Xi’s Costly Obsession With Security
How a Quest for Control Threatens China’s Economic Growth
EVER since the Communists became masters of China, they have sought to create the impression of a giant in full control of a well-planned and efficient economic and political machine, marching from success to success. Mao Tse-tung's pronouncements of February and March of this year are perhaps the frankest testimony we have had indicating that the picture has been overdrawn. We may not know all the motives for Mao's rejection of that sacred premise of Communist theology--the absence of conflicting interests between the Communist State and the people it rules--but certainly one of them is the seriousness of China's economic problems and the troublesome political issues to which they have given rise.
This is especially evident from the failure of the Communists to attain complete mastery of rural China. Within a period of eight years the Communists both accumulated and dissipated most, if not all, of their political capital in the countryside. The slogan of "land to the landless," so deftly used in the Communist drive for power, is a painful memory for the millions who accepted it at face value. Not only have the landlords lost their property through the land distribution program, but those who received the land and those who had long worked their own land were subsequently deprived of it by forced collectivization. Partly because of the demands of an ambitious industrialization program, and partly because of doctrinaire assumptions, the "pragmatic" Chinese Communists have proved to be as oblivious to peasant welfare as have the Russian Communists. They are harvesting a crop of discontented peasants with interests and objectives quite at variance with those of the State. Yet the future of China and the success of the Communists are inextricably tied to the course of events in the village.
For many years past, it has been widely recognized that institutional and technical agrarian reform in China was long overdue. Before the war, China (including Manchuria) had about 250 million acres of cultivated land and a population of 450-500 million, of which 70 percent was rural. With the rapid population growth in the past century, the average size of a farm holding had been reduced to between three and four acres, one of the smallest in the world.
The Chinese is a master farmer despite his seemingly primitive methods of cultivation. His intensive, garden-type farming yields a high output per unit of land, but the output per man is very low. Aside from the problem of many people on little land, he has to contend with a number of other disabilities: land fragmentation; floods and droughts; lack of capital for developing agricultural resources; shortage of draft animals, farm implements and fertilizers; lack of credit and exorbitant interest rates; poor transportation facilities; and a high illiteracy rate. The sum total effect is that, in the main, the Chinese farmer has known little but poverty. Unrest and discontent were its natural corollaries.
Moreover, a large number of peasants did not own any of the land they cultivated while a good many owned so little that they, too, had to rent land, paying half or more of the crop to the landlord for the privilege of working it. The Communists claimed that 10 percent of the households owned 68 percent of the land, while the remaining 90 percent owned 32 percent of the land. The comparable anti-Communist figures were 54 and 46 percent. Regardless of the statistical differences and the occasional attempts to prove that China had no landlord class, hunger for land and the land tenure conditions to which it gave rise have long affected China adversely.
The Chinese Communists recognized in the rural situation, and particularly in the inequalities of land ownership, the most dramatic and politically exploitable issue. They monopolized the slogan of "land to the landless," and in the minds of the peasantry they succeeded in identifying themselves as the authentic "agrarian reformers." In China, as in Russia, the Communists successfully translated into political language the peasant's longing for the landlord's acres.
The Communist program of agrarian reform in China was more than two decades in the making, punctuated by twists and turns, always conditioned by one consideration only: the ultimate seizure of political power. Almost from the very beginning of the Party's existence, land confiscation and redistribution became its main objective; the occasional watering down of the original plans was never more than a tactic to secure the political support of particular elements of rural society.
The Agrarian Reform Law was promulgated by the new Communist Government in June 1950. It emphasized land confiscation and private ownership by the cultivators. However, at that stage, the Communists made an effort to reduce the number of people subject to the confiscatory provisions. Even the "land owned by rich peasants and cultivated by them or by hired labor" was exempt from confiscation. The brunt of the reform was to be shouldered by the landlords, comprising 4 percent of the rural population. Clearly, the new régime sought to make as few enemies as possible.
Development of the national economy, not the welfare of the peasants, was apparently uppermost in the minds of the Communist leaders. The first article states that the purpose of the reform is that "the system of peasant land ownership shall be carried into effect in order to set free the rural production forces, develop agricultural production, and thus pave the way for New China's industrialization." "The basic aim of agrarian reform," a Communist leader stated, "is not purely one of relieving poor peasants. The basic reason and aim of agrarian reform stems from the demands of production."
