Political sociologists have sometimes described the Chinese Revolution
as the product of an alliance between middle class intellectuals and
the peasantry. In his innovative revision of Marxist-Leninist theory,
Mao Zedong transformed the peasantry, a class disdained by Marx, into
the “main force” of his anti-feudal, anti-imperialist revolution.
Translated into practice by the Communist Party, which was led and
dominated by the revolutionary intelligentsia, this reformulation
proved to be the key to the Communist triumph in 1949.
But the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the
Chinese peasantry has never been an easy one. Indeed, it may be more
aptly described as tumultuous.
The vision that won for the Communists the support of millions of
peasants — that of a countryside where land seized from landlords
would be tilled by millions of small owners-cultivators — remained
precisely that: a vision. Agrarian transformation managed by the party
took the form of requisitioning the grain surplus to fulfill Mao’s
industry-first policy. Peasant freedom was curtailed further when
production was collectivized in the mid-fifties. Then during the Great
Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961, to spur production and more effectively
requisition surplus above the peasants’ survival needs to support Mao’s
super-industrialization drive, the party herded peasants into communes
— 26,000-plus in the whole of China — where their life revolved around
hard labor. In their riveting biography Mao: the Unknown Story (New
York: Random House, 2005), Jung Chang and Jon Halliday depict party
cadres micromanaging production, keeping peasants "penned inside their
villages,“and preventing them from”stealing" their own harvest.
After the disaster that overtook this social experiment, where some 30
million people, mainly peasants, died from malnourishment and
starvation, the balance in the struggle over the surplus shifted to the
peasantry. Requisitioning targets were lowered, and, as Chang and
Halliday note, "In many places, peasants were allowed to lease land
from the commune, and effectively were able to return to being
individual farmers. This alleviated starvation and motivated
Specialists in rural China are split on the impact on the peasantry of
the next great event, the Cultural Revolution. To Chen Guidi and Wu
Chantao, authors of Will the Boat Sink the Water? (New York: Public
Affairs, 2006), a compassionate chronicle of peasant suffering under
party rule, the Cultural Revolution was a “disaster” for the peasantry:
"A peasant would be accused of ’taking the capitalist road’ if his
household kept two chickens or planted a few vegetables for the
market." In contrast, for Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals,
the Cultural Revolution, which began in earnest in 1966, spelled relief
for the peasantry. With the party self-destructing as Mao purged
“capitalist roaders” he saw ensconced at all levels of the party, the
ability of the authorities to requisition grain was eroded. As they
describe it in their magisterial Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2006):
"To be left alone was what many peasants secretly wished for, and when
the state’s tax collectors failed to show up on time or in force
because they were involved in struggles, the peasants were content. In
parts of rural China, an unintended by-product of a dysfunctional state
bureaucracy was hailed as a great, newborn thing. In Shehong county,
Sichuan, peasants were told that "Cultural Revolution means no more
grain deliveries to the state!"
Wracked by factional infighting, party and government operatives could
not collect grain taxes on time or in full. Indeed, in the "two
subprovincial regions of Suzhou and Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu, agricultural
taxes equal to 200 million jin [100 million kilograms] of grain were
simply never collected. The situation was similar in the subprovincial
regions of Enshi and Xiangyang, in Hubei, where agricultural taxes
equal to 60 million jin remained uncollected."
Not surprisingly, from 214 million tons in 1966, production rose
throughout the Cultural Revolution, reaching 286 million tons in 1976.
With the disruption in collection and transportation, added production
did not benefit the cities but were absorbed by peasant households.
But greater production was not the only consequence of the relaxation
of the party’s iron hand. The Cultural Revolution years saw, in some
parts of rural China, "a resurgence of household-based farming, which
the peasants preferred. In Yibin prefecture, Sichuan, 8,355 of 49,349
production teams were by 1969 redistributing fields to individual
households, contracting production out to individual households...
allowing the ’seizure of the collective economy’ by private interests."
The change in the balance of power in favor of the peasantry appeared
to be consolidated with the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping after
the death of Mao in 1976. The peasants wanted an end to the communes,
and Deng and his reformers obliged them by introducing the
“household-contract responsibility system.” Under this scheme, each
household was given a piece of land to farm. Of what it produced, the
household was allowed to retain what was left over after selling to the
state a fixed proportion at a state-determined price, or by simply
paying a tax in cash. The rest it could consume or sell on the market.
