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Prosperity and Conflict in Post-Mao Rural China*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 February 2009


In 1980 the People's Daily reported that 200 million Chinese peasants were living below the poverty line, while in 1982 Vicepremier Wan Li admitted the “for many years in the past, more than 150 million peasants had not solved the problem of not having enough to eat.” To enrich the rural economy, Party leaders called on peasants to pursue numerous private roads to prosperity. The new policy, highlighted by the phrase “permit some peasants to get rich first” (rang yixie nongmin xian fuqilai), allows households who are more industrious, more innovative and, of course, those with better personal and economic ties, to utilize their skills, personal relationships, excess labour power, and comparative advantages to accrue wealth quickly.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 1986

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1. Renmin ribao(People's Daily), 9 April 1980, p. 1, established a poverty line of 50 yuan per year per person. For Li's, Wan speech see Renmin ribao, 23 12 1982Google Scholar.

2. The “three line” model comes from Solinger, Dorothy J., Chinese Business Under Socialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)Google Scholar. Solinger drew her “tendency analysis” from Griffiths, Franklyn, “A tendency analysis of Soviet policy-making,” in Skilling, H. Gordon and Griffiths, Franklyn (eds.), Interest Groups in Soviet Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), pp. 335–78Google Scholar.

3. See Zweig, David, “Agrarian radicalism in China, 1968–1978: the search for a social base,” Ph.D. Dissertation, The University of Michigan, 1983Google Scholar. Also Yu Lin County Theoretical Study Group, Shehuizhuyi jiti suoyouzhi (The Socialist Collective Ownership System) (Guangxi renmin chubanshe, 1976)Google Scholar.

4. According to Solinger, bureaucratic elites stress “economic stability relatively more than they do economic growth, and find any competition with state sector-led exchange to be a serious threat.” SeeSolinger, Dorothy J., “Commerce: the petty private sector and the three lines in the early 1980s,” in Solinger, Dorothy J. (ed.), Three Visions of Chinese Socialism (Boulder: Westview Press, 1984), p. 74Google Scholar.

5. Similarly, in 1925 Bukharin called for liberalizing restrictions on the prosperous upper stratum and middle peasants, who, through commodity production, could pull the lower strata up to the high level. See Cohen, Stephen F., Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 176Google Scholar.

6. Central Document No. 75 of September 1980, which established “specialized households” as an official form of the “responsibility system,” allowed some peasants to pursue full-time non-agricultural sideline activities. Central Document No. 13 of March 1981 legitimized household sideline production by permitting “private people” (zi liu reri) to withdraw totally from collective labour and work exclusively on private plots. For both Central Documents see Ban yue tan (Fortnightly Review) No. 24 (25 04 1981)Google Scholar. Two studies which trace the policy debate are Domes, Jurgen, “New policies in the communes: notes on rural societal structures in China, 1976–1981,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. XLI, No. 2 (02 1982), pp. 253–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and David Zweig, “Content and context in policy implementation: household contracts in China, 1977–1983,” in David M. Lampton (ed.), Policy Implementation in the Post-Mao Era (forthcoming).

7. Renmin ribao, 10 April 1983, and The China Quarterly, No. 101 (03 1985), pp. 104142CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a translation of Central Document No. 1 of 1984 and several analyses of its implications by various China scholars.

8. See Zweig, David, “Opposition to change in rural China: the system of responsibility and people's communes,” Asian Survey, Vol. XXIII, No. 7 (07 1983), pp. 886–88Google Scholar.

9. According to Mao Zhiyong, first Party secretary of Hunan province, local cadres remain influenced by “ultra-leftist” propaganda put out by that province's Party committee in the late 1970s.Foreign Broadcast Information Service (China Daily Report), No. 211 (1 11 1982), p. 45Google Scholar. (Hereafter, all references to FBIS are to the China Daily Report.)

10. The uproar created by one incident in Feixing county, Hebei province, shows that some cadres maintain these beliefs. On 16 December 1982 a cadre in the County Agricultural Bureau, who joined the Party in 1965 when he was 42, criticized the reforms at a Party meeting. Press articles claimed that his mistaken position was the result of his “erroneous view” of the Cultural Revolution. Zhongguo nongmin bao, (China Peasant Daily), 29 May 1983, pp. 1, 3.

