Foreign Investment in China’s Agriculture Sector: Problems and Strategies

Abstract

In the past few decades, China has achieved rapid economic development and has taken a dominant position in the world economy. Due to its abundant material and human resources, China has attracted many foreign investments, further strengthening its own economic development. However, in the agriculture sector, the level of foreign investment has been consistently low and has shown a downward trend in recent years. This paper summarizes the development process and current situation of foreign investment in China’s agriculture sector, analyzes existing problems, and based on this, proposes policy recommendations to promote the utilization of foreign investment in China’s agriculture sector.

Share and Cite:

Lu, Y. , Aikebaier, D. and Han, Y. (2023) Foreign Investment in China’s Agriculture Sector: Problems and Strategies. Modern Economy, 14, 833-846. doi: 10.4236/me.2023.146045.

1. Introduction

Since the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy in 1978, China has experienced rapid economic development, achieving a significant breakthrough in foreign investment utilization. The previous strategy of gradual and partial opening-up has gradually transformed into a more comprehensive and extensive commitment to openness. According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the country’s foreign direct investment (FDI) has grown from $40.72 billion in 2000 to $173.48 billion in 2021, with an average annual growth rate of 7.15%. Nevertheless, the distribution of FDI in China has long been characterized by regional and industrial imbalances, primarily concentrated in the eastern coastal areas and the secondary sector. Since 2006, FDI in the tertiary industry has accelerated, and FDI in agriculture has also increased in absolute terms, but its proportion in overall FDI is still below 2%. Due to the impact of the international situation, China’s agricultural FDI has experienced a downward trajectory since 2012. FDI in agriculture declined from $2.06 billion in 2012 to $0.58 billion in 2020, with its proportion also decreasing from 1.85% to 0.40%. It was only in 2021 that a slight recovery was observed.

Recognizing that agriculture serves as the bedrock for ensuring food security, China’s agricultural sector continues to encounter challenges such as limited funding, inadequate infrastructure, and outdated technology. Extensive research has consistently highlighted that FDI plays a crucial role in driving agricultural economic growth (Epaphra & Mwakalasya, 2017; Jin et al., 2017; Ju et al., 2022) . Increasing foreign investment in the agricultural sector holds significant importance in promoting agricultural economic development and ensuring food security. Therefore, this article aims to examine the current state of foreign investment in China’s agriculture, identify existing issues, and propose policy recommendations to enhance foreign investment in the agricultural sector.

2. The Development History and Current Situation of China’s Agricultural FDI

2.1. Development History of China’s Agricultural FDI

The utilization of FDI in China’s agricultural sector began with the implementation of the reform and opening-up policy in 1978. There is a wealth of research on the development process of China’s agricultural FDI, and existing literature primarily categorizes it into different stages based on the amount of agricultural FDI and the policy support for foreign investment in agriculture. Some scholars have divided the development process of China’s agricultural FDI into three stages: the initial stage from 1978 to 1991, the period of steady development from 1992 to 2001, and the stage of scientific development after 2002 (Xu, 2012) . In furtherance of prior research and taking into account the changes in the global economic landscape and China’s inflow of foreign investment, some scholars have proposed a division of China’s agricultural FDI development process into four stages: the initial stage from 1978 to 1991, the period of steady development from 1992 to 2001, the phase of rapid development from 2002 to 2010, and the stage of scientific development after 2011 (Luo, 2017) .

As shown in Figure 1, the development of China’s agricultural FDI was relatively stable before 2001. However, starting from that year, there was a notable increase in growth rate, and in 2002, it exceeded 1 billion US dollars for the first time. Subsequently, there was a period of continuous decline. In 2007, a new phase of growth began, marked by a significant upswing. From 2006 to 2010, China’s agricultural FDI increased from 0.599 billion USD to 1.912 billion USD, reached an impressive annual growth rate of 33.66%. The peak in agricultural FDI was reached in 2012, with a historical high of 2.062 billion US dollars, followed by a subsequent decline.

