COMMUNES IN CHINA
Land reform poster As was true with all land, farm land was owned by state. Most farming was done at collective farms and state farms. Food produced by farms was sold to the state at fixed prices that were generally lower than the prices of the same food sold on the open market. As a result the farms were dependent on government subsidies to remain afloat.
Agricultural productivity was low. Farmers lacked incentives to be productive; infrastructure and transportation problems prevented food from getting from the fields to people's homes before it spoiled; poor land management exhausted soils and water supplies. There were also weather problems. The low productivity resulted in shortages and even famines.
To increase productivity, chemical fertilizer plants were built, hybrid-seed programs were developed, insecticides were used, rivers were irrigated. Many of these programs had negative effects on the environment.
During the war to take power, the Communists promised land to the poor. When the Communists came to power they began seizing land from landowners and distributing it among the poor. Each family got no more than 1.3 acres. Land owners that resisted giving up their land, even as little as two thirds of an acre, were often executed.
"Mao Zedong's legacy to Chinese agriculture is mixed," scholar Richard Critchfield writes, "He gave agriculture and the peasant top priority in investment, something India has failed to do. Yet the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, along with forced collectivization, set back scientific research for years and in 1959-61 an estimated 30 million Chinese died of famine. [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]
Websites and Resources
penetrate the countryside stamp Good Websites and Sources on Communes: Communes in Communist China (PDF file) indiana.edu ; People’s Republic of China : Timeline china-profile.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project wilsoncenter.org ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Chaos Group of the University of Maryland a
People’s Republic of China : Timeline china-profile.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project wilsoncenter.org ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Chaos Group of the University of Maryland a
Links in this Website: MAO, HIS EARLY LIFE, TACTICS AND REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNISTS TAKE OVER CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EARLY COMMUNIST RULE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; LEADERSHIP AND PROPAGANDA UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; DEATH, REPRESSION AND LIFE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT LEAP FORWARD Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION --ENEMIES AND HORRORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION--THE END Factsanddetails.com/China ; RURAL LIFE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; VILLAGES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AGRICULTURE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Land Reform in China Under Mao
The Communist Party’s greatest legacy arguably has been taking land from wealthy landlords and rich farmers and redistributing it in rural areas among the poorest peasants under the principal of “land of the tiller.” During the war to take power, the Communists promised land to the poor. When the Communists came to power they began seizing land from landowners and distributing it among the poor. Each family got no more than 1.3 acres. Land owners that resisted giving up their land, even as little as two thirds of an acre, were often executed.
After 1949, farmers classified as "poor peasants" by the Communists were given ownership to land taken away from local landlords and rich farmers. Estates and large farms were divided and peasants got small parcels of land. One farmer told the New York Times, "Of course we were extremely happy—everyone was happy we got land!"
The seizure of land was not always easy. In some cases “certain necessary steps” had to be taken and this resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people. In many cases villagers were executed or beaten to death by fellow villagers to get their land. See Violence in the Early Years of the People's Republic Below.
The peasants didn’t hold on to their land for long. By the late 1950s, private land ownership was eliminated and peasants were given usage rights to the land but not ownership. The land from then on was owned by the state. Peasants were organized into teams and then collectives and became property-less members of “people’s communes.”
Similar scenarios were played in the cities. Rich families who stayed in Shanghai after Communist Revolution were told they had nothing to worry about, but in the end their land and property was expropriated. The Communists also confiscated their art. One Hong Kong art dealer told the New York Times. "The Shanghai museum's best pieces are all from those private collections."
Top down economic plans after independence bore fruit. The national income rose at rate of 8.9 percent a year between 1953 and 1957 bu created problems down the road. Giving peasants usages rights rather than ownership paved the way for the seizures of land by local officials and businesses that is taking place today.
Dazhai commune poster
Collectivism in China
In the early 1950s the Communists helped form mutual aid teams, the precursors to cooperatives. In 1955, Mao decreed that all farmers should "voluntarily" organize into large cooperatives. The cooperatives were overseen by party cadres and large portions of the output was turned over to the state.