11. See Foster, George, “Peasant society and the image of the limited good,” in Diaz, Potter and Foster, (eds.) Peasant Society: A Reader (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1967)Google Scholar.

12. An older peasant spoke bitterly about opportunities for private prosperity opening up in her locality. She wanted to retire, but some of her neighbours were working very hard and making “too much” money.

13. When peasant employees in collective factories were paid in work points rather than salaries, factories often remitted their workers' incomes to their respective production team. Since this money increased the total income that the production team could distribute to its members, even those who worked in the fields benefited from the collective factory.

14. See Scott, James, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

15. FBIS, No. 214 (4 11 1982), p. KlGoogle Scholar; Renmin ribao, 2 November 1982, p. 1; andFBIS, No. 39 (27 02 1984), pp. R24Google Scholar, cited in Bernstein, Thomas P., “Reforming China's agriculture,” paper prepared for the conference “To Reform the Chinese Political Order,” 182306 1984Google Scholar, Harwichport, MA, sponsored by the Joint Committee on Chinese Studies of the ACLS and American Social Science Research Council, p. 33.

16. FBIS, No. 066, (6 04 1982), pp. K67Google Scholar, and ibid. No. 095 (17 May 1982), pp. K.9–10. A spring 1982 directive on preventing economic crime led local officials to attack peasants who had bought machinery privately or who got rich through sidelines. Only work on the land was acceptable. FBIS, No. 095 (17 05 1982), pp. K910Google Scholar. In another case, local officials held a mass rally to criticize a peasant for “seeking private interests,” forcing the county committee to criticize the local officials for undermining national policy. Renmin ribao, 20 May 1982, p. 1.

17. Latham, Richard, “The implications of rural reforms for grass-roots cadres,” in Perry, Elizabeth J. and Wong, Christine (eds.), The Political Economy of Reform in PostMao China (Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Monograph Series, 1985), pp. 157–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18. One commune Party secretary, angry about a peasant-managed soy sauce factory which competed with the commune's vinegar factory, persuaded the County Industrial Bureau to revoke the peasants' licence. FBIS, No. 30 (13 February 1984), p. K11, cited in Bernstein, , “Reforming China's agriculture,” p. 69Google Scholar.

19. These peasants fit Popkin's model of the peasantry. They are rational calculators who see economic opportunity in changing times. See Popkin, Samuel, The Rational Peasant (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979)Google Scholar.

20. Some brigade officials have divided collective property, such as factories, trucks, etc., using this equipment to set themselves up as specialized households. See Anita Chan, , Unger, Jonathan and Madsen, Richard, Chen Village: The Recent History of a Peasant Community in Mao's China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 276Google Scholar. Kathleen Hartford suggested to me that these cadres are not really taking economic risks; they are using their bureaucratic leverage to get rich at the collective's expense. However, I would argue that they are taking political risks that the tide will not turn, whereupon they could be attacked as “capitalist elements.”

21. The study, which looked at all 20,989 specialized households in Shanxi's Ying county, was publicized by Vice-premier Li, Wan, one of the strongest supporters of the market-orientated line in China. Renmin ribao, 18 01 1984Google Scholar. Another book, however, One Hundred Examples of Rural Specialized Households Getting Rich Through Labour (Beijing: People's Publishing House, 1983)Google Scholar, where fewer specialized households had been cadres, suggests that the Shanxi study may not be nationally representative. Thanks to John P. Burns who brought this study to my attention.

22. Commune and county level expropriation of team resources, what Chinese call pingdiao (“equalization and transfer”), was a major problem during the Great Leap and the 1960s and 1970s. See Bernstein, T. P., “Stalinism, Chinese peasants, and famine: grain procurements during the Great Leap Forward,” Theory and Society, Vol. 13, No. 2 (05 1984), pp. 339–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Zweig, “Agrarian radicalism in China,” Ch. VI.

23. In one case, the original leader of a commune revolutionary committee, the militia head, an old team leader, the father of the head of the Women's League, and a relative of the brigade secretary all became one peasant's partners. They appeared for work only on the day he sold his fish, whereupon they took their share of his profits. Zhongguo nongmin bao, 6 March 1983, p. 1.

