Skip to content


Personal tools
You are here: Home » Documents » Mao's Rural Policies Revisited

Mao's Rural Policies Revisited

Document Actions

Rural Policies



After "Dazhai Revisited" appeared in Monthly Review, (March 1988), Hugh Deane wrote a response, both to that article and the correspondence piece by Herb and Ruth Gansberg, "More on Dazhai" (September 1988). His article represents an apt summary of the "reformers'" case against Mao's policies in general and his rural policies in particular, and the present article was accordingly written to reply to this case, focusing on its major points.


A question raised by the agricultural reforms in China is: Did collective failures, overall, outnumber collective successes? My conclusion is that they did not. A group of young economists who did the analysis that led up to the reforms told me in 1980 that some 30 percent of the village collectives were doing well, another 30 percent were doing very poorly, and in the middle the remaining 40 percent could be said to be neither thriving nor collapsing, but that nevertheless they confronted many problems. Given this information one could make various statements. One could add the bottom 30 percent and the middle 40 percent together and say that the majority were doing poorly. One could add the top 30 percent and the middle 40 percent and say that the majority were at least viable. Or one could say that the successes and the failures were about equal (top and bottom 40 percent), while mixed results predominated (middle 40 percent).

    I think the last of these is the most realistic. Furthermore, I think that a cooperative movement that is 30 percent successful is an extraordinary achievement in a country the size of China. That means that some 240 million people have done well as cooperators. If this many people could do well working together cooperation was certainly a viable way of life for Chinese peasants. The 240 million peasants who were doing badly could, with government help, reorganization, and hard work, also learn to do well. The same applies to those 320 million who were cooperating with mixed results in the middle of the spectrum.

    Of course, my informants may have had the ratios wrong. If there are other surveys that come up with some different proportions for failures and successes they should be laid on the table. But even if the successful coops made up a significantly smaller proportion of the whole, if tens of millions of peasants learned to prosper cooperatively, the implications are extraordinary, because what millions can do, other millions can also do. That's why the question of whether Dazhai, heralded throughout the country in Mao's day as a successful model, is so important. If Dazhai was a success Dazhai showed a road forward that other peasants could follow.

The Grain Front

    I do not dispute the conclusion that during the collective period China's grain production just barely kept pace with population growth. This was true in spite of the fact that many well-run collectives doubled, tripled, and quadrupled their output. It follows that large numbers of collectives never realized their potential but it does not follow that the cooperative organization of agriculture is, by nature, unworkable. Since it has been replaced for at least five or six years now by a production system based on family contracts it is in order to ask, has the new system done any better with per capita grain production?

    The answer is, apparently not. Since 1984, when the government reported grain production at over 400 million tons, the official figures record a sharp slump, then a slow rise that has not managed to recoup the ground lost in 1985. Now the press routinely talks of stagnation in grain production, of grain shortages, of falling production, and this year finally of 20 million peasants faced with famine, 80 million in serious straits and 200 million with short crops.

    Moreover, to the best of my knowledge China never produced the 400 million tons it now claims to have produced in 1984. The ample supply of market grain that year came only in part from current   production. Released stocks of collective grain supplied the surplus. This grain was sold on the market or distributed to peasants when the collectives broke up. Sellers were able to market it to great advantage due to the sharp increase in grain prices that accompanied the reform and to the bonuses paid for above quota grain. By the same token the big tonnage drop reported in 1985 was not due primarily to production failures, but to the exhaustion of stored grain. The real crop harvested annually from 1983 to 1988 has hovered between 350 million and 380 million tons. If we take the higher figure (which is pretty optimistic), and allocate it among 1.1 billion people (currently estimated population), we come up with an average of 345 kg. of grain per person, which is not very much higher than the average in 1978 as reported by Hugh Deane. The reform, it seems, has not broken the back of the grain problem.

    This is not to say that all directives and policies concerning collectivization were correct. A point frequently raised by the reformers is that in the collective period, exaggerated implementation of Mao's "grain is the key link" policy seriously limited rural diversification. It seems clear that during the cooperative period the government, at times, put too much stress on grain to the detriment of oil and industrial crops and specialties such as fruit, livestock, and sidelines. What is not at all clear is the reason for this and who should be held responsible. There was nothing wrong with Mao's slogan. It was well rounded and went, "Take grain as the key link, practice animal husbandry, forestry, fisheries, and side occupations to create all around rural prosperity." That slogan was good then and it is good now. The very designation of grain as a "link" means that grain is not "all" and that other links in the chain must and can be developed as long as grain production is handled well.

    If, during certain periods, one-sided policies reduced diversification, then the solution is to correct those one-sided policies. There is nothing about the cooperative movement as such that inhibits diversification. In fact, well-led cooperatives are in a much better position to diversify, to use all skills, all talents, and all resources, than individual peasants in a privatized economy. Many outstanding communities demonstrated this over and over again, in the 1960s,1970s, and 1980s. One recent example is Doudian village in the Beijing suburbs today.

