A Brief History of the Land Institution of Modern China (After 1840)
Owing to population growth and the centralized land ownership, the land problem became more and more prominent a hundred years since the founding of the Qing Dynasty. The Taiping Rebellion that swept across China from 1851 to 1864 set land revolution at the center of their agenda. In 1853, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom promulgated the “Heavenly Kingdom Land System” in Nanjing. It stated: “All the land over the world should be planted by people all over the world… The distribution of farmland will be according to the population, either men or women. The farmland a household can get depends on the whole population of the household. During the distribution, fertile lands will go with barren lands so that each household can get both. Our mission is to ensure that people under heaven will have a share in farmland, food and money. As a result, there will be no inequality and nobody will suffer from starvation or cold”. Because the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom had been in a state of war and collapsed quickly, the egalitarian land system they promoted was not implemented. But the thought of allocating farmland equally influenced the Revolution of 1911 and the land reform carried out by the CCP thereafter.
In 1905, Sun Yat-sen founded the Chinese Revolutionary League (Tong Meng Hui) in Japan. The revolutionary guiding principle of the League was “to expel the Manchus (Qing Dynasty), restore China, equalize the landownership and found the Republic of China”. But the League was separated into two groups in terms of how to interpret “equalization of land ownership”. The proposal of the radical faction was similar to that of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (that is, to abolish landlordism and allocate land equally according to the population); however, the moderate faction suggested that the landlords’ ownership be kept if they used the land for farming while nationalizing the “added value” generated by putting the land to non-farm usages, such as industrialization, urbanization, and infrastructure construction. Following American scholar Henry George’s opinion presented in his book Progress and Poverty, Sun Yat-sen formed his proposal of “equalization of landownership”. In 1911, the Qing Dynasty was toppled by revolution; the power, however, fell into the hands of Yuan Shikai and the Beiyang Government. Following in the steps of “Heavenly Kingdom Land System”, the Chinese Revolutionary League’s proposal of “equalization of landownership” ended up a mere scrap of paper (Jian 2013).
In 1927, the first Kuo Ming Tang (KMT)-CCP cooperation broke down, and the CCP was forced to move to the countryside. They started a 10-year political struggle against the KMT. Between 1927 and 1937, on their “red bases”, the CCP carried out “land revolution” which aimed to “beat down the landlords and divide the lands”. It is interesting that the Marxist CCP fulfilled what had been pursued but not accomplished by the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (peasants’ rebellion) and Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen (capitalist revolution). Between 1937 and 1945, the KMT and CCP had their second cooperation. The CCP decided to substitute a milder policy of “reduce the rent and lower the interest rate” for the radical “land reform” policy in order to unite enlightened landlords for the anti-Japanese cause. While the civil war between the KMT and CCP was taking place from 1947 to 1949, the latter restored the radical “land reform” policy in order to effectively mobilize the peasants to overturn the rule of the KMT.
In 1949, the CCP took power and founded the PRC. In 1950, they issued the first “Marriage Law” to “abolish feudal marriage” and advocate “gender equality, marriage freedom and monogamy”. Following that, they promulgated the “Land Law” in order to “abolish feudal landlord land ownership” and realize the private ownership of land by petty peasant households. Interestingly, the objective and land allocation method of this reform were exactly the same as what the “Heavenly Kingdom Land System” had proposed a hundred years earlier, even though the expressions were different. What differentiated these two is that the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was unable to implement the ideal of “cultivator has its field” but the CCP fulfilled it through “class struggle” which ended up mobilizing the peasants and forming them into an enormous political force. In 1950, there was a total of 1,600 million mu of arable land (1 acre = 6 mu); after the land reform, 700 million mu of farmland which used to belong to landlords and rich peasants was distributed for free to farmers who had no land or little land. At that time, among the total population of about 540 million in China, 88% were peasants. And of the 1,600 million mu of arable land, 86% was used to grow food. In 1952, after a long period of turmoil, for the first time, the total output of arable land in China caught up with the harvest of the best year before 1949, reaching 150 million tons. This land reform was the first land institution transformation after the founding of the PRC, and it was accomplished at the cost of the “disappearance” of two classes: the landlords and the rich peasants.
Even though the equalitarian land allocation system met the peasants’ desire for land, the household private ownership of land might again lead to the polarization between the rich and the poor. Furthermore, this land reform divided farmland into small plots, which made it difficult to carry out large-scale irrigation system construction. At the same time, also owing to the urgent demand of primitive accumulation for industrialization, the CCP started promoting the agricultural cooperation movement shortly after the land reform. The cooperative movement was divided into three stages: the first stage was called “the primary commune”, meaning the land was privately owned by rural households but planted cooperatively by 20 to 30 households. The total agricultural output was distributed to these households according to a certain proportion of the labor that was used in cultivating the land, and the amount of land each household had, after deducting the agricultural taxes. The second stage was named “the advanced commune”, which transferred the land ownership from private to collective. The distribution was based on the labor each household contributed. This was the second big land institution transformation after the founding of the PRC.
