In recent months, the (re)emergence of the “Rural Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Brigade” (农村综合行政执法大队) has generated controversy in China. On social media, netizens have nicknamed this brigade as nongguan (农管, “rural managers”), echoing the infamous and widely despised urban enforcers of rules and regulations known as chengguan (城管, “city inspectors”).
In April, China’s national Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs stated that county-level governments have consolidated officers across multiple departments to form so-called “Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement Brigades” to strengthen enforcement efforts (State Council, April 15). As per the Ministry’s “Guiding Categories of Comprehensive Administrative Law Enforcement in Agriculture (2020 version)” (农业综合行政执法事项指导目录2020年版）the nongguan have administrative penalty powers, such as fines and 21 administrative coercive powers (such as detention and confiscation of property) in China’s vast rural areas. These powers cover all aspects of agricultural production, including agricultural products and machinery, fertilizers, and seeds, and come amid Beijing’s continued push to safeguard China’s food security and ambition of reaching domestic food production targets (China Brief, June 17, 2022).
Yet on Chinese social media, video clips of the behavior of nongguan to farmers and in the countryside were shared online and went viral. In Henan, for instance, one video showed farmers being forced to pass a test on basic agricultural skills (such as spraying insecticide) while nongguan look on (Baidu, April 16). Elsewhere, in Guangxi, numerous nongguan destroyed farmers’ tobacco plants (Twitter, April 20). Meanwhile, one farmer reported that all fish ponds in his county had been ordered to be converted into rice patches within two weeks (Twitter, April 23).
These videos, many now censored and removed from websites and Chinese social media platforms (such as Weibo), received thousands of comments, with internet users calling the actions of nongguan “ridiculous.”
Are Nongguan Necessary?
Although agricultural law enforcement has been in place for a number of decades, it was previously divided across different departments, each responsible for its own area (such as the Agriculture Bureau and the Water Resources Bureau). However, following the establishment of agricultural law enforcement teams, specifically responsible for agricultural input management, at the beginning of this century and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Party Congress in 2017, China sought to link the administration system and law enforcement teams into one entity—the Comprehensive Agricultural Law Enforcement Team—in order to enforce agricultural law.
While the move to revamp the chengguan may seem unnecessary and even a hindrance to farmers, there are, arguably, important and legitimate reasons exist for this role. These minders are responsible for aspects of agricultural production, including tasks such as ensuring the quality and safety of agricultural products in China. This includes, for instance, cracking down on counterfeit agricultural products, such as seeds and pesticides.
Food safety is one area that China has long struggled with, having been plagued by food safety scandals in recent years, a notable example being the melamine-tainted baby milk powder scandal in 2008. This resulted in the death of six children and the hospitalization of thousands of others (CCTV, September 16; see also Sohu News September 12). To this end, the nongguan play a key role in ensuring adherence to food safety standards, particularly when it comes to the shutting down of counterfeit food production. In Shandong province, for instance, more than 100 counterfeit veterinary companies were discovered, resulting in the arrest of 45 individuals involved in these illegal operation (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, April 15). Elsewhere, in Sichuan province, nongguan uncovered a major counterfeit pesticide manufacturing and selling operation, which had been selling fake agricultural pesticides to 24 provinces throughout China. As a result, Eight production sites involved in the counterfeit operation were raided and dismantled (Legal Daily, April 18).
Furthermore, the nongguan are responsible for monitoring soil environmental pollution, another area that China has struggled to improve. The country’s economic success alongside the rapid rate of industrialization in recent decades has come at the expense of the environment. Although rapid industrialization has lifted hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty, as per China’s official statistics, the country’s water, air, and soil quality has significantly worsened (China Daily, January 23, 2020).
Soil pollution, in particular, has become a serious health and environmental threat. Posing a serious challenge to Chinese agricultural governance, soil pollution has tainted significant quantities of China’s farming land, affecting both public health and food crops, contaminating the food chain with heavy metals, fertilizers, pesticides, and persistent organic pollutants and solvents. Estimates suggest that more than 40 percent of China’s soil is degraded from overuse, erosion and pollution (China Daily, November 5, 2014).
Until 2013, however, data on the country’s soil pollution was difficult to access. Nonetheless, in December of that year, China’s Ministry of Land and Resources reported that the country has 3.33 million hectares of farmland—around 2.5 percent of total arable land in China —that are too contaminated to use. Moreover, in 2014, the central government’s soil survey revealed that 19 percent of China’s farmland was contaminated by metals such as cadmium and arsenic (People’s Daily, April 29, 2014).
To address soil pollution, the Chinese central authorities have implemented various policies, action plans and regulations to improve soil quality. At present, China uses a 10-grade classification system for cultivated land, with grade 1 being the highest (General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine of the People’s Republic of China and the Standardization Administration of China, December 30, 2016). According to a 2019 report, the average grade is 4.76, with two-thirds of all soil being of low or medium quality (PRC State Council, May 13, 2020). In addition, organic carbon content in China’s soil is more than 30 percent lower than the global average and less than 50 percent of soil in Europe (Farmer’s Daily, August 28, 2021).
