Inequality of land tenure and revolutionary outcome: An economic analysis of China's land reform of 1946–1952

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Abstract A paradoxical feature of China's land reform of 1946–1952 is that it was conducted far more radically in the north, where land tenure relations were far less unequal, than in the south where inequality of land tenure was distinctly more
  This article appeared in a journal published by Elsevier. The attachedcopy is furnished to the author for internal non-commercial researchand education use, including for instruction at the authors institutionand sharing with colleagues.Other uses, including reproduction and distribution, or selling orlicensing copies, or posting to personal, institutional or third partywebsites are prohibited.In most cases authors are permitted to post their version of thearticle (e.g. in Word or Tex form) to their personal website orinstitutional repository. Authors requiring further informationregarding Elsevier’s archiving and manuscript policies areencouraged to visit:  Author's personal copy Inequality of land tenure and revolutionary outcome: An economic analysisof China's land reform of 1946 – 1952 ☆  James Kai-sing Kung a, ⁎ , Xiaogang Wu a , Yuxiao Wu b a Division of Social Science, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong Kong  b Department of Sociology, Shandong University, China a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t  Article history: Received 9 September 2011Available online 13 July 2012 A paradoxical feature of China's land reform of 1946 – 1952 is that it was conducted far moreradically in the north, where land tenure relations were far less unequal, than in the southwhere inequality of land tenure was distinctly more acute. That landlords could only beidentified in south China was attributable to the sharply more active land rental market there,and the “ single-cut ” policy of defining the landlords narrowly as a rentier  class. We attributethe predominance of an active land rental market in south China to three socioeconomiccharacteristics: 1) a sharply higher inequality in land distribution, 2) an organization of agriculture whose efficiency required the “ unsupervised initiatives ” of family labor, and 3) adistinctly higher proportion of  “ absentee landlords ” . Our hypothesis of land rentals being theonly variable distinguishing the landlords from the rich peasants and only in south China isstrongly supported by empirical evidence.© 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Keywords: Tenure inequalityRevolutionary outcomeLand reformChina 1. Introduction In agrarian societies, land is not merely the most important factor of production (given its non-substitutable nature), it alsoserves as the “ last resort ” to which an ill-fated peasant could turn for insurance in times of crop failure. This exceptionalsignificanceoflandhasledHuntington(1968)toconcludethatinequalityoflandtenureisthe “ bedrockofrevolution ” (p.375).Inthis vein, inequality in land distribution (or “ relative deprivation ” more generally) is considered by some as “ the most usefulpredictor ” of revolutions and violent upheavals (Prosterman and Riedinger, 1987, p. 7; see alsoScott, 1977). China'srecenthistoryprovidesaclassicexampleofthisintimateconnectionbetweenlandinequalityontheonehandandthe potential for revolution on the other. Indeed, the first significant endeavor that the Communists undertook as soon astheycametopowerwastoreducethisinequalitybyimplementingathoroughgoinglandreform( tudi gaige ). 1 Itssignificanceis reflected by the official statistics that up to 90% of the rural populace was affected in this land reform, with some700 million Chinese mu (or 115 million acres) or 44% of the arable land redistributed (Du, 1996). But while China's landreform – as with virtually all land reforms – violated the principles of private property, it severed, paradoxically, the presumed Explorations in Economic History 49 (2012) 482 – 497 ☆ We thank two anonymous referees and theeditor for helpful comments,Shuo Chen, Qin Jiang, Xiulin Sun for competent research assistance, and the fi nancialsupport of the Hong Kong Research Grants Council (GRF642711 and GRF644208). The remaining errors are the sole responsibility of the authors. ⁎ Corresponding author at: Division of Social Science, The Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Clear Water Bay, Hong Kong. Fax: +852 2334 0015. E-mail addresses: Kung), Wu), Wu). 