    Another point Deane raises, again echoing the reformers, is that living conditions stagnated in the cooperative period. And it is true, over wide areas, where cooperatives were not doing well, living standards did stagnate. In other areas they did not. Certain communities developed remarkable prosperity. The figure of 42.8 percent of the brigades with a per capita income below 50 yuan a year seems to contradict the figures given to me about the 30-40-30 split. But it's not clear what this figure refers to, whether it is total income or disposable income. In the cooperative period many services and benefits were distributed free of charge. People also earned a share of their coop's accumulation fund and were enriched as owners by their coop's investments. Production expenses were all paid by the community. Before comparisons are made the concepts being compared must be analyzed with care. Real incomes were probably at least double the 50 yuan reported. But of course, in terms of daily satisfaction, a larger disposable income is a necessity and the countryside as a whole did not advance as it should have, as it had the potential to do, in the 1960s and 1970s. Stagnant areas, whether 30 percent or 42.8 percent, were far too numerous and far too extensive. The countryside demanded change. The issue is not whether there should have been change, but what that change should be. Were there no effective options available within the context of the cooperative system that could overcome stagnation? Was privatization the preferred solution to the problems that arose?  

    Another charge is that rural impoverishment was particulary severe in the rural Northwest. Remote upland areas did tend to lag behind after liberation, despite some special attention given to them from Beijing. The land is poor, markets far away, nonagricultural opportunities meager. These problems confronted peasant coops and they still confront individual peasant contractors today. Only today peasants face them alone, family by family, in a one-on-one battle against nature and the impartial market, instead of together as a community. Depending on how well or how badly a given coop was managed, historically this might be an advantage or a disadvantage, but on the whole a peasant in the loess highlands will find it difficult to face life alone.

    I spent a month in the loess highlands northeast of Yenan in 1988. My impression was that the situation was pretty desperate. Contracted crop fields could not provide sufficient food because, for one thing, the peasants could not afford fertilizer, or even get it if they could afford it.

As a result, they were tilling the mountain slopes as "help-out land" and destroying them in the process. Dams, terraces, and other collective engineering works were falling apart. We saw abandoned irrigation systems and washed-out earthworks. It was quite clear that many of them never would have been built under a private economy and that they would not now be restored short of recollectivization. Peasants we talked to at random were angry and said they were better off under the coop system.

The Price Scissors

    One very serious charge, brought up by Deane, is that Mao's socialist policies squeezed excessive surplus out of the peasants. China was and is primarily an agricultural country. Accumulation for industrial investment had to come out of agriculture to start with. There was no other choice. The new government did indeed set the purchase price for grain and other agricultural products low. These low prices made it possible to supply the cities with low-priced food and thus to keep urban workers wages low as well. This policy also provided raw materials at low prices. With cheap food and raw materials accumulation rates in industry were high. However, some of this accumulation went back into agricultural inputs such as machinery, equipment, fertilizer, and pesticides. From 1953 to 1977 4.27 percent of total investment in industry went toward agricultural input, and these inputs were sold back to peasant coops at very low prices, prices that fell as time went on. In 1959 peasants had to come up with 116,500 kg. of wheat to buy a 75-horsepower track tractor. By 1979, this fell to 53,500 kg. In 1950 it took 1.6 kg. of wheat to buy 1 kg. of fertilizer. By 1979 0.5 kg. of wheat would buy 1. kg. of fertilizer. In 1960, it took 35 kg. of wheat to buy 1 kg. of pesticide. By 1979, this had decreased to 5 kg.[1]

    The agricultural sector was exploited but it was not drained. On the contrary, it was continuously replenished with modern products through a mutually supportive relationship that reduced the overall depletion of the countryside and mitigated the effect of the classical scissors, (the discrepancy between agricultural and industrial prices).

    1. Figures reported by Ching Pao-yu, "Chinas Rural Reform and Grain," unpub. ms., November 1988.


    Furthermore, the state helped rural areas with direct investment in agricultural infrastructure. This increased from 7.3 percent of total investment in the first five-year plan to 11.4 percent in 1978 (the fifth five-year plan period). The ratio of state investment in agriculture to direct receipts from agriculture went from 49 percent in the first five-year plan period to 56 percent in the second period, to 164 percent in the fourth and fifth periods.[2]

    Since 1980, both direct state investment in agriculture and state investment in industries providing agricultural inputs have fallen away sharply. Investment in industries supplying inputs dropped from the 1953-1977 average of 4.27 percent to a 1980-1985 average of 1.3 percent. Meanwhile, direct investment in infrastructure fell from a high of 11.5 percent in 1978 to 6.3 percent in the period 1980-1985, and then down to 4 percent in the period 1985-1987. At the same time the peasants' own investment of labor in capital construction (primarily agricultural infrastructure) fell from as high as 8 billion work days per year in the late 1970s to less than a quarter of that today. These two reductions combined (reduced state funds and reduced peasant labor input) amount to a critical, one might say ruinous, retreat from the transformation of nature, from the Dazhai-inspired effort to achieve high, stable yields through conservation engineering.[3]

    Meanwhile, in spite of substantial price increases for grain and other agricultural products, the classical "scissors" has opened wide. In the last five to seven years fertilizer prices have gone up 37.7 percent to 60 percent, diesel fuel up 22 percent, electricity up 167 percent and irrigation water up 100 percent to 200 percent, bringing in their wake substantial increases in the cost of production and substantial decreases in the amount of cash actually spent by peasants for industrial inputs, which translated into even more radical decreases in the amount of these inputs actually purchased.[4] It goes without saying, I think, that the more broadly peasant producers enter the market, the more severe the impact of the "scissors" will be, and the more heavily they will be exploited.

    Deane also maintains that Mao's policies resulted in excessive accumulation rates. Yes, I think they sometimes did. In their enthusiasm to transform the world quickly, misguided cadre did push accumulation rates to irrational levels during certain periods and in certain places. Whether this was true overall for the whole countryside is not clear. I guess a pretty good case could be made. However, this is not a factor built into cooperation as a system. Accumulation rates are determined by policy, rates that are too high can be adjusted. One need not abandon the whole system to achieve a reasonable balance between consumption and investment.

