Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

The Political Economy of Decollectivization in China

Zhun Xu (zhun [at] is an assistant professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing. His research interests include political economy, social development, and economic history.

Decollectivization of China’s rural economy in the early 1980s was one of the most significant aspects of the country’s transition to a capitalist economy. Deng Xiaoping praised it as an “innovation,” and its significance to the overall capitalist-oriented “reform” process surely cannot be overstated.1 The Chinese government has repeatedly referred to the supposed economic benefits of decollectivization as having “greatly increased the incentives to millions of peasants.”2 Nevertheless, the political-economic implications of decollectivization have always been highly ambiguous, and questionable at best. Individual or small groups of peasants were frequently portrayed in mainstream accounts as political stars for initiating the process, but this served to obscure the deep resistance to decollectivization in many locales. Moreover, the deeper causes and consequences of the agrarian reform are downplayed in most writings, leaving the impression that the rural reform was in the main politically neutral.

A few works did address the political-economic aspect, but even those works were generally conformist analyses, presenting the usual stereotypes, and in accord with the official history. One of the popular stories was that peasants wanted freedom from collective controls and so they creatively and collectively dissolved their own collectives.3 A typical analysis tends to follow this story line: collective farming caused years of poverty and laziness, so brave and wise peasants signed secret contracts to perform household farming. Due to the powerful incentive effects of decollectivization, agricultural production was dramatically increased. Once this was imitated nationwide with impressive results, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had to accept this institutional innovation from the peasants.

However, increasing evidence has shown that decollectivization did not have its acclaimed effects on efficiency.4 These studies, challenging the consensus in the literature, have important implications. The economic benefits of decollectivization, it now appears, were actually not that large. This suggests that there were perhaps more important factors beyond the efficiency and incentive aspects offered by conventional wisdom. In particular, a class analysis is missing from the mainstream stories.

In what follows it will be argued that decollectivization served as the political basis of the capitalist transitions in China. It not only disempowered the peasantry, but broke the peasant-worker alliance, and greatly reduced the potential resistance to reform. The political significance for the CCP of the rural reform to capitalist transition cannot be overstated, and this was exactly why the CCP officially interpreted decollectivization as spontaneous and purely economic.

Debunking the Myths Around Decollectivization Politics

There are many myths created regarding the history of decollectivization. The two most prominent are that: (1) the whole movement was largely spontaneous and apolitical, and (2) the only people who opposed decollectivization were the cadre, rather than peasants. Since these myths are the pillars of the mainstream interpretation, they are worth critical examination.

Spontaneous Movement?

Decollectivization in 1980s has been labeled as a spontaneous, grassroots collective action against the previous collectives. In this story, most peasants wanted decollectivization, and the CCP was passive in the reform.5 But a closer reading of the actual history reveals the opposite is true.

All the anecdotes of peasants dismantling their own collectives seem to be in conflict with the basic logic of decollectivization. The mainstream explanation was that peasants did not agree with collective production. But as Chris Bramall argues, if the peasants were capable of organizing their decollectivization in the way they are said to have done, then collective agriculture would have been a huge success and there would have been no need for decollectivization.6 To be sure, there were singular cases of decollectivization in small groups and isolated instances. Nevertheless it is simply ahistorical to explain the majority of cases this way.

The CCP’s own report in the early days proudly claimed that decollectivization was carried out by local authorities following instructions from above.7 Solid evidence of the coercive nature of the agrarian reform can be found in the official provincial records. Shanghai, one of the most developed regions in socialist China, in 1980 declared that it would not implement decollectivization. However, it quickly decollectivized its rural economy after it decided to follow national policy in 1982.8

Beijing also tried to maintain the collectives and resist decollectivization in the early 1980s. However, Hu Yaobang, then the CCP national secretary, criticized Beijing cadre for this resistance in 1982. After that the Beijing Communist Party Committee quickly made an announcement charging that some cadre have not freed their minds and still had reservations on decollectivization, and urged its quick implementation.9

Yunnan Province had just 3.5 percent decollectivized production teams by March 1981. The provincial leadership held a meeting in May in order to “unify thoughts on decollectivization,” and in November advocated this model. By the end of 1981, Yunnan had more than half the teams decollectivized.10

In Zhejiang Province, the official record reckons that the local leaders were not enthusiastic about decollectivization and attributed this to a “lack of awareness.” The record even referred to discussions among the provincial leaders of the fact that maintaining the collective economy was deemed “inappropriate.” These unusual tones imply a fierce political struggle between the local leaders and the pro-decollectivization central leaders. In August and September, Zhejiang had several cadre meetings to correct “the leftist errors in the agrarian reform” and advocate household farming. The result was clear: whereas less than 40 percent had been decollectivized in June 1982, by April 1983 more than 90 percent of teams were.11

Hunan Province had a similar story with Zhejiang. The Hunan leaders were initially supportive of collectives. However, several central leaders went down to push for decollectivization in spring 1981. After that, the provincial party secretary officially apologized for his lack of understanding of the central policy and the slow pace of decollectivization. The Hunan leaders then started the campaign, and within one year nearly 80 percent of the teams were decollectivized.12

Du Runsheng, the architect of nationwide decollectivization, revealed more inside information in his recent memoirs. Du claims that some provinces accepted household agriculture only after replacing their leadership; this included Fujian, Jilin, Hunan, Guangxi, and Heilongjiang provinces.13 Moreover, Du also documented how the central leaders pushed the decollectivization campaign using their authority. For example, after the CCP national leader Hu Yaobang went to Hebei Province and criticized their slow adoption of household agriculture, the household model was rapidly implemented.14 Hu also publicly claimed that those cadres who opposed decollectivization should just be removed.15

Pressures from above were also well documented in the literature.16 Even one of the leading defenders of decollectivization admitted that, “although family farming began as a peasant innovation that did not mean all peasant communities wanted it.” But he still claimed that after the process most peasants appeared to accept their share of the land with pleasure.17 Some authors are clearly selective in presenting evidence. For example, Kate Xiao Zhou quotes Shu-min Huang to show that collectivization was spontaneous, but then ignores a story in Huang’s book which suggests decollectivization was enforced by the CCP.18

It is difficult to say how many peasants actually favored family farming, but according to a national survey by He Xuefeng, an expert on rural issues in China, at least one-third had considerable reservations about decollectivization.19 The CCP clearly played a crucial role in the early 1980s as the whole reform was rapidly implemented nationwide.

