Dr. Zhang published in Agriculture and Human Values

From Left Behind to Leader: Gender, Agency, and Food Sovereignty in China

Dr. Li Zhang



Capitalist reforms usually drive outmigration of peasants to cities, while elders, children, and women responsible for their care are “left behind” in the countryside. The plight of these “left behind” populations is a major focus of recent agrarian studies in China. However, rural women are not merely passive victims of these transformations. Building on ethnographic research in Guangxi and Henan provinces from 2013 to 2017, and drawing on critical gender studies and feminist political ecology, I show how the food safety crisis in China creates conditions for peasant women to increase control and income from organic food production, often establishing alternative food networks with the support of female scholars and NGO organizers. Thus, I shift focus of scholarship on rural women from “left behind” to leaders in struggles for justice and food sovereignty.


Agriculture and Human Values is the journal of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society. The Journal, like the Society, is dedicated to an open and free discussion of the values that shape and the structures that underlie current and alternative visions of food and agricultural systems. To this end the Journal publishes interdisciplinary research that critically examines the values, relationships, conflicts and contradictions within contemporary agricultural and food systems and that addresses the impact of agricultural and food related institutions, policies, and practices on human populations, the environment, democratic governance, and social equity.


The article can be found here.

Author’s original manuscript accepted for publication can be found here.

Dr. Zhang published in Al Jazeera

Coronavirus leaked from a lab? Blame capitalism, not China

Dr. Li Zhang

Al Jazeera, May 20, 2020



Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, there has been as much research as conjecture about its origins. This issue became extremely politicised in the “new cold war” between the United States and China.

US President Donald Drumpf, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Republican Senator Tom Cotton have all suggested that the novel coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan. In response, Chinese government officials have claimed the virus may have originated in a lab in the US.

While this blame game continues to make headlines in international media, behind the smoke and mirrors lurks the real cause of the pandemic – a common problem shared by the US, China, and the rest of the world – capitalism.

Despite uncertainty about the origins of COVID-19, there are a few things we do know. The new coronavirus’s genomic sequence was identified in early January, and soon an international scientific consensus emerged that it evolved originally in bats, then likely jumped over to humans through an intermediary species.

Scientific research is pointing towards pangolins, tree shrews, or ferrets as the likely bridge between bats and humans. There is no scientific evidence that the virus was deliberately manufactured in any laboratory. In fact, the US intelligence community has repeatedly stated they believe the origin of the new virus is natural.

But how did this natural spillover cause an outbreak in Wuhan? The “blame China” rhetoric now points to a possible accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Scientists there research coronaviruses from bats, and unless new epidemiological data emerges, it may be impossible to disprove a theory involving a lab accident. But even if we assume a lab leak, is blaming China for it the right way to think about the problem?

Laboratory accidents involving dangerous diseases have occurred many times all around the world, including the US. In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration found six vials of smallpox accidentally abandoned in an insecure storage room. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention accidentally sent viable anthrax spores to three insecure labs, possibly exposing researchers to the deadly bacteria. Then in 2015, the Pentagon accidentally shipped live anthrax to nine states and even to South Korea. Thankfully, those accidents did not cause any deaths, but there have been others that have turned out deadly.

According to a study by Karen Byers of the American Biological Safety Association, there were at least 1,141 instances of “laboratory acquired infections” reported worldwide between 1979 and 2005, some of which have resulted in deaths.

Several accidents with smallpox in the United Kingdom killed three people in the 1970s. An influenza virus leak in China caused an outbreak in the 1970s which also spread outside the country and caused a number of deaths. An epidemic of encephalitis in Venezuela and Colombia that killed at least 311 people in 1995 was likely caused by a laboratory incident.

In 2003 and 2004, lab workers in Singapore, Taiwan, and mainland China, were accidentally infected with SARS, spreading the disease to seven people and causing one death after the epidemic had already been contained.

Laboratory accidents are an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of research on highly infectious and deadly diseases. No country is immune to them.

The key then is to understand why such diseases with pandemic potential emerge in the first place, and how to prevent them. Here, scientific consensus clearly points towards structural issues that affect the whole world.

First, rapid urbanisation and increased mobility make it more likely for a local outbreak to become a pandemic. Wuhan is a major transportation hub and China is now at the centre of many global supply chains. Both of these factors contributed to the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

The risk of new diseases jumping between animals and humans has increased with the loss of natural habitat for wildlife, and new infrastructures reaching deep into forests and mountains. The same holds for the trade in wild animals, which has flourished over the past few decades, boosted by growing consumerism.