    2. Ibid.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Ibid.


    Deane's statement that the proportion of accumulation funds spent on welfare dropped from 40.2 percent to 22.5 percent in two decades needs further analysis. These figures do not necessarily mean any absolute drop in welfare funds. It all depends on the size of the accumulation funds. Since production did go up, albeit too slowly, accumulation also presumably went up.

The Problem of Commandism

    Reformers now argue that Mao's impetuosity forced peasants into coops by command before they were ready, thus doing serious damage to the cooperative movement and agricultural production. To be sure, commandism was widespread not only during the period of the formation of coops but throughout the collective period. Cadres rushed many peasants into cooperation before they were ready for it, before the form had proved its worth to them. This violated the spirit of voluntarism and seriously maimed the movement in many places. Coops set up by command tended to degenerate into stagnant feudal fiefs, run by local Communist lords who were, in some cases, as bad if not worse than the landlords they replaced.

    Commandism, in the form of bureaucratic intervention in the day-to-day operation of even the best of coops, also held back their development. Coops badly needed more autonomy overall and especially more autonomy in the management of their resources and the allocation of their investments. I think it is fair to say that if coops had been granted half the autonomy that individuals were automatically granted once they contracted the land in the 1980s a far larger proportion of coops would have done well. One provision of the new regulations alone introduced great flexibility into the system. This was the provision that peasants did not have to grow the grain they contracted to deliver. They could grow some other crop, sell it, and buy enough grain to fulfill their quota. Thus each producer could decide, at the grassroots, what crops made most sense, what crops yielded the greatest return. Cooperative units could have been granted considerable autonomy on this question and then, if grain production suffered, the government could have used price incentives to restore the balance as they have done again and again since the reform. Recently the manipulation of prices has led to serious imbalances, but that is a separate question arising from the way in which the market has been manipulated and linked to reneging on price promises, uncontrolled inflation in the prices of farm inputs, corruption, and many other factors relating to the new situation created by the reform.

    No question, commandism has been a serious and continuing problem, but it is difficult to argue that commandism and cooperation go together. The solution to command problems is surely to introduce more autonomy, more democracy, into the system and to use market mechanisms rather than government directives to influence production decisions. There is no reason why tens of thousands of cooperative units can't relate to each other and to the state-operated economy through the market just as individuals now do. The commandism that so damaged the cooperative movement was in great measure simply an extension of the bureaucratic centralism of the past cranked up several notches and reinvigorated by the centralist tradition of the Communist movement. Functionaries in China just assume that they have a right to run everything, down to the smallest details of people's lives. This tradition is really feudal. It is deeply resented down below and that is one of the reasons for the extraordinary attraction that a free market economy such as the one now appearing in Shenjen has for ordinary Chinese citizens. For people suffering under feudal restraints the cash nexus seems to promise a radical liberation where ability and not influence derived from social connections count. (So far, of course it is the high cadres' children who have been able to get their hands on the cash and dominate the nexus.)

    The irony built into this commandism question is that the reformers, under an anticommand banner, dismantled the rural cooperative economy by command. Certainly many peasants welcomed the family contract system and voted with their feet to abandon cooperatives, but many other peasants did not. Deane would have to back up the statement he makes about peasants voting with their feet to abandon the collectives with some believable data before that question can be settled. Changing direction with "one stroke of the knife" (complete, all-out change without any room for compromise or divergence) is notoriously prevalent in China. Cadres at all levels, mobilized from the center, fan strong political winds and impose heavy sanctions on foot dragging, not to mention opposition or obstruction. So it is very difficult to know what people really think or really want. Just as commandism rushed many unwilling peasants into collectives in the first place, so commandism rushed many unwilling peasants out of them in the second place.

The Privatization Wind

    Long Bow village resisted family contracts for two years and yielded in the end only because higher Communist Party leaders confronted the local party committee with an ultimatum: contract the land within one month or face expulsion from the party. Wanggongzhuang leaders avoided such an ultimatum by disappearing whenever county leaders came to initiate reform.

    Scattered throughout China one finds communities that either didn't change their collective system at all or made only surface changes to comply with government directives while maintaining a strong collective core. Unfortunately, from my point of view, they make up only a small fraction of the total, probably less than 1 percent, which calls into question the conclusion that they are still in contention. The problem here is to get any realistic picture of the wishes of the peasantry. Given the scale of the campaign, given the penalties for noncompliance, given the very substantial rewards for compliance, and realizing that it is always easier to return to the past than to pioneer the future, it is not surprising that the reformers were able to dissolve coops wholesale even where they were doing well.

    There is no question that over large areas where the rural economy was stagnating, where collectives represented something much closer to feudal fiefs tilled by serfs than to voluntary communities of enfranchised producers, peasants celebrated the reforms as a "Second Liber ation." They were absolutely delighted to get the cadres off their backs. But in the country as a whole, peasants found themselves in a variety of situations that included regions where large numbers of successful coops existed side by side with even larger numbers of less successful ones where the prospects were mixed, all interspersed with certain communities where the prospects were dismal.