24. Zhongguo nongmin bao, 10 July 1983, p. 1. Some taxes supplement an underdeveloped rural tax base that relies primarily on taxing grain and draws little benefit from the expanding sideline sector. As William Parish points out, this threatens (1) to create gross inequalities as grain producing families shoulder the major tax burden, and/or (2) to leave local governments unable to meet welfare, educational and infrastructural expenses. Personal communication with the author, 12 May 1984.

25. Zhongguo nongmin bao, 6 March 1983, p. 1. Other articles warned wealthy peasants to put their money in banks and not at home.

26. Jingji ribao (Economic Daily), 9 March 1983, p. 1; in FBIS, No. 052 (16 March 1983), pp. K15–16.

27. FBIS (17 June 1982), p. 02.

28. Zhongguo nongmin bao, 6 March 1983, p. 1.

29. In 1981 through Nanjing University and the assistance of provincial officials, I carried out research in three brigades in three different communes in Jiangsu province. The information in this case study was compiled through interviews with commune and lower-level officials in one locality where I lived for 27 days. The data for the tables were part of the data compiled for me by local accountants. To protect informants and individuals in this case study, I refrain from naming any organization or individual involved in the following events, and have given the commune and brigade a false name.

30. The brigade where I carried out most of my research, which I call “Prosperity Brigade,” was near the commune town, but was one of the poorest brigades in the commune. Average per capita income was just above the national average. The terrain was hilly, so the brigade had levelled land and carried out water conservation work to increase agricultural output.

31. According to my interviews, during 1968–78 private plots were collectivized in many counties in southwestern Jiangsu, as well as in many other parts of China. Zweig, “Agrarian radicalism in China,” Ch. 5.

32. In Chinese, the poem was Shengjiang, yangcong, dabaicai, yi nian gaoguoji bai kuai, na you xingqu xue Dazhai?

33. According to one brigade official, “Everyone's doorway was blocked because everyone was doing it. You couldn't walk around here without tripping.”

34. A brigade cadre in another research site said that this commune's peasants had pilfered his yard.

35. Peasant theft is tolerated in China because it is a common phenomenon, particularly in suburban areas where peasants steal from urban factories and institutions. One informant told me in 1980 that when he managed a construction site on peasant land, they overpaid the peasants for the land that they bought; otherwise, the peasants would have stolen the equipment every night.

36. See Unger, Jon, “Collective incentives in the Chinese countryside: lessons from Chen village,” World Development, No. 6 (1978), pp. 583601CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who refers to a “milieu of activism” from which I draw my concept of a “radical environment.”

37. The critical difference is that although it appeared that cadres had implemented the policy, in reality they had not. But by taking all but the last step, they were prepared to complete the implementation process if upper level pressure had persisted.

38. This brigade leader placed himself on the “right” end of the Chinese political spectrum; hence his entrepreneurial tendency.

39. At that time all sales in China of over 30 yuan had to be carried out through banks.

40. During 1968–78 commune officials across China often expropriated resources from teams and brigades during field and water conservation campaigns.

41. Central Document No. 13 of April 1981, on agricultural diversification allowed “private individuals” (zi liu ren) to withdraw from collective labour.

42. Some anthropologists refer to factions based on locality or lineage as “trait groups,” differentiating them from factions based on dyadic ties. See Lerman, Arthur J., Taiwan Politics: The Provincial Assemblyman's World (Washington: University Press of America, 1978), pp. 102103Google Scholar.

43. During a return visit in spring 1985 I discovered that the land had been contracted to the household (bao gan dao hu), and many people now raised tree seedlings on a full time basis. In one brigade, close to 80 per cent of households reportedly earned over 10, 000yuan. Some of them plant as much as eight mu to seedlings, and one who made over 20, 000 yuan in 1984 had recently opened his own store. Land is so valuable that they only plant tree seedlings; they buy all their food on the free market.

44. See the excellent summary of this literature in Lerman, , Taiwan's Politics, pp. 3948Google Scholar.

45. See Perry, Elizabeth J., “Rural collective violence: the fruits of recent reforms,” in Perry, and Wong, (eds.), The Political Economy of Reform, pp. 175–92Google Scholar.

46. Huntington, Samuel P., Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968)Google Scholar.

47. Personal communication with the author. Central Document No. 1 of 1984 permits the transfer of land contracts among peasants and sets the tenure of those contracts at a minimum of 15 years.

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