Zhou claimed that no work team was ever sent down to villages to carry out decollectivization and regarded this as important evidence of the absence of state power in the campaign.20 However, several provincial records mention large-scale work teams; for example, more than ten thousand people were sent down to implement decollectivization in Fujian Province.21 Moreover, work teams were not necessary when the existing political machine was capable. An interview about a Jiangxi Province team vividly illustrates the passive role of the peasants: “The communist Party cadre had held a meeting at the commune. Then the team head returned and held a team cadre meeting. Cadre called the system ‘divide the land to the households’ (fen tian dao hu). The cadre didn’t propagandize the system; they just held a meeting [of team members] and said this was the way it was going to be done.”22

As a matter of fact, even researchers who were not necessarily supportive of the collectives also claim that the decollectivization campaign was far from spontaneous. Anita Chan, Richard Madsen, and Jonathan Unger document that, like many campaigns before, Beijing indicated a decided enthusiasm to see decollectivization adopted; some local cadre who appeared reluctant to implement it found themselves publicly chastised for leftist thinking.23 Thomas Bernstein admits that by 1982 the adoption of the household model became a matter of compliance with the current party line and was pushed through regardless of local preferences.24

This evidence challenged the view that the decollectivization was a spontaneous collective action and showed that agrarian reform was highly political and led by the CCP from the beginning. This naturally leads to the question of understanding the resistance to decollectivization in the early 1980s.

Opposition to Decollectivization

Let us turn to the second dominant myth: where there was significant opposition to decollectivization, it came from cadre who were simply afraid of losing control of peasants.25 A concise phrase, often quoted in China’s mainstream media, summarizing this is: “The top (leaders) agreed, the bottom (peasants) desired, the middle (cadre) blocked.”26

Some cadre might not have wanted decollectivization because “management would become difficult,”27 but it is hard to believe that a majority of cadre would simply oppose the policy from the central leaders because of fear of “losing control.” As the last section showed, opposing decollectivization was close to committing political suicide, while following the central policy could be quite rewarding. As David Zweig documents, the provincial party committee in Shaanxi province changed the leadership in Zhidan county in 1978 because of its continued support for a radical agrarian policy (i.e., collectivization).28 In winter 1979 the new county leadership allocated land to groups and households in 90 percent of the teams in the county, and this was not an isolated case. Dongping Han also noted that Jimo county in Shandong Province was forced to accept decollectivization, and local leaders who opposed it were removed from their office.29 In an extreme case a rank-and-file pro-decollectivization researcher in Hebei Province was directly promoted to the provincial standing committee of the CCP.30 Provincial-level cadre resisted decollectivization for a short time, but as soon as they realized the intention of the central leaders, their attitudes “swung full circle” to secure their political positions.31 There were still some pro-collective provincial leaders who were able to resist, but they could not continue supporting the collectives for very long.32

Roderick MacFarquhar observes that rural cadres were initially unhappy about their new tasks, but soon realized the rural reform could benefit them; their political skills and connections could both preserve their status and increase their incomes.33 Interestingly, Shu-min Huang also suggests that many local cadre were enthusiastically promoting decollectivization because they could then take over the collective enterprises and make profits.34 The experience and connections they gained as leaders of the collectives would allow them to run these firms as their own. Huang suggests that ordinary peasants and workers in the collectives were very worried about their future and protested vigorously, and Han describes similar political changes.35 With decollectivization, collective enterprises were left under the control of the village party leaders and firm managers who often then rented the enterprises—or simply bought them, despite strong resistance from villagers. Decollectivization disempowered peasants. The loss of collective economic interests fragmented their political power. Village leaders, in contrast, were able to concentrate political power in their own hands and hence gained the most from decollectivization.

Although anecdotally we know some high-level cadre also opposed reform, their voices were never significant in the public arena.36 Some authors have tried to find some anti-decollectivization central leaders, but their arguments are unconvincing. Take Kate Xiao Zhou for example; she identifies Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang as a central leader who opposed decollectivization in 1980, but on the same page she counts Zhao as a pro-decollectivization leader on another occasion in 1980!37 In fact, the CCP’s dominant figure Deng Xiaoping highly praised decollectivization as early as 1980, so it was very unlikely that any central leader would oppose decollectivization, as observed by MacFarquhar and confirmed by Zhao Ziyang himself.38

Huang documents a story in southeast China where the higher authorities and some villagers pressured the local leader to dismantle the collective, but the leader was able to resist until 1984.39 He did not resist because he was afraid of losing control, since he would remain in a position of unchallenged power even after decollectivization; he simply felt that a system that was working well should not be destroyed.

The official provincial records mention reactions from some peasants and cadres. For example, in Jilin Province, some old Communist Party members publicly claimed that there would not be any socialism without collectives—not to mention communism or the Communist Party! Some cadres are reported to have burst into tears when they divided farm land and draft animals. They were sincerely afraid that the merits of collectives such as economy of scale, mechanization, and diversified production would get lost after decollectivization.40

Another report from Lu’an district in Anhui Province is also illuminating.41 The author carefully documents two debates in 1979 among the cadre on whether they should follow the direction of decollectivization. The pro-collective cadre raised several major critiques of decollectivization. First, they observed that leadership rather than decollectivization explained the growth in agriculture. Second, only 30 percent of the peasants who had a high level of labor and human capital wanted decollectivization. Third, agriculture naturally required collective decision making in irrigation and farming. These arguments were strong and not related to the concern of “losing control” at all. So the pro-collective faction actually won the first debate. However, under clear pressures from pro-decollectivization leaders, the pro-collective cadre had to make significant compromises in the second debate and their critiques were dismissed.