Wild animals like pangolins, which are used for food and traditional medicine, were being smuggled into China at an alarming rate before the pandemic. At the same time, in an effort to alleviate rural poverty, the Chinese government promoted market-oriented breeding and e-commerce of some wild animals. These practices increased close and potentially infection-transmitting interactions between wild animals and humans in wet markets, like Wuhan’s, where the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated.

Industrial-scale poultry and livestock have also increased the risk of new zoonotic diseases which could cause pandemics. As the evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace has argued, capitalist agribusiness “offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes”.

Destruction of forests and other habitats, consumerism, trade in wildlife and industrial-scale animal breeding are not unique to China. They are global phenomena.

If this pandemic originated in China, the next one may break out in Brazil, Nigeria, the US or anywhere else really.

Trading blame for this tragedy may be politically expedient for world leaders and the idea of a lab leak may come in handy, but none of this is really helping the world cope better with it. The real problems that cause new diseases to emerge and trigger pandemics are global, and much more intractable and concerning than lab accidents alone.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

The article can be found here.

Dr. Zhang published in Latitude: Goethe Institut

“Fusion Food”: Exchange or Appropriation?

Dr. Li Zhang, with Regine Hader, Elisa Jochum, Anna Felicity Friedman, and Ozoz Sokoh

Latitude: Rethinking Power Relations for a Decolonized and Non-Racial World

Goethe Institute, October 29, 2019



Li Zhang: Food is essential for human survival, so most people in our history have eaten what they could get access to. Sure, each culture developed its own varieties of crops and animals, and its own cuisine and way of cooking. But “globalisation” is not just a recent phenomenon, and we have been exchanging food and seeds around the world for centuries. Can you imagine “Italian food” without tomatoes from the Americas? It is the same thing in China. Sichuan food could only become spicy with the addition of hot chili peppers from the Americas. We also make lots of traditional dishes with corn, potatoes and other ingredients that were not originally domesticated in China. Importing these varieties centuries ago helped solve a lot of hunger issues in China, as in Europe and elsewhere, too. Most of these exchanges happened because of colonialism, but people’s concern, when it came to food, was basically to survive. This doesn’t mean that Anna’s concern is not valid.


Li Zhang: What matters is not mainly our cultural identity or (dis-)respectful attitude, but the political and economic relationships behind that. We have to think more deeply about who can afford to buy fancy foods from all over the world, and who can only afford to eat the cheapest thing that gets dumped on them. Who can maintain their local foods and culture, and whose foods and cultures have been pushed off the land and squeezed out of the market?


Li Zhang: The ironic thing is that wealthy, cosmopolitan people in global cities like Shanghai, LA and Berlin can enjoy healthy, organic, “peasant” (as in traditional) food from any place, while the poor peasants who produce that food are now forced to sell it at a premium. Meanwhile, they themselves only get access to cheap, processed foods, most of it dumped from the global North.


Li Zhang: My sense is that there are important differences [between contemporary food exchange under capitalism and previous historical exchange of foods]. First, when different foods and varieties were exchanged in the past, the process occurred relatively slowly, and the new foods became gradually incorporated into local production practices and cuisines. They became part of food culture, produced locally according to their use value for those who grew it. But, nowadays, international food trade is taking place much faster, and these foods don’t become part of local production practices. They are grown all over the world, often by people who don’t eat them but just grow them for the global market.


Li Zhang: I think, what many social movements call “food sovereignty”, helps us reflect on your question of diplomacy, bringing it down from the level of governments to real people. Food sovereignty means that people should have the right and power to control what they eat, what they grow, what they buy and sell. It doesn’t mean people should not exchange food, or that people should only consume a particular type of food. But it does mean that people need to have land, be able to keep their own seeds, and protect their own food cultures from colonisation and commodification.


Li Zhang: Here is my “recipe” for food sovereignty:

Recipe for Food Sovereignty 
People should have the right and power to grow their own food, to control what they eat and how they eat. This makes one’s own food more delicious and nutritious, sustains cultures and environments, and maintains livelihoods and wellbeing of food producers and consumers alike. No matter what food you choose, this basic recipe for food sovereignty will help you make it into a dish worth fighting for!

abundant land and water
heirloom seeds and local varieties of livestock
indigenous knowledge and cooking practice

First, make sure to access plenty of land and water. If you’ve been dispossessed of this, or lost your knowledge about how to work it, you must struggle to regain it!

Recycle nutrients from your livestock into the soil, preserving and building organic matter. Protect your water and the woods that surround it. This time of preparation might be long, so if your soil and water are depleted and polluted, start improving them right away.

