Guest Article from A Comrade in China: For the Recollectivization of Agriculture (Part 1)

By: He Xuefeng (Translation by a supporter of the MCP-OC)

Disclaimer: This article is published in PVN as a demonstration of international solidarity and in the interests of unity within the international communist movement. This position in no way should be interpreted to represent the line of the MCP-OC.

The organization of the peasantry is a pre-condition of rural revitalization. China’s very own collectivized economic system, including the collective ownership of rural land, is the most effective vehicle for the peasantry’s organization. This article should be read as a plan (or appeal) for the organization of the peasantry and the reconstruction of village collectives. 

  一、 The Land System since “Dividing the Fields among the Households”

China upholds a system of public land ownership in general, and collective ownership in the countryside. After dividing the land among the households and implementing the household contract responsibility systemi, rural land became the collective property of village communities, while the individual farmers were given the right to contract the land. In order to guarantee the relatively independent land management that farmers enjoy, the central government emphasized that the land contract period0 should be no less than fifteen years. When a second round of land contracting1 comes due, the central government, in theory, requires the land contract period to be extended for an additional 30 years. During the Report of the Nineteenth National Congress, Xi Jinping said, in no uncertain language: “Keep the land contracting relationships stable and unchanged in the long run; extend all land contracts for another 30 years after the second round of land contracting comes due.”

After dividing the fields among the households, peasants also gained autonomy in production. Operating on the principle of “that which is needed for state procurement should remain in the collective, that which is leftover is one’s own,” peasants initially worked hard to meet procurement quotas and earn some “leftovers.” A huge enthusiasm for agricultural production burst forth. For a short while, indeed, China’s agricultural output saw a significant increase and the rural situation showed great improvement. 

However, there remain still two problems with “dividing the land among the households:”

First, there is the insufficient scale of the household production. Independent peasant households not only struggle to integrate into the market, but also find difficulty in an assortment of production tasks including mechanical tilling and harvesting, management of water resources, experimentation with new ag. tech, pest control, etc. Their inability to keep up with all of these tasks stems from the economically disadvantageous scale of household production. Worse yet, back when fields were initially divided, the grades of collective land2 were kept in mind, meaning that good land in a given village was divided per capita, and peasant households got an appropriate share of the good land. Although equality was the goal here, the parcels they received were not only too small, but also scattered in different places.3 This led to the universal predicament of small producers colloquially called “individual households were not set up well and cannot set things up well.”

Secondly, given that a peasant household’s scale of production limited their potential agricultural income, the agricultural tax was a considerable burden for peasant households. While in theory, “that which is needed for state procurement should remain in the collective, that which is leftover is one’s own,” in practice, peasants were already independent producers. In their capacity as independent producers, peasant households’ actual agricultural income was low, sometimes so low that they could not cover their own expenses. They also had no way of voluntarily deciding what went to state procurement or stayed in collective hands. The reality of the situation is as follows: In the 1990s, agricultural tax collection, which largely replaced formal state procurement, was already regarded as “the toughest issue under heaven.” For the sake of fulfilling tax responsibilities, coercive measures were taken and local governments rewarded village-level cadres that succeeded at extracting taxes in a timely manner. These cadres easily evolved into “rural special interest groups” that came into sharp contradiction with the masses. The “Three Rural Problems”4 thus became central priority for the CCP and state.

When the state collected taxes and fees from peasants, local governments and villages both used to take a portion of the sum of those taxes collected in order to resolve some of the problems of independent household production. According to the rather classic “Three Deductions and Five Charges” model,5 collective funds managed by the village were used to pay for tasks that households could not achieve on their own, such as bringing in water to fight drought or draining fields to prevent waterlogging. Although grain collection and distribution was still difficult under this model, it was possible to solve some of the economic disadvantages brought on by decentralized household production. There was some rationality to this new system.

Going into the 21st Century, in 2006 the government initiated a reform of rural taxation, abolishing the agricultural tax and many of the various fees that specifically targeted peasants. Along with the tax, “the Three Deductions and Five Charges” model disappeared, as did collective labor obligations for villagers and the village’s collective fund for agricultural production. In order to maintain financing for rural public utilities, the state allowed village governments to levy funds for specific projects. These levies were, however, capped at 15 RMB (roughly two USD) per village member and could only be passed through a general meeting of registered village residents. Since such meetings are difficult to hold and village authorities often have a hard time collecting levies from villagers, even if they were passed by the majority, villages all across the country have never really been able to implement the government’s new levy system. The construction of public facilitates thus remains underfunded.

With village collectives6 unable to collect funds for public projects, the vast majority of collectives found themselves without income and in debt. After abolishing the agricultural tax, the state itself started to make large investments in the countryside, hoping to alleviate the shortage of public goods and services in rural areas.The lion’s share of these investments were directed towards the construction of basic rural infrastructure and social services, including education and health care. The “project responsibility system”7 was the main method of transferring investments. 