The ideological motives of the agrarian reform, though not spelled out in the Law, were surely as important as the economic ones. Land confiscation and distribution without at the same time "liquidating" the landlords would have been a betrayal of the Communist revolution. Furthermore, the physical annihilation of the landlords was useful to the Communists in that the peasants were made to share the guilt with them. This "partnership in crime" served to tie the peasantry more strongly to the Communist kite. There was, above all, the practical advantage of destroying the only alternative source of authority in the countryside. When the drive for collectivization began three years later, the village was without effective opposition.
The program of confiscation and distribution, as well as all other subsequent phases (including collectivization), was carried out under the strictest Party control. From the initial survey of land and population to the determination of class categories, from the "accusation meetings" for aggravating class antagonisms to the final distribution of land, hundreds of thousands of trained Communist "cadres" were in complete control. The Agrarian Reform Committees and the "people's tribunals" were carefully organized and supervised by the Communists.
Within a period of not quite three years, the land redistribution had been completed. The Communists confiscated and distributed 118 million acres of land or approximately 43 percent of the entire cultivated acreage of the country. In addition, houses belonging to landlords, about 30,000,000 draft animals, upwards of 40,000,000 agricultural implements, and about 5,000,000 tons of foodstuffs were confiscated and redistributed. Physical annihilation of the landlords was the leitmotiv of the redistribution process. Since in the Communist parlance "bandits" and landlords are often synonymous, one may interpret as one will the "liquidation" of 2,000,000 "bandits," a figure vouched for by a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, or the "liquidation" of 800,000 persons mentioned by Mao Tse-tung.
For the peasants, the agrarian reform in its early stages must have been an exhilarating experience. Almost every peasant in China became a small owner-operator. This involved a complete reshuffle of the village social structure, destroying many old relationships and distinctions of status and opportunity, and clearing the way for Communist goals which were only dimly perceived by the peasantry. According to the Communist sources, the landlord group which once owned 50 percent of the cultivated land by this time owned only 3 percent. Although the reform was to have affected the rich peasants relatively little, the area under their control declined from 18 percent to less than 8 percent. On the other hand, the Communists maintained that the poor peasant and the hired hands, or 70 percent of all the households, now owned 63 percent of the land as against 17 percent before the reform; unquestionably, the reform had a great levelling effect. It also had a number of other consequences, some of them affecting agricultural production adversely.
The opposition of the landlords had all the familiar earmarks of that displayed by the Russian kulaks during the early days of collectivization: they starved or slaughtered their animals, destroyed farm tools, set fire to or flooded the crops in the fields, demolished irrigation facilities and put farm buildings to the torch.
Small-scale ownership of land presupposed individual management, with little or no outside interference. The reform marked the beginning of the end of this type of individualism. Government cadres having firmly established themselves in the villages, private owners had to heed the directives of the Ministry of Agriculture about plowing, planting, sowing, weeding, harvesting and so on. The confiscation of the landlords' property was a boon to the peasant, but the measures which accompanied the reform did not create a psychological climate in which output was likely to increase.
Nevertheless, in 1952, the year this phase of the reform was completed, agricultural production seemingly equalled or exceeded the record crop of 1936. In 1949, when the Communists attained power, agricultural production in China had reached a very low ebb, and, given a measure of peace and security, production was bound to increase. The excellent weather conditions in 1951-52 played a decisive rôle, while improved techniques introduced by the Communists were not without their positive effects. Of over-riding importance was the incentive generated by the land redistribution. The peasants received what they wanted most. To them, as to the Russian peasants in 1918, possession of a piece of land more than balanced the heavier tax burden, compulsory grain deliveries and the restrictions imposed upon them by the Communists. It did not occur to them, any more than it did to the Russian peasants, that the "gift" of the land was only a step in the régime's ultimate plan for collectivization.
A dozen years intervened in Russia between the land redistribution and the onset of collectivization; in China the interval lasted barely three years. The idea of herding 100 million farm households into collective farms is probably as old as the first Soviet collective farms, but for reasons of political expediency this was to have been approached in stages.
