Wetenschap - 10 oktober 2002

Social capital makes all the difference in China

Social capital makes all the difference in China

Some farmers in rural China succeed in finding news ways to earn a better living, and some stick to the same livelihood. It is social capital that makes the difference, argues Ye Jingzhong, sociologist and managing dean of the College of Rural Development of the China Agricultural University.

Planting fruit trees, raising rabbits, trading peanuts; these are all activities that small-scale farmers in China manage to set up, and it is these innovators that are driving rural development in China according to PhD researcher Ye Jingzhong. What is it that makes farmers take up new activities that they did not do before? Without money and human capital it is difficult to start new ventures, yet these are not the driving force behind such innovations. It is the social network that farmers have which is crucial to their gaining ideas and being able to carry them out, concludes Ye Jingzhong.

Farmers spend time sitting on the street, which is where they meet other farmers. Through the informal chatting that goes on they gain information, for example about market opportunities. Trust and credibility are gained from networks within the village as well as outside. These factors, all captured under the term social capital, determine the level of help, credit or information a farmer is able to receive from others. Social capital, Jingzhong emphasises, is not something that can be bestowed upon farmers from outside, but is something that has to grow from within the community.

Because the factors determining social capital ? interacting in networks and information sharing ? reinforce each other, development should be seen as a process of enlightenment, argues Jingzhong. While in the West enlightenment is seen as being uplifted by gaining knowledge from outside one's own community, for example by reading a book, in China it is more commonly accepted that enlightenment comes from interaction with others as well.

In China, general government policy is to bring about rural development through interventions, either through policy change or development projects. But such an interventionist approach does not build upon local initiatives, argues Jingzhong. As managing dean of the College of Rural Development of one of China?s most important agricultural universities, Jingzhong is in an influential position. He is breaking with the Chinese tradition by arguing in favour of a new approach that facilitates farmers? own initiatives. In addition to his research, Jingzhong also coordinates the student exchange programme between the Chinese Agricultural University and Wageningen University.

Ye Jingzhong defends his PhD thesis on Friday 11 October. He was supervised by Professor Norman Long.

Joris Tielens