Socialism and Collective Agriculture to 1957 | A Great Leap | Dispute with the Soviet Union | Communes and Starvation, 1958-61 | Retrenchment and Mao versus "Capitalist Roaders" | The Cultural Revolution | The Last of Mao Zedong | Reforms under Deng Xiaoping | Dissatisfactions | Tiananmen Square Protests, 1989 | Ten Years after Tiananmen
The Communist Party of China took power on 1 October 1949. It soon ended the hyperinflation that had appeared under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), and it launched a land reform program with the slogan "Land to the Tiller!"
About thirty percent of the tillable land had been owned by a small minority of landlords, and the Communist Party aimed at making their share of land to equal that of the common peasants – which they saw as destroying the old gentry-landlords as a political and economic class and within a generation or two reduce the possibility of counter revolution.
Communist Party leadership wanted this transition to be as little disruptive as possible. They wanted to avoid excesses they had experienced in land reform in areas they controlled before the revolution. The Party had widespread support among the peasantry – eighty percent of the population – and peasants supported being rid of gentry-landlords. But rather than a smooth transition, following the Party's rise to power its reform program became tumultuous and bloody. Many hotheaded peasants sought retribution from the landlords, and over-zealous Communist cadres joined in the passion and committed excesses. Estimates are that more than a million died. In early 1950, those believed to have been overly zealous in leading communities in land reform were removed from the Party.
Each family owned the land they worked. Farming families were no longer burdened by mortgages, high interest rates and rents, but farmers were selling their crops to the government at fixed low prices, and the government was taxing the farmers about thirty percent of their income. As in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, China's Communist regime wished to use wealth created by farming to advance industrialization.
China had been disrupted by more than ten years of war, first against the Japanese and then civil war, and in the years 1950-53 China was involved in the Korean war. The Communist Party wanted order and economic restoration, and from 1950 to 1952 farm production grew by an average of fifteen percent per year – an advance helped by new irrigation and flood projects.
In 1953, China launched its first five-year plan for industry. That year and in 1954, nature intervened and China had poor harvests. People migrated to the cities to escape hunger. The Korean War had just ended, and many young men were being demobilized. Unemployment was rising in China's cities. The chairman of China's Communist Party, Mao Zedong, and some other Party members were disturbed by the sight of some family farmers being more successful than other farmers and by the sight of some of these more successful farmers lending money to the less fortunate. The same debate arose in China's Communist Party that had arisen in the Soviet Union in the 1920s: how far should they go in accommodating free enterprise as opposed to building socialism.
The Party decided to collectivize farming. China's peasantry saw Chairman Mao and the Communist Party as heroic much more than Russia's peasantry had seen Stalin and the Bolsheviks as heroes, and through 1956 the peasantry cooperated with the Party. There was little or none of the resistance and warfare that had accompanied the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union.
By the end of the summer of 1956 nearly ninety percent of China's farmers had joined a collective farm. The average collective consisted of around 170 families. The family unit remained, each family eating and living together under the same roof. And each family was allowed their own small plot of land and to sell the produce from these private plots as they pleased. Free enterprise remained, but it had been reduced, and socialism had been advanced.
Meanwhile, the birth rate among people in the countryside remained high, and people were still migrating from the countryside into the cities, where unemployment was growing. Peasant income remained low, which provided little revenue for the government to invest in industrialization and little with which to repay debts for loans from the Soviet Union. China's manufacturing in 1956 and 1957 grew at an annual rate of four percent. Party strategists wanted more spectacular gains. They estimated that because of China's poverty several years might pass before a more impressive rate could be achieved. Seeing the growth in agricultural production as a part of the problem, the government sought to increase peasant incentives to grow by reducing taxes to twenty-five percent of their income.
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