The land reforms and the countryside in China
Part 1 : The Chinese empire and the Republic of China
What is at the roots of the development of the Chinese state? In his book, Economic Changes in Rural China, Luo Hanxian quotes this early saying: “The Chinese State was founded upon agriculture“. Indeed, the historical importance of agriculture for China is tremendous: Most dynasties were founded on the oath to improve the alleviation of Chinese Farmers; the peasantry has always been a driving force in China and an overwhelming part of the Chinese population.
The dynastic cycle is an illustration of this weight on Chinese politics. As described by D. Usher and Christian Göbel, new emperors always seek to maintain good relations with farmers – but – as time passes, corruption set in in the administrative apparatus. Bureaucrats increase taxes and take more and more resources from the peasantry. As a consequence, a revolution – or instability allows a new emperor to take the power. Obviously, a fiscal policy change is often made by the new emperor in order to satisfy the peasantry – and time passes hence corruption dawns again.
The CCP itself was founded in 1921 on the pledge to “liberate” China’s farmers. For many, the proclamation of the PRC in 1949 should have ended this circle. Indeed, Luo Hanxien for example, sees Chinese history as a long struggle between the peasantry and the landlord class for arable land - and said that the revolution allowed peasants to rid themselves of thousands of years of brutal feudal oppression by the landlord class: with the win of the peasantry, Chinese peasantry history enters in a new era where peasants are free to use their land.
However, history in China didn’t stop in 1949 and land use changed greatly under a successive set of reforms since this date. As we said, agriculture is capital for Chinese history, and obviously, land is capital for agriculture. Land is life for the peasantry – food for townspeople - and its ownership, its use, its location, its infrastructure, its mechanization are typically key-factors that determine the duration of a Chinese political system. Thus, land is obviously one the most important key-element of Chinese politics. This is why we are going to study land reforms in this term paper, trying to explain the links between political center, political reforms and the countryside.
I don’t intend to lead an inclusive and exhaustive study, which is very difficult regarding the size of China, but I will restrict myself only to major issues and try to highlight the past and current situation of the land Chinese countryside as well as some examples that can explain them. In order to explain what is at stake in contemporary land reforms, and determine what problems are new or proper to China, it is needed to use history.
I- The origins of countryside issues
A. Reforming China & the main origin of the dynastic circle
Leading reforms is a difficult task in China. The old Chinese saying “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away” is an illustration of this difficulty: It means that the connection between the Chinese central government and people is rather weak, obviously because China is a gigantic state both in superficies and population since its unification. The result of this weak link is that, when the political center wants to do a reform, it needs to lean on local powers very strongly to implement it. However, it is hard to control policies: Because of an information asymmetry due to distance, time and space, it is difficult for the center to observe disobedience from the local cadres thus to punish them, hence control them. It is easy for local leaders to promise something to the center, and afterward not respect it.
Moreover, the lack of control means often corruption. Chinese and foreign scholars alike agree that a lot of problems in Chinese history can be traced back “to corrupt and selfish cadres over whom the center has lost control” . Ergo, this fact is one of the causes of the dynastic circle explained earlier. Nowadays, the relation between the center and the local is still problematic and a major factor in Chinese contemporary reforms, particularly in the countryside. Indeed, trying to resolve this problem is a continual topic for Chinese authorities.
B. The successive failures of the Empire and the Republic
To show and illustrate this difficulty, we can take the example of the land reforms during the Ming and Qing dynasties and then under the Republic of China.
1. The Empire
Under the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) empire, society had already been feudal since thousand years. The basis of economy was agriculture, and this sector was the principal form of production in China, with sideline production (handicrafts and animal husbandry). Basic articles were produced from bamboo, wood, iron and pottery by independent handicraftsmen.
Because of a huge increase of population, land fragmentation was very high and land shortages very common, thus productivity was low. From a societal point of view, land was concentrated in the hands of the rich, educated ruling elite of the society . It was a “perpetual system landlord exploitation which began with the Sung dynasty”2, which provokes repeated peasant rebellions followed by short-time reform which do not solve the core elements of the problem. It is mainly explained because of the lack of will of the political center and local cadres to really change the situation.
Some rebellions were radical, but all of them failed. One of the best examples is the Heavenly Kingdom Revolutionary Movement which occurred between 1850 and 1864 since “Agriculture was to be organized around units of public and private farms cultivated by the peasants” . However, this experiment lasts only 14 years because the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom lost the war against the Qing dynasty.