Based on existing research and in conjunction with data trends, we categorize

Figure 1. The inflow of FDI in China’s agriculture sector: 1997-2021. Data source: China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

the development process of FDI in China’s agriculture into four stages: 1) the initial stage, spanning from 1978 to 1991, marked the beginning of FDI in the agricultural sector; 2) the second stage, covering the period from 1992 to 2001, can be described as a transitional phase that followed the initial stage, this stage also witnessed a period of stable development in FDI; 3) the third stage, from 2002 to 2012, characterized by rapid development in China’s foreign investment; 4) the fourth stage represents the ongoing transformational development stage, starting from 2013 and continuing until the present time.

1) The initial stage (1978-1991): After the reform and opening-up policy, China increasingly engaged with the outside world and gradually developed trade relations. This marked the beginning of China’s utilization of foreign investment in the agricultural sector. During this period, the government and relevant departments introduced favorable policies to attract foreign investment. For instance, foreign enterprises investing in the agricultural sector were granted specific income tax benefits, reductions in land rentals, and national treatment on par with domestic investors. These policies contributed to the growth of farmers’ income and improved their consumption levels. During the early stages of the reform and opening-up, the agricultural sector in China faced a funding shortage, which was effectively addressed through the introduction of foreign investment. Coastal regions, in particular, became early hubs for foreign investment in China.

2) Stable development stage (1992-2001): After foreign investment played a positive role in the development of China’s agriculture in the first stage, China introduced more policies to attract foreign investment. In 1995, the “Catalogue for the Guidance of Foreign Investment Industries” was issued, and it was revised in 1997 in response to the new economic development situation. This revision provided clear guidance for foreign investment in the agricultural sector. The guidance catalogue continued to identify agriculture as an encouraged industry and allowed various forms of cooperation, such as equipment, capital, and technology investments. Certain projects approved by relevant departments could enjoy corresponding tax incentives, especially in the investment of traditional agricultural infrastructure in western regions, where tax reductions and exemptions were more substantial compared to eastern regions.

3) Rapid development stage (2002-2012): To meet the development demands of the new era and promote the growth of China’s agriculture through the rational utilization of foreign investment, the Ministry of Commerce of China conducted multiple revisions of the “Catalogue for the Guidance of Foreign Investment Industries” initially issued in 1995. These revisions took place in 2004, 2007, and 2011. During this period, China’s domestic economic situation was favorable, resulting in a steady increase in foreign investment inflows. The scope of foreign investment in China’s agriculture also expanded, positioning China as a preferred destination for foreign investors. In the face of the global financial crisis, the Chinese government implemented effective measures to mitigate its impact on the agricultural economy. The stable domestic economic situation created an enabling environment for foreign investment.

4) Transformational development stage (2013 to present): In 2012, the Chinese economy entered a new stage of development with the primary goals of “adjusting the structure, transforming the growth pattern, and promoting upgrading”. During this stage, as the direction of economic development shifted, the growth rate transitioned from high-speed to medium-to-low speed, and significant changes occurred in China’s policies regarding international openness. Moreover, there were major transformations in China’s agricultural investment policies, shifting the focus from increasing the quantity of FDI in agriculture to improving the quality of such investments. In 2015, the sixth revision of the “Catalogue for the Guidance of Foreign Investment Industries” reduced the number of restricted and prohibited items from 79 and 38, respectively, to 38 and 36. Notably, the agricultural sector saw a decrease in the number of restricted items by two, and the prohibition on genetically modified organism research and development was also eased. These adjustments contributed to the enhanced optimization of foreign investment in the agricultural sector.

From 2013 to 2020, the scale of agricultural FDI in China witnessed a significant decline. According to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, agricultural FDI experienced a decline of 12.71% in 2013 and 15.43% in 2014. There was a slight recovery in 2015, and in 2016, agricultural FDI reached $1.898 billion. However, in 2017, agricultural FDI experienced a sharp decline of 43.36%, and this downward trend persisted until 2020 when agricultural FDI amounted to only $576 million. During this period, the proportion of agricultural FDI in China followed a similar trajectory. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, the proportion of agricultural FDI was 1.53%, 1.27%, and 1.21% respectively. The proportion of agricultural FDI recovered to 1.51% in 2016. Subsequently, from 2017 to 2020, the proportion of agricultural FDI continued to decrease, plummeting from 0.82% to 0.40%.