There is consensus among China specialists that these were the golden
years of the peasantry. The sense of great expectations is evoked by
Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao in their report on agrarian conflicts in
"When the Cultural Revolution was finally brought to a halt, following
Mao’s death in 1976, the household-contract system was tried out in
Anhui Province and proved a great success. The lethargy of the
previous years was gone. One could frequently see three generations of
a family working together under one of those contracts, looking toward
a better life. The reform saw a sustained 15 per cent increase of per
capita income for the years 1978 to 1984. It was the years of
recovery.“The rural reform has been characterized as a”big-bang" reform, the
consequences of which were felt throughout the economy. The surpluses
generated by the reform, notes Minxin Pei in China’s Trapped
Transition: the Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2006) "allowed rural governments to invest in new
manufacturing businesses, which eventually became a critical source of
Having studied the economic transformation of Taiwan, one cannot but be
struck by the similarity between reform period 1978-84 and the 1950s in
Taiwan, when radical land reform created and consolidated former
tenants into a prospering owner-cultivator class, whose demand for farm
implements and other manufactures triggered and sustained the island’s
early import-substitution industrialization.
But as in Taiwan, the golden age of the peasantry came to an end, and
the cause was identical: the adoption of a strategy of urban-centered,
export-oriented industrialization based on rapid integration into the
global capitalist economy. This strategy, which was launched at the
12th National Party Congress in 1984, was essentially one that built
the urban industrial economy on “the shoulders of peasants,” as Chen
and Wu put it. Primitive capital accumulation took the form mainly of
the requisitioning of peasant surpluses via heavy taxation. And as in
the Great Leap Forward, the party organization in the countryside
played the role of overseer in the new strategy.
The consequences of a development strategy oriented towards urban
industrial development were stark. Peasant income, which grew by15.2
per cent a year from 1978 to 1984 dropped to 2.8 per cent a year from
1986 to 1991. Some recovery occurred in the early 1990s but stagnation
of rural income marked the latter part of the decade. In contrast,
urban income, already higher than that of peasants in the mid-eighties,
was, on average, six times the income of peasants by 2000.
Key reasons for the stagnation of rural income were the rising costs of
agricultural inputs, falling prices for agricultural products, and
rising taxes, all of which operated to transfer income from the
countryside to the city. But the main mechanism for the extraction of
surplus from the peasantry was expanded taxation. Taxes on 149 items of
agricultural products were levied on the peasants by central state
agencies by 1991, but this proved to be but part of a much bigger bite,
as the lower levels of government began to levy their own taxes, fees,
and charges. Currently, the various tiers of rural government impose a
total of 269 types of tax, along with all sorts of often arbitrarily
imposed administrative charges.
While taxes and fees were not supposed to exceed five per cent of the
income of farmers, the actual amount was likely to be much greater,
with some Ministry of Agriculture surveys reporting that the peasant
tax burden was three times the official national limit, or 15 per cent.
Expanded taxation would perhaps have been bearable had peasants
experienced returns in the form of improved public health and education
and more agricultural infrastructure. In the absence of tangible
benefits, the peasants saw their incomes as subsidizing what Chen and
Wu describe as the "monstrous growth of the bureaucracy and the
metastasizing number of officials" who seemed to have no other function
than to extract more and more from them.
Aside from being subjected to higher input prices, lower prices for
their goods, and more intensive taxation, peasants have borne the brunt
of the urban-industrial focus of economic strategy in other ways.
According to China: the Balance Sheet (Center for Strategic and
International Studies and the Institute of International Economics:
Washington, DC, 2006), "40 million peasants have been forced off their
land to make way for roads, airports, dams, factories, and other public
and private investments, with an additional two million to be displaced
But the impact of all these forces may yet be dwarfed by that of
China’s commitment to eliminate agricultural quotas and reduce tariffs
when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). These commitments
were, as China: the Balance Sheet underlines, substantial:
"The challenge of managing the farm sector has grown with China’s WTO
commitments in agriculture, which are more far-reaching than those of
other developing countries and in certain respects exceed those of
high-income countries. The Chinese government agreed to reduce tariffs
and institute other policies that meaningfully increase market access;
accepted tight restrictions on the use of agricultural subsidies; and
pledged to eliminate all agricultural export subsidies — commitments
that go far beyond those made by other participants in the Uruguay
Round negotiations that led to the WTO’s creation."
The WTO deal reflects China’s current priorities. If the party
leadership has chosen to put at risk large sections of its agriculture,
such as soybeans and cotton, this is because the party wants to open up
or keep open global markets for its industrial exports. The social
consequences of this trade-off are still to be fully felt, but it is
likely that it contributed to the dramatic slowdown in the pace of
poverty reduction in the period between 2000 and 2004.
Corruption, which multiplied among party cadres in the "to get rich is
glorious" climate of the post-Mao era, was oil poured on this already
volatile relationship between peasants and the party, and when local
party officials were seen to abetting or coddling mafia elements—many
of them party members themselves—peasant anger at people they now
seemed to regard as their new feudal overlords intensified. Chan and
Wu’s book is a dismal chronicle of this transformation of the party
from dedicated and respected cadres to a veritable rural ruling class
lording it over the peasants. It is worth reproducing in full their
description of how this class exercises one of its “privileges”:
"The fact of the matter is the vast countryside of China has become a
gourmand’s paradise. Like a cloud of locusts, officials with their
appetites in tow descend on the countryside and are infinitely
inventive in coming up with excuses to eat and drink: dinners for
inspectors, dinners for conferences, dinners for rural poverty relief;
dine if you can afford it, and dine if you can’t; dine on credit, dine
on loan; keep the dinners going from one year’s end to another, from
one month’s end to another, from morning till night; enjoy dinners when
you take office and when you leave office.