Therefore, the overall change to decollectivization was potentially beneficial for the cadre,42 but not so much for ordinary peasants. An award-winning pro-reform novel in 1981 showed different attitudes on the reform in a very subtle way. In it a young and educated cadre member started decollectivization reform; other “leaders” opposed him while the “peasants” welcomed it, and some anti-decollectivization women first opposed him but later agreed to his reform ideas.43 In this novel, the contradictions previously mentioned were solved by the leader’s superman spirit: he deliberately allocated inferior land to himself rather than take advantage of the situation. Moreover, he worked day and night for free for those families with insufficient labor. However, the logical problem comes up again: if this leader was so charismatic and self-sacrificing, it is hard to imagine why he could not lead peasants in collective production.

The interpretation that depicts agrarian reform as a bottom-up movement originating with the peasants and opposed by local cadre is fatally flawed. The cadre and a small part of peasants implemented and benefitted from reform. The average peasant was not enthusiastic, and was even opposed to, decollectivization in some cases. But the question is: If the reform was actually led by the CCP cadre and other advantaged groups, then what was their major goal? A brief review of the CCP party lines on agrarian relations over the last three decades sheds some light on this.

Changing Political Winds

Mao’s death in 1976 marked a new era in China. It was not long before Deng Xiaoping became the most powerful person in the CCP central committee. Although he and his allies were longtime supporters of household production, it was not clear at the beginning that he wanted to dismantle the collective economy so rapidly. In his famous political speech in 1978 which outlined his plan for economy wide market reforms, he only mentioned agriculture briefly.44 For example, he said: “Now the most important task is to increase the autonomy of factories and production teamshow much wealth can be produced out of that!the more wealth individuals create for the state, the more income they should receive and the collective welfare could be better.”45

It was clear that he did not appreciate the Maoist collectives with egalitarian income distribution. However, his critique of collective agriculture was very general. Around this time, the CCP also passed a new resolution on agricultural development, which encouraged collectives to rely on economic incentives and raised procurement prices to increase peasants’ income.46 The official CCP documents concluded that the main problem with collective agriculture was a legacy from “extreme-leftists” in the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, all the new policies clearly retained the collective model.

In an extremely important political resolution in 1981 the CCP cadre finally reached a general consensus on its own history.47 This report basically settled the debates within the party and provided a formal evaluation of Mao and his policies. It is interesting to note that although the report criticized many aspects of the Cultural Revolution and claimed it caused huge waste and unnecessary cost to the economy, it praised agriculture, with its increased grain production, as one of very few fields that had made “steady growth.” Along this line, some history books also held that agriculture was steadily growing in spite of the Cultural Revolution.48

After the decollectivization reform was rapidly carried out, the collective economy began to be seen as “stagnant.” In a political report to the CCP 12th National Congress in 1982, Hu Yaobang claimed that as “the previous ‘left’ error in the direction” had been corrected, “agricultural performance was immediately changed significantly, from stagnant to prosperous.”49 This became the standard description of collective agriculture afterwards. The problem was now not only identified with the “extreme-left,” but also with the normal “left.” In the same national congress, Du Runsheng, head of the agricultural committee in the state council, explained: “the left error in agriculture had been there for more than 20 years until the responsibility system and especially ‘bao gan dao hu’ (decollectivization) gave a strong fight back; long-suppressed incentives were released and long-lasting stagnation in agriculture was changed.”50 Therefore, the CCP’s 12th National Congress in 1982 started demonizing collectives, only one year after the CCP had praised collective agriculture for its “steady growth.”

However, the evaluation of decollectivization was also subject to change. After 1984, grain production stagnated for quite a while. The CCP leaders changed their tune on this issue. Zhao Ziyang claimed agriculture needed policy support beyond decollectivization if it were to move forward.51 Du Runsheng also downplayed decollectivization and said that agriculture ultimately depended on more technological progress.52

Interestingly, collective agriculture was not always demonized; in fact, the evaluation varied according to the political atmosphere. For example, after the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, political figures had to pretend to be a bit more “left” than they were in the 1980s. As D.Y. Hsu and P.Y. Ching discovered, the leaders began repeatedly praising the achievements of the past forty years.53 Hsu and Ching also offer this example: “China’s vice-premier, Tien Chi-yun (Tian Jiyun) acknowledged that the development of the agriculture infrastructure in the thirty years before the reform was the main reason for increases in agricultural production since the reform.”54 It was also after the political unrest in 1989 that the new CCP leader Jiang Zemin deliberately changed the name of the “household responsibility system” (the standard decollectivization policy) to the “responsibility system” in his speech for the 40th National Day in 1989.55 This change, though subtle, implicitly understated the substance of decollectivization in the reform.56 However, as the political pressure was relieved in the early 1990s, the name “household responsibility system” was restored and has remained since. This was further confirmed by the report of the CCP’s 15th Central Committee 3rd Plenary, in which the decollectivization of the rural economy was considered to have led, and greatly contributed to, the whole market reform.57

But since the new century began, the previously stabilized party line on household production has once again changed. The leaders forgot that they used to insist that only individual or family farming can have effective incentives. Now they think incentives are effective when workers work together—as long as they are wage laborers working for a capitalist owner. The new political argument maintains the superiority of household over collective farming, but at the same time points out the limits of small-household farming. As an alternative it calls for land consolidation to reach a sufficient scale to launch agricultural investment and more efficient management. Household production is now considered to be inefficient. Of course this assessment was never mentioned in the story against collective farming in the 1980s when small peasants were avowed to be the basis of agriculture modernization.58

The new line was clear in the resolutions from the CCP’s 16th and 17th Central Committee 3rd Plenary in 2002 and 2008 respectively.59 Particularly, the resolution passed by the 17th Central Committee 3rd Plenary focused on rural development and it encouraged peasants to trade land use rights to concentrate land for more large-scale efficient agricultural production.

The party line on agriculture has constantly changed over the last thirty years. The mainstream media mostly followed the changes in the party lines. At first, collective agriculture was good, but soon the household model was applauded. Later, the CCP and the mainstream media began to claim that in fact households were not productive enough, and advocated land consolidation. The scale of agricultural units changed cyclically, from large farms to small, then back to large. The ownership structure, in contrast, changed monotonically, with a continuous erosion of collective ownership. Perhaps these changes in the party lines can point toward a causal explanation of the whole agrarian change. At least it makes one even more curious about the political motivations that pushed decollectivization.

