CHINA: Growing grassroots initiatives to re-collectivise farming

Issue 

Eva Cheng

Since Beijing started to dismantle China's rural communes in 1979, a process that was completed in 1984, only one village is widely known to have taken the bold step to revert back to collective production. Nanjie Village in Henan province made that move in 1986. Now more Chinese villages are following Nanjie's lead, including Xiaogang Village of Anhui province — once the most important showcase in Beijing's propaganda justifying rural de-collectivisation.

Long plagued by poor farming output and resulting starvation, 18 families of Xiaogang Village — risking imprisonment and possibly their lives — made a secret pact in 1978 to shift to family-based cultivation and distribution. Communal cultivation was the order of the day in China at that time and violation could attract severe penalty.

Within a year, the villagers' average income reportedly surged by 19 times and many neighbouring villages followed suit to de-collectivise. The villagers did not know that their move coincided with Beijing's dramatic policy shift to de-collectivisation. Rather than being punished, Xiaogang has since been hailed as the "cradle of China's rural reform".

However, according to the January 18 edition of the Hong Kong-based daily Ming Pao, a local newsletter of the Nanjie Village revealed that a delegation of 13 from Xiaogang Village recently visited Nanjie seeking to learn from its experience in collectivisation. There are now 106 households in Xiaogang and the delegation included four Xiaogang farmers who took part in the secret 1978 pact. Xiaogang has been burnt in recent years by a sagging economy, dragged down by inefficient household-based farming. Leaving no doubt that the delegation is seeking to steer Xiaogang back to collective farming, it wrote a message in the visitor's book in Nanjie that it wants to learn the best way to strengthen the collective economy as a means to achieve "collective prosperity".

Part of China's commune system, centering around collective cultivation, was the collectivised provision of education, health care and agricultural infrastructure. All of these have fallen apart, with serious social consequences. The social disintegration in China's countryside has become so pronounced that Beijing last year named the rural crisis as the country's number one problem.

Petty household farming aside, sections of Chinese farming is becoming increasingly capitalist in nature, backed by the rising concentration of land-use rights. All land in China is owned by the state, but rural households were granted the right to use a tiny allocated plot for a small rent. Unviable subsistence cultivation on tiny plots has driven many farmers to sell their land-use rights to local virtual landlords. The latter then use the accumulated land holdings for bigger scale capitalist farming or industrial production.

According to the January 18 Ming Pao, production cooperatives have popped up in many places recently, such as Xiaofengshan Village of Shanxi province, Tugudong Village (near Luoyang city) and Lankao county (near Kaifeng city) of Henan province, Yutai county of Shandong province and Sipinglishu county of Jilin province. Collective farming has also been reported in Huaxi Village in Zhejiang province.

On their own, these local initiatives in collective cultivation do not constitute a return to socialist production, because the broader centrally planned economic organisation under a working people's government is no longer present. But given socialised communal farming and organising was only dismantled in China relatively recently, the benefit of socialised farming is still in many people's living memory. Such recent initiatives are clearly a rejection of atomised capitalist cultivation and a recognition of some of the benefits of socialised production.

From Green Left Weekly, January 25, 2006.
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