Collectivisation of Agriculture (农业集体化) (1953-1958) Overview
After the completion of Land Reform in 1952, a new system of organisational reform was rolled out, severely affecting the autonomy of peasants to control their own land and resources. This process is known as ‘The Collectivisation of Agriculture’ which consisted of several stages in order to gradually acclimatise peasants. First of all, the government advocated the merging of villagers into mutual aid teams. This is where peasants were encouraged to pool resources, tools, machinery and knowledge. At this stage, all land remained the property of the individual owners.
By 1953, a more elaborate system of cooperatives emerged where land was pooled into one single unit (Source 1). Within these cooperatives, the initial amount of return on the land would be determined by what tools the peasants contributed as well as the amount of labour undertaken, which of course largely benefitted better-off middle class peasants. Between 1955 and 1956 ‘higher stage cooperatives’ emerged where revenue was solely determined by the amount of labour undertaken which helped even out the disparity between poor and middle peasants.
By 1958, China’s farmland was divided up into roughly 26,000 communes (several cooperatives joined together) and decisions on farming methods and the price of crops were centralised (Source 2). As this propaganda poster shows, the communes quickly gained a mythical status. Production yields here are compared to a dragon, traditionally symbolising power and strength. Communes also exerted greater control on the daily lives of rural farmers. As an author in the World Today (1959:127-128) explains: ‘The primary difference between the communes and the cooperatives was that while the cooperatives engaged solely in agriculture, the communes incorporated political, economic, agricultural, educational and military affairs into a single unit.’ Even private cooking was banned. By this point land was, in effect, owned by the government, something that still holds true of all land, both in the city and the countryside today, although communes have long since been abolished.
The reasons for this process of collectivisation were both economic and ideological. Lin (1990:1230) helpfully summarises some of the economic reasons that prompted the Communist Government’s change in policy:
Since scarce foreign exchange was reserved mainly for importing capital goods, the increasing demand for agricultural products had to be satisfied by domestic production. Because agricultural stagnation and poor harvests had an almost immediate and direct impact on industrial expansion, collectivization was promoted as a strategy for the simultaneous development of agriculture and industry.
In other words, the success of industry directly hinged upon the success of agriculture – urban workers, vital to the expansion of industry, needed to be fed with Chinese grown produce due to a lack of imported goods from other countries, something that would persist until 1961.
There were, however, underlying ideological reasons for instigating the process of collectivisation. Mao Zedong, although emanating from the peasant class himself, had accused peasants of having ‘a spontaneous tendency towards capitalism’ (Teiwes: 2017: 56). As such, ‘collectivisation enables the government and the party in power to consolidate and tighten their control over the rural masses since it is much easier to control a relatively small number of collective farms than a myriad of individual peasant farms’ (Bandyopadayha: 1971: 43). Indeed, the CCP were hoping that collectivisation would spread a sense of compliance with communist ideology. The party mantra stated that it was ‘glorious to be poor’ and no one wanted to set themselves apart from others, lest they be denounced by a neighbour.
However, this ideological stance proved detrimental to labour efficiency, leading to a fall in production. Collectivisation also led to practical problems such as the sharing of equipment. Often, tools were simply not being returned in time, meaning farmers were unable to plough the fields before a harvest. Further to this, all surplus grain had to be sold to the government at a fixed price in order to feed urban areas which would, in turn, stimulate industrialisation. The government even stipulated that the quantity of grain an individual was entitled to was just 13-16 kilos each month, scarcely enough to feed a fully grown adult.
