ABSTRACT

China will not be able to modernize itself without slowing down the growth of its population. This growth has been more rapid since 1949 than at any time in the country's history, which is not unusual in the Third World. What is, on the other hand, peculiar to China is the size of the population, which has risen from half a billion in 1949 to over one billion today. As the total cultivated area has slightly diminished over the same period (and it will be difficult and costly to increase it in anything more than a marginal way), the virtual doubling of the Chinese population has led to a halving of the cultivated area per head, which has become one of the lowest in the world. Before the spectacular progress of these last few years, the intensification of yields had just made it possible to maintain food availability per head at its level of 1933. Despite the recent progress, a not insignificant,minority of Chinese still do not have enough to eat, if only because of the scale of regional disparities in food resources (see Chapter 2). It is to be hoped that this situation is only temporary and that these persistent pockets of malnutrition will gradually disappear with increased output; but in the long run the modernization of agriculture, which implies increasing productivity as well as yields, will pose acutely the problem of surplus labour. Already it is estimated that there are 100 million surplus workers in the agricultural sector; finding jobs for them elsewhere will take all the longer because there is already an abundance of labour in the secondary and tertiary sectors and because the authorities have enormous difficulty in containing unemployment among young city-dwellers. 1 Leaving aside the absorption of the widespread under-employment that already represents a serious obstacle to economic development, almost 200 million nonagricultural jobs would need to be created between now and the end of the century simply to keep up with the foreseeable increase in the number of job-seekers. 2 Modernizing the Chinese economy involves making enterprises more competitive: they have to produce and sell more more cheaply by reducing not only the cost of using capital but also labour costs. Almost everywhere productivity is low or indifferent, and it can and must be greatly improved; but how to lay off surplus labour when so many new job-seekers have to be absorbed? This is a classic illustration of a commonplace vicious circle: modernization, which would create and, with luck, will create- new jobs, is handicapped by the excess of labour which slows down improvements in productivity.