During this stage, there are three main reasons for the decline in agricultural FDI in China. First, as the Chinese economy entered a phase of high-quality development, the agricultural industry became increasingly concerned about the environmental pollution and ecological damage caused by FDI. As a result, there was a shift in focus towards emphasizing the quality of FDI in the agricultural sector.

Second, from 2017 to 2019, China implemented a series of measures and policies aimed at expanding opening up and actively utilizing foreign investment. These policies, such as the “Notice of the State Council on Several Measures for Expanding Opening Up and Actively Utilizing Foreign Investment”, “Notice on Several Measures for Promoting Foreign Investment Growth”, “Notice on Several Measures for Actively and Effectively Utilizing Foreign Investment to Promote High-Quality Economic Development” and “Opinions of the State Council on Further Improving the Utilization of Foreign Investment”, were primarily focused on promoting comprehensive opening up and expanding foreign investment in the service and manufacturing sectors. However, they did not place significant emphasis on attracting foreign investment in the agricultural sector.

Third, during this period, the global landscape was characterized by turbulence, differentiation, escalating trade frictions, and the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. These factors further exacerbated the sluggishness of the global economy and added difficulties to China’s economic development transformation and comprehensive opening up. Consequently, there was a downward trend in China’s agricultural FDI.

2.2. Current Situation of Agricultural FDI in China

2.2.1. Total Amount of Agricultural FDI

Since 1985, the amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) utilized in China’s agricultural sector has been steadily increasing. By the end of 2021, the cumulative foreign investment in agriculture reached $21.44 billion, with a total of 13,115 contracted projects1. However, the scale of FDI utilized in China’s agricultural sector remains relatively small compared to other sectors. As shown in Figure 2, while the overall FDI in China has been increasing, agricultural FDI has experienced significant fluctuations and continues to account for a small proportion, less than 2%, of the total FDI. In recent years, there has even been a downward trend in agricultural FDI.

The limited utilization of FDI in China’s agriculture can be attributed to a combination of internal and external factors.

Firstly, when considering the agricultural conditions, China’s agriculture lacks comparative advantages compared to other domestic industries (Xiong & Deng, 2001) . The absence of comparative advantages in agriculture makes it challenging for foreign investors to achieve high returns on their investments. Apart from capital investment, agricultural FDI also encompasses technology investment. However, agricultural technology exhibits regional heterogeneity. Due to variations in terrain, climate, and other natural factors, some foreign agricultural

Figure 2. Proportion of agricultural FDI in China: 1997-2021. Data source: China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

technologies may not be suitable for China’s agricultural production. This limitation presents significant challenges in introducing agricultural technologies and restricts the level of agricultural investment. Furthermore, the distribution of foreign investment in China is currently uneven. Coastal regions tend to attract a larger share of foreign investment, while inland regions, where the majority of China’s agricultural production areas are located, receive relatively less foreign investment.

Secondly, from the perspective of government services, the Chinese government has not yet established a highly comprehensive agricultural support and protection system, making it difficult to form stable income expectations (Qu, 2006) . In terms of agricultural investment, there are higher risks associated with investing in undeveloped regions. These investments typically involve substantial upfront costs and have long payback periods. The government lacks industry policy support for such investments, making it challenging to attract foreign investment and establish a well-defined industry layout.

Lastly, agricultural foreign direct investment (FDI) in China continues to be primarily driven by the search for labor. China’s agricultural production heavily relies on manual labor, encompassing tasks such as land clearing, sowing, harvesting, and processing. This reliance has caught the attention of numerous international agricultural companies, prompting them to consider investing in China. By doing so, these companies gain access to cost-effective labor resources and can take advantage of specific policy incentives, such as supportive measures in areas like land allocation and taxation. However, the labor market in China has undergone changes, leading to a gradual increase in labor costs. As a result, international agricultural companies operating in China face higher investment expenses, which have contributed to a decline in agricultural FDI. Additionally, the Chinese government has implemented stricter regulations and restrictions on foreign investment in recent years, further complicating the investment process and increasing costs for agricultural FDI. Collectively, these factors have contributed to a gradual decrease in agricultural FDI in China.