Causes and Conditions of Decollectivization in the Post-Mao Context

Although many members of the central leadership including Deng Xiaoping were fond of household agriculture, this is not sufficient to explain the decollectivization of the whole rural economy. It is possible that the reform could have been enforced, but it would not have been as smooth as it was. It is also unlikely that Deng and other pragmatic bureaucrats would have supported something without sufficient conditions having been prepared. This section will analyze the political causes of, and the conditions for, decollectivization.

The “End” of Class Struggle

A short time after Mao’s death, everything that sustained the Maoist society seemed to be changed. Indeed, the now endless condemnation of the Cultural Revolution activists, the restoration of the old cadre who lost power during the Cultural Revolution and the previous political campaigns,60 and the emerging scar literature (which described the destructive impacts of the previous era) all marked the political failure of Mao and his allies. Moreover, the bureaucrats reached out to form alliances with upper-level intellectuals who lost their privileges during Mao’s time. The new intellectual policies such as reestablishing the national college entrance exam were ways of gaining support from them. As Maurice Meisner argued, Deng Xiaoping succeeded in taking over power from Hua Guofeng (Mao’s immediate successor), based on his wide support from cadre, military, and intellectuals.61 Although they may differ from the past and will differ in the future, at the end of the 1970s these political forces united under Deng on the common ground that the stable bureaucratic order shall be maintained, and that Maoist mass movements like the Cultural Revolution shall not be repeated.

This change, in the elites’ interests, was expressed in the CCP’s political and economic policies. A resolution in the CCP’s 11th Central Committee 3rd Plenary changed the central principle of the CCP from “class struggle” to “modernization.” The resolution also claimed that since the errors of the Cultural Revolution had been corrected, the major political enemy of workers and peasants was gone. This point was further explored in the 1981 resolution from 11th Central Committee 6th Plenary, as it officially announced that class struggle was not the major contradiction in China any more.62 Of course, this assertion was true only in the sense that the bureaucrats and their allies now enjoyed overwhelming power over the country, as their major political opponents within the CCP were already defeated. However, the workers and peasants were yet to be tamed and remained the potential enemies of the bureaucrats.

The strong push for modernization, plus the admiration of advanced capitalist countries’ wealth, created an ideology that China must catch up with advanced capitalism using their “scientific and advanced” technology and management. But exactly what was “scientific and advanced”? Deng had already given the answer in 1978: the responsibility system. This vague term included more power to management, more power to technicians and intellectuals, and stricter labor discipline with bonuses and punishment.63

In fact, capitalist-oriented reform was already being implemented in the urban industries since the late 1970s.64 In the minds of the CCP leaders, modernization was clearly different from socialism, and it was not likely to be welcomed by workers. However, these tendencies and trends had not caused immediate social conflicts. One of the major reasons was that, instead of trying to extract more from workers and peasants, the government pretended to compromise with them. In rural areas the agricultural procurement prices were raised dramatically and in urban areas workers got more dividends and awards.65 These measures were supposed to enhance the incentives of workers and peasants and indeed agriculture and light industry enjoyed fast growth afterwards. But the honeymoon between the capitalist-minded cadre, and the workers and peasants, soon came to an end.

Frustrating Urban Reform

The modernization program in industry was in fact a war on workers in the public-owned enterprises. Jiang Zilong, then a worker writer, published a novel in 1979 that illustrates the conflicts between the reformer cadre and workers.66 In the story, a brave, smart, and newly appointed factory director, accompanied by his very intelligent wife (who both had been studying in an advanced country—the Soviet Union), observed that, due to a loss of ideals after the Cultural Revolution, the workers were lazy and shirking their jobs. As the standard “scientific management” would suggest, they used very harsh methods towards the workers, including firing more than 1,000 non-tenured workers to increase productivity. Many workers hated him and wrote complaints to the factory’s party secretary, hoping the CCP would save them; however, the party secretary was of the same mind as the director. In the end, high–level leaders encouraged the director to feel free to experiment, while the leaders in the factory decided to go to an advanced country to learn more about new management techniques.

What this novel described was exactly the direction of urban reform. Instead of increasing workers’ participation and political power, leaders became commanders and workers were merely disciplined to serve production. Although in this novel the goal of factory leadership was still “modernization,” it could be easily changed to profits for the leadership afterwards because workers would have no power at all. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that at the end of the 1970s workers’ power was still considerable in most cases, and even many workers who supported reform did not accept capitalism. Take the author of the novel as an example; although he advocated reform at the beginning, Jiang later rethought his position, and has publicly opposed privatization and suppression of workers.67

According to MacFarquhar, strong opposition in the 1980s to urban reform posed great problems for the CCP.68 The failure of urban reform was shown clearly in the huge deficit in 1979 and 1980 (although it did not cause immediate social tension). It was not only caused by the increased pay for workers and peasants, but also by the large-scale imports from foreign countries under the ambitious modernization programs.69 The Chinese people were shocked by the resulting inflation, as there had been no inflation in the Maoist China.70 In order to balance the budget, the CCP had to close many factories, and that caused massive unemployment.71 As a mainstream history book admitted: “in the late 1980s, due to some negative effects of the New Great Leap Forward on state owned enterprises, there were fiscal deficits, accelerating inflation and chaotic economic order.”72

Thus it was clear that the compromise between cadre and worker was not going to continue. First, the basic idea of reform was to discipline workers to make more profits; so sooner or later the conflict of interests would come to the surface. Second, even if the cadre planned to buy support for reform from workers, they were not able to do so anymore, given the severe conditions in the cities.