Save your heirloom seeds and exchange them frequently with your neighbours. Do the same with your local varieties of livestock. Well-protected genetic material like this is priceless because it adapts perfectly to your microclimates and resists pests that commonly affect mainstream, industrial, homogenous monocultures. If you have run out of heirloom seeds and local varieties of livestock, coordinate with other local producers to cultivate your community seed bank!

Then, tap into that knowledge held dear by your grandmother, and her grandmother, as you apply modern tools to work the land. Preserve and prepare your foods in the way that reflects and cherishes your own culture.

Serves as many as are willing to struggle in solidarity.



The article can be found here in German, and here in English.

Dr. Zhang published in the Journal of Asian Studies

Book review of Red China’s Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development under the Commune, by Joshua Eisenman.

Dr. Li Zhang

Journal of Asian Studies, volume 78, issue 3 (August 2019), pp. 646-649.

(…) While making an important contribution to the study of the commune from the 1950s through the early 1980s, the book abstains from drawing implications for contemporary agricultural and rural development (again, see Schmalzer for a good counterpoint). Now that the inefficiencies of individual household production, low rates of investment in the countryside, and dramatic rural exodus are threatening national food security and social stability, the CCP has grown concerned and initiated various reforms to address these problems, which Eisenman demonstrates were previously addressed successfully through collectivization. Yet the government’s reduction of taxation on peasants and increased funds and social programs for “poverty alleviation” and “rural vitalization” are being promoted alongside a dramatic surge of capitalist social relations in the countryside, including wage labor and the effective privatization of farmland through the transfer of land use rights from poor peasants to wealthier farmers, urban investors, and agribusiness corporations. Eisenman could, and perhaps should, contribute more explicitly to a timely critique of ongoing capitalist transformations in China’s countryside.


The review can be found here.

Dr. Zhang published in China Dialogue

A feminist critique of the term “left behind” women

Dr. Li Zhang

China Dialogue, August 7, 2019


When people migrate to cities in China, many elders, children and the women who care for them are commonly seen as “left behind” (留守) in the countryside, suffering from neglect and exclusion from the benefits of development and modernisation. But is this term accurate and useful to understand and support these people? I argue women are not merely passive victims in this process, and we need to reframe how we address their situation.

‘Left behind’ populations

Since China’s “reform and opening-up”, industrialisation and urbanisation have expanded dramatically. This is usually celebrated as economic growth, modernisation and development. The previous Maoist reverence for the revolutionary fervour of the peasantry has been replaced by the attitude that peasants are backwards, and need to be moved into the cities. This sentiment is now so mainstream that most people in China take it for granted and could not imagine otherwise. However, fast-paced industrialisation and urbanisation has also brought about serious social and environmental problems. Among them is the abandonment of the countryside and rural people, which the influential intellectual Wen Tiejun has characterised famously as the “three rural problems”: declining agricultural production, low income for peasants and underdeveloped rural infrastructure.

As young men and other working-age individuals migrate to cities to work in factories, construction and services, most elders and children, and many women responsible for their care, remain in the countryside. Consequently, they do not have access to high-wage employment and are unable to sustain labour-intensive agricultural production. This limits their income and the possibility for thriving rural communities. Since the mid-1990s, these people began to be identified as those “left behind” in the countryside, denoting not only the fact they remain in the villages, but also the perception of them as “left behind” in the process of modernisation and development itself.

Since the 2000s, the characteristics and plight of these “left behind” people have become the focus of much scholarship. This has contributed to promoting various government policies to address the predicament of these people and the “hollow villages” where they remain. This is admirable for bringing much-needed public resources to address the problems that come about through increasing rural–urban inequality. However, this scholarship and much of its influence on policy has important limitations, and may even be counterproductive. So, we need another framework. My research builds upon feminist critiques of the exploitation of rural women, and calls for deeper engagement with critical gender studies in China.

The feminisation of farming

First, we should note that, as migrant workers flocked to the cities, women began to take over more and more responsibility for farming and rural life. This phenomenon occurs worldwide, and has been called the “feminisation of farming”. In China, however, powerful voices promoting neoliberal discourses and patriarchal assumptions (mainly in economics, political science and sociology) questioned the growing share of female labour in Chinese agriculture. Female agricultural work was largely invisible for them, because much of it focuses on household subsistence and other forms of unpaid, non-cash, home-based labour. But as more research emerged, those critics were forced to accept this fact in China as well. Thus, promoting mainstream recognition of the “feminisation of agriculture” has been an important contribution to scholarship on “left behind” women in China.

