A Green Revolution for China—American Engagement with China’s Agricultural Modernization (1925-1979)

2019-05-15T15:11:45Z (GMT) by Ruisheng Zhang
There were two-way and non-governmental communications between China and the United States in the field of agriculture throughout twentieth century. During the late nineteenth century, Chinese intellectuals already recognized the importance of western agricultural science and technology, and they began actively to court modern agricultural knowledge from western countries. The Plant Improvement Project (PIP) conducted by Cornell University and the University of Nanking from 1925 to 1931 was the groundbreaking agricultural cooperation in agricultural science and technology between the United States and China. Although most of the activities of this project were non-governmental, organized by two universities, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the PIP broke new ground. In 1925, Professor H. H. Love of Cornell University was invited to the University of Nanking to lead a five-year cooperative program of crop improvement, which was called the PIP. From 1925 to 1931, Love along with C. H. Myers and R. G. Wiggans of Cornell University went to China to implement PIP. With the joint efforts of specialists from Cornell University and the University of Nanking, many high-yielding crop varieties were bred and distributed to farmers to improve yields and fight hunger; at the same time they trained a professional group of crop breeders and extension workers to continue crop breeding and distribution. PIP sought a new model for China’s application of the American concept of the integration of agricultural research, education, and extension, which resulted in both success and failure. PIP, however, exerted profound influence on the follow-up work not only at Cornell and Nanking but also for the governments of United States and Nationalist China.  

Following the PIP, in 1934, aiming to increase the well-being of rural populations, the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) trustee committee approved its first comprehensive program (China Program) for rural reconstruction in China. The RF established the North China Council for Rural Reconstruction (NCCRR) in 1936. By studying the policy, hopes, and outcomes of the NCCRR, this chapter provides a specific example of the problem western civil organizations faced in reshaping non-western rural societies. The NCCRR developed techniques for modernizing rural Chinese society; however, constant warfare, political instability, and funding shortages hindered the success of this endeavor. Its impact on China’s rural development remained after the termination of the China Program in 1944.

Then, to promote China’s post-World War II economic reconstruction and hunger relief, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry developed their transnational cooperation with the International Harvester Company from 1945 to 1948. In 1945, the Agricultural Engineering Program for China was proposed by Dr. P. W. Tsou, then a member of the Executive Committee of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the resident representative of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of the Nationalist government in the U.S., to the International Harvester Company. This initiative was supported by International Harvester Company to help China quickly achieve agricultural mechanization. This program was composed with Harvester Fellowships to sponsor Chinese students to learn agricultural engineering in the U.S. and from the committee’s field investigations, demonstrations, and teaching in China. The Chinese Ministry of Education selected ten students who had graduated from agricultural universities and ten students who had graduated from the engineering universities with two to three years of practical work experience. In total twenty students went to the U.S. to study agricultural engineering. Those from engineering universities were sent to the University of Minnesota while those from agricultural universities received admission into master’s program of Iowa State College (later Iowa State University). In two years’ time, they took engineering courses and completed the master’s degree in agricultural engineering. Then, they received a one-year internship at local farms to practice. In September 1948, the first student group returned to China. These twenty students were the first group of Chinese graduate students to study agricultural engineering in the United States. After they returned home, most of them became China’s leading agricultural engineering experts for the People’s Republic of China. In addition, four experienced agricultural engineers (Edwin L. Hansen, Howard F. McColly, Archie A. Stone, and J. Brownlee Davidson) in the United States formed the Committee on Agricultural Engineering to conducted extensive field investigations in China from January 1947 to December 1948 until political and military conditions were not suitable for them to stay in China.

Except for the cooperation with the private sectors in the U.S., the Nationalist government also proposed to the U.S. government cooperation to organize a joint program to provide economic and technical assistance to China’s agricultural industry. In June 1946, the China-United States Agricultural Mission initiated its work. The committee members from the U.S. included Claude B. Hutchison as the head of the U.S. delegation and Raymond T. Moyer as deputy head. Committee members from China included Zou Binwen as the head of the Chinese delegation and Shen Zonghan as the deputy head. After the investigation of fifteen provinces, delegation members provided their findings and suggestions on the reconstruction of Chinese agriculture in their reports. In 1947, the Report of China-United States Agricultural Mission was released by the two governments. This report is a comprehensive agenda for agricultural construction which put forward feasible and systematic plans for agricultural management, crop improvement, and rural education. This plan did not get adopted in mainland China, but it incubated an organizational structure for the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction and provided a blueprint for agricultural reform in Taiwan. This mission had a profound effect on later cooperation in the field of agricultural science and technology between the two countries, which merits scholarly attention.

Final success of this transnational agricultural communication and cooperation was in Taiwan under the direction of the Sino-American Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction from 1948 to 1979. This program, funded by the U.S. government, had a distinct success in agricultural development in Taiwan, but it eventually ended after the Carter Administration withdrew diplomatic recognition from Taiwan in 1979. Later this commission became part of the Council of Agriculture in the Executive Yuan of the Republic of China (ROC).

This agricultural communication and interaction between China and the U.S. made long-term impacts to China, the U.S., and the rest of the world. For the ROC and the PRC, these organized programs and cooperation gradually developed agricultural science and technology, increased agricultural production, and cultivated agricultural experts. These programs did not achieve their pre-set purpose to prevent communism from expanding in rural China, however, both the Nationalist government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) enjoyed those rewards. The ROC directly benefitted from this assistance while PRC also indirectly obtained agricultural science and technology through those trained experts who chose to stay in the mainland after the revolution.

For the United States, these attempts in China helped Americans to expand and reevaluate their global assistance and development projects and governmental agencies, including the Marshall Plan, the Technical Cooperation Administration (TCA), the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), and later the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

For the rest of the world, new global agricultural cooperation, such as Green Revolution agricultural science, eradicated starvation and famine in many developing countries such as India, Mexico, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, global agricultural cooperation generated new problems including environmental degradation and pesticide contamination. Further international cooperation and agricultural development can be tracked back to the U.S.-China agricultural cooperative experience.