2.2.2. Distribution Characteristics of China’s Agriculture FDI

In terms of industry distribution, China’s agriculture FDI is mainly concentrated in areas such as primary processing of agricultural products, crop cultivation, and animal husbandry. These projects typically require low investment, have short profit cycles, and are relatively easy to operate. According to the provided information in Table 1, there are currently 23 industries that are encouraged for foreign investment. However, there are certain restrictions on foreign investment in industries such as the breeding and seed production of new varieties of wheat and maize. Additionally, there are prohibited industries that encompass the research, breeding, cultivation, and production of rare and unique precious varieties exclusive to China. Furthermore, the production of genetically modified varieties in crops, livestock, poultry, and aquaculture, as well as foreign investment in fishing activities within China’s jurisdictional waters and inland water areas, are also strictly prohibited.

In the 2022 edition of the industrial catalog, there has been a significant increase in the number of industries encouraged for foreign investment. The nationwide catalog now includes 519 items, which is an increase of 104 items compared to the 2019 edition. Similarly, the catalog for the central and western regions includes 955 items, marking an increase of 262 items compared to the 2019 edition. Specifically in the agriculture sector, there has been an addition of 8 industries that are now encouraged for foreign investment compared to the 2019 edition. At the same time, the Negative List 2021 comprises a total of 129 items, which indicates a decrease of 2 items compared to the Negative List 2019.

From a regional perspective, there is an imbalance in the distribution of agriculture foreign direct investment (FDI) in China. The majority of agricultural FDI, over 90%, is concentrated in the eastern region, while the central and western regions receive less than 10% of the total agricultural FDI (Yan, 2003) . This distribution pattern aligns with the overall regional distribution of foreign direct investment in the country. When examining individual provinces, it is often the case that provinces with higher levels of economic development attract more agricultural FDI, while provinces with slower development tend to receive less foreign investment in the agricultural sector.

From a source perspective, agriculture foreign direct investment (FDI) in China predominantly originates from large multinational corporations, with notable contributions from companies based in Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, the United States, and Germany. It is worth noting that the top twenty global food multinational companies have already established their presence in the Chinese market. Overall, the sources of agriculture FDI in China exhibit diversity, encompassing various types of enterprises investing in this sector.

Table 1. Catalogue of industries for foreign investment in China’s agriculture sector.

Source: National Development and Reform Commission of China.

2.2.3. International Comparison of China’s Agriculture FDI

From an international perspective, China’s agriculture foreign direct investment (FDI) accounts for a relatively small share of its overall foreign investment, a trend observed in global agriculture FDI as well. Although agriculture has a lower proportion in foreign direct investment worldwide, it holds a higher share in developing countries such as Indonesia, Paraguay, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos. These countries, whose domestic industries are predominantly agricultural, actively encourage agricultural investment to attract foreign capital. In contrast, developed countries tend to have a lower proportion of foreign direct investment in agriculture.

In China, agriculture FDI consistently maintains a small percentage, ranging from 1% to 3% of the total investment. However, according to World Bank data, China’s agricultural GDP reached $129 million in 2021, ranking first globally. Despite the significant foreign investment directed towards industries such as manufacturing and services, there is a growing recognition of the importance of strengthening agriculture FDI to further stimulate the development of the agricultural economy.

3. Problems in the Introduction of Foreign Investment in China’s Agriculture

3.1. Poor Investment Environment

The rural areas in China face challenges in terms of road transportation infrastructure, water and power supply capacity, communication systems, and incomplete social service facilities. These shortcomings make it difficult to create an attractive business environment for foreign investors. Furthermore, there are deficiencies in the laws, regulations, and policies related to agricultural investment, as well as a lack of intermediary organizations dedicated to serving foreign investment. These factors dampen the enthusiasm of foreign investors. Additionally, the education level of the rural population is generally low, and there is a scarcity of professionals with expertise in agricultural knowledge and comprehensive skills in economic and trade management. Consequently, there is a limited talent pool to support and attract foreign investment in the agricultural sector.