In May 2016, the State Council published the Action Plan on Prevention and Control of Soil Pollution (国务院关于印发土壤污染防治行动计划的通知) (State Council, May 28, 2016). Under the Action Plan, 90 percent of polluted farmland soil is to be made safe for human use by 2020 and 95 percent by 2030, benchmarks that are also outlined in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan.
Following this, in August 2018, the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress approved the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law (土壤污染防治法) (PRC Ministry of Ecology and Environment, August 31, 2018). As the first law dedicated to soil pollution prevention in China, this legal measure outlines several preventative measures that government authorities and land users should undertake to protect the soil and mitigate future pollution. The law also adopted a protection-first and polluter-pays approach.
Municipal and provincial governments have also demonstrated a growing interest in addressing soil pollution as part of their efforts to support the national soil pollution law. Notably, in late 2022, Beijing’s municipal government released a list of measures related to soil pollution prevention which came into effect in 2023 (Beijing municipal government, September 23, 2022). The government aims to address soil pollution and related concerns by regulating the use of both chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and also increasing the monitoring of industrial polluters. Also, according to Jiemian News in China, Beijing is one of 15 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities that have introduced local regulations on the prevention and control of soil pollution, with fines of up to 2 million yuan (Jiemian News, October 25, 2022). 
These action plans and related law support existing efforts to address soil pollution and the management thereof. For instance, the Agricultural Law (《中华人民共和国农业法》), states that agricultural organizations and also farmers should prevent pollution and deterioration of agricultural land (National People’s Congress [NPC], December 12, 2012); while the Agricultural Product Quality Security Law (《中华人民共和国农产品质量安全法》) sets out restrictions on the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to avoid land pollution (Gov.cn, April 29, 2006).
At the same time, efforts to improve soil quality and reduce environmental pollution are part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s broader “Green Leap Forward.”’ Since his arrival to power in 2012, President Xi has made the environment and related policies critical priorities in domestic policy. A key aspect of the Green Leap Forward is “ecological civilization” (生态文明), a conceptual framework for all sectors that seek to balance China’s fast-paced economic development and protect the environment, thereby supporting the harmonious coexistence between the environment and humanity, and which draws on ancient Daoist philosophy of Laozi (Xinhua, August 2, 2017). The construction of ecological civilization is also integral to Xi’s central project to achieve the “Great Rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation (Xinhua, August 2, 2017). A notable example is Xi’s bold commitment to the so-called “dual carbon goals” – to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030 and make China carbon neutral by 2060.
Another significant part of the Green Leap Forward is Xi’s “two mountains theory” , under which “clear waters and green mountains are as valuable as gold and silver mountains” (绿水青山就是金山银山) (Xinhua, August 2, 2017). Xi first espoused this concept in 2005, when he was Party Secretary of Zhejiang. The “two mountains theory” seeks to guide the Chinese people to protect the natural environment and encourage resource conservation, supported by various domestic policies (Zhejiang Provincial Bureau of Statistics, April 2, 2021).
The Chinese central government’s interest in soil pollution management and broader efforts to improve the environment is further demonstrated by plans to invest billions of dollars in soil remediation in the coming years. In part to avoid further degradation and eventually increase the amount of arable land in China to help meet domestic food production targets, the Chinese authorities have implemented various measures. According to official statistics, between 2013 and 2019, China ‘lost’ more than 5 percent of its arable land due to factors such as excess fertilizer use and land neglect, in China. Given that Chinese farmers use on average four times more nitrogen fertilizer per hectare annually than the global average, according to researchers at the China Agricultural University in Beijing, high levels and overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers have further exacerbated soil quality issues. 
In February 2022, the PRC State Council announced that a survey of the country’s soil would be carried out by the vice premier and supported by leaders of China’s Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. It is expected to be completed in 2025 (State Council, February 16, 2022). This follows the publication of soil pollution studies in 2014 (State Council, April 17, 2014) and 2018 (State Council, November 30, 2019).
In this light, the nongguan play a key role in helping ensure that targets related to the monitoring of soil pollution and by extension, soil quality improvement are met, thereby supporting major domestic policies and development plans.
Public perception of “Chengguan” and “Nongguan”
In response to video footage of nongguan circulating on Chinese social media websites such as Weibo, Chinese internet users took to social media platforms to express their concerns that the country’s farmers would be as treated as poorly by the nongguan as street vendors are the notorious city inspectors (chengguan). Found in nearly all cities in mainland China, city inspectors primarily crack down on illegal street vendors but are also responsible for enforcing rules on city sanitation and landscaping, as well as parking.
Yet chengguan officers have often been criticized for their tactics and have been accused of using bullying in incidents, some of which have resulted in injuries or even death. Although PRC authorities have sought to improve the chengguan image in recent years, ugly incidents, such as the beating up of a female fruit vendor in Chongqing, Sichuan province, in 2020 (Nan’an District public security bureau Weibo website, September 20) or in 2013 when a Hubei man was beaten by more than 10 chengguan after calling them “thugs” (China Daily, December 11, 2013), of brutality by chengguan continue to make headlines in China and spark outrage on social media.