“The advanced commune” could include as its members several hundred households, much bigger than “the primary commune”. After 1959, the development of the Commune System entered the third stage (that is, the “people’s commune”). The land institution during this stage was “based on the production team, and shared by three levels of organizations” (that is, the people’s commune, production brigade [shengchan dadui] and production team [shengcha xiaodui, natural village]). In terms of size, a production team was almost equivalent to a “primary commune”, and a production brigade was as big as an “advanced commune”. A “people’s commune” often consisted of over 10 production brigades, and a production brigade included about seven to eight production teams. But this varied from region to region. This was the third big land system change after 1949. It was through the “people’s commune” system that the Chinese state accomplished the task of extracting agricultural surplus for industrialization. Furthermore, the “people’s commune ” system made it possible to organize the agricultural labor force to engage in large-scale irrigation system construction during the slack seasons. Also through the division of labor and cooperation within the “people’s commune”, China actualized nine-year compulsory education and a low-level cooperative medical system. But long-term high levels of extraction from agriculture made it a big challenge to increase the living standards of millions of Chinese peasants, which had greatly affected the enthusiasm of peasants for collective production.
From 1982 to 1983, the people’s commune of more than 20 years’ history was abolished in Chinese villages. Afterwards, the township, where the “government-administrative” function of the people’s commune was handed over to the governments of towns and counties, was established. (In 1984, there were 82,000 county governments and more than 7200 town governments all over the country. In 2012, after years of a combination of local governments,3 there were 13,000 county governments and 20,000 town governments.) Then the production brigades of people’s communes were transformed into village committees, which are legally called “village self-governing organizations”. Elections are held every three years to form village committees. In addition, the production teams of people’s communes were turned into villagers’ groups, which are subjected to village committees. After the abolition of the people’s commune, a great change took place regarding the Land Institution. The village collective land ownership was separated from the usage right of the household contracted land. This change encouraged peasants to cultivate land more actively. However, the previously vast piece of land in the age of collective cultivation was thus fragmented into small pieces according to the principle of “land distribution based on family population, balancing barren and fertile lands in distribution, and household management of production”. The high fragmentation of lands had a negative impact on irrigation construction. From 1982, the “household contracted responsibility system” was put into practice. It was promised that the household contracted responsibility system would continuously be valid for 15 years. In 1998, a new round of the “household contracted responsibility system” was carried out. Thirty years was added to the validation period. To prolong the length of the policy is to reassure the peasants that the government wants to encourage them to cultivate land and that the government is not expected to expropriate land. Furthermore, the prolonged time corresponds to the growth cycle of fruit trees, such as peach, plum, and apple trees.
With the development of China’s industrialization and urbanization, a great amount of rural young labor force left agriculture and the countryside. They have gone to the east-coast cities to work for a living. According to the official statistics of 2014, the total number of Chinese peasant workers is 269 million, of whom 80 million are trans-provincial peasant workers. Thus, the Land Institution and Agricultural Management Institution experienced a second change. After the village collective land ownership was separated from the usage right of the household contracted land, the cultivation/management right was further separated from the usage right of the household contracted land. China’s Land Institution has gone from “the separation of two rights” to “the separation of three rights”. The principle of separating the cultivation/management right from the contracted usage right is twofold: “conform to the willingness of peasants” and “payment is required for leasing the contracted land”.
According to the official statistics of 2014, one third of all the 1820 million mu plowable land of China has been leased. There are two types of leasing. First, peasants lease their lands to relatives. Second, village committees “organize” peasants to lease lands. Peasants lease lands to the village committees first, and then the village committees lease all of the lands to other people. The village committees thus act as brokers. The advantage of the second type of leasing is that the fragmented lands of the household contracted system can be gathered and leased together on a large scale. It answers the requirement of “managing the land in appropriate scale”. Moreover, land on a large scale makes irrigation construction easier. Machines also favour large pieces of land, and as a result, the agricultural productivity will be improved. The shortcoming of the second type of leasing is that enforced leasing by the government may exist. The enforced leasing would harm the benefits of the contracted peasants. Who are the new lessees then? There are four types of renting. First, the lessees rent the land and make it into family farmland. Second, peasants can organize themselves into cooperatives and rent land together. Third, influential and rich households can rent land from other villagers. Fourth, big companies come into the villages and rent land from the local peasants and then hire the peasants to cultivate the land for them. In order to achieve the goal of modernizing Chinese agriculture, the question remains unanswered as to how to keep a balance between “highly distributed family contracted land rights” and “appropriately concentrated land management rights”.