3.2. Monotonous Agricultural Industry Structure

China’s agriculture is primarily focused on crop cultivation, and a well-structured industrial layout has not been fully developed. There is a lack of technical training services specifically tailored for high-risk, high-tech projects such as variety improvement and bioproduct manufacturing. Additionally, there are limited comprehensive open projects in agriculture in China, which contributes to a lack of interest among foreign investors in agricultural investments.

3.3. Weak Investment Entities

Most domestic agricultural enterprises in China have small production scales and weak economic strength. Their technological level, management capacity, and talent quality are relatively low compared to international standards. Insufficient funding in the agricultural sector further hampers their ability to engage in large-scale and effective collaborations with multinational companies. These factors collectively dampen the interest of foreign investors in choosing agricultural investment projects and partners in China. Moreover, the reluctance of some rural farmers to lease out their land impedes the full utilization of China’s comparative advantages in agriculture, thereby restricting the overall level of foreign direct investment in the sector.

3.4. Insufficient Strength of Investment Policies

The policy incentives for attracting foreign investment in China’s agriculture are not sufficient. While the government promotes agriculture as a favored industry, the preferential policies for attracting foreign investment in this sector are relatively constrained compared to those offered to the manufacturing sector. Foreign investors perceive lower returns on agricultural projects, which results in a reluctance to invest in agriculture. Furthermore, the burden of high tax rates and various charges imposed on foreign investors, combined with the escalating labor costs, dampens the enthusiasm of foreign investors to venture into the agricultural sector.

4. Suggestions on Attracting Foreign Investment in China’s Agriculture

4.1. Improving the Environment for Foreign Investment in Agriculture

Efforts should be intensified to strengthen rural communication and road infrastructure, improve rural power supply and water facilities, and enhance the fundamental production conditions in rural areas. Furthermore, prioritizing the construction of social service facilities such as education, culture, and healthcare is essential for creating a conducive environment to attract foreign investment in agriculture. Special attention should be given to talent development in the agricultural sector, encouraging diverse approaches to reinforce workforce skills and technical expertise, thereby providing exceptional human resources for foreign investors. Concurrently, expediting the transition of government functions, bolstering service-oriented mindset, and enhancing administrative efficiency are imperative. Additionally, it is vital to fortify the legal framework to establish the necessary basis and safeguards for foreign economic cooperation in agriculture.

4.2. Optimizing the Industrial Layout for Foreign Investment in Agriculture

Based on the current state and future plans for agricultural development in China, it is crucial to identify key areas for attracting foreign investment in agriculture. Foreign investors should be encouraged to invest in comprehensive agricultural development projects, introducing advanced equipment for agricultural product storage, preservation, and deep processing. Moreover, improving the dissemination system for agricultural technology, optimizing the structure of the agricultural industry, and developing projects focused on producing high-quality and efficient pesticides, feed, fertilizers, and other agricultural products are vital. Foreign investment in agricultural machinery, rural energy development and utilization, as well as the establishment of agricultural trade markets, should also be actively promoted. Additionally, foreign investment projects should serve as examples and drivers in the comprehensive management of the agricultural ecological environment.

4.3. Developing Regional Guidance Policies for Foreign Investment in Agriculture

Currently, China’s agricultural FDI lacks a well-planned regional distribution. To address this, it is necessary for the government to formulate regional plans, taking into account local conditions and utilizing each region’s comparative advantages.

In the eastern region, which includes coastal areas, it is crucial to capitalize on their geographical location and talent pool. These regions can focus on attracting foreign investments in advanced technologies, thereby fostering the development of modern agricultural demonstration zones that incorporate high technological content. This approach will enable the eastern region to become a hub for innovation and showcase cutting-edge agricultural practices.

