the early 1980s, China started dismantling its rural communes and
collectives. The post-Mao leadership believed the rural collective
institution was a major obstacle for the capitalist oriented reform they
were launching at the time. In just 4-5 years, the country finished
its’ nationwide decollectivization campaign and the farmland, as well as
other collective assets, were divided into individual families. There
was still the collective ownership of land on paper, but de facto private ownership has gradually been established.
The dominant narrative on this process, supported by
both the Chinese authority and the mainstream academia, argues that the
collectives suffered from inefficiency and the decollectivization reform
brought a huge improvement in productivity. At the same time, they
argue that the decollectivization reform was a people’s bottom-up
movement and the peasants loved it. It is no wonder why the mainstream
liked the story so much. One easily sees the holy trinity here:
individual free choice, spontaneous order, and economic efficiency.
However, a close examination suggests a very different picture. My recent book From Commune to Capitalism
shows that decollectivization did not have much positive impact on
production and a lot of the output increase can be explained by
increasing fertilizer input among others. The reform was very far from a
bottom-up people’s movement. It was coercively implemented by the
central leadership and there was no “choice” at all.The reform virtually destroyed much of the legacy
from the commune era such as affordable education and healthcare.
there was no collective support for these essential spending, people
sometimes have to squeeze their own food consumption to pay for those
bills. No to mention that the atomized peasants lost their political
significance in the Chinese politics. Overall the political and economic
status of peasants deteriorated remarkably in recent decades.
It is important to see
how the rural decollectivization facilitated the development of
capitalism in China. The breaking of the Maoist communes provided the
momentum of capitalist reform, the “success” of this reform gave
legitimacy to the post-Mao leadership, and eventually, the newly created
“surplus” rural labor from a much weakened rural economy became the
reserve army for the new capitalist urban economy.