However, we can and should advance far beyond this discussion to recognise how rural women are not merely passive victims during these transformations. After all, the very concept of “left behind” populations, and the fixated emphasis of scholarship on the suffering and abandonment of these people, promotes a certain discourse of victimisation that makes their agency invisible and their initiatives unimportant, and may even appropriate their self-empowerment efforts. This does not mean that scholars who research “left behind” people are the cause of their suffering, or that their intentions are not honourable. But to go beyond merely lamenting the plight of the “left behind”, we must revise the basic concepts we use to understand this problem.

I argue we must shift the focus on rural women from “left behind” to “leaders” in various initiatives against displacement, marginalisation and discrimination, and in defence of food safety, food sovereignty and a healthy and thriving countryside. As stated by the special rapporteur on the right to food at the United Nations, Olivier de Schutter: “The most effective strategies to empower women who tend farm and family – and to alleviate hunger in the process – are to remove the obstacles that hinder them from taking charge of their lives.” But this requires, first of all, recognising their efforts to control their own lives, and treating them as leaders in these socio-ecological initiatives.

Female leadership in agriculture

The bottom-up responses to China’s unfolding food safety crisis provide a good foundation for developing this new framework. The expansion of organic or “green” food production for “community supported agriculture” (CSA) projects and other “alternative food networks” in China features several women as their most prominent leaders. This is notably the case, for example, with the Shared Harvest initiative, led by Shi Yan, as well as the Beijing Organic Farmers’ Market, led by Chang Tianle. They are both young, well-educated women playing leading roles in the development of an organic and agroecological movement in China. China’s most successful ecological agriculture cooperative, Puhan, was founded by Zheng Bing, a rural school teacher known as the “farming godmother” of China. Puhan is led mostly by women.

Powerful examples are also evident in the collaborations between female scholars and peasant communities. Professor Song Yiching of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has been a pioneer in co-organising organic seed production initiatives in partnership with rural cooperatives in Guangxi, which are primarily led by and composed of women. Similarly, Professor He Huili from the China Agricultural University was instrumental in the establishment of one of China’s earliest and most famous “pollution free” rice production initiatives. After her collaboration in that project, she founded the grassroots Hongnong Academy in Henan province, offering a combination of cultural education, rural health care and agricultural training projects in which women are the main organisers and participants.

In my four years of doctoral research on bottom-up food safety initiatives in the villages where professors Song and He worked, I documented how the success of the organic food cooperative in Guangxi resulted not only from Professor Song’s support, but most importantly because of the strong character of Lu Rongyan, the female village leader, and the proactive engagement of multiple peasant women. The Hongnong Academy in Henan is a good example not simply because of Professor He’s leadership, but primarily because it is already transforming young, timid and stigmatised rural women into vocal and dynamic community leaders themselves.

Lu Rongyan sharing her seed-breeding experiences (Source: Zhang Li)

Lu Rongyan sharing her seed-breeding experiences (Source: Zhang Li)

In highlighting these instances of female leadership, I am not suggesting all ecological agriculture and food sovereignty initiatives in China are established and led by women. I am not pretending these endeavours are perfect. Nor am I saying they only unfold through the hands of well-educated women. In fact, the majority of organic food production in China takes place quietly in countless small gardens and marginal lands alongside cash-crop fields, under the caring hands of millions of peasant women. Their “double burden” of working in the fields and taking care of the household, which they even extend through gifts of food to their children and family networks who migrate to the cities, entrusts to them the responsibility for and leadership over a massive bottom-up self-protection movement against the food-safety crisis.

These unsung heroines of China’s countryside deserve and need more than pity and stigmatisation. They ought to be recognised, encouraged and supported in their efforts to sustain organic farming, cultivate alternative food networks and empower themselves through their own agency.

Beyond ‘left behind’

The concept of “left behind” women, children and elders has become a staple of mainstream media discussions about rural China, and it has gained a firm place in academic literature. However, its stigmatisation and victimisation conceal the agency of these individuals. Therefore, we must move beyond descriptive critiques to cultivate more fruitful frameworks that recognise how these individuals struggle against rural–urban inequalities, and contribute to deep social and ecological transformations. Rather than “left behind”, peasant women are leaders in the much-needed agroecological transformation of China.


The article can be found here in Chinese, and here in English.

Dr. Zhang takes up a position as visiting assistant professor at UCI

Dr. Li Zhang has taken up a three-year position as visiting assistant professor of global and international studies at the University of California, Irvine. She will be conducting research, mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, and teaching an upper-division elective course on Post-Socialist Transformations in Russia, China, and Tanzania during the winter quarter of 2020.