The central region, with its abundant land resources, should prioritize the development of the agricultural processing industry through industrialized operations. By attracting foreign investment, this region can enhance agricultural infrastructure, improve labor productivity, and promote a sustainable ecological environment within the agricultural sector.

In alignment with the national strategy for western development, the western region should emphasize the development of distinctive agricultural practices tailored to local conditions. In this regard, it may be appropriate to utilize foreign loans to support land restoration, afforestation, grassland recovery, soil erosion control, and ecological environment protection initiatives. Furthermore, poverty alleviation programs should be given priority in the allocation of assistance funds, thereby addressing socio-economic disparities in the western region.

4.4. Formulating Preferential Policies for Foreign Investment in Agriculture

The government should adopt a policy of national treatment for foreign investment and implement a comprehensive range of preferential measures. These measures should aim to minimize the imposition of taxes and fees on agricultural foreign investment projects. Additionally, it is important to appropriately relax restrictions on foreign capital entry into the agricultural sector, extend project investment deadlines, expand the authority of local governments to approve land use for agricultural projects, reduce land use fees, and simplify project approval procedures. By implementing these initiatives, the government can create a favorable environment that encourages and supports agricultural foreign investment.

5. Conclusions and Policy Implications

Existing studies have consistently demonstrated the significance of foreign direct investment (FDI) in promoting agricultural economic development. However, China has experienced a continuous decline in agricultural FDI, with a persistently low proportion. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of research focused on the challenges and strategies pertaining to foreign investment in China’s agricultural sector. Therefore, this study utilizes data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China to analyze the historical trajectory and current state of agricultural FDI in China. By identifying the existing issues in attracting foreign capital to the agricultural sector, the study puts forth relevant recommendations to foster foreign investment in China’s agriculture. The findings of this research hold great importance in driving the development of China’s agricultural economy and offering valuable insights to other developing nations.

The findings suggest that since 2012, agricultural FDI in China has experienced a downward trend. Compared to other developing countries such as Indonesia, Paraguay, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos, China’s agricultural FDI has a relatively low proportion. It is primarily concentrated in industries such as primary agricultural processing, farming, and animal husbandry, which require low investment, have short profit cycles, and are conducive to production and operations. There is also an imbalance in the distribution of agricultural FDI among different regions. The main reasons for the relatively low level of agricultural FDI in China include the lack of comparative advantages in agriculture, low investment returns, an imperfect agricultural support and protection system, and the recent increase in labor costs.

Additionally, this study reveals several issues in China’s agricultural FDI, including a poor investment environment, a homogeneous agricultural industry structure, weak investment entities, and insufficient investment policies. To address these issues, the government should improve the investment environment for foreign agricultural investment by enhancing basic production conditions in rural areas and increasing the construction of social service facilities. Simultaneously, encouraging foreign investment in comprehensive agricultural development projects, introducing advanced equipment for agricultural product storage, preservation, and deep processing, and developing projects for the production of high-quality and efficient pesticides, feed, and fertilizers can optimize the industrial layout of foreign investment in agriculture. Moreover, region-specific agricultural FDI policies should be formulated based on the characteristics of each area. For the eastern region, the focus should be on attracting foreign advanced technologies and establishing modern agricultural demonstration zones with high technological content. In the central region, foreign investment should be utilized to strengthen agricultural infrastructure and improve the agricultural ecological environment. In the western region, emphasis should be placed on developing distinctive agriculture and attracting poverty alleviation assistance funds. Lastly, the government should formulate preferential policies in terms of taxation, market access, investment duration, and land use to incentivize foreign agricultural investment.

Supporting Projects

National College Student Innovation Training Program of Beijing Institute of Petrochemical Technology: A Study on the Impact of Foreign Direct Investment on Agricultural Productivity in China from the Perspective of Innovation Diffusion (2022J00216).

National College Student Innovation Training Program of Beijing Institute of Petrochemical Technology: A Study on Foreign Direct Investment, Absorptive Capacity, and Agricultural Innovation in China (2023J00098).

NOTES

*Corresponding author.

1Data source: China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest regarding the publication of this paper.

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