    The response of individual families in each of these situations could differ sharply. Even in the best managed, most successful coops, loyally supported by most of their members, ambitious individuals with special skills and labor power dreamed of going it alone. The less successful the coop the more prevalent such attitudes. At the same time, even in poorly managed coops, there were many families who had no special skills, who had little or no ablebodied labor, who looked on cooperation as their salvation, hence wanted to continue the coops. And here and there, throughout the system, scattered in the most unlikely places, one found individuals with extraordinary talents who could prosper in any situation but who, inspired by socialist ideals, saw cooperation as the way out for the Chinese peasantry as a whole and devoted their lives to making it work. They asked no more for themselves than an equal share in the common prosperity to come. I have personally known quite a few such people. Reform-minded cadres have attacked them as "conservatives" who oppose privatization because it jeopardizes their status as coop cadres.

    Most people either do not know or simply ignore the extent to which, in the course of the reform, state decrees warped law, regulations, fiscal, and monetary policy in support of private production and against cooperation. Central Document No. 1 for 1983 legalized the private hiring of labor, the private purchase of large-scale producer goods (processing equipment, tractors, trucks), the pooling of capital for private investment, and the leasing of collective property to individuals. In the wake of all this, individuals also began privately loaning out money at usurious rates. The new fiscal and credit policy gave tax holidays to new private businesses and authorized liberal bank loans to such businesses as well as to specialized single households, while at the same time virtually cutting off credit to the existing producers cooperatives, the village brigades. The larger the enterprise operated by the specialized household, the larger the private business, the better the terms of the loan, and the easier it became to get one. Private con  tractors who leased collective enterprises had the right to hire and fire, set wage levels and profit margins, and, if they reinvested heavily in the enterprise, the right to gradually convert the whole thing into private property.  

    Most people, furthermore, do not know about, or simply ignore, the scandalous rip-off that dominated the liquidation of collective property and helped create those so-called specialized families with the requisite "money, strength, and ability" to get rich first. When the time came to distribute collective assets, people with influence and connections -- cadres, their relatives, friends, and cronies -- were able to buy, at massive discounts, the tractors, trucks, wells, pumps, processing equipment, and other productive property that the collectives had accumulated over decades through the hard labor of all members. Not only did the buyers manage to set low prices for these capital assets (often one third or less of their true value) but they often bought them with easy credit from state banks and then in the end, often failed to pay what they had promised. It is doubtful if, in the history of the world, any privileged group ever acquired more for less. The scale of these transactions and the depth of the injury done to the average coop member boggles the mind.

    Given the rapid liquidation of public assets, the wholesale enrichment of those among the privileged who had the presence of mind to put their lips to the trough in time, and the preferential treatment granted thereafter to everyone with enough wealth to become a "specialist," it is not surprising that the reform had a snowball effect, capable of carrying whole regions before it. Once such an "enrich yourself wind" starts to blow it does not take long for most people to realize that the devil will take the hindmost and they had better jump in while the getting is good. To stand fast, to hold a good coop together because of its long-range advantages, is extremely difficult when all around you are grabbing at immediate wealth and advantage. And not only that, the peasants of privatized communities had a tendency to regard the crops and property of still-existing collectives as ripe for the taking, just one more pool of public property waiting to be liquidated. Collectives thus turned into besieged islands, very difficult to defend and very hard to hold together.

    Mindful of the above circumstances, it is almost irrelevant to ask what proportion of the peasants supported the reforms. The choice that confronted them when the time came was not one between two systems. They had already been decided at the central level. What peasant heads of household had to decide was how to maximize family holdings and family incomes as their cooperatives broke up, how to get the most while the getting was good so as not to be at a disadvantage in the future.

    The claim often made, and which Deane makes again, that labor productivity declined during the Mao era and rose sharply in the reform era, is questionable. While it is true that in poorly run coops people put in a lot of unproductive hours because morale was low, at the same time the very scale of production, the large size of the fields, the rational layout of irrigation channels, the use of field machinery -- if only for plowing and harrowing -- offset, to a certain extent, the problems of motivation. In the first flush of reform significantly fewer people farmed the same amount of land as before and raised yields on it but they did it with an enormous increase in labor expended. While unit yields (yields per acre) may have gone up, labor productivity in terms of bushels of crops grown per hour expended almost certainly went down. The main reason for this is the fractured fields. Reform split large fields into narrow strips, often not more than a few yards or a few feet wide. In many cases contracting peasants could not even get carts into the fields to unload manure or load crops, not to mention manage to plow, plant, or harvest with tractors. The reform confirmed the hoe as the preeminent farm implement and ensured that it would not soon be superseded by anything more modern.

    Viewed realistically, the reform generated a massive speedup. People got up earlier, worked harder, stayed in the fields longer to create by intensive hand labor on miniscule strips what could have been, given any adequate scale, rationalized and modernized step by step. The figures concerning the rapid increase in tractors in recent years do not contradict this, since most of the tractors are never used on the land anyway; they are used for transport to and from fields and out on the highway. To the extent that tractors are used in the fields there is a problem of redundancy due to the small size of the holdings. In order to farm at all, peasants must have a certain set of implements and equipment. But, given the small scale and scattered nature of their contracted plots, they have little choice but to overinvest.

    Deane also reiterates the conclusion that not only was the Great Leap Forward a disaster, but that Mao should take sole blame for it. How should the Great Leap be appraised? There is general agreement, I think, that utopianism, voluntarism, commandism, gigantism, egalitarianism, exaggeration winds, and other ills all marred the Great Leap, that they generated chaos in the economy and in social life and contributed heavily to production crises, crop failures, and finally famine. (How extensive and damaging the famine was is still not clear.) At this late date it is fruitless to argue over the relative weight of bad weather versus bad politics in bringing on the debacle. Both played major roles. It makes some sense, however, to look into the question of Great Leap politics more deeply and to ask whether Mao's vision was itself fundamentally flawed or whether it was irreparably warped in the execution, and if so how this came about..