The fall of the empire is the result of consecutive external (Sino-Japanese war, boxer rebellion) and internal (Self-Strengthening Movement) failures. Political powers, corrupted local cadres, and an imperial family occupied at internal quarrels for power failed to maintain the imperial system. Moreover, the empire was big and technical level was bad which result in a slow communication in the empire: in faraway provinces local power was nearly independent of the central power because of the lack of control of the center, thus it was very hard to lead reforms.
2. The Republic of China
The situation of the countryside didn’t improve with the revolution and the end of the empire. Agriculture during the Republic of China was characterized by a low investment: landlords preferred acquire more land than invest in existing farms . This fact makes agriculture development very slow during this period. The nationalist government created agricultural banks in order to increase investment but it was a failure due to a permanent instability, the lack of cooperation of the warlords, civil war and diverse economic problems.
The next ambitious reform was led by Sun Yat-sen during the Republic of China. He proposes a new land distribution policy to give ownership of land to the tiller through higher tax or government repossession of the land if they did not want to pay the high tax . Big landowners and land speculation would be abolished. However, it didn’t work because of early Sun Yat-Sen death in 1925. In 1930, 3, 5% households owned 45, 8% of lands . Moreover, land management was fragmented and a lot of small-scale farming (less than 10 mu) with low-productivity existed everywhere in China, it represented 30% in Wuxi county in 1930.
The successive political center before 1949 failed to successfully reform the land and the countryside. Causes are multiple but near:
- Lack of will coming from political authorities
- Lack of control from the center to the local cadre which not allow good implementation of reforms (due to the size of china and bad infrastructures): Political change, ideological change can turn futile easily if local cadres don’t want to reform the system.
- Fragility of reforms (death of Sun Yat-sen, military defeat of the rebels in 1864 stopped the most promising and radical reforms)
The method used was the same: incremental change and no real radical reform, which could overcome the resistance of Chinese feudalism and traditionalism. Will the PRC do it?
The land reforms and the countryside in China
Part 2 : Reforms under the PRC before 1978
The victory of the CCP in 1949 is the beginning of a new era for Chinese countryside. For the first time, it was a period of stability unlike the Republic of China, with a strong centralized regime and a will to change and reform the countryside. Unlike under the empire, technical and infrastructures progressed (cars, phones) and increase the speed of communication thus the control of the central government (which is still not perfect though, particularly at the beginning) on local government which is a good way to reduce corruption and make reforms.
A. The situation of land in 1949
Revolutionary land reform launched by the CCP began long before 1949. In fact, land reforms occurred in all territories controlled by the communists at the moment they control the region. It is characterized by a confiscation of the land of the landlords and the redistribution among the peasants: 700 million mu of land were redistributed. Only after this, the party created a lot of peasants association in order to make the peasantry politically engaged in communism.
If inequalities were reduced, productivity suffers a lot. Zhao Yongjun explained that there are three major reasons :
- Poor peasants weren’t experimented in self-organization and production
- Lack of incentives because they were afraid of personal abuse
- Reduction of the labor force
B. PRC reforms under Mao (1949-1978)
David Wen-Wei Chang distinguishes different stages of reforms in the countryside in China before Deng era .
1. “Mutual aid production team under private ownership (1953-1954)
2. Early stage of cooperatives involving more families and private land (1955-1956)
3. Advanced cooperatives, collective land ownership with private family spots (1957)
4. People commune, state land ownership, no family spot, public rationing (1958-1959)
5. Modified people commune, with ownership at the commune level, brigade level and production team level with private family spots (1964-1978)”
This high number of policy changes illustrates the failure of land policies under Mao, the central power experimenting successive policies because the previous was a failure – often against the wish of the peasantry. David Wen-Wei Chang writes that Mao’s eagerness, idealism, radical utopianism and revolutionary is widely responsible for this successive failure. However, it may be simplifying to make Mao responsible for all Chinese failures regarding land reforms: the situation in 1949 was truly terrible in every way.
Nevertheless, contrary of David Wen-Wei Chang saying, Mao wasn’t always idealist or utopian but sometimes pragmatic. The first reform of the PRC wasn’t socialist: the feudal system wasn’t transformed into a socialist cooperative system. The communists adopted very cruel method of confiscating private land and punishing landowner between 1949 and 1952. They distributed it to the tiller land. Central leaders and Mao thought that the Chinese economy couldn’t resist a socialist reform at the time. Like the other regimes, the first measure the PRC did was making a reform of the land in order to make the peasants tranquil. They were forced to, as land was very important for peasants and an important motive for the victory of the CCP.
Notwithstanding, agriculture economy before 1978 wasn’t efficient economically speaking. The main reason is the use of people’s commune. Introduced in 1958, people commune was the highest administration level in rural areas and incorporates thousands of households. The lack of incentives kept the productivity of the workers really low.