In the early 1950s, in one of the largest peacetime mobilizations in history, prisoners of war, decommissioned Red Army soldiers and “reform through labor” convicts were sent to the Gobi Desert and western China as members of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, to build roads, canals, bridges and dams and transform a wasteland into a rich agricultural area of cotton, maize and rice, complete with its own cities. In some cases the condition were so sever that participants made furniture from sod bricks and used their own hair keep arm in the frigid winters.
Large centrally planned People’s Communes were established in late 1950s. The Communists had hoped that collectivism would help the huge Chinese population feed itself, but collectivism did not increase agricultural production.
Within a short time it was clear this system wasn’t workable. Distribution was always a problem. Even during the Cultural Revolution when every able-bodied person in the country was put to the task of rasing food, food rotted in the fields and people starved.
Scholar William McNeil once wrote: "The problem is the Chinese have never been able to organize collective effort with the sort of enthusiasm and efficiency of the Japanese. There is a kind of ruthless individualism in Chinese life, a competitiveness and acquisitiveness, that may make modern large-scale industrial organization difficult.”
Mao initially followed the Soviet model but became impatient with the slow pace of development and turned to radical mass movements like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. See History
In the 1960s and 70s, the land in effect belonged to a production team—made up of 20 to 40 households—whose members were compensated in shares of the collective harvest by a complex system of shared points.
Collective Farms, Communes and State Farms in China
Commune in the 1950s Collectives were cooperative organizations in which farmers joined together to collectively raise crops on land worked in common. The farmers were paid in food (grain, vegetables, milk and meat) and money earned by the collective. Sometimes the term collective farm and commune was used interchangeably.
A commune is a groups of many cooperatives. A typical one embraced 60 villages and 20,000 members. All buildings, tools, machines, land and dwellings were owned by the commune. People worked in teams of 150 to 600 people and were paid a small wage a given clothing, food and housing. A typical rural Chinese family working on a agricultural commune earned about US$700 a year.
Communes were intended to function like small cities or towns. They had their own manufacturing capabilities and worked farmers like factory workers and kept people from migrating to the cities. If needed people on communes could be mobilized for large labor-intensive projects.
State farms were "factory type" farms that specialized mainly in one kind of crop or one kind of animal. They were set up and run by the state. Workers are treated the same as factory workers and paid a regular salary.
Large Collective Farms and Communes in China
Some collective farms in China were massive. "That commune was so large," one saying went, "that the person has to take a train to see the head of the committee." During the Cultural Revolution, some collective farms doubled as Chinese gulags for intellectuals and political prisoners.
Some 26,578 communes were established by 1958. One of the largest, State Farm No. 128 of the No. 7 Division (85 miles northwest of Urumqi) employed 17,000 people (almost all Han Chinese) and had military-style checkpoints, irrigated orchards and cotton fields as well as its own foreign affairs office, television station, oil refinery and enterprises for marketing crops and forestry products.
Another Dazhai poster
The Dazhai Commune in Shanxi province was one of the most famous communes in China. Reportedly built up from the ruins of great flood by 500 peasants, it boasted record grain productions and it provided a model for other communes across China. Over the years Danzhai was visited three times by Zhou Enai, twice by Deng Xiaoping as well as by Queen Beatrice of Netherlands, Pol Pot from Cambodia and leaders from Africa, Albania and East Germany. Later it was revealed that Dazhai was a sham. The record grain reports were fiction, production figures were exaggerated and the commune was subsidized. According to one writer, "Nowdays to many people the whole thing about Dazhai looks like a joke."
Collective Farm Organization in China
Authority for collective farms was determined by national laws or by rules drawn up by the collective farm. Each collective was run by a chairman-manager and board made up of Communist party loyalists theoretically elected by members of the collective. The collective farm chairman controlled all the resources and incomes.
Collectives, state farms and communes were often very inefficient. They often had armies of administrators, bookkeepers, veterinarians, dentists along with farmers that often wouldn’t hit the fields until 11:00am and sometimes did the threshing and winnowing by hand when their machines broke down.
Workers who followed the Soviet model worked in units called brigades or links that were directed brigade or link leaders. They often worked in teams of "labor-day" units, with certain tasks regarded as requiring more labor than others. A day of harvesting for example might be worth a whole labor day while a day of milking might be worth only half a day. Workers "earnings" were drawn against their future "income" of labor days.
