Land Reform Model Essay


  • To what extent was the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of land reformthe decisive factor in bringing about the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1st 1949? 

Essay plan

Overall Argument: Land Reform was a decisive long-term factor both before and during the civil war – however conduct of the Nationalists during civil war e.g poor military strategy an important short-term factor in PRC founding.

Land reform points

  1. In William Hinton’s fanshen he notes many exploitative landlords supported the Guomindang, rendering the party an enemy of the peasantry.
  2. Mao advocated grievance meetings to allow peasants to publically express their hardship – element of catharsis, letting out pent up emotion., for the first-time peasants felt in control, instigation of new form of power relations. Symbolic element of Land reform.
  3. However, land reform favoured poor peasants over middle peasants- mao criticizes ‘left deviation’ in 1948- support of these peasants also vital for revolution.

 Civil War points

  1. At the beginning of civil war, thanks to respite of Yan’an period Communist troops numbered 900,000. This was enough to present a challenge to the Nationalists.
  2. Nationalists made many strategic errors- Manchuria
  3. Nationalists lost propaganda war and hearts and minds- policy of conscription, poor behavior of troops towards civilians, embezzlement of funds. Also economic factor-hyperinflation.

This essay argues that the policy of land reform was a decisive long-term factor in enabling the Chinese Communist Party to found the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, CCP notions of land reform dated back to Mao’s investigation of the peasantry in 1927 in Hunan. This caused him to develop policies that directly appealed to a disenfranchised peasantry, gradually winning the hearts and minds of China’s predominantly rural population. Later, Mao implemented Land Reform in the Jiangxi Soviet, Yan’an and other Communist-controlled areas before the PRC’s founding. Notwithstanding, several short-term factors were also pivotal in facilitating the PRC’s founding, dating from the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945. First of all, the isolated Communist base in Yan’an enabled the rapid growth of CCP members and the military in the North, posing a direct threat to Nationalist strongholds in the south. Secondly, the conduct of the Nationalist Party and poor military strategy of their army during the Civil War, despite international support, gave way to a decisive Communist victory, prompting the Nationalist retreat to Taiwan.

The rural peasantry were highly receptive to the CCP’s promise of land reform and this was a decisive factor in the CCP’s victory in 1949.  On an ideological level, in Fanshen, William Hinton notes that many landlords were Nationalist party members. Chiang Kai-Shek had promised a cap on land rent but this policy was never properly enforced, hence the Nationalist party did not enjoy the support of the masses. Moreover, Hinton provides evidence that many peasants were working for as little as $4 a year to pay off debts. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the rural peasantry were highly receptive to the CCP’s promise of returning land to the tiller. Mao and the CCP firmly believed that mobilizing the rural masses would pave the way for a Communist revolution, rather than adopting the traditional Marxist-Leninist approach of rallying the urban proletariat. Whilst Mao faced a lot of opposition to this policy, by adapting Marxism to Chinese conditions, Communist party membership dramatically increased during the Yan’an period.

Land Reform in Communist-controlled areas became a key method of indoctrinating the rural peasantry into Communist ideology before the founding of the PRC. Indeed, Land Reform also held a symbolic meaning that was arguably as important as the actual redistribution of land. Through public trials and speaking bitterness sessions, peasants felt for the first time in their lives the sensation of a collective transfer of power from rich to poor. Many propaganda posters regarding Land Reform were produced in rural areas and for the first time, whilst peasants had direct contact with government officials, they considered themselves an integral part of Communist society and so were loyal to the CCP.

Counter to this, many peasants had already experienced violence associated with Land Reform in Communist-controlled areas before the PRC’s founding. Hinton, for example, who witnessed Land Reform in a small Chinese village in 1948, drew attention to a bias towards the seizure of material wealth of landlords as well as actual land. Landlords often had businesses vital to the local economy that were shattered. Moreover, Mao himself, also in 1948, felt he needed to intervene, drawing attention to what he termed ‘left-deviation.’ Mao notes that many middle peasants also became victims which was not the policy’s goal calling it a ‘serious error of principle.’ As such, whilst land reform was instrumental in ensuring the loyalty of poor peasants, it also alienated many middle peasants who Mao also deemed vital to the revolution.

Whilst land reform was a decisive propaganda coup, it is also important to assess the military situation of the CCP and GMD at the closure of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945. Communist troops numbered around 900,000 and the party membership 1.2 million. Of course, Land Reform may have been an underlying factor in encouraging rural peasants to join the PLA and CCP, although this is difficult to quantify. Whilst the Nationalist army was still larger, many tactical errors were made that turned the tide of the civil war in favour of the CCP. Chief amongst these was their invasion of Manchuria. This was a Communist stronghold at the end of the Sino-Japanese War and Russia, formally occupying the area, had left behind Japanese war booty that was given to the Communists. Moreover, the Communists implemented their strategy of guerilla warfare to gradually wear down the Nationalist army. The Nationalist’s poor military strategy was compounded by their indifference towards rural peasants, forcibly conscripting many of them. Many of these conscripts were poorly trained, not battle-ready and likely did not believe in the cause they were fighting for.

The behavior of the PLA versus the Nationalist army during the civil war also provided a stark contrast. Mao’s ‘three rules of discipline and eight points of attention’ ensured that soldiers treated the civilian population with respect, paying for food and board. These civilians could, in turn, provide the PLA with vital reconnaissance information. Conversely, the Nationalist army was beset, to a certain extent, by corrupt officials who embezzled supplies, including US aid, meaning that troops were driven towards stealing and not paying for food. This situation was further compounded by hyperinflation, banknotes of 1 million golden yuan (worth less than 1 US dollar) being commonplace. This triggered industrial workers to protest in key cities such as Shanghai whose paycheck was barely worth collecting. This meant that when the PLA entered cities, they did not face any resistance from the local urban population.

In sum, it is instructive to view land reform as Mao’s first mass campaign that won over China’s rural peasantry, having endured hardship under landlords often affiliated with the Nationalist party. Land Reform likely prompted mass membership of the party during the Yan’an period and civil war and may have encouraged peasants to join the PLA. Indeed, CCP membership was 4 million by the end of the civil war and just 1 million at the start. It is, however, unlikely that Land Reform alone could have catalyzed the founding of the PRC. During the Civil War, the Nationalist party committed many errors, both strategic and ideological that played into the hands of the Communists, from their invasion of Manchuria to conscription of peasants. It is important to note though, that before the founding of the PRC, the CCP did not enact the collectivization of agriculture, a direct derivative of Land Reform, which became an unmitigated disaster that engendered the great famine. Plans for the collectivisation of agriculture were likely on Mao’s agenda before 1949, having already been implemented in the USSR. Such plans are certainly written into the CCP’s common program of 1949. If the collectivization of agriculture had been enacted during the revolution, it is likely Mao would have lost the vital support of the rural peasantry in the same way as Chiang Kai-shek.

Land Reform Model Essay