China wants robots and big data to drive the rural revival, according to a digital agriculture plan released Monday.

Why it matters: The Xi Jinping leadership has vowed to bridge China’s urban-rural gap, which dates back to the Mao era. It has settled on digital agriculture as the answer.

  • Digitalizing farming can raise average incomes and mobilize the rural consumer class. The next wave of growth will come not from top-tier urban hubs such as Beijing or Shanghai but from lesser-known third and fourth-tier cities.

Details: The “Digital Agriculture and Rural Area Development Plan 2019-2025” acknowledges (in Chinese) that data resources are scattered and coverage rates remain low. But top Party agencies are serious about the digitalizing the countryside and building 5G networks in these areas.

  • The plan sets hard targets. By 2025, the agricultural digital economy must account for 15% of China’s agriculture value-add, and the proportion of agricultural products sold online should hit 15%, according to the plan.
  • Internet access should reach 70% of rural areas by the same deadline.
  • The state wants to see a “new generation of agricultural robots.” These will track fish, diagnose diseases, and help in grazing and feeding animals.
  • Artificial intelligence should protect crops, generate aerial imagery, and monitor yields.
  • Agricultural machinery should leverage China’s homegrown satellite mapping system Beidou.
  • The plan is keen on leveraging data to tell farmers where, when, and how to plant.
  • Blockchain applications for rural finance, food safety, and supply chain transparency should also see breakthroughs.

VIDEO: How tech is changing agriculture in China

Context: The future of agriculture and rural areas is closely tied to state goals such as the 2020 deadline for eradicating extreme poverty.

  • This plan is about “raising efficiency and improving productivity,” said a Beijing-based agricultural policy analyst. “The ag digital economy contributed only 7% of added value in 2018. Compared to other sectors, the farming digital economy is so small and there’s a large space for development.”
  • Expanding internet coverage will allow food producers to tap into e-commerce networks.
  • State-owned enterprises will get behind this plan. “State-owned farms in the northeast and Xinjiang are major buyers and users of technology,” this analyst added.
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Lavender Au

Lavender covers regulation and its effects on people. She previously worked in a policy advisory analyzing China’s internal governance for foreign governments and multinationals. A History graduate from...

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