From commune to capitalism: China’s agricultural reforms

September 5, 2022
Book cover
Agricultural production grew during the collective era after a bad start, but was dismantled in the 1980s. Photo supplied.

From Commune to Capitalism: How China's peasants lost collective farming and gained urban poverty
By Zhun Xu
Monthly Review Press
New York 2018

Growing up in China after the breakup of the communes, Zhun Xu was taught in school that agricultural collectivisation had been a failure. At the time he accepted this. It was only later, after talking to relatives and friends who had lived on a collective farm, that he began to question the official verdict.

Later he studied in the United States and did a PhD thesis on agrarian change in China.  He carried out interviews with farmers and cadres who had been active in Songzi county during the collective period.

Xu acknowledges that mistakes made in the early years of collectivisation contributed to a famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But in subsequent years agricultural production recovered and then grew steadily.

Grain production reached pre-famine levels in 1965. Between 1965 and 1978 it grew at an average annual rate of 3.5%.

The growth rate was higher in the collective period than in the post-collective period: “The grain yield grew at 2.79 percent annually between 1956 and 1980, which was the collective period; but it only grew 1.09 percent between 1984 and 2008 in the post-collective period.”

Hence Xu regards collective farming as having been generally successful, despite the severe problems in its early years.

Land reform and collectivisation

Before the revolution, most people in China were extremely poor. Xu writes: “When the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] first started the revolution in the 1920s, China was an extremely backward country marked by low productivity and a highly unequal distribution of land. It was widely accepted that 20 percent of the population owned more than 60 percent of the land. Between 50 percent and 70 percent of peasants’ output went to the landlord as rent”.

The Communist Party won peasant support with a policy of land reform, which it began implementing in liberated zones. After coming to power in 1949, land reform was extended to the whole country.

It began with land redistribution — taking land from big landowners and distributing it among small peasants. Then the CCP began promoting moves towards collectivisation. Mao argued that collective farming would benefit the peasants, because a collective could do things an individual farmer could not. For example, a collective could buy a tractor, which a farmer with a small plot of land could not afford.

Xu writes: “In principle, the process of collectivization involved a series of steps: First, mutual aid teams were established in which peasants operated on their own. Then came elementary cooperatives, in which land and draft animals became collectively owned but peasants received income based on their labor efforts and dividends based on their land or draft animal contributions. Finally, advanced cooperatives were set up, dividends were discontinued and members received income proportionate to their labor contributions only. The cadres also established people's communes to manage multiple advanced cooperatives”.

These changes were supposed to be implemented step by step, with the support of the peasants. However, in many cases collectivisation was pushed through hastily, without the support of the peasants. This led to resistance, adversely affecting food production.

This happened particularly in the late 1950s, during the period of extreme voluntarism known as the Great Leap Forward (GLF).  During this period unrealistic production targets were set. This led to false reporting by lower-level officials claiming to have met or exceeded these targets. This in turn led to excessive procurement when the government tried to collect a share of the supposed record harvests.

After the failure of the GLF, it was estimated that 20 percent of rural population reverted to private household farming. However, most peasants continued to work collectively.

From the early 1960s onwards, rural society was organised in what Xu describes as “a three-layer system: production team, brigade and commune. The production team was the basic level of governance. Multiple production teams made up a brigade, and several brigades made up a commune. Although subject to orders from above, production teams were largely autonomous in production and distribution decision making...”

Initially the communes had been over-centralised, with a lack of autonomy for lower levels. This was corrected in 1961. Decision making power was given back to the lower levels.

Achievements of the communes

Agricultural production grew during the collective era, after a bad start. Infrastructure projects such as irrigation works and bridges were built with peasant labour.

Education was brought to the countryside. Xu reports that in 1949 only 20% of children in Songzi county went to primary school. By 1960 it exceeded 90%. In the 1970s most communes set up their own high schools, while every brigade had its own primary and middle schools.

A rural health system was established. Every commune got its own small hospital, and every brigade had its own health station.

Life expectancy improved markedly. According to Xu, “In 1947, life expectancy in Songzi was 28.3 years; by 1979, life expectancy had reached 59.73 years”.

Summarising, Xu writes that “the socialist model had remarkable achievements”.


However, the system had serious problems, According to Xu, there was democracy at the team level — teams could elect their leaders — but a lack of democracy at higher levels. Commune officials were appointed from above. This resulted in “stratification” and a “cadre-peasant, manager-worker divide”.

There was abuse of power by some cadres and slackness and incompetence by others. Xu says that one third of collectives were "not in good shape".


From 1980–85, collective farming was replaced by the “household responsibility system”. Formally, the land was still owned by the collective, but it was broken up into small plots that were allocated to households to manage. In practice, this meant the end of collective farming.

But family farms on small plots of land did not bring general prosperity. In 1999 a local cadre, Li Changping, wrote a famous letter to Premier Zhu Rongji, stating that “the life of the peasants is extremely hard, the rural areas extremely poverty-stricken, and the prospect of agriculture extremely precarious”.

Xu writes that decollectivisation was imposed from above. It was not the result of spontaneous actions by the peasants as is sometimes claimed. However, it met little resistance due to lack of democracy in the communes.

Rural poverty led many peasants to seek work in the cities. Some sold their land use rights to their richer neighbours. Capitalist farming began to develop.

Those displaced from the land have become migrant workers in the cities, ruthlessly exploited by foreign transnational corporations and Chinese capitalists.

Mao's role

The book is very informative and useful. One shortcoming, however, is its uncritical attitude towards Mao Zedong. Discussing the differences of opinion within the Communist Party leadership, Xu writes of Mao that “his intervention and personal charisma and authority played a crucial role in the pursuit of a socialist path in China. Sometimes it even seemed that Mao just by himself overturned the bureaucratic state machine”.

We can respect Mao's achievements without idealising him. Mao led the revolution to victory in 1949, then led the drive for collectivisation. But in my view, some of his actions contributed to undermining collectivisation, facilitating its rapid decline after his death.

In many areas collectivisation was introduced too hastily, particularly during the GLF. Mao's voluntarist rhetoric helped create the climate for this haste, resulting in a top-down approach, which continued even after the end of the GLF.

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao used his prestige to mobilise youth to attack supposed “capitalist roaders”. This resulted in many people being humiliated, assaulted and even killed for no good reason. Victims included many high school and university teachers, as well as Mao's opponents within the CCP.

The army was brought in to restore order. Mao was forced to compromise with his opponents.

In the early 1970s, China formed a de facto alliance with the United States and other Western powers against the Soviet Union. China's foreign policy became generally reactionary.  Both Mao and his opponents seem to have agreed on this turn.

This led to a failure to educate the Chinese people about the crimes of capitalist governments and the evils of the capitalist system. Although this did not immediately result in capitalist restoration in China, it prepared the ground for it ideologically, and made it easier for the post-Mao leadership to begin undermining collective agriculture and state-owned industry.

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