    The overall strategy of the Great Leap was to mobilize China's vast idle, rural labor reserve to tap some of the country's enormous unused resources -- marginal lands, irrigation waters, fossil fuels, and minerals. Not an unreasonable goal. In the course of the drive, Hunan peasants created some communes as a means for concentrating labor for big projects. Mao approved. He saw them as a way to unleash human potential and set the stage for continuing revolution. Through the creation of new, nonbureaucratic, self-governing institutions that combined industry, agriculture, commerce, education, and military affairs in one autonomous local unit, the peasants had taken a step toward supplanting traditional state power.

    All this alarmed certain forces in the party, forces that had opposed agricultural producers cooperatives as "erroneous, dangerous and Utopian." These leaders had even less use for communes. Maurice Meisner writes:

The political functions which Maoists assigned to the communes in theory, and the realities of communization, posed a grave challenge to the existing party and state bureaucracies. Had the people's communes actually developed in the manner Maoists originally envisaged, centralized political power in China would have been fundamentally undermined -- much in the way in which Marx had attributed to the Paris Commune the potential to restore to the producers those social powers which had been usurped by the state. The antibureaucratic implications of communization were unmistakable, and bureaucrats with vested interests in the pre-Great Leap order soon began to respond to the threat.[5]

    5. Maurice Meisner, Mao's China (New York: The Free Press, 1977), p. 241.


This passage points up a matter that tends to be slighted by conventional academic wisdom and by current Chinese accounts -- that is, the political context of the times, the fundamental split within the Communist Party and in Chinese society generally over the direction of the revolution after the Communists won power.

    After 1949 two headquarters, long latent in the party, crystallized out. One, headed by Mao, advocated building socialism as soon as land reform was completed. The other, headed by Liu Shaoch'i and Deng Xiaoping, favored an indefinite extension for and consolidation of the mixed economy of New Democracy (now called the primary stage of socialism by reformers). Each side had adherents at the very top and roots in the middle and lower levels of the party as well as in society. Since Liu's group controlled the Party Organization Department, responsible for recruiting, discipline, education, and party building in general, it could be argued that they had more clout in the day-to-day formulation and administration of policy. Nevertheless, on the question of agricultural cooperation Mao carried the day. What transpired in real life, however, was not the straightforward mobilization of the peasantry to build cooperatives, but a severe and protracted tug-of-war, a succession of actions and reactions, initiatives and counterinitiatives, generated by the opposing sides. The struggle started with the first faltering steps toward mutual aid and ran right through to the emergence of communes and beyond. It continues to this day, even though the vast majority of rural collectives have long since disbanded.

    The predominance of Mao was never more than marginal. It depended in great measure on his ability to elicit support from below. He often bypassed the opposition by speaking directly to activists and ordinary people at the grass roots. He thus presented Liu and Deng with a series of faits accomplis, which they in turn responded to with faits accomplis of their own, the latter carried out by the wide network of functionaries under their organizational control.

    Under these circumstances policies tended to suffer severe warp, sometimes to the point of a caricature or even mirror image of the original, their effectiveness gutted, their shortcomings magnified. One could hardly expect functionaries who had little trust in the outcome or opposed the whole concept to carry out such complex matters as coop and commune building in good faith. They were sensitive to various negative signals from the Central Committee. They knew how to drag their feet, how to carry out low-profile opposition, or even how to jump in and carry official directives to absurd lengths, thus assuring that initiatives would fall of their own weight.

    Conventional wisdom now attributes to Mao and Maoists everything extreme, ultra left, Utopian, and voluntarist, while crediting Liu and his group with a consistent, sober, mixed economy line. While it seems clear that Mao did overestimate the socialist enthusiasm of the masses and opened the door to extremism with talk of a "transition to communism," his position was not nearly as "left" as is currently painted. For example, he projected twenty, not two, five-year plans (100 years, not 10) for the transition from collective to communist ownership, and categorically opposed collective usurpation of private property and other forms of "leveling" rampant in those days.

Left in Form, Right in Essence

    On the other side of the coin, there is much evidence to show that Liu, over a long period of time, repeatedly swung from right opportunism, even capitulation, to "left" adventurism on major policy issues. Confronted with the specter of a post-World War II civil war, he backed away from land reform, but once land reform broke out and could no longer be denied, he jumped in and pushed it far to the "left" with a "poor and hired peasants line," an extreme egalitarian program that almost brought the revolution to disaster by alienating the middle peasants and all other middle forces. This line targeted for attack the great mass of peasant activists who actually carried through the land reform because they had failed to create "equality," a destructive ultraleft initiative that failed to distinguish clearly between friends and enemies. In the Socialist Education Movement, and later during the Cultural Revolution, Liu came forward with "left in form, right in essence" lines that, under superrevolutionary rhetoric, repeatedly targeted the mass of cadres down below rather than expose the misleaders up above. This helped derail Mao's campaign against "party people in authority taking the capitalist road."