The problems in the urban areas led to the first political and economic crisis of the post-Mao CCP. It became politically risky to proceed with the capitalist line since that would lead to direct confrontation with workers in bad economic conditions. It was natural that the cadre turned to the rural economy in 1980.73

The Weak Link

The CCP leaders were fortunate in the sense that the rural economy was the Achilles’ heel of the socialist economy. Not only were one-third of the collectives not in good shape, but even the more successful ones suffered from a number of problems.74

First, even though collective agriculture had impressive achievements, the fast growing population cancelled out many of their gains. Sulamith Potter and Jack Potter showed that, in the commune they studied, per capita distribution (income from work points per person) fell from a high of about 180 yuan in 1962, to a level just over 100 yuan in most of 1960s and ‘70s, even though the gross output kept increasing.75 Although the rapid population growth due to better health care and other improvements in the quality of life slowed down in the 1970s, it was not sufficient to overturn the trend. On the national level, grain production increased annually by 2.68 percent from 1956 to 1978; at the same time population grew annually by 1.95 percent, so there was limited improvement in per capita product despite the growth in agriculture.76

Second, there was a lack of mechanization in agriculture. Collective farming is not necessarily more productive than individual farming unless it has sufficient mechanization and infrastructure. In Mao’s time, a lot of infrastructure was built by the communes, but mechanization only started to increase rapidly in the mid–1970s.

Third, different historical paths led to different performances in collective farming. As William Hinton pointed out, the successful collectives he saw had a long history of land reform and military struggle against reactionaries, and in that process many strong peasant political leaders emerged and led collective production.77 Other places, such as Anhui Province, were quickly led to land reform and collectivization by outsiders rather than local political leaders. In those places, collective farming was never as widely accepted by the peasants.

Last but not least, the prevailing political stratification dampened the mobilization and organizational capacity of the collectives, which led to underperformance of collective farming. In some cases, the lack of socialist superstructure reduced the peasants’ potential support for maintaining the collectives.

The underperformance of collective farming in many places made it an easier case for the central authority to stress the inefficiency of the collective regime and enforce the decollectivization reform. Peasants’ political power was never as strong as that of industrial workers who had been through decades of experience with industrialization and political organizing. Therefore, the relative weakness of peasants both economically and politically made them the first major target after the failure of urban reform.

Selling Decollectivization

Even with a relatively less powerful peasantry, decollectivization was not easy. Reform faced oppositions on all levels. The strong resistance was largely due to the benefits the peasants received from the collectives and long-time emphasis on collective farming during Mao’s time. But it turned out that the CCP indeed convinced many peasants that decollectivization would be both efficient and socialist. A strange blend of bourgeois propaganda and the old revolutionary slogans, the campaign was so successful that it deserves a separate discussion.

First, the leaders always tried to fit their new policies in line with the socialist tradition. From the very beginning, the cadres were very careful with their language. For example, Deng and others always used the term “responsibility system.” It was deliberately vague because no one would reject the necessity to have people take responsibility for their work. As a matter of fact, during the Maoist period the collectives encouraged and widely contracted small jobs to either groups or individuals, and these measures did not change the nature of the collective.78 However, radical decollectivization reforms were hidden under this name, as if they were the same as existing small-job contracting. The CCP also tried very hard to differentiate decollectivization from complete privatization as the nominal ownership of land was kept collective. This vagueness of propaganda helped peasants and cadres perceive the reform as still socialist and progressive.79

An interesting anecdote shows the most important agenda under the “responsibility” name tag was actually not “responsibility” per se. During the decollectivization campaign, Romanian government representatives visited China and asked whether the “household responsibility system” might simply be renamed the “responsibility system,” since the inclusion of “household” made it look too similar to privatization. This suggestion was quickly rejected by the policy makers because they saw the “household” aspect of decollectivization as the key element in the reform package.80

There was a deliberate vagueness in the two most popular terms in the decollectivization campaign: da bao gan and lianchan. The first term in Chinese actually means “divide the land and work on your own.” However, it has another possible meaning: “guarantee to work.” Many people thought the term referred to the second meaning which clearly does not have any political implication. The second term means “linking revenue to production,” which means the collectives are not responsible for allocating income. But in the Chinese language, the term could also imply some sort of “cooperative production.” Again, many people wrongly believe that it refers to the second meaning.

Second, while the cadre failed to buy workers’ support for the reform, they succeeded with peasants. Through the transition period (1979–1984) peasants’ income increased greatly mainly due to increased procurement prices. Propaganda attributed this achievement to decollectivization. Therefore, at least at the beginning, most peasants had positive views on the rural reforms.

Finally, in face of challenges from the pro-collective camp, the reformers always avoided direct confrontation and used sophisticated diplomatic skills. For example, many pro-decollectivization reports in the early 1980s admitted that the rural reform could lead to eventually dismantling the collectives and restoration of petty peasant production.81 However, they only acknowledged these problems on an abstract level; on a concrete level they would only present pro-decollectivization cases. They also argued that a small degree of decollectivization would not really hurt socialist agriculture. In the end they would optimistically conclude with definitive support for further decollectivization as the “inevitable trend.”

Summarizing our discussions on the causes of decollectivization, the strong workers’ opposition directly caused the failure of urban reform, which pushed the CCP to refocus its attention on rural reform. For all the factors considered above, rural collectives were vulnerable to the attacks from the CCP. At the same time, the importance of ideology in the nationwide agrarian reform should not be underestimated.

Political Consequences

With the success of decollectivization in rural areas, the CCP could restart their urban programs, as the resolution of CCP 12th Central Committee 3rd Plenary in 1984 concluded: the rural reform was mostly finished, and now the focus was on urban reform.82 Why were they so confident about dealing with workers at this juncture?

First, the peasants ceased to be an important political force in China. The decollectivization which transformed the organized and collective peasantry into independent and competing petty producers greatly disempowered the peasantry as a whole.