Still, there has been positive progress in China during Mao era as well: rural electrification, enormous irrigation projects, road building, primary educational expansion and the improvement in rural law and order. The increase of per capita income was low, but mainly because of the way production was organized – particularly a lack of incentives and a bad management but infrastructure was heavily enhanced during this period and investment realized. Inequalities were greatly reduced and the regime was stable. This work will explained the great the following increase of productivity during the early Deng era.
The land reforms and the countryside in China
Part 3 : Reforms after 1978
Officials said that rural economic reform in China began near the end of 1978 after the 3rd plenary session of the 11th central committee of the CCP. Goals were to “eliminate fetters imposed by the people commune system that hampered the initiative of peasants’ laborers”. Use of a new management: unified management & accompany decentralized operation for contracting farm worker and production quotas to peasants’ households. Outcomes were as follow: annual average increase of 12, 6% (output value of total rural production) Annual average increase of 10, 8% in national agriculture output (from 1981-1984). Since Luo Hanxian is an official, it might be an exaggerated number. For western scholars (Dwight Perkins and Shahid Yusuf ), growth was between 5% and 6% and reality seems to be nearer from this last number.
Zhao Yongjun distinguishes steps in the reform era.
1. 1978-1986: The Household Responsibility System (HRS) replaced collective farming
2. 1998: new Land Management Law
3. 2002: Rural Land Contracting Law
4. 2007: Property Law.
5. 2008: Central Party Committee (CPC) Decision on Major Issues Concerning the
6. 2010: CPC Opinions on Scaling Up Integrated Urban-Rural Development
A. The Household Responsibility System
1. The first HRS version
During a two-year period in rural China, 1979-1981, agricultural productivity increased by 18% and farmers per capital annual income increased by 66% . In three years (1979 to July 1982), 70% of the production teams had gone into the contract system . How to explain such a huge success? For Wen-Wei Chang, it comes from the “desire of the peasants to work for themselves for more private profit and the improvement of their own living standards” .
Indeed, the HRS is a new agricultural management: Collective ownership of land, animals and large farming equipment remain; however, the production team (individual farming household) gets greater autonomy through contracts. Households have to pay taxes to local government, and then, keep the rest of their production for themselves. Creating new major incentives, it increases greatly the production. The state gains more production, the collectivity gains more capital and the peasant can sell his production. It was a first step toward the modernization of the old commune system countryside.
The HRS was introduced in 1978, in the Shan-nan district of Anhui Province. After successive draughts, peasants accepted to try out this system of contract in the village of Xiaogang in a secret agreement. At first, authorities were against it. Indeed, the Fourth Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the CPC in September 1979 forbade it . However, this restriction was not effective and they finally forced to change their mind after the incredible result of the HRS, and Deng himself supported this reform in 1980, and become officially acceptable in late 1981. By end of 1983, this system was used almost everywhere in China. Since the beginning of the HRS, inequalities in China were reduced greatly between rural and urban area: the income ratio was to 2,5:1 in 1978 and 1,8:1 in 1984, urban being richer .
The important new characteristic of the policy in term of governance is that the reform comes from the peasants, and not from the political center.
2. The reforms of the HRS
However, in 1985, we observe a drop in grain production and then stagnation in China: The Household responsibility system had exhausted its benefits.
The major problem was land fragmentation. A survey conducted by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture indicated that average cultivated area per household was 0.466 ha fragmented into 5.85 plots. Causes are multiple: collective ownership associated with an abundant population lead to the fact that the amount of distributed land was small. Moreover, in order to avoid inequality, land was given grades regarding their characteristics (location, fertility) and each household had to obtain numerous plots with different grades. Finally, a lot of areas of cultivated land were wasted in a form of paths and boundaries between households holding. The consequence is direct: land wastes and it is very difficult to use advanced mechanical equipment on tiny plots. Moreover, it is expensive to separate lands and it’s a process which needs a lot of bureaucrats.
Another problem was the fact that peasants were short-sighted. Since the distribution of land can changed when a villager is born or died (“endless separation of farmland” ) – villagers become worried about the risk of losing their land, as well as the investment they put into this land. The direct consequence is that the amount of investment is near zero, with insensitive to improve land conversation, agricultural infrastructure, and irrigated land – so land management is an overexploitation by the peasant in order to have short term maximum returns.
Moreover, inequalities between rural and urban area, which were reduced at first, increased greatly: the income ratio was 1, 8:1 in 1984, then 2, 9:1 in 2001 .