However, the poor public perception and continued anger to both chengguan and nongguan, also reflects continued fears about the brutality of law enforcement at the grass-roots levels. This comes also after three years of draconian COVID-19 controls during the zero-COVID policy and continued public anger over the violent enforcement of lockdowns and quarantine orders (China Brief, November 28, 2022). For instance, a recent video uploaded to social media showed a large number of residents from neighborhoods took to the street to block the vehicles of chengguan from leaving in response to an incident where chengguan assaulted an egg vendor in Neijang, Sichuan (Twitter, June 13; Twitter June 14).
In response to public outrage over rural managers, China’s national Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs posted a lengthy question and answer response on its website in April to outline the role and responsibilities of rural managers” (Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, April 14). On the website page, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs also warned its “rural managers” that “nothing can be done without legal authorization.”
Both actions suggest that Beijing has recognized and is wary of public outrage towards the “rural managers” spilling over into other areas where internet users are discontent.
Return to the Mao-era?
The concept of “rural managers” dates back to a controversial system introduced in China during the 1950s. During the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), Chairman Mao Zedong implemented various policies that aimed to rapidly transform the country’s economy, with a focus on increasing agricultural production. As part of this, the Chinese central government introduced a system known as “Production Brigade” to organize agricultural production in rural communities.
Under this system, local officials or cadres were appointed as rural managers and given the responsibility to oversee agricultural production and farming operations, enforce production quotas, supervise farming operations and the distribution of resources, as well as to mobilize peasants to engage in large-scale farming projects in villages. In addition, the rural managers were tasked with promoting socialist ideals and encouraging labor-intensive practices to achieve high agricultural yields.
Initially, the concept of “rural managers” was seen to increase productivity, achieve self-sufficiency in food production and support rural development. However, as time went on, the implementation of the system faced various challenges and controversies implementation of the system faced numerous challenges and resulted in severe consequences.
One of the main criticisms was the excessive power and authority given to the rural managers. They had significant control over the lives of the rural population, including land distribution, resource allocation, and even personal matters such as marriage and family planning, impact farmers and their autonomy.
The collective nature of the system often also limited farmers’ control over their land and production decisions. As the forced collectivization made peasants join farms to work collectively, often against their will, both traditional land ownership and individual farming practices were abolished. This, in turn, lead to the disruption of the traditional farming systems and the loss of personal incentives.
Another concern with the rural management system during this time was the overemphasis on quantity over quality. In pursuit of meeting ambitious agricultural production targets, “rural managers” often ignored other key aspects such as soil quality and crop diversity. Due to the persistent focus on quantity over quality, thereby resulting in a decline in overall agricultural productivity.
At the same time, the concentration of power in the hands of “rural managers” led to instances of abuse, corruption, and exploitation, as some rural managers used their authority for personal gain or to enforce strict policies on the rural population.
However, in the 1980s, China implemented significant agricultural reforms, shifting towards a more market-oriented economy and granting farmers more autonomy. As a result, the nongguan system underwent changes, and its influence was gradually reduced.
However, remnants of the system still exist in some rural areas. As a result debates about its legacy and the role of local governance in agricultural development continue, with the more controversial aspects such as abuses of power and limitations of farmers’ autonomy, have made it a subject a criticism and scrutiny.
On the one hand, nongguan are being used by the Chinese central authorities to help meet soil quality and related targets, which are integral to the PRC’s efforts to achieve its plans for an ecological civilization. The role of the nongguan in improving China’s poor soil quality is essential for Beijing to also meet its increasing number of domestic production targets (such as for soybeans) as part of broader efforts to safeguard the country’s food security. On the other hand, the strong, public (re-)emergence of nongguan and also chengguan reflect the growing power and state control that authorities hold in Xi’s China, demonstrated by tools such as facial recognition and mass surveillance systems, which are increasingly deployed in rural areas.
In this light, the heavy-handed use of the nongguan has undoubtedly sparked fears of the re-collectivization and the return of Maoist policies, which resulted in famines as well as significant political and social instability throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Notably, the agricultural crisis in China in 1959-61, after the initial success of the collectivization movement, resulted in millions of deaths. While the situation may not have reached this level, yet, nongguan are an unfortunate reminder of the currently decreasing power and autonomy of Chinese farmers.
 According to Jiemian News, these provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities are as follows: Hubei, Shandon, Shanxi, Jiangxi, Tianjin, Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Henan, Hebei, Jiangsu, Fujian, Yunnan, Guangxi, Ningxia and Beijing. Moreover, other provinces like Sichuan and Hunan are in the process of formulating local regulations.
 Zhenling Cui, et al, “Pursuing sustainable productivity with millions of smallholder farmers” Nature, 555, 363–366 (2018).