    While it is hard to prove that Liu's cohorts consciously used ultraleft tactics during the Great Leap period, many of the extreme actions that threw the countryside into chaos at the time bear the by now familiar "left in form, right in essence" flavor so characteristic of Liu's coun terthrusts over the years. All of them made use of "one stroke of the knife" technique. When a policy comes down, seize on one aspect of it and ride it into the ground. If Mao calls for taking grain as the key link take grain as all, rip out orchards to plant grain, cut back on oil seed crops to plant grain, plant grain on slopes that should grow trees, and so on. If Mao calls for deep tillage, start digging one foot deep, then two, then three, thus wasting countless labor days. And the same goes for close planting, backyard iron and steel production, free supply, community kitchens, the militarization of rural labor -- carry everything to extremes. Since a large part of the bureaucracy, especially at the middle level, was made up of Liu-recruited and Liu-controlled cadres, it is hard to blame Maoists alone for all these follies. Provocation has long been an important weapon in the arsenal of China's mandarins. There is no better way to discredit an action than to carry it to absurd lengths. Would it not make sense for these forces, once they failed to stop any movement, to jump in and steer it toward disastrous ends? If you can't lick 'em join 'em. Turn predictions of disaster into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe such actions did occur.

    From a different perspective, all the above arguments are irrelevant as regards the main point under discussion: the viability of agricultural producer's cooperatives as a basis for the rural economy of China. If the movement went off the track with extremes in 1958 what eventually crystallized out was a three-tiered team-brigade-commune system that worked well for hundreds of millions of peasants through the mid 1960s, the whole of the 1970s, and into the 1980s. To condemn it for detours taken and disasters generated years before, makes little sense. Cooperatives should be judged on their accomplishments, which were considerable, and on their potential, which was enormous, since they provided the scale and the infrastructure for the modernization and mechanization of the Chinese countryside, a development that has been severely hampered if not totally aborted by the family-contract system.

    Deane brings up another issue, the question of environmental damage done by water conservancy projects during the Great Leap. In particular he mentions the salinization and alkalization of sections of the North China plain. Undoubtedly some of the Great Leap projects did damage the environment in certain localities. However, the damage done at that time was more than balanced out by projects


    With money from the World Bank, China has recently carried through several large drainage and desalinization projects along the lower reaches of the Yellow River. I visited one of these less than two years after it was completed. Short-sighted peasants had already filled in many of the tertiary ditches in order to add a few feet to their pitiful small plots. By atomizing landholding and making each family responsible for its own profits and losses the regime has virtually guaranteed such destruction. Neither regulations nor exhortations will stop it. There will never be enough policemen to post one on every ditch. which protected the environment. Furthermore, any damage caused by the Great Leap pales to insignificance compared to the wholesale attack on the environment in almost all regions of China since the implementation of the responsibility system. Since the slogans now are "some must get rich first," "to get rich is glorious," and "enrich yourselves, hundreds of millions of peasants are doing whatever helps them in the short term to increase income. Herdsmen have stepped up overgrazing in the grasslands, while farmers have stepped up plowing there, foresters and timber-hungry peasants have recklessly cut timber wherever they can find it. Everywhere and particularly in the loess highlands of North Shanxi, the mountainous regions of western Sichuan, and the mountains of North Hobei (areas I have personally observed), peasants are opening up mountain slopes that never should be cultivated, and doing it on a massive scale. It is doubtful if in history there has ever been such a massive, wholesale attack on the environment as is occurring in China now.


The Cultural Revolution

    The question of blaming Mao for the Great Leap of course leads to that of the Cultural Revolution. Was it a catastrophe, as generally charged? And, if so, must Mao bear sole responsibility? This is a much bigger and more complex question than the one concerning the Great Leap. However, the answer has to focus on much the same problem -- the political and social context surrounding Mao's attempt to implement his socialist policy. Here again, one has to deal with the reality of a fundamental split between two headquarters in the Communist Party and the clash between the opposing lines that each was determined to implement.

    As things have turned out, it seems clear that Mao correctly appraised the opposition in regard to what it stood for and what it wanted to do with power. Since Mao's death and the dismissal of Hua Guofeng from office, Deng and his group has dismantled, step by step, almost the whole of the economic system and the social and political superstructure built in the first thirty years following liberation, and they are rushing to finish off what remains. The latest proposals for issuing stock indicate that in the future the state hopes to sell off as much as 80 percent of its equity in the whole state sector where, up until now, public ownership has been held up as the guarantee that China still practices socialism. Given the rate at which the regime has escalated the privatization of various sectors in the past, it seems unlikely that the sell off, once begun, will stop at 80 percent or any other percent short of 100. What will be left of socialism then?

    Mao foresaw this, called it the "capitalist road," and called Liu and Deng "capitalist roaders." He launched the Cultural Revolution in a major, historically unprecedented campaign to remove them from power and prevent them from carrying out their line. In the end he failed. The important thing to remember at this point is that the Cultural Revolution was indeed a revolution, an enormous class struggle, a form of revolutionary war, if you will, to determine the future of China. It cannot be seen as simply the implementation of some policies by Mao -- "'cryptic instructions' while people bowed to his portrait in morning exercises." Just as happened during the Great Leap, but on a much wider scale, the Cultural Revolution unleashed action and counteraction, initiative and counterinitiative, encirclement and counterencirclement, all sorts of excesses, leftist and rightist, and an overall situation that spun out of anyone's control. To blame Mao alone for the disruptions caused by this struggle, for the setbacks and disasters that ensued, is equivalent to the Guomindang blaming the Communists for the disruptions of China's liberation war. "They can't build anything," complained a Guomindang officer to me, "All they can do is blow up bridges and tear up railroad tracks." If there were no Communist-led rebellion, the Guomindang complained, China would be at peace and could get on with reconstruction.

