"Left to Live and Die": Agricultural Modernization and the Biopolitics of Dispossession in China

Authors: Ross Doll*, University of Washington - Seattle, WA
Topics: Development, Cultural and Political Ecology, China
Keywords: China, biopolitics, rural development, agriculture, security
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Premised on the need to improve food security and “liberate” villagers endangered by an emptying and deteriorating countryside, the Chinese central government has since the mid-2000s heavily subsidized the expansion of industrial grain farming. In 2007 the state designated the township of Ruilin one of the first sites to receive funding for its agricultural modernization initiative. Since then, 9,000 Ruilin villagers households have transferred 80% of the township’s farmland to 135 large-scale enterprises. While the state has celebrated Ruilin as a policy model, Ruilin officials defied regulations by using coercion to dispossess villagers, including direct violence. Drawing on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork and building on Foucauldian biopolitics, I argue that the form of Ruilin officials’ practices reflect not authoritarianism but rather modernist governance logics. Ruilin officials rationalize coercion as necessary given the threat villagers pose to food security and inevitable given the teleological direction of development. In so doing, they echo the central state’s modernization discourse, which creates an imaginary of the Chinese countryside and villagers as abstract categories. Juxtaposed with lived environments, this imaginary identifies incongruous elements as aberrant, unnatural, and thus dangerous. Both lacking thinkable alternatives to modernization and motivated by their self-interests, Ruilin officials “succeed” by using this imaginary/reality incongruity to legitimize the production of dispossession: creating a brutal, impoverished countryside from which villagers are desperate for liberation, and in which peasants increasingly do not exist. Ruilin suggests the potential within all modernist states to create such normalized cycles of direct and indirect violence.

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