According to the Constitution at least, China’s rural areas are supposed to implement “an integrated dual management system with the household self-management at its core.” This means that, while peasant households were meant to have control over their own production, village collectives were in fact designed to facilitate co-production tasks produced at a time where many peasants felt “our single family and household were not set up well and cannot now set things up well, nor can we collaborate well with others.” If village collectives are to really serve their constitutional role as facilitators of co-production, they need to have two privileges: 1. the power to adjust the land contracted out to various households; 2. the power to collect funds from the member households of a village collective. Such “funds” cannot be just limited to the cash needed for facilitating co-production, but should include also labor contributions. Such labor would be applied to both voluntary and mandatory assignments, as doled out to the village households by the village collective. This is the village’s way of “settling an even account.” Every household that reaps the benefits of the collective should be expected to contribute towards the village’s various projects. No one should have the right to receive benefits without taking on responsibilities, no one should take on responsibilities without equal access to the fruits of collective labor. On top of this, if villages were indeed given the power to adjust land allotments, then raising funds would be even easier, since peasant households who do not participate in collective labor could risk losing their land holdings and all the benefits they derive from the land. 

In practice however, the effectiveness of dual management has always been quite limited. The legal requirement in land re-contracting that “holdings shall not be increased when a family grows, nor shall they be reduced if a family shrinks” has essentially taken away a village’s power to adjust land distribution, making it impossible for them to ever again “settle an even account” through land reform. While it is true that villages in Shandong and a few other rural areas have, relatively speaking, had some success in correcting collective labor and land rights through land redistribution, even after the extension of initial land contracts for quite some time, one must remember that such corrections were more successful only in places where villages had greater authority to adjust land holdings. The “clarification” of land rights since 2016 has now made land redistribution in places like Shandong increasingly difficult.    

The abolition of the agricultural tax is, however, what created the greatest difficulties for dual management. Although technically the owners of most all rural land, village collectives no longer have the power to raise funds from the villagers or collect rent from the land they have contracted out to the peasant households. Village collectives thus have no means of establishing equitable responsibilities and privileges between themselves and the independent peasant producers. Having lost the ability to oblige villagers to contribute labor, money, or crops, it became impossible for villages to organize a partially collectivized economy around the principle of “equitable distribution for equitable contributions.” This situation is precisely what has put “dual management” in dire straights.    

In the last decade of the 20th Century, China’s urbanization sped up. More and more of the rural workforce left for the cities in search of employment or entrepreneurial opportunities. Initially, this migration to urban centers served as a release valve for the excess labor force in the countryside. However, as urbanization sped up, entire peasant families started to migrate into China’s cities. These emigrants should have officially handed over their holdings to the peasant families that stayed behind in their home villages. However, since many of them had no guarantee of a stable life in the urban jungle, most peasant families opted to hold onto their land, just in case things in the big city did not work out. Unofficial and legally dubious agreements made this possible. Under such an agreement, the holdings of an emigrant peasant family would be taken care of by neighbors or relatives for as long as was necessary. This situation naturally allowed the remaining agriculturally productive households in a given village to increase the scale of their production, but they did so with no more than informal stewardship over the holdings placed in their care. There was no way to legally set the terms or duration of the usufruct in such a situation.

This brings us to the present situation of land ownership in the Chinese countryside. The remaining agriculturally productive households in today’s China seldom work more than 50 mu of land. Arable land is, generally speaking, still difficult to manage on account of being broken up into small scattered strips which are in turn subject to disparate and murky ownership claims.

If, however, land ownership could be consolidated and entire fields could be managed as one, agricultural producers could be able to reduce 1/3 of their production inputs and half of present labor inputs!

[i] The “household contract responsibility system” was put into practice on a wide scale in the early 1980s. For additional analysis of the system’s impacts on China’s peasantry and agricultural production, see The Great Reveral by William Hinton.

0 Between farming households and village governments.

1 Land contracts between villages and farming households, like most land agreements between the Chinese government and private owners, have a legal maximum of seventy years. Thus, if a village contracted out all of the rural land in 1983 among its constituent village households for the maximum period, that village would need to re-appropriate and re-contract the land when the original contracts expire in 2053.  

2 No two acres of land are created equal. During land reform and collectivization, many village governments explicitly and meticulously graded different plots of land based on their potential yield and ease of access.

3 As was the “good,” better ranked land. Village authorities, He Xuefeng implies here, tried to equally divide various clusters of good land among the peasant households. As a result, some peasants ended up with small strips of good land scattered in different places within a given village’s jurisdiction.

4 There are many different formulations of the Three Rural Problems. Taken loosely, this phrase indentifies agriculture, peasants, and the countryside as “problems.” A specific formulation that officials used in the period He Xuefeng is writing about here was “The peasants are suffering, the countryside is poor, agriculture is in danger. ”

5 Santi Wutong : “Three Deductions” for public reserve funds, public welfare funds, and management fees; “Five Charges” for rural education, family planning, militia training, rural road construction, and subsidies to entitled groups.

6 This refers to village governments in their now much diminished capacity as collective economic units. One must remember that county, township, and village governments initially replaced People’s Communes, Production Teams, and Production Units as the main units of both political and collective economic organization. The dominance of private enterprises was not established in many rural areas until well into the 1990s or even 2000s.

7 A rosy euphemism for the private sector style of funding to which many public institutions in China have been subjected in the last two decades. Under this system, higher organs of the state “invest” an allotted sum of public funds to local governments in order to complete specific projects, such as the construction of a school or hospital. Local cadres, in turn, are then liable to see that projects are completed on time and within budget, as would a project manager at a private company. This system naturally did little to discourage the ubiquitous corruption and misappropriation of state funds which peaked under the administrations of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

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