     But even though "the tree prefers calm, the wind refuses to subside." Class struggle will occur independent of human will. To carry out a program you have to have political power. Those who inherited the wreckage of China's ancien regime by virtue of their victory in 1949, inherited also their own class antagonisms, long muted by the threat of a succession of lethal enemies. The struggle between the opposing forces in the form of clashes over land policy broke out even before the last shots of the war died away. Due to historical circumstances peculiar to China, all the politics of the postwar era -- all the forces that mattered, all the issues that counted -- tended to concentrate inside the Communist Party. Thus the struggle took the form of an internal contest for control of the party and through it for control of the country. Mao saw this phenomenon pretty clearly and began a struggle against the opposition very early. As time went on the struggle escalated, reaching a climax in the Cultural Revolution.

    Although Mao won some battles at each stage of the conflict he by no means won the war. He fell far short of accomplishing what he had set out to accomplish when he called on the people to "bombard the headquarters." Instead of consolidating the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the working class, which Mao considered vital to the building of socialism, the Cultural Revolution ended in virtual stalemate, with both sides reeling and in society as a whole the three-fold loss of faith described by Deane -- loss of faith in the party, in socialism, and in the future; certainly a multiple crisis.

    The result was immeasurably complicated by the ultraleft ideology and activity of the gang of four. I do not subscribe to any "gang of five" theory that lumps Mao with his wife and her three cohorts politically, though he certainly was responsible for their coming to prominence to start with. They grossly distorted Mao's policies and directives, carried sound initiatives to extremes that turned them inside out and upside down, and succeeded in wrecking whatever they touched. Although in previous periods Mao had been able to correct both right and "left" excesses, in the 1960s he found himself on "Liang Mountain" in regard to "leftism" -- that is, virtually immobilized by a contradiction with the right that he felt tied his hands in dealing with the "left."

    There is no question that the Cultural Revolution ended in crisis. The big question is whether the turn to the market was the obvious response for economic sluggishness and whether opening to the world  in the indiscriminate way this policy has unfolded was the answer to technological backwardness. It was the obvious response for Deng and associates because that had been their program all along, but was it the best thing for China?

    Deane says these policies had been the alternative to Maoism since the mid 1950s. But I do not agree. One could argue that China has that alternative today (even though I do not think it is true) but it is very hard to argue that China had that alternative in the 1950s.

    In the first place, "opening" was not in China's hands. Mao never chose to cut China off from the West. He was quite willing to establish normal relations with the United States. It was not the Chinese side but the American side that broke all contacts, withdrew its diplomats, ordered its citizens home, and embargoed all trade and all financial exchanges. This embargo was extremely tight, right down to such minor things as the $25 that I wanted to send my daughter in Beijing every month for her support. Under the Trading with the Enemy Act I had to get a Foreign Assets Control license renewed every six months for the transaction. Gene Moy, editor of the China Daily News, went to prison in Danbury, Connecticut, for accepting money from the bank of China for an ad concerning the forwarding of remittances from overseas Chinese.

    In the second place, China's economy was too weak, at the time, to cope with foreign capital on anything like equal terms. China had a weak banking system, little basic industry, light or heavy, minimal infrastructure -- transportation, port facilities, power generating capacity, water supply -- a weak commercial network, and a very backward agriculture. Under these circumstances a free market economy combined with an open door, as the door has been thrown open today, would have put the country at the mercy of foreign capital.

    In the third place, leaving aside the question of foreign capital, had China relied then on market forces, development would have been extremely one-sided -- hot-house growth in certain coastal areas, stagnation for the rest of the country. Central planning allocated investment to every region of the country, building a steel industry in Inner Mongolia, Southeast Shanxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan (to name but a few locations); a chemical industry in Shanxi, Gansu, Hunan, and Heiluongjiang; textiles in Shanxi, Hunan, Hobei, Sichuan; heavy machinery and machine tools in Yunnan, Hunan, Sichuan, Hobei, among others. The Times Atlas of China, published in 1974, shows twenty major industrial bases and twenty minor ones scattered across the map of China from north to south, from east to west. Some of them were old (but by then vastly expanded), but most of them were new. Thirty years of hard struggle created the industrial map of modern China after 1949. And in a planned way, taking advantage of natural resources in place and ensuring the development of every region.

    In the fourth place, based on the ability of cooperative agriculture to mobilize idle winter labor for capital construction work after 1957, China's peasants greatly improved agricultural infrastructure throughout the country. They terraced millions of acres of hills and mountains, reclaimed riverbank land, vastly expanded the irrigated area, and protected it with windbreaks, thus creating conditions for high, stable yields where none had existed before. Since implementing the contract system, not only has little new capital construction taken place on the land, but the projects and engineering works previously built have not been well maintained. Everywhere the infrastructure, so painstakingly created in the 1960s and 1970s, is falling apart with adverse influence on production.

    To say that Deng and associates could have built anything approaching in scale what China built under Mao's leadership with an alternative, mixed economy, free market policy, either on the industrial or on the agricultural front, is sheer speculation. It is one thing to spark a short-lived boom by privatizing collective holdings and giving away to those with an inside track all the public assets created and accumulated over decades. It is quite another to create all this in the first place. It is one thing to enliven the economy by granting easy credit to individual entrepreneurs operating in a sellers market, by granting existing public assets to private managers for commercial-style operation in pursuit of profit, and by attracting foreign investors by making competitive concessions that constantly escalate to the point where they threaten China's autonomy and integrity. It is quite another to build an economy from scratch under fierce foreign embargo to a point where it is strong enough to deal with Western multinational businesses on equal terms and capable of setting parameters for foreign participation that are favorable to China and not simply the first steps toward renewed neocolonial status and eventual debt peonage.  