The potential threat of a peasants’ revolt always loomed large to the CCP leaders, who had led a peasant revolution themselves. Even a decade after rural decollectivization, a Chinese vice premier reportedly claimed that no one in the present regime could hold on to power if there were problems in the countryside.83 The leaders in the early 1990s knew that if the farms were recollectivized, it would inevitably lead to a severe deterioration in the relations between the peasantry and the party and government. The fear of peasant power also partly explained the leaders’ unwillingness to set up a farmers’ association, despite numerous proposals.84

Decollectivization has largely achieved the aim of disempowering peasants and the CCP successfully eliminated one big threat to the further transition to capitalism. For example, they kept silent when political unrest caused by privatization and market reform accumulated in late 1980s. When students in Tiananmen Square were asked where the peasants were, the answer was “they are all asleep.”85 At the same time Deng Xiaoping assured other leaders that there were no problems with the peasants.86 Even in those riots in subsequent years, they were not as threatening as they could be if organized.

Second, the traditional peasant-worker alliance was broken. The temporary income increase in the countryside persuaded most peasants to support further reforms. There was also the long-run outcome of providing an almost infinite labor supply to private industries in the urban areas, since after agrarian reform the CCP encouraged individual peasants to sell their labor power in the city. The urban labor glut greatly undermined the power of the old working class in publicly owned enterprises. It was under these conditions, including mass unemployment, that further urban reform was made possible.

The peasants were not any better off than urban workers as their own political position declined and the need for the CCP to appease them decreased. Table 1 shows the historical changes of the ratio of urban-to-rural per capita income in Column 1. Although the peasants’ passiveness in the late 1980s might be explained by their satisfaction that the urban-rural gap was dramatically reduced, the same logic cannot be applied to the later period when the gap widened again and finally became much larger than it was in 1980. The decline of the peasants’ political power also indirectly led to the relative decrease of state investment in agriculture. Clearly, the policy makers seemed to have forgotten the countryside. As Column 2 in Table 1 shows, the share of rural expenditure in the whole fiscal budget declined from its highest level in the collective era, even after adjusting for the declining rural population. Moreover, Column 3 in Table 1 shows how the rural infrastructure expenditure share within the already small rural fiscal budget also went down dramatically compared to the collective era.

Table 1. Decline of the Countryside

Urban-Rural income ratio [value (year)] Adjusted share of fiscal expenditure on rural areas Share of infrastructure building in total rural expenditure


2.5 (1980)

13.7 % 39.6 %


2.2 (1990)

11.8 22.7


2.8 (2000)

13.2 25.3


3.1 (2010)

12.8 25.0

Notes: Urban-rural income ratio is defined as the urban per capita disposable income divided by the counterpart in rural areas. The share of fiscal expenditure in rural areas is calculated as the share of per capita rural fiscal spending in national per capita fiscal spending to adjust for the changing population composition over time. The fiscal expenditure data after 2006 are not available due to adjustments in the measurement.

Sources: Calculated based on Ministry of Agriculture, Agricultural Statistics of China’s 60 Years (Beijing: Zhongguo nongye chubanshe, 2009), 10, State Statistical Bureau, China Compendium of Statistics 1949-2004 (Beijing: China Statistics Press, 2005), sections 19 and 30; State Statistical Bureau, China Statistical Yearbook (Beijing: China Statistics Press, 2012), sections 3.1 and 9.2.

The workers and peasants were potential opponents of capitalism, and the CCP would have been unwise to face the two opponents at the same time. However, after dissolving the power of the peasantry, the CCP could now face the workers alone. Even if the peasants began to experience hardship in later years, they did not have the solidarity and organization that they used to enjoy in the collective era.


The propaganda efforts of the CCP tried to make the rural reform look spontaneous and politically neutral. Yet it is also clear from the changing party lines that reform was always a political issue. This article has discussed the political tensions between the CCP and peasants and workers, arguing that the rural reform served as the political basis of the later capitalist transitions although the CCP always tried to downplay the political significance of decollectivization.

In fact, the politics of decollectivization were made clear by Mao as early as 1962: “Do we want socialism or capitalism? Do we want collectivization or decollectivization?”87 In particular, he reminded everyone to “never forget class struggle.” Despite the continuous depoliticization efforts by the CCP, China is having more and more anti-capitalist protests and movements.88 The historical strike in Tonghua Steel Company in 2009 and the peasants’ unrest in the Wukan event in 2011 are only the tip of the iceberg. Although not many peasants and workers understood Mao’s reminders at the time, they definitely understand them now.