“A popular saying about eating and drinking at public expense runs”There’s nothing to be gained by not eating since it’s free; so why not
eat?" To eat free has become a sign of status, an index of position.
The quality of a dinner may determine whether or not a project is
approved or a deal clinched, or whether a promotion is in the works.
It has become part of political culture."
With the prevalence of such practices, it is not surprising that
protests have multiplied. From 8700 in 1993, what the Ministry of
Public Security calls “mass group incidents” have grown to 87,000 in
2005, most of them in the countryside. Moreover, the incidents are
growing in average size from 10 or fewer persons in the mid-1990s to 52
people per incident in 2004.
A widespread form of protest is tax resistance. Minxin Pei of the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace claims that in Xinjiang in
2001, tax resistance was said to be prevalent in 40 per cent of the
villages surveyed. In that same survey, about 70 per cent of village
cadres felt that collecting fees was the most difficult task. The use
of police to force peasants to pay up, such as those documented by Chen
and Wu, are common. And in many areas, party officials, according to
Pei, "recruited thugs as their collection agents. Such a practice has
resulted in illegal imprisonment, torture, and the deaths of peasants
who were unable to pay."
The relations between the party and the peasantry are perhaps at their
nadir today. Throughout their turbulent 75 year old relationship, the
party has always been able to bounce back and regain the peasantry’s
confidence after disastrous policies, such as the Great Leap Forward
and the Cultural Revolution. Is it resilient enough to be able to do
so once more?
Emulating the ancient tradition of appealing to the imperial center to
curb the depredations of local lords, peasants have sent delegations to
Beijing to lodge complaints against local authorities. Yet positive
responses from the center in the form of prosecution of corrupt cadres
and reining in of abusive practices and corrupt cadres are erratic and
inconsistent. There are, as Chen and Wu’s accounts make clear, people
in the party who do care about peasants and have taken up the cudgels
for them. The problem is that inertia, corruption, bureaucracy, and
indifference militate against any serious internal party reform.
Are there possibilities of ideological renewal that could reinvigorate
the old relationship? With its jettisoning of its socialist
vision-even as it has kept the socialist rhetoric—the party has had to
construct an alternative ideology of legitimation for the era of rapid
capitalist development. This it has found in a vision that Dennis
Lynch in his book Rising China and Asian Democratization (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 2006) describes as a "CCP-led return to
national greatness“through the achievement of”comprehensive national
power“and a”recentering of Chinese civilization." The new, expanding
urban middle classes that have benefited from the export-led,
urban-centered development of the last two decades have certainly been
susceptible to this vision. It is, however, unlikely, that this
ideology has significant appeal to the peasants, migrant workers, and
laid off workers from state owned enterprises that have borne the costs
of China high-speed industrialization.
What about the much-touted village elections? Not even the harshest of
China’s critics can deny that there is increasingly a strong element of
competition in the village elections, which were introduced in the
1980s. The role that rural democratization, limited though it may
currently be, can play in revitalizing the relationship between party
and peasants must not be underestimated. But while the elections have
allowed rural people some measure of control over local government, all
too often they have been manipulated by party and government officials.
Moreover, the CCP has blocked elections above the village level, so
that the party continues to fill township and country level offices
with its cadres.
In looking for “a way out” of the current impasse, Chen and Wu cite the
views of a prominent rural specialist Yu Jianrong of the Agricultural
Research Center at Central China University: "Yu’s solution is to rally
the peasants to form their own organization and replace the current
local bureaucracy by peasants’ self rule. Yu proposed that only a
network of peasant organizations could truly represent the peasants’
interests and needs and communicate them in an orderly way and prevent
and ameliorate confrontations and conflicts."
Yu’s solution may sound Utopian, but it does reflect what seem to be
really dismal prospects for improving the relations between the party
and the peasantry. This puts a pall of uncertainty over the future of
China, despite the country’s double-digit growth rates. It is one of
the greatest ironies of contemporary history that the Chinese Communist
Party, after having led the Chinese people to victory against
imperialism and bringing about what is undoubtedly an economic miracle,
should now find itself alienated from what used to be its primary and,
arguably, its most important constituency owing to the consequences of
its strategic decision to ride the tiger of global capitalism while
retaining authoritarian controls. Few analysts see peasant discontent
as a serious challenge to the party’s rule in the short and medium
term, but lacking legitimacy among such a great part of the population
can only have disastrous consequences ultimately.