1 Lippit (1974),Moise (1983),Roll (1974),Shue (1980), andWong (1973), among others, have all given useful accounts of China's land reform. China's land reform is considered among the “ fi ve great civil con fl icts ” in the twentieth century (Prosterman and Riedinger, 1987, p. 15). In fact, the “ moral economy ” thesispropounded byScott (1977), which explicitly links peasant rebellion to a “ subsistence ethic ” (a set of shared community norms over food availability, the pricesofsubsistencecommodities, theproperadministrationoftaxation,andsoforth),wasto somedegreeinspiredbyTawney's(1966)characterization oftheplight of the Chinese peasants.0014-4983/$ – see front matter © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.eeh.2012.07.001 Contents lists available atSciVerse ScienceDirect Explorations in Economic History  journal homepage:  Author's personal copy positive correlation between land inequality and political radicalism. Specifically, it was conducted far more radically in thatpartofChina – thenorth – wherelandtenurerelationswerefarlessunequal,thaninareaswhereinequalityoflandtenurewasdistinctlymoreacuteandlandrentalmarketsfarmoreactive.Forexample,thedearthofhouseholdsqualifiedforclassificationaslandlordsinthenorth had resulted in the misclassification of some rich peasant households (Friedman et al., 1991). 2 Likewise, the highly equaldistribution of land ownership in the north in an overall context of abject poverty meant that there was a limited amount of landavailable for redistribution, which allegedly led to the repeated land reforms (Hinton, 1966).Conventional wisdom attempts to account for this paradox on grounds of shifting political exigencies of the ChineseCommunist Party (CCP). Since the land reform began in the north during the Civil War (circa. 1946 – 49), 3 a period whenpolitical legitimacy was of key concern to the Communist Party, the need to satisfy the demands of the poor for more landallegedly led the Communists to sacrifice the material interests of those who had wealth well above the village mean – themiddle peasants included. But after defeating the Nationalists – their political opponent, political circumstances permittedthe Communists to focus on reviving the ailing, war-torn agricultural economy; this led them to adopt a more tolerant policytowards peasants, especially the rich ones as they were judged to be the most productive group in the farm populace at thetime.While this narrative may be able to explain why the CCP shifted the reform goal from solely satisfying the needs of thepoor to benefiting the poor while protecting the rich peasants at the same time, it is reticent about what enabled them toredistribute less from the “ haves ” to the “ have-nots ” without potentially frustrating the poorer social strata, given thezero-sum nature of land reforms. We attempt to provide an economic  explanation to account for this historical paradox. Webegin with the observation that the rural households, which made up roughly 90 percent of the country's population then,had allreceived a class labelfrom the CCPbased oncriteria deeply rooted intheMarxianconcept of  “ exploitation ” .And whilethere could be many sources/forms of alleged exploitation such as land renting, labor hiring and usurious money lending,land renting was the single-most important criterion that the CCP employed in delineating the landlord class inpre-revolutionary China. The “ Middle Kingdom ” , however, is a country characterized by enormous variations in factorendowments. Differences in population density, cropping patterns and land productivity, for instance, may all haveconceivably given rise to sharp differences in the distribution of land tenure, the extent of factor markets development, andso forth. To the extent that “ exploiting ” others was equated with the particular behavior of renting (out) land, the incidenceof  “ landlordism ” must be sharply higher in areas characterized by an active land rental market (presumably premised on ahigher physical productivity of land) and a distinctly sharper inequality in land tenure and other forms of wealth. 4 Indeed, our interpretation based on this fresh analytical perspective suggests that the self-sufficient owner – cultivatorstendedtomakeupthemajorityoftheruralpopulationinareaswherebothlandinequalityandlandproductivitywerelower,and that an agriculture of dry farming permitted greater economies of scale in labor organization than an agriculture of wet-rice farming. In the north, the land rental market was inactive relative to the farm labor market and there wereaccordingly fewer landlords. But political pressure must have been so intense for those who were put in charge of the reformthattheywereobligatedtoenumerateaminimumlistofhouseholdsqualifiedforthe “ exploited ” classlabelandtohavetheirassets redistributed.These reformers did soby, forexample, shiftingthe criterionof  “ exploitation ” from landrentingto laborhiring.Butwheneventhatfailedtoproducealongenoughlist,thereformerssimplyputthenexttier(s) – namelytherichandmiddlepeasants – totask(Shue, 1980;Hinton,1966;Qin,1993).Conversely,inareaswhereamuchsharperinequalityoflandtenure prevailed it was much easier for the Communists to identify a sufficient number of landlords. In particular, as some of these privileged households – many of whom did not even reside in the villages (the so-called “ absentee landlords ” ) – possessed vastly more land than did the average household, the reformers were able to transfer land and other assets fromthem to the poor.Drawing upon a nationally representative survey in China in which retrospective information on families' designated classbackground, including a range of socioeconomic characteristics and even factor market (land and labor) participation, is uniquelyavailable,weshowhow “ ascriptive ” classlabelsaffixedtotheruralhouseholds,particularlythelandlordsandrichpeasants,wereactually 2 Landlordsand richpeasants weredifferentiated onthebasis ofhow they “ exploited ” theother socialclasses.Putsimply, thelandlordsrelied primarilyonlandrents for an income, whereas the rich peasants hired laborers to help work their surplus land. See the next section for further details. 3 The majority of provinces in north China belonged to the so-called “ old liberated areas ” (OLA), a concept referring to the political status of a province at thetime of the Communists' nationwide victory at the end of China's Civil War. Broadly speaking, provinces already occupied by the CCP during the Civil Warbelonged to the OLA, whereas those governed by the Nationalist Government were classi fi ed as “ newly liberated areas ” (NLA).Fig. 1shows the distribution of China's provinces according to these categories. With the exception of Inner Mongolia (Neimenggu), Xinjiang, and Qinghai, virtually all provinces lying to thenorth of the Yangzi River fell into the OLA category, whereas those to the south belonged to the NLA. With the southern provinces governed by the NationalistGovernment and the north occupied by the CCP, Jiangsu represented a unique case as the Yangzi River runs right through it (the red line inFig. 1), splitting it intothe “ old ” and the “ new ” . Southern Jiangsu, or more commonly known as Sunan , lies to the south of the Yangzi River, whereas its northern counterpart, Subei , liesto the north. A similar situation applies to Anhui province. Since the geographic distribution of this political categorization almost completely coincides with thenorth – southdivide,intheremainder ofthepaperwesimply employ thelatter todenotetheregional differences inresource endowments, economicorganizationof agricultural production and factor market activities and their impact on class delineation. In addition, we exclude the three northeastern provinces – Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning – for analysis because their unique histories render them somewhat outlying cases. In a nutshell, these three provinces weregradually opened up as frontier settlements by the Qing Government in the mid-nineteenth century when millions of farmers fl ocked to these frontier lands after1860. Those who migrated fi rst obtained land easily compared to those who came later and were thus forced to work as tenant farmers (seeGottschang, 1987;Kung and Li, 2011; Wang, 2005; Wu et al., 1990). It is this unique situation that rendered the degree of land inequality in the Manchurian provinces exceptionallyhigh by north China standards. 4 The bearing of factor endowments or “ initial conditions ” on the organizational characteristics of production and the resulting distributive and long-rungrowth consequences to which they are likely to give rise is well rehearsed bySokoloff and Engerman (2000).483  J.K. Kung et al. / Explorations in Economic History 49 (2012) 482 – 497   Author's personal copy largely premised upon differences in the regional inequality structure and variations in factor market development (resulting initiallyfrom differences infactor endowments) across regions. 5 Specifically, given that the CCP employed land rentals as the maincriterion foridentifyinglandlords,itwasonlyabletofindtargetsinareaswheresharpinequalitiesinlanddistributionandaccordinglyanactivelandrental market prevailed, i.e., in the south. Conversely, in areas where the inequality in land was moderate and accordingly land rentalactivities were scarce, viz.the north, therewere sofewlandlordsthat theCCPwas unable to genuinelydifferentiatethem from the richpeasants, hence resulting in the aforementioned misclassification. Our specific hypothesis thus predicts that land rentals would be theonly significant variable capable of separating the landlords from the rich peasants and only in south China.Moreover, our “ factor endowment ” approach is consistent with the observation that China's land reform was successfullyachieved at the expense of the “ absentee landlords ” (Roll, 1974), at least in the south where the overwhelming majority of theselandlords resided, and with the counterfactual that there is no guarantee that the land reform in the south would have been lessradically conducted had the prevailing inequality there been sharply lower. By the same token, one may reasonably contend that,had socioeconomic conditions in provinces in the north resembled those in the south, the land reform in the former would havebeen conducted in a much less radical manner.The remainderof this paper is organized as follows. In the next section (Section 2) weprovide a summaryaccount of theCCP'sclass policy; in particular, we highlight the overriding criterion (of  “ exploitation ” ) and the underlying (Marxian) theoreticalrationale employed in delineating the boundary between the landlord and rich peasant classes, among the delineation of othersocial classes. We then introduce, inSection 3, a conceptual framework that is premised upon the sharp differences in a widegamut of socioeconomic characteristics between the two broad Chinese regions. We expect these differences to have had asignificant influence on the determinants of social class in reality. Based on this conceptual framework, we then spell out our twohypotheses regardingthe determinants of social class. InSection 4, we introduce our data and variables and explain our empiricalstrategy. Empirical findings are discussed inSection 5, followed by a brief conclusion inSection 6. 2. Class policy and formation during the Communist Revolution Previous studies on social class in Communist China have emphasized the political categorization of a variety of social groupsassigned on the basis of the relationship of the household head to the “ revolutionary struggle ” at the time of  “ liberation ” . Forinstance, families of  “ good-class srcins ” included both the “ politically red inheritances ” (i.e., families headed by pre-liberationParty members), such as revolutionary cadres and martyrs, and the working class, which, in the urban areas, included industrialworkers and their families and, in the countryside, the poor and lower-middle peasant families (Unger, 1982, pp. 13 – 14).Conversely, families of former capitalists, counter-revolutionaries, and, in the countryside, landlords and rich peasants were alllabeled as having “ bad class srcins ” .Nevertheless, in the context of land reform, the importance of a class policy went beyond mere political labeling, for itszero-sum nature crucially necessitated the clear delineation of beneficiaries and correspondingly the victims. While thedelineation of some of these social groups was purely political – revolutionary cadres and counter-revolutionaries being a case inpoint, for the majority the boundaries were presumably much less straightforward as they entailed considerations that wentbeyond pure politics. Against this background, it is thus important to gain some insights into the major criteria that the CCPemployed in delineatingclass boundaries, theirunderlying rationale, and notleast the possible consequences of such a policy.Weattemptto provideconciseanswersto these questions as a prelude toadvancingour conceptual framework andsubsequentlyourhypotheses in the sections to follow.To understand class formationin Communist (rural) China,it is importantto appreciate the pivotally important role played by “ exploitation ” or simply participation in the factor markets of land and labor in delineating class boundaries and Marx's analysisof feudalism and capitalism. A perusal of the official document that lays out the criteria for delineating the various social classesduring a land reform clearly reveals the singular importance of  “ exploitation ” in such an exercise (Land Reform Handbook, 1950).For instance, rural families were supposed to belong to one of the following three class categories: the “ exploiting ” class(landlords and rich peasants), the “ exploited ” (poor peasants and hired laborers), and the largely self-sufficient middle peasantswho were neither “ exploiting ” others nor being “ exploited ” (seeShue, 1980, pp. 47 – 56for a detailed description of the variousrural social classes). That the CCP was emphatic about “ exploitation ” instead of ownership of productive assets per se can begleaned from the fact that land ownership alone did not warrant the label of a socially oppressed class, because even the middlepeasants, or at least a good majority of them, owned some land (just enough to feed themselves).It is at this juncture that we need to distinguish between landlords and rich peasants, whose respective destinies weresupposed to differ according to the CCP's grand scheme. Two things differentiated the landlords from the rest (the rich peasantsincluded): first, land rents were their primary income source and, second, they did not perform “ essential labor ” for up to fourmonthsayear. 