The last problem was regarding the repartition of human capital. Since land is distributed to household regarding the size of the family and the labor capability, it can lead to huge misbalance and waste. Large households with a limited labor force have too much land, and smaller household specialized in agriculture don’t have enough. Moreover, this process is amplified by rapid rural industrialization in certain areas, where a general deterioration in the agricultural labor force can be observed since a lot of workers work in non-agricultural jobs.
This multiple problems lead authorities to think of a reform. Multiple theories had been proposed, but none have been chose speedily. At first, authorities reformed the HRS. For example, in the late 1980s, rural households who couldn’t cultivate land (often, because they had another jobs) were allowed to sublease their land to other villagers. This way, it reduces the surface of land left idle. Moreover, longer contracts were encouraged (15 years). At the same time, local authorities were strongly recommended to be more flexible and don’t hesitate to carry experimental land reform.
B. Local experiments
The HRS comes initially from a village initiative which has been elevated to the rank national policy. Following the HRS, a lot of experiments have been led by local cadres with the blessings of the local center.
The Deng reform uses a need way to govern, increasing the freedom and initiative of policy implementation, putting them in concurrence between each over, which was very efficient, and permit to resolve partially the problem of the weak link between local cadre and the political center which make the empire and the republic failed. In this part, we will show some of the major important and successful experiments which were implemented and extended in a lot of different provinces in China, certain of them becoming integrated into national institutional arrangements.
a. Meitan: fixed responsibility farmland within a contract Term
Meitan is a county located in northern Guizhou. When the HRS were implemented in Meitan, a county located in northern Guizhou, land fragmentation emerged as a major issue, since there was at the time an huge population growth. According to a survey, the average household’s cultivated land was divided into 15 plots, with the largest 0.13 ha and the smallest 0.005 ha . In 1987, land tenure has been adjusted to 20 years. Moreover, abilities to exchange, to subrent and to mortgage for credit have been granted to the peasants. It was a success.
Three consequences have been observed, first, farmers had greater incentives for land investment, fertility increased and land fragmentation has been put under control. This success leads this policy to be in the provincial land management law and applied in all rural areas of Guizhou in 1993. In 1995, a document in the new land policy was about this experiment and explains that villages “should consider the policy” in their land management.
b. Two-land system
The two-land system was first launched in 1984 in Pingdu, a county-level city in Shandong Province, in order to improve production. The policy consists in the division in two parts of the cultivated land: food land for family consumption and contract land for commercial use. The first is compulsory, the second is facultative. The contract land price (one mu) corresponds with 40% of the annual peasant earning (one mu), thus the peasant can keep around 60% of the revenue. Nevertheless, there is a limit: a peasant can’t rent more a certain amount of land, the amount depending of the location of the lands. Moreover, contract lands are usually given in larger parcels in order to reduce land fragmentation.
The production has been heavily increased: Grain production per unit of land increased by 32, 4% between 1987 and 1994 in Pingdu. The system has been extended to 1, 7 million villages (32, 3% of the total number of villages in PRC) and 39, 3 million hectares of farmland (44% of the total) and decreases slowly since 1992 .
c. Shunyi : collective farms
Shunyi is a county at the north of China. Since it is located in the suburbs of Beijing, a lot of industries are available and multiple job opportunities are possible to be fulfilled by the peasants. Indeed in Shunyi, part time farming became very common, which reduce greatly the labor force in farming and decrease the productivity in agriculture of the county. The annual rate of grain output was only 1, 2% between 1984 and 1986. In 1986, collective farms were introduced in the county. Contrary to the commune system, farms are autonomous and operate independently. After the completion of quotas, all surpluses are distributed to the peasants of the collective farm according to their work. In order to gain more lands, collective farms incent farmers to give them their land by giving them the right to have a lower-price of the farm production. The major advance is the fact that the grain output per worker and peasant incomes improved greatly.
However, the total grain production didn’t because the new system permits a lot of farmers to give their lands to the collective farm and work in a non-agriculture job. Thus, the system is beneficial for the industry and township enterprises.
d. Nanhai : a farmland shareholding system
Nanhai is a county-level-city located in the Guangdong province which know a great economic growth in the 1990’s, particularly in the industry. In this process, human capital in agriculture declined, just like Shunyi. Moreover, people working in non-agriculture field kept their field idle, or worked by the elder or children. Finally, there was a problem of agriculture land since industrialization occupied more and more superficy. The farmland shareholding system proposes to farmers to distribute land share, instead of physical plots, and peasants share dividends. “By 1993, the cultivated area per labor unit in Nanhai had increased to 7.6 ha, ten times more than before the system was introduced » . It has permitted large-scale farming. Because of this success, the system has been extended to “almost parts of the Pearl River Delta area” .