It is therefore unsurprising that in 1953 and 1954 a peasant resistance emerged, exactly what the CCP were trying to avoid. The main catalyst for this resistance was the state control of grain (Source 3). This policy was known as ‘unified purchase and sale’ which was brought into force in November 1953. As Li (2006:146) notes: ‘local governments purchased all “surplus grain” from peasant households in amounts, kinds, and at prices set by the state in the summer and autumn, and resold it to households in need in the spring.’ This revolt was primarily initiated by the lower classes of peasants therefore the government tactic of singling people out as ‘class enemies’ could not be used here. By 1954, 4.5 million people in Henan and Jiangxi provinces were going hungry. Many people fled to the cities to escape famine and by 1955 an ‘internal passport’ was introduced to prevent rural-urban migration. Despite this provision, the urban population of China had grown from 58 million in 1949 to 99 million by 1957.
When the system of communes was rolled out in 1958, the Central Committee of the Communist Party published a report entitled ‘Resolution on the Establishment of People’s Communes in the Rural areas’ (Source 4) This source paints an idyllic picture stating ‘An unprecedented advance has been made in agricultural capital production since the advocates of the capitalist road were fundamentally defeated economically, politically and ideologically. This has created a new basis for practically eliminating floods and drought and for ensuring the relatively stable advance of agricultural production.’ Academic research however paints a different picture. Indeed, a good harvest was reported for that year (Source 5) at approximately 200 million tonnes. However government statisticians had exaggerated this output to a figure of circa 500 million tonnes. Furthermore, as Ashton (625) notes: ‘Local cadres were ill-equipped to handle the complicated administrative tasks associated with an organisation the size of people’s communes.’ Equally, the drive to produce steel led to a reduced workforce able to collect the harvest with ‘backyard steel production’ in rural areas (Source 6) becoming common, taking precious time away from agricultural production. During these years, the amount of soviet economic aid to China also dwindled.
After the establishment of people’s communes, there were three brutal years of ‘Great Famine’ between 1958-1961. (Source 7). It is clear that the rapid establishment of communes contributed to this due to inefficiencies in production and mismanagement. Officially caused by drought, the famine was further worsened by other agricultural policies applied to communes. Mao gravitated towards a soviet pseudo-scientist Lysenko who had claimed he could make crops such as rice and wheat yield up to 16 times more food than under traditional methods. Lysenko advocated ‘sparrowcide’ whereby villagers killed birds who ate crop seeds. However, this now meant that insects spoiled plants as there were no birds to counter them. Rats that birds fed on also destroyed grain stocks. The death toll of the great famine is impossible to definitively calculate, however there is a general consensus around the shocking figure of 30 million deaths.
In short, the policy of collectivisation had two distinct aims, one economic the other ideological. In economic terms, rural collectivisation did indeed pave the way for industrialisation in urban areas, feeding the urban population and hence the economic success of the first five year plan. However, the human cost was extremely high with millions starving due to mistaken farming techniques and lack of efficiency compounded by natural disaster. As such, the economic legacy of collectivisation in China could arguably be said to have advanced the economy of urban regions whilst neglecting the very rural areas the policy was intended to benefit. In ideological terms, collectivisation was intended to exert greater control on the lives of PRC citizens, making sure they conformed to government directives. This put a great strain on family life. Moreover, the three year famine was a tragic end to the first 10 years of Maoist China.
Ashton, B. Hill, K. Piazza, A. and Zeitz, R. (1984) 'Famine in China, 1958-61'. Population and Development Review 10 (4), 613-645.
‘G.J’ (1959) 'From Land Reform to Communes in China'. The World Today 15 (3), 124-130.
Kalyani Bandyopadhyaya, (1971) 'Collectivization of Chinese Agriculture: Triumphs and Tragedies (1953-57)'. China Report 7 (1) 42-53.
Li, H. (2006) 'The First Encounter: Peasant Resistance to State Control of Grain in East China in the Mid-1950s'. The China Quarterly (185) 145-162.
Lin, J. Y. (1990) 'Collectivization and China's Agricultural Crisis in 1959-1961'. Journal of Political Economy 98 (6) 1228-1252.
Teiwes, Frederick C. Sun, Warren. (2017) The Politics of Agricultural Cooperativization in China : Mao, Deng Zihui, and the "High Tide" of 1955 [online] Routledge.