): 115-133.