Frontiering the Chinese “West”: a Closer Look

Page 7-4

Given that “spot” (seasonally hired, temporary) pickers are paid these days between .8 and 2.25 RMB per kg (US ₡6 to ₡18/lb. average perhaps ₡10/lb) this part of the production/harvest cost removes if not all then most of the picker labor outlay, between Ɏ 800 and perhaps as much as Ɏ 2250 per metric ton – -dependent on urgency and distance of the average mobilized picker- at least 2/3 of which are extraprovincials from such low harvest demand provinces as Gansu, Ningxia, even Qinghai and Shaanxi If allowed to remain at 2008-10 levels, this unskilled labor cost added to the import-substitution cost hikes the wharfside competitive price (these days 12-13,000 RMB) by between 6% to 17% over what it would otherwise be, which therefore if reduced to almost 0 would go far toward reducing the 7,000+ RMB/MT supercharge that now beleaguers China’s reserve intake price. Though of course not coming anywhere near levelling it v/v imports.

Exactly as was the practice of the collectives in Stalin’s heyday, labor-replacing machines (there, tractors; here harvesters) became available through large scale production delivery contracts with the Corps farms’ management system which in the Xinjiang case meant farms under the management of one another of the “Corps”‘s (nominally) 14 division/armies, whose land in any case already absorbs the lion’s share of plantation-scale cotton planting, but which also had prime access to the newest and most effective agro-chemicals and seed strains as well as hose-fed spray irrigation/pesticide and weedkiller (the “three sprays”) in use by all 14 of the 师 (“army divisions”) in the Territory. 700 harvester or harvester combines were already in operation by 2012 and a targeted 1,000-1,100 by 2015 (the end of the current FYP), but all only on “Corps” run farms – the cost was simply too high for private farmers. But if this latter target is reached the migrant labor force will it is hoped be reduced from almost 700,000 in 2008, to approximately 100,000 by 2015, or from 1.3/ha to under 0.25/ha.

It is perhaps a token of Maoist gigantism (the cult of the large) that the picking/harvest machines in most common use are monsters, the preferred model being the US-made Model NO.: 4MZ-5, specs below. The financed purchase price (new) of one of these machines is Ɏ 1.5 million ($250,000), plus interest to the state finance agency – and evidently the 石河子贵航农机装备有限责任公司 in Shehezi (one of the Corps’ six “cities”, and one of its largest machinery leasing concerns) is doing a great business both selling and leasing them, imports though they must for now be. . (Though it is admitted that operator retraining and maintenance personnel training have been causing machines to sit un or under-used for a year at a time. )

Sinkkiang Megas-coton picker,jpg

But the army-derived “corps” speaks these days as flat-out exponent of high-profile urbanization, technology-deepening, and agricultural [modern] “ization” – the three “izations” or sanhua- so the choice to go mammoth is perhaps as much a PR as a productivity booster. Having said this much, one might note that a much less capital intensive and much more workforce retention friendly form of mechanization has developed in India and Pakistan, using a hand-held device that can harvest perhaps 150 KG/day/worker (vs purely manual, 60) while also trimming and blowing away waste; while it leaves much of the physical movement still to the worker and thus slows the overall rate of harvesting, it still leaves 40% or so of the local seasonal workforce intact and with a higher take-home from the even partial sharing of the benefits of using this smaller, BATTERY-powered machine, not to mention the benefit to the owner of a 0 fuel bill. Or the reduction in “seed impurity” (from 10% to near 0), which needs to be ginned away.

Appropriate Technology: the alternative Neeti Agrotech supplied (Indore, Madhya Pradesh, India) hand held picker: a cotton lint vacuum cleaner

This is plantation-scale farming at a gigantic scale, certainly superscale for China, (at 146 farms 55,000 mu each or almost 4,000 ha) but there are two or perhaps 3 caveats.

First, it may be (and was so reported initially) that experienced harvest hands are more skilled at picking same-sized same quality boll, which means less work for the gins and a simple bagging of the remainder.

Second, the capital costs involved in the on-lining of 1,100 new harvesters (costing perhaps $250,000+ each in the US), or perhaps 6 billion RMB (my guess) will greatly add to real overheads, even if the state picks up the credit line.

Third, diesel fuel for driving so many harvesters over so many acres will be enormous, what with oil at over $5.00/gallon.

And finally, the job losses -and especially among Uighur women (see above) – will be socially unpopular or worse – as 500-600,000 temporary and relatively high-paying jobs ($ US 10.00 20.00/day) are permanently lost along with (even inadequate) healthcare benefits.

So this may be one extreme case of Dengist laissez faire economics adding in a major way to soCIAL dis-harmony.



Reshuffling crop mixes, supporting prices by huge-scale purchases of reserves (esp. for cotton, which is eminently warehousable and thus amenable to this kind of indirect subsidy), and assisting with the development and diffusion of new or better strains (“extension services”) and information/advice on hydraulic and chemical inputs (including their reduction!) fall under the purview of this agency, though the ultimate accumulation of “reserves” is conducted by other organizations (mainly at the provincial level).

XPCC’s Cotton Plantations and the “Cotton-picker” labor market

The XPCC is however not JUST a technology/seed-strain diffusion center. It is also, in corporate form, a “plantation” cotton planter, inter alia, serving as proxy for the huge corporate owned farms that have taken over US plains and then orchard agriculture, as well perhaps as the earlier function of the US Southeast or the Ukraine as harnessers of locked-in labor to build a market-dominating scale for export production for this all-important “key” to “Western” development. “Industrializing” raw cotton production and supply is the obvious mission, but for political and racial reasons, the XPCC has had to also function like the “model” or government run work camps of the dustbowl Depression era, forestalling strikes or racial unrest by scattering utopian benefits within parts of its matrix (schools, hospitals, high-paying seasonal work for subcontracting workers, etc.). In the end therefore a mix of Khrushchev’s famous Cotton Madness in/around the Caspian/Baikal – intended to make the USSR not just independent but an exporter of raw cotton – and the New Deal’s multiply constructed Migrant Worker Dormitory complexes that so impressed Steinbeck on the eve of WWII.

As of the last web-accessible data year (2010), quite apart from the probably full-season labor pool (above) noted for Sayar cotton, the XPCC employed 500,000 seasonal laborers for harvesting only, the majority selectively recruited from women and from “intra-territorials” (200,000), probably meaning Uighur and Kazakh, or at least non Han. The analogue within the racial profile of US mega-farming is actually closest to that of the California-Oregon-Washington corridor, where, first, surplus or unemployed “Okies” from the dustbelt arrived to handle the fruit harvests on a rolling calendar basis, gradually to be supplanted by a mix of machine harvesting and (once upon a time) “quota” Mexicans carefully limited and repatriated, and with no benefits at all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s