At the end of each labor day units were tallied up by the brigade or link leader. At the end of the year, earnings and labor days are added up. If there was a surplus of labor days, a workers might receive a bonus of some sort.
As was true with factory workers, farm workers lacked incentives. A worker on a collective farm told the New York Times, since farmland belongs to the state "nobody is interested in working and producing on it." The man said he hated working on a the collective because his bosses were always telling him what to do.
Frank Dikötter, author of The Great Famine told Evan Osnos of The New Yorker: “The farmers who were herded into giant people’s communes had very few incentives to work. The land belonged to the state. The grain they produced was procured at a price that was often below the cost of production. Their livestock, tools, and utensils were no longer theirs. Often even their homes were confiscated.”
“Local cadres faced ever greater pressure to fulfill and over-fulfill the plan, having to drive the workforce in one merciless campaign after another,” Dikötter said. “In some places both villagers and cadres became so brutalized that the scope and degree of coercion had to be constantly expanded, resulting in an orgy of violence. People were tied up, beaten, stripped, drowned in ponds, covered in excrement, branded with sizzling tools, mutilated, and buried alive. The most common tool in this arsenal of horror was food, which was used as a weapon: entire groups of people considered to be too old, too weak, or too sick to work were deliberately banned from the canteen and starved to death. As Lenin put it, ‘He who does not work shall not eat.’”
Yet another Dazhai poster
Benefits on a Collective in China
Collectives provided education, housing and transportation. Workers enjoyed a lifestyle similar to that of industrial workers, receiving paid vacation and social benefits such as maternity leave, health insurance, pensions and access to cultural events and continuing education.
Each farm family usually had a small plot of land on which it was allowed to grow vegetables and raise animals. The food produced was supposed to be for the family's consumption. Sometimes extra food was sold for extra cash on the black market or authorized private markets. Farmers who had access to urban markets could earn a considerable amount of money.
People who lived in communes sometimes slept in dormitories and ate in mess halls. But mostly they lived in one- or two-room houses or huts they sometimes built themselves. Until the 1970s these homes often lacked indoor plumbing and electricity. In forested areas these were made of wood. In the steppes they were made of mud brick. In other places they were often made of concrete slabs or brick. They houses often had thatch or sheet metal roofs.
Men only had two days off a week and women had three days off. Women were given a month off after the gave birth. There were special tasks for children and old people. Students often studied at school for five hours in the morning and worked in the afternoons. Measures were taken to keep people from migrating to the cities.
Life in a Chinese Commune
At communes and collectives the traditional family system was broken down. Some people slept in dormitories and ate in mess halls. Children were cared for in day care centers so their mothers could work. Old people were placed in special dwellings called "happy homes." To escape from this system many commune residents lived in small single-story brick houses they built themselves. Chinese peasant were generally allowed to have pigs and garden plots to raise food for themselves but not to sell.
Workers typically worked eight or nine hours a day and had weekends off. Sometimes when there was a lot of work to do they worked on the weekends. A typical day began at 5:00am when loudspeaker woke everyone up. After roll call, calisthenics and breakfast of dark bread and grits, people worked in the fields. Around 12:00noon the workers took a break for lunch, which was often made in a barn near the fields and served to workers near where they were working. It often consisted of stew or borscht served from a common pot served with potatoes, black bread and salted pork.
Work usually ended around 5:00pm. Dinner was served around 6:00. If there was time workers often worked their family garden plots. For entertainment there were self-criticism sessions, propaganda films, discussions of Marxism and gatherings and singing parties held in the collective’s recreation hall.
The work was often very tough. A woman told him, "After giving birth to first son I still had to keep working, making shoes for the soldiers, twenty shoes everyday for the soldiers. I kept my son in the corner and had to keep working." On first arrival to collective farm, one peasant told National Geographic, "We came here in March, walking from Urumqi. Nine days. We shot wild pigs and wild sheep for food."
Image Sources: Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; Commune in the 11950s, Ohio State University; Deng-era market, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; Asia Obscura http://asiaobscura.com/ ;
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2010