Three decades ago, farmers made up almost 80 per cent of the mainland's population. By the end of last year, the rural population accounted for less than half the total population - many farmers have flocked to towns and cities in search of better pay and lives.
Calling it a 'historic change in China's social structure', Deputy Agriculture Minister Zhang Taolin says increasing urbanisation has resulted in a number of problems in rural areas, including a shortage of fit, young people to work the land.
The exodus of such people from rural areas had led to 'empty-nest' families comprising just children and senior citizens, the China Youth Daily quoted Zhang, a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate, as saying.
The priority for rural areas should be to improve farmers' productivity, Zhang said on the sidelines of the National People's Congress in Beijing. He said overall there was still enough labour for farming since the nation had always lacked enough arable land for its huge rural population.
A report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said that 30 per cent of people registered in rural areas were living and working in cities. They accounted for nearly 40 per cent of the urban population. But only 40 per cent had been able to take their families with them.
Zhang called for special care for young people from rural areas chasing their dreams in the cities. He said that unlike their parents, most young migrants today had received a university education and were well versed in internet skills. This had given them broader horizons with higher pay expectations.
Chen Yonghao, village head in Hubei's Jianli county, said a third of the people in his village were now working in cities, mostly young and middle-aged.
'If they earn 2,000 yuan [HK$2,450] a month out there, they need to plant one mu [a 15th of a hectare] of rice to make the same amount of money, which usually takes months to harvest,' he said. 'Anyone who's capable of finding a job in the cities would prefer working there than growing crops.'
Even though living costs in cities were much higher, he said, most migrant workers found sticking to farming less profitable because farming costs were rising much faster than grain prices.
The mainland has persisted with a policy of keeping grain prices low for years to protect the livelihoods of the urban poor. It has raised minimum purchase prices for rice and wheat each year by a few jiao (a 10th of a yuan) a kilogram, but not enough to encourage farmers to grow more.
Professor Peng Zhenhuai, director of the Local Government Research Institute at Peking University, said that although more people were living in urban areas than in the countryside, that did not mean all former farmers in urban areas enjoyed the same social welfare benefits as those originally from the city.
Many former rural residents cannot get their hukou (residency registration) transferred to their adopted cities and are denied access to urban social security. In this sense, claiming that the urbanisation rate exceeded 50 per cent was false, Peng said.
When such people were excluded, he estimated that the mainland's real urbanisation rate was between 25 and 33 per cent.
'Take Huyangmen village near my workplace for example, it's located in the Haidian district of Beijing,' he said. 'Villagers were considered as city residents during the population census. But they're actually farmers.'