6 Thesedifferencesshould,accordingtotheCCP,distinguishthemfromtherichpeasants,who,whileconsideredassimilarly belonging to the “ exploiting ” class, were essentially not in the rentier  class, as they committed “ exploitation ” primarily 5 Foner (1979)provides a useful discussion of the differences between achieved and ascribed bases of strati fi cation more generally. Given that class labelsremained af  fi xed toone's offspring regardless oftheoffspring'sactual political loyalty and behaviorduringtheMaoist (pre-reform) era, smallwonder sociologistsare interested in the possible implications this social class branding of the population may have had on social mobility or what some call “ status transmission ” (Walder and Hu, 2009, p. 1401; see alsoKraus, 1981; Lee, 1991; Unger, 1982). This paper, however, is primarily concerned with how social classes were actually delineated in contexts in which the “ initial conditions ” or factor endowments were radically different. 6 “ Essential ” labor includes such farming tasks as plowing, (trans) planting, harvesting and others.484 J.K. Kung et al. / Explorations in Economic History 49 (2012) 482 – 497   Author's personal copy by way of hiring laborers to work on their enlarged (rented) farms all year round. Moreover, unlike the landlords, who typicallyhad no family members performing “ essential labor ” , the rich peasant households were considered less “ exploitative ” as theywere supposed to farm their own land, albeit with the assistance of hired hands. 7 That the landlords were essentially a rentier  class was likely premised on Marx's idea that feudalism, which represents a lessprogressivemodeofproduction,wascharacterizedlargelybythetenancyorspecificallythelandlord – tenancyrelationship(XuandWu,1985). 8 This explains why, in clear contrast to the rich peasants, landlords depended on land rents as their primary income source.Between these two classes, the rich peasants were considered a more progressive social force, as wage relations were the definingfeatures that characterized the social relations of capitalism – a more advanced mode of production than feudalism according to Marx'sanalytical schema (Xu and Wu, 1985; see alsoHuang, 1985, chapter 1). 9 Thus, even though the rich peasants also allegedly committedacts of  “ exploitation ” , they were nonetheless considered a more progressive social force and accordingly a political ally to be reckonedwithinChina'ssocialisttransition.Itthusbecomesclearthat,insofarastheCommunistswereconcerned,itwashiringlaborratherthanrenting land that defined the “ exploitative ” nature of the rich peasant class.As we shall make clear in the next section, this rigid formulation of class policy became problematic in several respects. Before weenumeratethem,itisimportanttorecognizethatChinawasalargecountrywithenormousspatialdiversityinresourceendowmentandpopulation density and, over the years, varying levels of socioeconomic development had resulted from the diversity. Applying asingle-cutclasspolicythuscreatedtheriskofnotbeingabletofind therightshoeforatleastonefoot.Becauseofthelowinequalitiesinland rights, there is ample evidence to suggest that landlords of the kind as described by the Communists were in reality few and farbetween in north China (Friedman et al., 1991; Hinton, 1966; Qin, 1993, among others). Failure of the local leaders to identify enoughlandlords from whom land could be confiscated and redistributed placed the rich peasants in a vulnerable position, to the extent thatsome were misclassified as landlords (Friedman et al., 1991). But radicalism was not confined to the instance of misclassifying the richpeasants as landlords.Specifically, radicalism can be summarized as having manifested in three distinct respects. The first is that, instead of just once, landreformwasconductedseveraltimes – specificallyinresponsetothedemandbythepoorformorelandtoberedistributed. 10 Thishurtstheproductionincentivesofevensomeofthemiddlepeasants,whofearedthattheymightbecomethenexttargetinaseeminglyincessantclass struggle. 11 Second, radicalism was also articulated in the manner by which land was redistributed. If the landlords were really thesoletargetoflandreform,thepropertyoftherichandmiddlepeasantsshouldhavebeenleftaloneintheredistribution,aswasthecaseinthesouth(Kung,2008). Instead, inadhering totheMay4thDirectivecallingforanall-out land equalization, land was simplyequalizedamong all households – a practice that, while certainly hurting the rich peasants (who had more land than the average) – also adverselyaffectedthebetter-to-domiddlepeasants. 12 AthirdpossiblemanifestationofradicalisminnorthChinapertainstothedifficultythelocalleaders encountered in identifying households who were both rich enough and had rented out land (Friedman et al., 1991, p. 82).Although the minimum number of landlords to be targeted was not specified, local leaders must have felt sufficient pressure to havemisidentified some villagers as such (Friedman et al., 1991, p. 83). 13 We expect this proclivity to have occurred more commonly in thenorth than in the south because of the lower incidence of land rental market transactions in the former. 14 Second, the mechanical application of Marx's theory of equating feudalism with land rental relations and capitalism with wageemployment, under the presumption that the latter represents a more progressive mode of production, unwittingly turned China'ssocioeconomic reality on its head. 15 In sharp contrast to this Marxian premise, land rental relations were in fact more pervasive in themore commercialized regions of China where per capita income was distinctly higher, whereas hired labor, most of whichwas actuallyconfinedtotheemployment of casual orshort-term workers duringpeak agriculturalseasons,occurred primarilyinthe less developedregions where per capita income was comparatively lower. For instance, a “ representative ” rich peasant in the southern part of Jiangsuprovince and parts of Fujian, Hubei, Jiangxi, Sichuan and Guangdong provinces – regions where land rental incidence was high (see the 7 Clearly the Communists' de fi nition includes the appropriation of not merely labor value but also “ surplus value ” more generally, which, according to classicalMarxian theory, belongs to that part of the total social product over and above the costs of inputs – which include labor, raw materials, and machinery – in theproduction process. The dif  fi culty in applying Marx's idea in reality is that the concept of  “ surplus ” is too ambiguous and that it is dif  fi cult to measure withprecision the costs of producing and reproducing labor power (Wright, 1997). 8 It should be pointed out that feudalism in the Chinese context was not based on serfdom and landlords were not nobles. AsTawney (1966)observed, thetenancy relationship in pre-revolutionary China was not “ af  fl icted by the iniquities of feudal land law ” ; essentially “ (l)andlord and tenant are parties to a businesscontract, not members of different classes based on privilege and subordination ” (p. 63). 9 For Marx, feudalism and capitalism should be analyzed not merely as two distinctively different modes of production but also in relation to the stages of economic development. 10 While advocating for the protection of the middle peasants, the 1947 agrarian law, which was rigorously implemented in the north, was explicit in stressingthe overriding importance of satisfying the demands of the poor and the farm laborers. 11 As one middle peasant in the village observed byHinton (1966, p. 197)lamented: “ What is going to happen when you equalizers run out of oil (landlord andrich peasant property)? Who will be next? ” 12 Ironically, redistributing land in this manner unwittingly undermined the importance of social class in determining victims and bene fi ciaries. 13 Unlike subsequent political campaigns under Mao, there was no explicit regulation regarding the assignment of quotas, for instance the number of landlords,over rural households – at least that was the case in south China. For example, we employed micro-level data to compute the distribution of social classes in 76  xiang  (administrative villages) in Wuxicounty ofsouth Jiangsu province, and found that, atoneextreme, 6.38 percent ofone xiang  's households wereclassi fi ed aslandlords, whereas, at the other extreme, one xiang  had none. The overall mean for these 76 xiang  was 2.2 percent landlords. 14 Although misclassi fi cation was not con fi ned to the north, piecemeal evidence does suggest that misclassi fi cation in the south involved more subjectivedeterminants (e.g.,Kung, 2008). While we do not rule out the possibility that north China was entirely free from such in fl uences, our point here is that a higherdegree of equality in land distribution and a lower incidence of land rental activity in the north combined rendered the identi fi cation of landlords far moresurmountable a task than it was in the south. 15 De fi ning exploitation and class appropriately in a context of pre-capitalist mode of production was clearly a challenge for the CCP.485  J.K. Kung et al. / Explorations in Economic History 49 (2012) 482 – 497 
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