The notion of a gradual, step-by-step transition in attaining complete control over the peasantry conformed to Lenin's thesis that the peasant class was fundamentally anti-socialist but must nevertheless be made to serve the interests of the new social order. To have jumped into collectivization on the morning after securing political power would have antagonized the land-hungry and the small farmers--the great majority of the Chinese people-- before the newly-won power had been consolidated. The promise of "land to the landless," however temporary, had to be kept.
In early 1953, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, while deliberating on the question of agrarian coöperation, still found it necessary to record that "the individual economic system of the peasants will necessarily continue to exist and expand for a long time to come." But it was not to be so. Arguments in favor of collectivization became more persistent. The Chinese Communists used the old Soviet argument that "the nation could not stand with one foot on socialistic industry and the other on peasant economy." Or, in the words of Mao Tse-tung, "if positions in the countryside are not held by socialism, capitalism will assuredly occupy them." Improved techniques on the millions of one- or two-acre farms seemed out of the question, yet the huge industrialization program required larger farm output, especially of grain. And, of course, centralized economic and political control of the peasants was essential if collections were to be adequate. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to insure such control over the vast ocean of individual peasant holdings; it would be much easier if these were organized into a mere million coöperatives, which could later be consolidated into a few hundred thousand collective farms. The only question was what form the coöperatives should take and with what speed they could be introduced into the countryside.
"The Model Regulations for Agricultural Producer Coöperatives," adopted on November 9, 1955, tells much about their form, at least in theory. A producer coöperative is an economic organization of peasants, created for the common utilization of all means of production. ". . . Step by step [a coöperative] turns these means of production into community property." The land belongs to the coöperative, but the members retain ownership of the land. This time, however, the Communists were frank enough to admit that ownership will continue only "for a certain period." The peasants were to receive a special dividend for the land contributed to the coöperative, but with a severe limitation: "The income of an agricultural producer coöperative is derived from the labor, not from the land ownership, of its members."
The principle of voluntarism was stressed: "Agricultural cooperatives should never resort to methods of coercion but should use the method of persuasion. . . ." The aim is to ". . . overcome the backwardness of small peasant economy, to develop a socialist industrialization."
The members of the coöperatives were permitted to retain for individual use "small plots of garden land . . . poultry, livestock, small tools . . . ," but under no condition might the size of the retained land exceed 5 percent of the land owned by an individual. As professed Marxists, the Chinese Communists had no compunction about laying to rest the concept "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Instead, the coöperatives must remunerate their members on the principle of "pay according to labor, and more pay for more labor," and this in turn must be based upon a system of "norms" or piecework.
The "Regulations" are pages long, made up of 82 articles, but references to the welfare of the peasants are scanty and indirect. Vastly more specific are the obligations of the peasants to the State. In the words of the "Regulations":
Agricultural producer coöperatives must exemplarily fulfill their duties to the State, pay agricultural tax according to the quantity, quality, and time prescribed by the State, deliver and sell agricultural products according to the unified purchase plans of the State, and sell agricultural products according to the advance purchase contracts signed with the State purchasing agencies.
Numerous other provisions are all designed to stress the duties of the peasants vis-à-vis the coöperative and that of the coöperative vis-à-vis the Communist Party. As to incentives and peasant well-being, the peasants were told that they were to find them in greater output.
While the Government was formulating these policies, the actual development of the coöperatives proceeded at a relatively slow pace. By the end of 1954, they numbered 115,000, comprising about 2 percent of all the farm households. At this time the issue between the expansionists and the "conservatives," who were for consolidation of the coöperatives already in existence, had not been joined. The turning point was the middle of 1955.
The sudden drive to increase the number of coöperatives was prepared by several factors: the poor crop of 1954, grave concern about the grain deliveries, the pessimism that prevailed about the future of China's agriculture in general, and Mao Tse-tung's assertion that the yields in the coöperatives were from 10 to 30 percent higher than those on the private farms. In a speech in July 1955, Mao reminded the Communists that a socialist revolution could not be won by "sitting fast," and the "influence of forces tending to develop spontaneously toward capitalism has been daily developing in rural areas." He castigated the "rightists" who "like a woman with bound feet" have approached the problem waveringly. Mao insisted that China's industrialization demanded farm collectivization, and he held up the Soviet experience as proof of the correctness of that policy. "The movement," Mao warned, "must be directed with a free hand [and] there must be no fearing of the dragon in front and the tiger at the back."
Coming from on high, the call to action brought instantaneous response from the local Communist workers, who proceeded with fine disregard for the principle of voluntarism to exceed Mao Tsetung's goal. The aim was to organize 50 percent of the peasants in coöperatives by the end of 1958 and this was accomplished before the end of 1956. Early this year, more than 90 percent of the Chinese farmers had been "persuaded" to throw in their lot with the producer coöperatives, and over half a million of them came into being. More than that, in the very midst of "the surging tide of agricultural coöperation," the emphasis was placed on the organization of the "truly" socialist type of coöperatives, the collectives. By mid-1957, long before Mao's target date, China's agriculture had been collectivized.
It is perhaps too early to assess, however summarily, the significance of this revolution and of the relative ease with which the Communists effected it. Yet, a tentative appraisal of some of the immediate consequences and problems may be ventured.
The land the peasants had received from the Communists was taken away from them. All the land (with the exception of garden plots) and the principal means of production became the property of the collective. This time the principal victims were the small landholders. The collective is no respecter of classes; with the loss of the land all distinctions disappeared, and all members of the collectives became, in effect, farmhands on the land they owned only recently.
The collectives are erasing the village as an entity. Whereas the producers' coöperatives were small and were built around a village and often comprised no more than 20 to 30 households, the collectives are made up of a number of villages, totalling from 500 to 1,000 households each. The million or more coöperatives are likely to be reduced to 200,000 or 300,000 collectives. This is indeed a great gain for the Communists, for their major goal of political and economic control over the peasantry becomes more easily attainable.
The ineffective resistance of the peasants to collective farming is at first glance incomprehensible. For the student of the early period of Soviet collectivization, when the Russian village literally exploded in the face of the Communists, the Chinese counterpart appears to have been a tame affair.
The key to the mystery of the world's most individualistic peasantry submitting to a system so alien lies in the land redistribution program. The backbone of effective resistance was broken when the Communists inaugurated the practice of dividing and eliminating their class enemies one by one. They have destroyed the landlord class, and they have played a cat-and-mouse game with the rich peasants, to a point where, as one Communist leader put it, "they have been rigidly, finally and entirely isolated." In sum, they destroyed the two groups most likely to offer effective resistance, while courting the poor peasants and small landholder. By the time the collectivization of the village became a reality, the opposition that could have come from the small farmers, who accounted for about 20 percent of the rural population, was neutralized by the 70 percent of poor peasants for whom the collectives were not altogether an unmitigated evil --or so they may have thought at the beginning.
The Government's exercise of unlimited economic controls also served to dull the peasants' resistance. With the liquidation of the "exploiters," the tie of the peasant with the world beyond his village was inescapably through the Government. The peasant became completely dependent upon the Government for his sales, purchases, credit and a host of items grouped under "technical improvements." In theory, a peasant could resist the State's embrace, but in practice the cards were stacked against him. The choice was made for him, and in the time-honored Chinese tradition, he proved to be the bamboo bending with the wind rather than the tree breaking against the irresistible force.
However, the Communists have won only half the battle. There still remains the more critical task of making the collectives work.
The collectives created many problems, baffling to the Government and bewildering to the peasants. For peasants used to working in family groups, a collective farm is a new and confusing experience. Individualism, constrained in the complex organization of a collective with its myriad regulations, can be a troublesome affair, creating infinite possibilities for dispute and setting up emotional stresses that may well produce more bad blood than grain. The sudden change from the fruitful anarchy of individualism to formal collectivism resulted in a lack of a sense of personal responsibility toward the collective and its property, and lack of incentive in maintaining the quantity and quality of the work.
The Communists soon realized that it is easier to organize collectives than to turn them into efficient producers. The 1956 agricultural season was a disturbing one. An unrevealed number of farmers actually deserted the collectives. Grain production and collection quotas appeared impossible to fulfill. It may or may not be true, as the Government claims, that output was larger than the preceding year, but the production target and, more importantly, the collection-purchase quotas were not fulfilled. These, including the grain tax, were officially put at three million tons less than in the previous season, and in the face of mounting requirements, State sales of grain within the country are now actually exceeding purchases, a good deal of them going to grain-short rural areas. Grain rations had to be tightened and exports of grain, edible oils and cotton have been ruled out for 1957. Mao Tse-tung's promise in early 1956 that collectivization would increase the income of 90 percent of the farmers was a rash one.
While staunchly defending the collectives as the only rational production system, the Communists admitted that the organization of the collectives was accompanied by a good deal of "dizziness with success." In the zeal to "fulfill and overfulfill," every conceivable mistake was committed.
According to Vice-Premier Teng Tzu-hui's speech of June 19, 1956, "in quite a number of places" coöperatives went in for "unthinking extravagance and waste;" "failed to work from actual needs and possibilities;" imposed "very rigid restrictions" on how the peasants should use free time, causing them to neglect subsidiary occupations, which normally accounted for nearly one-third of their income; and some coöperatives "failed to apply strictly the principle of voluntarism and mutual benefit," while still others "fixed rather low prices" for items purchased from the peasants. In setting production targets in some areas, soil, weather and technical means were "never seriously" considered; there was "undue emphasis on quantity and speed," while "much of the personnel lacked a practical sense of a realistic approach and of handling things according to local conditions." To this should be added the mistake of "planning behind closed doors," and, above all, the cardinal sin that "though knowing full well that the plans cannot be fulfilled [the local authorities] insist on treating a dead horse as if it were a live one."
Whatever the character of the admissions, it became obvious to the Communists that the mystique of rural collectivism will not bear fruit unless the peasant loyalties and incentives generated by individualistic, small-scale farms are transferred to the collectives. Anticipating Mao's new doctrine of "a hundred flowers," a Communist leader, Mr. Wu Shuo, wrote a searching article in January of this year entitled "An Inquiry into the Grain Situation during the Transition Period." "Farm coöperation itself," he asserted, "does not constitute a means of increasing production." He compounded this heresy by one even more startling: ". . . the incentive for production comes from the idea of working for one's own benefit. . . ." Hence the conclusion: ". . . it is of absolute necessity, though it is a difficult task, for us to enable the peasants to understand the fact that to work for the group which includes oneself is to one's own benefit." To this end, and with their customary energy, the Communists set about shoring up the collectives by emphasizing the carrot rather than the stick.
According to the new line, the income of a member of the collective farm must be treated as a major policy question rather than subsidiary to production. Reserve funds were to be reduced to 5 percent in order to augment the income of the farmers. Production, compulsory sales and taxation targets must be determined realistically. State prices for compulsory sales of farm products were to be raised, and the existing system of "advance purchase contracts," designed to help the peasants between harvests, must be expanded and more liberally financed. "Free markets" were to be organized for the sale of surplus products not subject to state purchase and, although concentrating on the main crops, subsidiary occupations should be encouraged "without any restrictions." Managers were told that production costs must be kept to 15-20 percent of the annual income and adminstrative expenses to 2 percent. Sixty to 70 percent of the income was to be divided among the peasants. Since the size of the collectives had proved unwieldy, they should be reduced to approximately 300 households each. Attempts of local authorities "to reach heaven in one jump" must come to an end.
Finally, the collectives were granted more state assistance bearing directly on greater output. In 1956, the Government allocated U.S. $943,000,000 for capital investment in agriculture, or 48 percent more than in 1955. This is exclusive of farm credit loans advanced mainly for developmental purposes, and a large item in themselves. If the data are correct, 1956 will show a marked increase over the previous years. Between 1950 and 1955, long- and short-term loans ranged from U.S. $80 million to a high of U.S. $504 million; in 1956, the target is U.S. $1.2 billion.
All these measures relate, of course, to the appeasement of the peasant so that agricultural production may be raised. All ideological contentions about the socialist character of the collectives aside, a continuous rise in agricultural production is the critical issue facing the régime in the years immediately ahead. Accepting Wu Shuo's official claim that the 1955 grain output was 184 million tons, or 54 percent higher than in 1949, and 22 percent above the 1936 prewar peak, the average per capita is only 600 pounds, or less than half that of Russia. His own rather rueful comment was: "How inadequate China's food supply is!" The same writer noted with distress that the rate of increase slowed down to less than 4 percent per year after 1953 as against an annual increase of 14 percent for the three years prior to that date. Several considerations make this decline particularly alarming for the Communists. The population is expanding at the rate of 15,000,000 per year; demand for foodstuffs in urban areas and in areas where farmers concentrate on industrial crops is increasing sharply; collectives tend to equalize the consumption of their members at higher levels; and finally, there is the ever-pressing need to export agricultural products in order to pay for imports required to sustain the industrialization program.
The Communists know this, and they are beginning to experience the consequences of the wide gap between needs and fulfillment. As of mid-1957, the enthusiasm and confidence of the "surging tide" of collectivization has given way to deep concern and uncertainty about agricultural production and the failure of the collectives to increase it.
In giving attention to the contradictions in a Communist society, Mao Tse-tung barely hinted at the sullen attitude of the peasantry. However, it takes little perspicacity to see that, in Mao's "double aspect of all occurrences," the peasants are the masses pitted against their rulers, the Communists. But will the oblique acknowledgment of this conflict of interests bring a resolution that satisfies the peasants? Hardly so, if Mao means what he says: "The contradictions between the masses and the rulers, like other contradictions among the people, are non-antagonistic contradictions that arise on the basis of the unity of primary interests." (Italics added.)
This fiction of common interests between the collectivized peasantry and the State is likely to persist. The only alternative is freedom with its hundred schools of thought contending. As Mao knows from his brief experiment of last spring, this would give rise to a flood of criticism which, if unchecked, could weaken the régime and doom the collectives. For this reason, the rulers of Communist China, like those of Russia, will continue to treat the non-Communist countryside as if it were an occupied satellite, carrying on in the familiar pattern "of lurches, checks, and plunges, of sharp frictions, suffering, unrest, and repression."
There is a widespread notion that the tactics of the Chinese Communists are as pragmatic as the Marxist dogma is inflexible, and that this pragmatism may be as helpful to them as it is dangerous to the non-Communists. The collectivization movement does not support this theory. True enough, prior to the final triumph of the Communists, the agrarian reform did not start with outright confiscation and distribution of land; there were the in-between stages. And yet, in 1955 and early 1956, the Communists threw flexibility to the wind, to the point of endangering the collectives they were so anxious to create, and thereby weakening the outwardly monolithic power of the régime.
It is not implied that the collectives are in imminent danger of dissolution; if the Soviet experience means anything, the Chinese dictatorship should be able to maintain the collectivization system for years to come, but it is doubtful whether it will find an answer to the only questions that matter: how to insure the loyalty of the peasants, and how to raise agricultural production with a peasantry lacking the incentive to produce. If the Communists have spoken any truth at all, it is their admission that a continuous rise in agricultural production is the sine qua non of all their efforts.
Devices for appeasing the peasant, even if implemented, are unlikely to reconcile them. The Communists know what is wrong with the system but are not prepared to deal with it at the expense of Communist economic and political dogma. This would mean significant changes in the collective system itself. But there is no indication that the régime is ready to compromise either its rural revenues or its absolute control over the collectives. The greater flow of investments into agriculture may indeed lead to a rise in productivity in the coming years, but the farmers are much more concerned with an immediate betterment in their conditions than with uncertain rewards at the end of another and perhaps yet another five-year plan. The Communists have not yet invented a substitute for the peasant and his customary willingness to give generously of his labor. If the Chinese Communists are pragmatic, the compromises in late 1956 and early 1957 may have to be supplemented with something more tangible, something that would recognize the fact that the peasants do not like collective farming. If the element of peasant self-interest is thus revived, a rise in agricultural production will be a "natural result."
While temporay relief may be dictated by reasons of State, it is unlikely that the Communists will relax their hold on the collectives in any fundamental way. The risks are much too great so long as the dogma persists that only Communist-controlled, collectivized agriculture can insure the progress of industrial development, and that only the collectives can rid the peasants of traditions inimical to a socialist state. This dogma can survive only through continuous recourse to force. On the collectivized fields of Soviet Russia the Communists have practised this for 27 years, and the struggle is still on. The Chinese Communists have only begun the battle for the mastery of the countryside, and the prospects are that this trial of strength will be long and exhausting. If the Communists succeed not merely in subduing the peasants but also in gaining their support, it will take a good deal of carrot and very little stick. Failing that, the peasant restlessness which once helped to put the Communists into power may well become a festering sore on the face of their régime.