C. Hu Jintao’s land reform
The third plenary session of the 17th central committee of the CCP took place in October 2008. 30 years after the beginning of land reform, it launched a new major policy called the “Resolution of the Committee on Some Major Issues in Rural Reform and Development”. It is a new major policy which the ambition is to, more or less, revolutionize China. Like all the previous reforms, it incorporates goal such as boosting agricultural productivity and peasant income, but this one goes beyond.
Indeed, the main difference is that for the first time, a reform is launched in order to end the Chinese dual economy. Dual economy, the separation between city and countryside is a characteristic of China for centuries. It became a major concern and it is rather urgent nowadays, since the favorable policy toward urban under Zemin “elitist” leadership increases greatly inequalities between cities and countryside.
City men earned 3.33 more than rural people in 2007 . This policy will eventually lead to a new model of development for China: the PRC has always built its growth on exportations but – with the end of the dual economy and the increase of wealth of the huge rural countryside, the PRC will growth with a mixed domestic consumption-exportation system.
The idea is to enhance land use right for the farmers, to promote redistribution of land in order to encourage inflow of capital to the agriculture sector, to reduce gap between rural-urban workers and stimulate domestic demand . The main goal is the increase in consumption of the rural workers. Multiples initiatives has been taken such as the abolition of agriculture taxes upon Chinese farmers in 2006, the “build new countryside” (xin nongcun jianshe) the same year and the “developing modern agriculture” (fazhan xiandai nongye) in 2007 which mainly focus on the allocation of new resources and on the modernization for the Chinese countryside.
Hu have thought of three moves; Land move, labor move and capital move. The first is the ability of land-use rights to be transferred to another farmer. The second is the transfer of rural surplus laborers to cities. The third is the move of investments in the countryside. Obviously, thus, the goal of the political center is to allow land-use rights to be transferred, to help the transfer of rural surplus laborers to cities and to liberalize investment and create incentives to make them go in the countryside.
Some problems have already have been noticed: resistance of some urban officials, and the fact that peasants associations are not really active. Deng promoted them, however, in reality; he makes them not too powerful and active in order to not compete with the CCP rule in the countryside . However, the main critics focus on three elements which are the decrease of arable land superficies (6, 6% of the total arable land of country were lost ), the monopoly of land by big landowners and the appearance of urban slums since a lot of laborers will leave the countryside to come in the cities. “In fact, China presently has a total of 40 million landless farmers and each year about 3 million more rural laborers are added to this troop of landless farmers” said Cheng Li.
The first policy led by the PRC was to end feudalism, it was a success. Will this new one a success too? These critics are real and pertinent, however it is still difficult to foresee if this new policy will be a failure or not, a lot of elements are not even made public. Nevertheless, in the worst case, the policy will just be canceled; Hu leadership strongly diminished. If the policy is a success, however a lot of changed will occur in China. Hu said that “tidal wave can either carry the boat or capsize it”, it suits well his new policy.
The Land Reforms and the countryside
Part 4 : Final Conclusion
Modern China has known multiple changes in its land policies, sometimes contradictory, particularly under Mao, nevertheless it became as time goes more and more coherent.
The empire and the republic of China failed to change the countryside, thus, the same problems occurred again and again, causing their fall: feudalism, poverty, high land fragmentation, low productivity, high inequalities, local cadre corruption among all. The PRC was the first political center wanting to change the countryside, to break the traditional Chinese rule which governed the countryside for thousand years and wished to revolutionize society by politics. At first, PRC totally destroyed feudalism. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, the political center took a good control of the countryside local cadres. Moreover, with the commune system, the problem of inequality in the countryside was almost solved. With Deng reforms, land fragmentation and poverty were almost solved and the productivity was increased highly. In 60 years, the PRC did what previous political system has failed to do for three centuries. Nevertheless, these problems are in fact not totally solved and the problem of sustainability appears nowadays.
The new policy of Hu, described as a “paradox of hope and fear” by Cheng Li, is promising. It will eventually to a new model of development for China, and the appearance of a rural middle class in china for the first time of his history. After the economic crisis which breaks the world, China has seen that she needs to increase his domestic market. Obviously, western countries needs to recover from this crisis as well, and maybe the domestic market of China can be a motor of growth. Indeed, China has earth on its back. The dynastic circle that I have described in our introduction is far away, and this makes me doubt of the existence of this circle itself.
Indeed, it appears to me that the PRC has broken the circle which confines Chinese countryside. Nowadays, it is rather a line full of progress than a circle.
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