Questionable Policy Claims

    This returns us to the point where we began, the question of the current government's claims for the success of the current policies. Deane maintains that peasant incomes have trebled and the gross national product has doubled since the reforms began. Yet with due respect for the State Statistical Bureau's biannual reports, it is certainly advisable, as Deane himself acknowledges, not to suspend disbelief in regard to Chinese statistics.

    Certainly one must be skeptical with regard to the trebling of peasant incomes since they abandoned collectives. It is well known that the reform policies were introduced with major price increases for grain that add up over several years to more than 100 percent. So how much of the increased income is due to decreed price rises? This brings up the question of what might have happened to the collective economy if it had remained in place while the price of grain doubled and other prices remained stable. The next question is: Are these income figures corrected for the inflation that came later? One must also ask: Since what constitutes income has to be radically redefined in moving from a collective to a private economy, are Deane's pre and postreform income figures any more comparable than the similar income figures given for Dazhai which I previously analyzed?

    When it comes to GNP, the same question arises concerning inflation. And there is a further related issue. Presumably, the GNP includes capital invested in construction. The amounts are surely large. The big question is: How much of the investment is going toward new production and how much toward nonproductive uses primarily housing? All reports indicate that the proportions are way out of balance and that a sharp surge in consumption on top of this investment for consumption is fanning inflation. Any comparison of relative proportions between productive and nonproductive investment before and after the reform would surely favor the former. The charge is, of course, that accumulation rates and investment were too high in the past. That may well be true, but it is also a very serious mistake if these rates are now too low, because then the country is living on printed money, borrowed money, and borrowed time.

    Since 1979 there undoubtedly has been a big growth in rural sideline production. To the extent that peasant incomes have risen, they have risen because of price increases for farm products and increased off-the-farm production, not increased farm production. But here also the figures are often distorted, as they have been at Dazhai, in the sense that no credit is given for sidelines that already existed in the past. The whole effort is reported as something that originated with the reform and could not have happened without it, which is a gross distortion. With proper policy from above, sideline production might well have developed faster from a collective base than from a private base.

    And the related claim, that the quality of life has improved in China, all depends on how you weigh the various factors. It's a very subjective judgment. Politically, people certainly feel freer, but socially, they are confronting all manner of new and reborn evils -- such as prostitution, begging, child-selling, aborted female fetuses, private exploitation, resurgence of disease -- everything from syphilis to snail fever -- pervasive corruption, and now, worst of all, accelerating inflation. There is a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction, both urban and rural.

    Deane writes, "Some systematic undermining is taking place in the countryside as exploitation of labor, access to resources, and political influence create capital assets and economic power. All that is part of the Chinese complexity." True, but the question is, is all that part of building Chinese socialism? Deane's insistence that socialist relations of production remain in contention in the rural areas, is, I think, wishful thinking.

    I am quite aware that there are some very successful cooperative villages still functioning in various parts of China, and that they are doing a lot better than their contracting neighbors. They exist because some people had the courage and the opportunity to defy implementation of the responsibility system, to ride out the privatization wind, and to preserve a strong collective core. It would not be too late, if the government decided to rebuild and promote cooperation, for a significant cooperative sector to revive. But so far the government has shown no such inclination. Clearly, no consensus in favor of cooperation has formed at higher levels of the party. Cadres who refused to go along in dissolving coops are still being punished with demotions and transfers. What the planners are now talking about is how best to sell off large chunks of public industry to private or corporate stockholders, not how to reform or rebuild cooperation in the countryside.  

    In order for coops to revive and grow there must be a suitable climate. Credit policy, price policy, investment policy, mechanization policy, technical policy, inheritance policy, health-care policy, and many others must all favor cooperation. The thrust of culture must encourage "public first, self second" as the ethical norm. Slogans such as "Some must get rich first," "To get rich is glorious," and "Enrich yourself" must be countered. There would have to be a tremendous reversal in the cultural arena -- some sort of proletarian counteroffensive that would at least challenge the current monopoly of the whole field by bourgeois standards and ideology. Finally, Deane says we need the truth about Mao's lamentable practice. The truth we certainly need. But are we getting it from the reformers and their supporters? The basic thesis of these comments is that we are not. If the truth were as Deane outlines, how could one explain the high prestige Mao continues to enjoy so widely in the countryside, on the shop floor, and many other sectors of Chinese life? Successors have been blackening Mao's name for a decade now. Years ago the authorities ordered party committees to remove his portrait from their walls. Last year they sent men with jackhammers to tear down Mao's statue at Beijing University. Mao suddenly disappeared from many other places before and after that incident, though not yet from the Tiananmen Gate. Meanwhile a statue of Liu has been raised up in Beijing.

    But in spite of all this, portraits and busts of Mao can be found in millions of peasants', herdsmen's and workers' homes and on many a party committee wall. I have heard so many people say "After all, the old man was right!"

    It seems the last chapter has not been written.


Next: Why Not the Capitalist Road?

Back to the Contents page

Created by keza
Last modified 2005-07-17 02:01 AM

Powered by Plone

This site conforms to the following standards: