WITHIN the past year Communist China has incorporated some 550,000,000 of its peasants into "people's communes." Now, after a winter and spring of "tidying up" these communes and examining their performance in the face of peasant resistance, the Communist Party has shown this is no mere experiment. The rulers in Peking are committed to them for "transforming rural society through socialism to Communism." A single commune today manages the total activity of several thousand peasant families--sometimes more. Their crops are planted, harvested and stored, or sold to the state, as dictated by the commune. Men and women in a labor platoon may shift from farming to mining coal or processing beans into soya sauce. But the decision is not theirs--it is made by Communist commune managers. They determine how long the peasant will work and his meager compensation. The commune drills him in its "people's militia," selects the movies he is to see, decides what schooling his child shall receive and the gods he may acknowledge. It likewise may tell him when to demolish his house and where he then will live. For these communes are "more than the organizers of production, they are the organizers of a new way of life."

One can hardly overestimate the importance of this monumental human enterprise to the future of Red China. The increased productivity demanded of the communes and the bitter but passive peasant opposition will determine whether the Chinese Communists can rapidly transform their ancient land into an industrial and technologically modern state. Much of the character of the "people's democratic dictatorship" that now governs nearly one-fourth of mankind can be discerned in this grim new institution. Its blueprint for the future is here most concisely delineated. Within that part of the world that takes Marxism-Leninism as its bible the communes are the chief Chinese claim to ideological inventiveness. And the balance of influence between Peking and Moscow will inevitably reflect what happens in the communes.

Neighboring Asians searching for a formula that can guarantee them speedy progress watch this device for harnessing Chinese manpower with a certain frightened fascination; its success could offer them an example while also posing the greatest single threat to their continued national existence. For the United States and the Western world the tempo of change in Asia with which we must cope may be read in the rapid creation of these Chinese communes and their pace of evolution.

As an arrangement for mobilizing human energy, the communes recall the massive corvées that Chinese emperors used to dig the Grand Canal and construct the Great Wall and the coolies who in a modern day chipped the Burma Road out of mountain rock. But today China's rulers, who are digging a second Grand Canal farther inland to link the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, have become more thorough and total in their demands. No longer is only one of two persons conscripted from each family and sent off for labor service. Rather, the entire society is organized for such performance at home. In the process the Chinese are toiling as these sturdy, patient people never have done before, despite centuries of bending their backs under the carrying pole or over the paddy field. During the past winter shock teams of peasants have labored as much as 36 to 48 hours at a stretch without sleep in furious and often desperate pursuit of production targets. Their rewards are the water conservation works they have extended, the crude blast furnaces erected in the countryside and the rich mud dredged from pond bottoms to fertilize this summer's next "leap forward" campaign in agriculture. And all of this has been done for the benefit of the state, or the "whole people" as the Peking press would phrase it.

Seldom if ever has a comparable portion of the human race experienced so traumatic a recasting of its existence in such a brief time span. The familial economic security that was the core of the Chinese peasant's social system is now denied him, although the biological family is to continue. The Chinese farmer, his wife and working children eat in a communal mess that also has taken his sow, nearly all his chickens, denied him most garden produce and commandeered the family cooking pots. Infants are cared for during the day in communal creches. Older people who now have no one to look after them at home can enter communal "respect-for-the-aged" establishments.

Although the communes are the form in which Red China's rulers say they will cast their future society, they repeatedly emphasize that this must not be mistaken for Communism. Now only the first "germ" of Communism is available in the form of free food at the communal mess. For the peasant, the critical point is that full provision "for each according to his needs" as defined by some idealistic Communists must wait for the indefinite future. Meanwhile, the meager cash wages depend very much upon the ardor of his labor; commune workers may be classified into eight grades. They can also strive for a bonus. To emphasize this point the Central Committee of China's Communist Party last winter categorically denounced "equalitarianism," or demands for equal sharing, as a "petty-bourgeois trend" that will "adversely affect the development of socialist construction."

Somewhat obliquely the Chinese Communists admit that their cadres made a number of mistakes during the great "push" last autumn to bring up to 120,000,000 families into communes. The election in April 1959 of Liu Shao-chi to succeed Mao Tse-tung as chairman of the People's Republic of China may well be related to a desire inside the Party to tighten control and minimize the "unscientific" haste with which communes were organized. It left Mao Tse-tung, who remains chairman of the Party and the preëminent Chinese Communist, free to cope with the far-reaching theoretical implications of the communes. The younger Liu Shao-chi and his fellow Party stalwarts meanwhile are afforded a firmer hold on the administrative mechanism. The Communist leaders seem to have concluded that the success of their daring venture with the communes depends greatly upon the sensitivity of their organization to events in the countryside. They need to know quickly and accurately just how far and in which direction the peasants can be pushed, and when a bit of relaxation becomes essential. For they are taking great risks. As the peasant has been stripped of the opportunity to realize most of his old social and family values he has also lost many compulsions for performance. And the despair and indifference reported by Chinese who have worked in communes could be turned against the régime. Also, the very speed with which the cadres marshalled the rural populace into communes suggests how rapidly they can run off the track if a mistake is made at the top. China lacks the "margin for error" in untapped raw land and natural resources that cushioned Soviet Russia's collectivization during the 1930s. Instead, with her population now burgeoning by an estimated 15,000,000 annually, China still is painfully at the mercy of nature for the crop yields that are the key to these grandiose Communist schemes.


The compulsions that led Red China to create the communes can best be grasped by examining the dilemma in which the new rulers found themselves in 1957--the final year of their first Five Year Plan. By then they seem to have realized that even with Russian and East European Communist assistance they could not, at the pace they were then moving, build a modern economy in this generation. Instead, they were caught between a growing need for capital formation and the mounting demands of a population expanding rapidly because of new emphasis on mass sanitation and public health. Mao Tse-tung and his cohorts also were impatient to catch up technologically with Japan and the West. The means to accomplish this could be generated only through increased agricultural collections from the peasants and capitalization upon China's vast human power so far only partially employed. If the sacrifices exacted from the peasants were not to be compensated for by better food and some consumer goods, new and more efficient organizational devices and tighter controls would be required.

Yet, at this very time the Chinese Communists were encountering opposition in the countryside approximating in character that which had forced Stalin to compromise with the Russian peasants during his ruthless collectivization drives. The Chinese peasant's yearning for land and justice had been the motive force on which the Communists rode to power before 1949. It had also been the means through which they "turned over" the old rural society during the first years of their rule. Cadres organized the poor and middle peasants into Farmers Associations that staged "settling of old accounts" meetings, stripping landowners and other prominent families of wealth and status. These Associations managed the "people's trials" where enemies of the new régime were condemned--sometimes beaten to death, sometimes given the opportunity to "reform through corrective labor."

Once the land had been redistributed and peasants given titles, the Farmers Associations served as instruments for organizing "mutual labor teams" through which the entire community shared in planting and harvesting. These in turn became a convenient device for bringing the peasants into coöperatives where they kept the titles while pooling their land, tools, work animals and labor, and collecting a proportionate share of the produce. In the more "advanced" communities these were converted into full-fledged collectives that owned the means of production and paid the peasants according to work points they earned. This was accomplished only through endless "explanation and discussion" meetings often lasting far into the night, constant group and official pressure organized by the cadres and a final crash program in 1955-56. And the process required six years.

Collectivization alone, however, proved not enough. The cadres, novices to agriculture, had given only erratic direction to introducing mechanization, extending irrigation and other innovations. In keeping with an early Chinese Communist inclination to throw all resources into heavy industry at the expense of agriculture, the first Five Year Plan had almost ignored the great need for building chemical fertilizer capacity. By late 1956 peasants were balking, partly in protest against the heavy state collections of grain but also in disgust with the bookkeeping complexities and jealousies the system encouraged. Some peasants simply walked out of their coöperatives. Others were held in the collectives by promises from the cadres that there would be no further reorganization of the peasants at least for a decade. While valuing the land reform, peace, order and certain other innovations which the Communists had brought, the peasants generally felt they had had enough. Peking had not succeeded in "remolding" their values.


It was in this setting that Mao Tse-tung less than two years ago launched a "thaw" period--the famous movement to "Let one hundred flowers bloom, Let one hundred schools of thought contend." When, however, the Party felt the extent and violence of the opposition thus released it clamped on controls far tighter than before. It set in motion a nation-wide "rectification and reindoctrination" campaign that reached almost every person in China, including the peasantry. It was the fierce discipline and propaganda of this movement that made possible the first "leap forward" campaign which began in the autumn of 1957. This was the start of a country-wide effort to expand irrigation on such an enormous scale that one has difficulty in visualizing it. Normally, winter has been a period when Chinese peasants rest, repair their tools, weave cloth and earn a bit of extra income with other handicraft occupations. Now it became a time when every man and woman not urgently needed elsewhere was mustered out to move dirt. In platoons they marched out at sunrise singing or to the accompaniment of simple musical instruments. They employed the traditional Chinese methods--transporting earth in baskets, mule carts and wheelbarrows and breaking rocks by hand with hammers.

The Communists now calculate that in the year beginning October 1957, irrigation was extended to an additional 80,000,000 acres. They admit that some of the dikes were hastily thrown up and need rebuilding. Also, this figure includes renovation of ancient water control systems constructed in imperial times that had fallen into disuse or silted up. But if the achievement is anywhere near that claimed, it is an organized human effort without parallel. During the same period the Communists claim to have reforested some 66,000,000 acres of the barren mountainsides that for centuries made China a land of floods and erosion.

That winter of exhausting labor served only as an initiation to the 1958 "leap forward" in agriculture. Some 32 billion tons of manure were spread, according to Communist figures; they exhumed garbage pits, dismantled fireplaces for the ashes and ripped off old straw-thatched roofs to make compost. Peasants who were required to demolish old graves and spread the contents as fertilizer were shaken to the depths of their ancestral veneration. Massive coffin planks were sawed up for use in farm tools, for fencing and as firewood. Deep plowing and close planting became the rule. Weeding was made an honored national occupation and intellectuals and bureaucrats were mustered out of the cities to help.

The results claimed by the Communists exceed anything that experience elsewhere suggests is possible. Whereas a continuing annual increase in agricultural output of 6 to 8 percent is judged extraordinarily good in countries applying advanced technology, the Chinese Communists calculate that they boosted their output of grain and its equivalents by 90 percent in 1958. They claim a production of 350,000,000 tons of grain and root crops (tubers are converted at four tons to one ton of grain) as contrasted to 185,000,000 tons in 1957. (The figure for 1950, the first year of Communist power, was 132,000,000 tons compared to a pre-Communist maximum production of about 15,000,000 tons.) Cotton production is supposed to have increased from 1,640,000 tons in 1957 to 3,500,000 tons in 1958. Although some of these figures appear to reflect over-enthusiastic crop estimates by Party cadres, travelers returning from the mainland late last summer agreed that China had its most bountiful crops ever. The great extension of irrigation coincided with a summer when adequate and rather evenly distributed rainfall reached most regions, and China was spared destructive typhoons at critical seasons.

The promise of this bountiful harvest gave the Chinese Communist leaders courage and opportunity to organize the peasantry into communes since it offered a margin of safety that they evidently felt would carry them through the inevitable period of dislocation. The basic decision appears to have been made by Mao Tse-tung and his associates in late July or early August. The formal move to bring the peasants into "people's communes" was made on August 29 at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The official announcement came on September 10, when the Chinese people learned of this "irresistible" development of the commune idea. The previous April the Communists had merged a few collectives into rudimentary communes, using temporary common kitchens or canteens established during the push to build irrigation works. These had served as pilot projects where organizational techniques were tested. Communist publications had carried a few articles on the advantages enjoyed by larger collectives; these, at least in retrospect, could be taken as hints of the thinking in Peking. But this was the extent of public forewarning. Even today the Chinese Communists do not buttress their decision with justifications traced to Marx, Engels or any other member of their philosophical pantheon. According to Peking, the communes are simply a "reflection of the objective law of development. . . ."

Once the word was out, the peasantry felt the consequences with phenomenal speed. For most peasants three to thirty days were required for incorporation into communes. The time depended primarily upon how conscientious the cadres were in making the move "spontaneous." "Big blooming and big contending" meetings were held day and night, with peasants encouraged to speak "frankly" of their criticisms and objections. Then cadres relentlessly showed them how mistaken were their thoughts. At the politically propitious time, to the accompaniment of "firecrackers, booming brass gongs, and the beating of drums," a collective or coöperative "voluntarily" joined with its neighbors. By mid-November Peking announced that 740,000 coöperatives and collectives had been amalgamated into some 26,500 communes. According to the Communists, they held 98 percent of the rural population--a claim that may be nearly accurate. Within approximately two months virtually all coöperatives, collectives, state farms and remaining individual farmers, except in Tibet and among some other national minorities, were organized into communes. There is an awesome audacity about this Chinese Communist effort, suggesting their organizational resources, their capacity for venturesome innovation and their apparent feeling of near omnipotence at home.

Doubts about the permanence of the communes were resolved in December 1958, when the Central Committee met in plenary session at Wuhan, the new industrial and steel center on the Yangtze River. Evidently the meeting was devoted almost entirely to the communes, and to making clear that the move was irreversible. The resolution published following the session calls for a very gradual and experimental extension of communes into the cities, where, it states, "ownership by the whole people"--state ownership--already is well advanced, conditions are more complex and "bourgeois ideology" is still fairly prevalent among former capitalists and intellectuals. Otherwise, the Party spelled out detailed measures for correcting excesses committed by the cadres in the first rush of commune organization. It called for tightening management at all levels. This most authoritative Communist document to date describes the communes as a "morning sun" above the horizon of East Asia and possessed of "immense vitality."


Each commune forms an economic and social management unit with an average membership of 5,000 families; since their geographical size is determined by water sheds and topographical features, communes on the lowlands may contain up to 10,000 or more families and those in the mountains may include as few as 2,000 households. This compares to the earlier coöperatives and collectives that each held 100 to 200 families. The commune also absorbs local government administrative functions. The most common type of commune includes one or several hsiang, which correspond roughly to a midwestern American township but usually are more densely populated. These are being grouped into hsien or county federations of communes, apparently a transitional step toward a second type of commune, one which encompasses an entire county. Since Red China today is divided into slightly less than 2,000 counties, excluding some areas of national minorities, it is probable that the number of communes may be considerably reduced from its present total of 26,500.

Within each commune the chairmanship usually is taken over by the former official of the corresponding level of local government. But the commune chief and his staff now also plan and direct agricultural production and negotiate contracts for sale of produce to state purchasing agencies. They integrate all construction of irrigation systems, roads and housing; they also develop industry, which is usually small scale and designed to meet commune needs for consumer items. Research stations, schools, kitchens, propaganda and security organs are under their control. Each commune is divided into administrative chu or districts designed to fit the productive functional units. Under the new system of "military organization" peasants are grouped in regiments, battalions and platoons. This is apart from the communal militia, which appears to have more political than military significance. Organized around a core of Red Army veterans, it affords the authorities an added instrument for imposing their will. While emphasis is upon integration of all functions in the commune, there are repeated admonitions from Peking to keep the Party distinct so it can retain its "objectivity." Actually, one of the chief purposes of the communes is enhanced Party control of the peasants. This is accomplished by bringing so many more of the peasants' activities under supervision of Communists working through the commune management and "seeding" Communists in at lower levels.

While the commune radically remakes the existence of the peasant, it affects his wife even more. For one of the chief Communist objectives is to expand the labor force by "freeing" women to work in the fields. To this end the communes are creating a system of creches and kindergartens. Some of these charge mothers for tending their children, but the fees are low. Originally, some cadres simply took the children away from parents and even discussed "migration of children" to neighboring counties to remove them from home influence. But parental reaction was furious. Now Party directives decree that parents must be allowed to take their children home at night. They also stipulate that mothers should be permitted to breast-feed their infants in communal nurseries when they are working nearby. The Communists state that their eventual goal is a system of boarding schools for all children--an educational arrangement which will largely free the young from parental control.

The communal kitchens and mess halls are likewise designed to get more women to work while also enabling the régime to limit food consumption and restrict it to those serving the aims of the new society. Often established in the homes of former landowners, these messes now tend to become the new centers of community life. When the communes were organized, one of the inducements which the cadres offered peasants was the promise of free food in the communal mess for everyone, and all they could eat; in the collectives there had been frequent trouble over who was entitled to take home how much food. But in many communes sweet potatoes are the only food that has been abundant so far and the Chinese traditionally regard these as the poorest of food. They are now often served with a thin gruel made of rice or millet. This dietary emphasis may result from a deliberate Communist effort to encourage consumption of a bumper crop of sweet potatoes that otherwise would spoil. But in the peasant mind it is aggravated by the miserable vegetables that communal kitchens so often serve. When the communes were formed the messes were to take over the garden plots on which peasants grew the cabbage, turnips, squash, beans and other vegetables they dried or salted away to provide a large and vital portion of their diets. Many communes evidently ignored the care of these vegetables. The Communists now are relenting and allowing individual peasants a "small" garden. The pigs that Chinese kept as scavengers were turned over to the communal mess and remain there to be fed largely on potato peelings, dishwater and scraps. But the peasant now has been permitted to take back a few of the chickens he was compelled to surrender last fall. Since he has no fire at home and cooking pots have all been collected, such produce presumably must be prepared at the communal kitchen where others will be waiting to share it.

Contrary to some published accounts, the Communists have not generally moved men and women into separate barracks. Instead, Peking repeatedly insists that the "new" family will be kept intact and "liberated" from its old "economic" compulsions. The marriage law introduced by the Communists eight years ago and enforced with all the fervor that organized women can generate did much to equalize status between the sexes. Now that the communes are releasing them from the homes and kitchens it can be expected that Chinese peasant women will be no more restricted than their men. Within the communes a vast construction program is in progress as entire villages are relocated in order to centralize the labor forces near production sites. In the process, many houses are torn down and some families are required to double up. They are also compelled to share household furniture and some personal possessions with fellow commune members. Since land titles and tools not already delivered to the collective now go to the communes, the concept of private property virtually has lost its meaning for the Chinese peasant.

Most acutely of all, the peasant today feels the relentless pressure to work ever harder. The day in a typical commune begins with drill at sunrise--the Communists are systematically toughening all of China's population, and city dwellers as well as peasants are required to get out for morning calisthenics. After a quick breakfast, men and women march off in platoons to work in the fields, in a primitive "factory" or on construction. There they are under the constant supervision of a commune regimental commander or other cadres. Usually these commune officials are exempted from manual labor as a mark of status. Each platoon is urged to compete with the next platoon in "labor emulation drives." The winning platoon is entitled to carry a banner and may paint a "sputnik" on its mess hall door. Sometimes there is also the promise of meat or a similar delicacy several times each month for the outstanding platoons. In the push of the "leap forward" campaigns the cadres were mustering even the children to weed or to move earth. Now the Communists have ruled that only children over nine years of age are allowed to work to "learn productive habits." One-half of each day is supposed to be reserved for schooling, although there are complaints that some cadres reduce class time to two and three hours daily. Older people also are expected to contribute their labor; women may be assigned to sewing teams or charged with baby-sitting in a communal creche while the older men are out driving the birds away from the ripening grain fields. Throughout the past year and a half the cadres have been so demanding that the Chinese peasant, accustomed though he is to strenuous labor, has begun to give in physically. Due partly to the inadequate diet, men and women on labor platoons are reported working themselves to exhaustion. The Party has now decreed that every person is entitled to at least eight hours daily for sleep and four hours for eating and (actually largely non-existent) "personal" life.


The disruption of rural life resulting from such a drastic reorganization was aggravated by the efforts of the Communists to reach their 1958 steel production target of nearly 11,000,000 tons--roughly twice the output for the previous year. Coincident with the launching of the communes, they realized that this could be achieved only by extraordinary measures. So in this era when "people's science" wedded to brawn and will power supposedly can do almost everything, the peasantry was ordered to erect native blast furnaces and haul coal and ore by any means available. According to Peking, these shock tactics produced the required quantity of iron and steel; little is said about the quality, although it probably can be used in commune blacksmith shops for making simple farm tools. But the agricultural costs were great. Figures released by Peking admit that peasants ordered out to make steel failed to harvest 10 percent of the grain crops. Travelers report seeing cotton standing unpicked in the winter snows of north China; and there is reason to believe that much of the crop harvested may have rotted due to improper threshing and storing. Throughout Chinese cities last winter the customary grain rationing was more stringent than before. Some urbanites were compelled to stand in queues to buy bean curd, that commonest of all protein staples. Vegetables for sale were scarce and occasionally spoiled. All reflected the disorganization of farm supply and transportation; the rail system was severely dislocated in the great push to make iron and steel.

During its spring campaign to "rationalize" the movement, the Party explicitly designated specific communes to produce vegetables for the urban market. Early talk of converting communes into "agro-industrial complexes" is being modified--there is to be less attention to iron and steel and more on cotton industries. Communes are to devote at least 90 percent of their manpower to agriculture during peak periods and must not again leave crops in the field. But the drive to work ever harder is to go on. This year the plan calls for increasing production of grain and equivalents by 50 percent above 1958. Cotton output is scheduled to go up from 3,500,000 to 5,000,000 tons. Simultaneously steel production is to increase by another 65 percent and the Chinese are called upon to mine an extra 110,000,000 tons of coal. All of this must be accomplished primarily through the sweat of the peasants.

The very organizational mastery of the Chinese scene that enabled the Communists to engineer these profound changes also generated the opposition that now could cripple their schemes--the so far largely non-violent anger, sense of hopelessness and frustrated resentment of the peasants. Essentially, it was the character of the Chinese Communist Party that made possible what has been accomplished so far. Its top leadership had remained united, with rare exceptions, for a quarter of a century. All key positions today are held by men and women who chose the hard life of guerrilla warfare in the mountains for many years before there came the promise of official power and personal advantage. Some 5,000,000 members had been toughened and indoctrinated in the Party before they seized power. Presently, the party membership of 12,000,000 is being expanded to include more peasants and women as a means of further leavening the communes. All are schooled in the disturbing new science of "going inside of society" and shaping it to the Communist image.

So thoroughly have the Communists shattered China's old family and social institutions that the peasant has lost his former lust for life and work. The concept of "face" which once was such a powerful social prop virtually has vanished. No longer can the peasant expend himself to provide for the future economic well-being of his family or for his own old age. His children are not taught to venerate elders and the familial security and respect from his grandsons that a peasant once dreamed of achieving in his latter years now is hardly even a mirage. He knows, too, that the prospect of his descendants sweeping his grave and paying homage at his tablet in the clan shrine are minimal since all such "feudal customs" are being abolished by the state. Even the gods who were his refuge and source of support in times of personal and natural disaster are now proscribed.

Though he is denied the satisfaction of values which have been imbedded in his culture for some 35 centuries, the peasant has not in general accepted those offered by the new order. The Communists moved too rapidly and ruthlessly. They insisted upon such total verbal conformity that prospects for genuine reëducation of this generation of peasants have not yet been realized. The result is a mass of peasantry who "labor without heart." On major construction and industrial projects where cadre supervision is most effective, passive resistance and "unseen sabotage" among the peasants may not be critical. "Civil disobedience" is hard to gauge. But the price of anything like a genuine peasant enthusiasm for agricultural performance within the communes will be a revamping of present policies, particularly those affecting the family. Unless the Party becomes more responsive to the "human element," the entire system of people's communes might be a success organizationally and yet bog down in actual performance. China's demographic dilemma and the narrow margin on which Chinese agriculture must perform mean that the consequences of a short-fall could be critical.

The forcible shifting of the Chinese peasantry into communes raises several international issues that will condition much of the future development of Asia. What will remain of the ideological bonds that tie together the nations of the Communist orbit in the face of such a divergence in internal social organization? Will the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe accept the Chinese contention that at least for Asia the communes offer the right instrument for effecting a rapid transition from socialism to Communism? How will Peking accommodate its ideological propaganda to the fears that such regimentation will surely awaken among its neighbors? China's manner of suppressing the revolt in Tibet already is convincing many Asians who have been oriented toward neutrality that the values they hold dear are far removed from those fostered by the Chinese Reds. Thinking Asians, however, are concerned by the fact that their underemployed manpower is their country's major unused capital resource. They are impressed with Red China's material achievements by the use of sheer manpower--her massive public works, her canals, irrigation schemes, roads, railways, mines and reforestation. They will be assured by Peking that the communes are what make all this possible. And there will be increasing demands in the lands bordering China for the West to produce equally effective means for them to engineer their own physical progress.

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  • ALBERT RAVENHOLT, member of the American Universities Field Staff stationed in the Far East; newspaper correspondent and specialist in that area since 1939
  • More By Albert Ravenholt