  1. Excerpts from Deng Xiaoping’s talks given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shanghai, January 18—February 21, 1992. Published in The Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, vol. 3 (Beijing: renmin chubanshe, 1993), 370–83 (in Chinese).
  2. For example, see the Communique of the Third Plenary of the 15th Central Committee of the CCP, October 14, 1998, (in Chinese).
  3. This has been suggested in many writings. See Justin Lifu Lin, “The Household Responsibility System in China’s Agricultural Reform,” Economic Development and Cultural Change 36 (April 1988) (supplement) S-199–S-224; and “Rural Reforms and Agricultural Growth in China,” American Economic Review 82, no. 1 (1992): 34-51; Daniel Kelliher, Peasant Power in China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Kate Xiao Zhou, How the Farmers Changed China: Power of the People (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996); and Licheng Ma and Zhijun Lin, “ The Night of Xiaogang Village Shakes the Earth” in Jiaofeng (Crossing Swords) (Beijing: Jin Ri Zhongguo chubanshe, 1998) (in Chinese).
  4. Carl Riskin, China’s Political Economy: The Quest for Development Since 1949 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Louis Putterman, “Entering the Post-Collective Era in North China: Dahe Township,” Modern China 15, no. 3 (1989): 275–320; Carol Carolus, “Sources of Chinese Agricultural Growth in the 1980s” (PhD dissertation, Boston University, 1992); Chris Bramall, “Origins of the Agricultural ‘Miracle’: Some Evidence from Sichuan,” China Quarterly no. 143 (1995): 731–55; Dongping Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2008).
  5. See its various versions in Justin Lifu Lin, “The Household Responsibility System in China’s Agricultural Reform” and “Rural Reforms and Agricultural Growth in China”; Kelliher, Peasant Power in China; Zhou, How the Farmers Changed China; Ma and Lin, “The Night of Xiaogang Village Shakes the Earth”; Wu Jinglian, “Twenty Years’ Development of the Theory of Reform,” in Zhang Zhuoyuan, Huang Fanzhang, and Li Guangan, eds., Twenty Years of Economic Reform: In Retrospect and Prospect (Beijing: zhongguo jihua chubanshe, 1998) (in Chinese).
  6. Chris Bramall, Sources of Chinese Economic Growth, 1978–1996 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 330.
  7. Hongqi, Selected Reports on China’s Agriculture Responsibility System (Beijing: Hongqi chubanshe, 1984) (in Chinese).
  8. Shanghai Nongyezhi Committee, Shanghai Agricultural Records (Shanghai: Shanghai shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, 1996), 35–36 (in Chinese).
  9. Beijing Difangzhi Committee, Beijing Rural Economic Records (Beijing: chubanshe, 2008), 545–59 (in Chinese).
  10. Yunnan Difangzhi Committee, Yunnan Agricultural Records (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 1998), 138–39 (in Chinese).
  11. Zhejiang Nongyezhi Committee, Zhejiang Agricultural Records (Bejing: Zhonghua shuju, 2004), 192–98 (in Chinese).
  12. Hunan Difangzhi Committee, Hunan Agriculture Records (Changsha: Hunan chubanshe, 1991), 53–57 (in Chinese).
  13. Du Runsheng, Du Runsheng’s Recollections (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 2005), 130–31 (in Chinese).
  14. Ibid, 131.
  15. This is confirmed in Hu Yaobang’s son’s recollection, “Hu Deping on the Motivations of Hu Yaobang’s Reform,” September 27, 2011,
  16. David Zweig, “Opposition to Change in Rural China: The System of Responsibility and People’s Communes,” Asian Survey 23, no. 7 (1983): 879–900; Kathleen Hartford, “Socialist Agriculture Is Dead: Long Live Socialist Agriculture! Organizational Transformation in Rural China,” in Elizabeth Perry and Christine Wong, eds., The Political Economy of Reform in Post-Mao China: Causes, Content, and Consequences (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985); William Hinton, The Great Reversal (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990); Bramall, Sources of Chinese Economic Growth; Tongxue Tan, “Morality, Power, and Social Structure in the Transition of Rural Society” (PhD dissertation, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, 2007) (in Chinese); Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution.
  17. Kelliher, Peasant Power in China, 105.
  18. Zhou, How the Farmers Changed China, 28, quotes from from Huang Shu-min, The Spiral Road: Change in a Chinese Village Through the Eyes of a Communist Party Leader (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989), about spontaneous collectivization. The decollectivization story is in Huang Shumin’s book at 162-73.
  19. He Xuefeng, “Three Functions of People’s Commune,” November 14 2007, (in Chinese).
  20. Zhou, How the Farmers Changed China.
  21. Fujian Difangzhi Committee, Fujian Communist Party Records (Beijing: Zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, 1999), 189-92; Hunan Difangzhi Committee, Hunan Agriculture Records, 53-57 (both in Chinese).
  22. Reported in Hartford, “Socialist Agriculture Is Dead: Long Live Socialist Agriculture!,” 39.
  23. Anita Chan, Richard Madsen, and Jonathan Unger, Chen Village Under Mao and Deng (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 271.
  24. Thomas Bernstein, “Farmer Discontent and Regime Responses,” in Merle Goldman and Roderick Macfarquhar, eds., The Paradox of China’s Post-Mao Reforms (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 197–219.
  25. Lin, “Rural Reforms and Agricultural Growth in China”; Kelliher, Peasant Power in China.
  26. This phrase might have its origins in the Heilongjiang Province. See Wang Zhenqi, “Hu Yaobang Harshly Criticizes ‘Blocks’,” Shi ji qiao no. 12 (2011): 45-47 (in Chinese). As David Kotz and Sigrid Schmalzer suggested, the kind of phrase was also used in China during the Mao era and in the Soviet Union.
  27. Hartford, “Socialist Agriculture Is Dead: Long Live Socialist Agriculture!”
  28. Zweig, “Opposition to Change in Rural China.”
  29. Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, 156.
  30. Shi Bai, “ Huge Promotion to Provincial Standing Committee,” Yanhuang chunqiu no. 7 (2007): 6–11 (in Chinese).
  31. Zweig, “Opposition to Change in Rural China.”
  32. Ibid; Bramall, “Origins of the Agricultural ‘Miracle.’”
  33. Roderick MacFarquhar, “The Succession to Mao and the End of Maoism, 1969-82,” in MacFarquhar, ed., The Politics of China: The Eras of Mao and Deng (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 248–339.
  34. Huang, The Spiral Road, 162–73.
  35. Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, 158–59.
  36. Here is one story: in a meeting, an old leftist cadre came to Wan Li (then governor of Anhui Province), saying that decollectivization was not egalitarian and was not achieving socialism. Wan fought back with the question: Socialism or people, which do you want? The poor man did not get the trick of the question and immediately replied: Socialism! Wan said: I want people. See Du Runsheng, Du Runsheng’s Recollections, 126.
  37. Zhou, How the Farmers Changed China, 67.
  38. MacFarquhar, “The Succession to Mao and the End of Maoism, 1969-82,” and confirmed by Zhao Ziyang himself; see Zhao Ziyang, The Secret Journal of Zhao Ziyang (Hong Kong: xinshiji chubanshe, 2009), 138 (in Chinese). Deng’s talk on rural policy was given in May 1980; it was later published in the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, vol. 2 (Beijing: renmin chubanshe, 1994), 315-17 (in Chinese).
  39. Huang, The Spiral Road, 162–73.
  40. Jilin Difangzhi Committee, Jilin Agricultural Records (Jinlin: renmin chubanshe, 1993), 478–83 (in Chinese).
  41. Wang Yanhai, “Hard to Make the First Step,” Jianghuai wenshi no. 4 (2007): 117–29 (in Chinese).
  42. Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic (New York: Free Press, 1999), 463.
  43. The novel was written by Caiqin Zhou, it received the national award for excellent short novels in 1981, which was the most important literature award in the early 1980s. See Caiqin Zhou, “ The Innocent Country Moon,” in the People’s Literature anthology Short Novel Awards of 1981 (Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1981) (in Chinese).
  44. Deng Xiaoping, “Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in Looking to the Future,” in Deng, Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping. Originally December 1978.
  45. Ibid.
  46. See the Peoples’ Daily editorial “The Force of Accelerating Agricultural Development,” October 7, 1979, (in Chinese).
  47. Resolutions on Some Historical Issues of CCP,” from the CCP 11th Central Committee 6th Plenary, 1981, (in Chinese).
  48. Suinian Liu and Wu Qungan, The Economy During the Cultural Revolution (Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 1986), 109; Du Runsheng, ed., Collective Agriculture in Modern China (Beijing: dangdai zhongguo chubanshe, 2002), 722 (both in Chinese).
  49. Hu Yaobang, “Create the New Stage of Socialist Modernization,” political report to the CCP 12th national congress, September 8, 1982, (in Chinese).
  50. Du Runsheng, “Historical Transformation of Rural Management,” People’s Daily, September 16, 1982 (in Chinese).
  51. Yu Jiafu, “Zhao Ziyan Claims Chinese Agriculture Needs More Policy Support in His Meeting with T. Shultz,” People’s Daily, May 17, 1988 (in Chinese).
  52. Du Runsheng, “ Rely on Technology, Improve the Agricultural Economy,” People’s Daily, April 11, 1986 (in Chinese).
  53. D.Y. Hsu and P.Y. Ching, “The Worker-Peasant Alliance as a Strategy for Rural Development in China,” Monthly Review, 42, no. 10 (March 1991): 27–43.
  54. From the People’ Daily (overseas edition), June 12, 1986; cited in Hsu and Ching, “The Worker-Peasant Alliance as a Strategy for Rural Development in China,” 43n1.
  55. See “Jiang Zemin’s Speech for the 40th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China,” People’s Daily, September 30, 1989 (in Chinese).
  56. Wu Rong, “Working for the Central Agriculture Research Bureau,” Zhongshan fengyu, no. 3 (2008): 20–22 (in Chinese).
  57. Communique of the Third Plenary of the 15th Central Committee of the CCP, October 14, 1998, (in Chinese).
  58. For example, Du Runsheng, “The Responsibility System and the New Development of Rural Co-operatives,” People’s Daily, March 7, 1983 (in Chinese).
  59. The resolutions passed in the plenary are: “CCP’s Resolution on Improving the Socialist Market Economy,” CCP 16th Central Committee 3rd Plenary, October 14, 2003,; “CCP’s Resolution on Some Crucial Issues in Rural Reform and Development,” CCP 17th Central Committee 3rd Plenary, October 12, 2008, (both in Chinese).
  60. Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 430–32.
  61. Ibid.
  62. Resolutions on Some Historical Issues of CCP” from CCP 11th Central Committee 6th Plenary, June 27, 1981, (in Chinese).
  63. Deng Xiaoping, “Emancipate the Mind, Seek Truth from Facts and Unite as One in Looking to the Future.”.
  64. Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 470.
  65. For grains, quota price increased by 20 percent and above-quota price increased by 50 percent. See Terry Sicular, “Agricultural Planning and Pricing in the Post-Mao Period,” China Quarterly 116 (1988): 671–705.
  66. Jiang Zilong, “Qiao Became the New Director,” in the Renmin wenxue anthology, Short Novel Awards of 1979 (Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1979) (in Chinese).
  67. Jiang Zilong, “Pride and Sorrow: A Recollection of an Old Worker,” Tong zhou gong jin, no. 8 (2010): 14–17 (in Chinese).
  68. MacFarquhar, “The Succession to Mao and the End of Maoism, 1969–82.”
  69. Sometimes described as yang yue jin (“Import Great Leap Forward”), the earlier urban reform imported some very expensive machinery to build new factories.
  70. Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 470.
  71. Ibid, 471.
  72. Wu, “Twenty Years’ Development of the Theory of Reform.”
  73. Meisner, Mao’s China and After, 471; Wu, “ Working for the Central Agriculture Research Bureau.”
  74. Du Runsheng, “The Rural Responsibility System and Rural Economic Reform,” Hongqi (Red Flag) no. 19 (1981): 383 (in Chinese).
  75. Sulamith Potter and Jack Potter, China’s Peasants: The Anthropology of a Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 158–79.
  76. Calculation is based on State Statistical Bureau, Statistics of China in 55 Years (Beijing: Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 2005), section 3, 39 (in Chinese).
  77. Hinton, The Great Reversal.
  78. See the critique on decollectivization in “Expose the Real Nature of Decollectivization,” People’s Daily, November 2, 1959 (in Chinese).
  79. Most political bulletins/pamphlets on agriculture at that time termed all the decollectivization measures as some kind of “responsibility system” under socialism. For example, see Wu Xiang, “Shining Road and Single-Log Bridge,” People’s Daily, November 5, 1980 (in Chinese).
  80. Wu, “Twenty Years’ Development of the Theory of Reform.”
  81. For example, see Wu Xiang, “Shining Road and Single-Log Bridge,” People’s Daily, November 5, 1980 (in Chinese); and Du Runsheng, “The Rural Responsibility System and Rural Economic Reform.”
  82. “CCP’s Resolution on Economic Structural Reform,” CCP’s 12th Central Committee 3rd Plenary, October 20, 1984, (in Chinese).
  83. Bernstein, “Farmer Discontent and Regime Responses.”
  84. Ibid.
  85. Clemens Stubbe-Østergaard, “Introduction,” in Jørgen Delman, Clemens Stubbe-Østergaard, and Flemming Christiansen, Remaking Peasant China: Problems of Rural Development and Institutions at the Start of the 1990s (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990).
  86. Bernstein, “Farmer Discontent and Regime Responses.”
  87. Mao repeated this many times. See Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, eds., A Biography of Mao Zedong: 1949–1976, (Beijing: Zhongyang Wenxian chubanshe, 2003), chapter 30 (in Chinese).
  88. Minqi Li, “The Rise of the Working Class and the Future of the Chinese Revolution,” Monthly Review 63, no. 2 (June 2011): 38–51.
2013, Volume 65, Issue 01 (May)
Comments are closed.