By Walden Bello*

Political sociologists have sometimes described the Chinese Revolution as the product of an alliance between middle class intellectuals and the peasantry.  In his innovative revision of Marxist-Leninist theory, Mao Zedong transformed the peasantry, a class disdained by Marx, into the “main force” of his anti-feudal, anti-imperialist revolution. Translated into practice by the Communist Party, which was led and dominated by the revolutionary intelligentsia, this reformulation proved to be the key to the Communist triumph in 1949.
But the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese peasantry has never been an easy one.  Indeed, it may be more aptly described as tumultuous.
A Receding Vision
The vision that won for the Communists the support of millions of peasants — that of a countryside where land seized from landlords would be tilled by millions of small owners-cultivators — remained precisely that: a vision. Agrarian transformation managed by the party took the form of requisitioning the grain surplus to fulfill Mao’s industry-first policy.  Peasant freedom was curtailed further when production was collectivized in the mid-fifties. Then during the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961, to spur production and more effectively requisition surplus above the peasants’ survival needs to support Mao’s super-industrialization drive, the party herded peasants into communes –26,000-plus in the whole of China — where their life revolved around hard labor. In their riveting biography Mao: the Unknown Story (New York: Random House, 2005), Jung Chang and Jon Halliday depict party cadres micromanaging production, keeping peasants “penned inside their villages,” and preventing them from “stealing” their own harvest.
After the disaster that overtook this social experiment, where some 30 million people, mainly peasants, died from malnourishment and starvation, the balance in the struggle over the surplus shifted to the peasantry. Requisitioning targets were lowered, and, as Chang and Halliday note, “In many places, peasants were allowed to lease land from the commune, and effectively were able to return to being individual farmers.  This alleviated starvation and motivated productivity.”
Peasants and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
Specialists in rural China are split on the impact on the peasantry of the next great event, the Cultural Revolution. To Chen Guidi and Wu Chantao, authors of Will the Boat Sink the Water? (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), a compassionate chronicle of peasant suffering under party rule, the Cultural Revolution was a “disaster” for the peasantry: “A peasant would be accused of ‘taking the capitalist road’ if his household kept two chickens or planted a few vegetables for the market.” In contrast, for Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, the Cultural Revolution, which began in earnest in 1966, spelled relief for the peasantry. With the party self-destructing as Mao purged “capitalist roaders” he saw ensconced at all levels of the party, the ability of the authorities to requisition grain was eroded. As they describe it in their magisterial Mao’s Last Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006):
“To be left alone was what many peasants secretly wished for, and when the state’s tax collectors failed to show up on time or in force because they were involved in struggles, the peasants were content. In parts of rural China, an unintended by-product of a dysfunctional state bureaucracy was hailed as a great, newborn thing. In Shehong county, Sichuan, peasants were told that “Cultural Revolution means no more grain deliveries to the state!”
Wracked by factional infighting, party and government operatives could not collect grain taxes on time or in full. Indeed, in the “two subprovincial regions of Suzhou and Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu, agricultural taxes equal to 200 million jin [100 million kilograms] of grain were simply never collected.  The situation was similar in the subprovincial regions of Enshi and Xiangyang, in Hubei, where agricultural taxes equal to 60 million jin remained uncollected.”
Not surprisingly, from 214 million tons in 1966, production rose throughout the Cultural Revolution, reaching 286 million tons in 1976. With the disruption in collection and transportation, added production did not benefit the cities but were absorbed by peasant households. But greater production was not the only consequence of the relaxation of the party’s iron hand. The Cultural Revolution years saw, in some parts of rural China, “a resurgence of household-based farming, which the peasants preferred. In Yibin prefecture, Sichuan, 8,355 of 49,349 production teams were by 1969 redistributing fields to individual households, contracting production out to individual households… allowing the ‘seizure of the collective economy’ by private interests.”
The Golden Age
The change in the balance of power in favor of the peasantry appeared to be consolidated with the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao in 1976. ;The peasants wanted an end to the communes, and Deng and his reformers obliged them by introducing the “household-contract responsibility system.” Under this scheme, each household was given a piece of land to farm. Of what it produced, the household was allowed to retain what was left over after selling to the state a fixed proportion at a state-determined price, or by simply paying a tax in cash. The rest it could consume or sell on the market.
There is consensus among China specialists that these were the golden years of the peasantry. The sense of great expectations is evoked by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao in their report on agrarian conflicts in Anhui Province:
“When the Cultural Revolution was finally brought to a halt, following Mao’s death in 1976, the household-contract system was tried out in Anhui Province and proved a great success. The lethargy of the previous years was gone. One could frequently see three generations of a family working together under one of those contracts, looking toward a better life. The reform saw a sustained 15 per cent increase of per capita income for the years 1978 to 1984. It was the years of recovery.” The rural reform has been characterized as a “big-bang” reform, the consequences of which were felt throughout the economy. The surpluses generated by the reform, notes Minxin Pei in China’s Trapped Transition: the Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006) “allowed rural governments to invest in new manufacturing businesses, which eventually became a critical source of public finance.”
Having studied the economic transformation of Taiwan, one cannot but be struck by the similarity between reform period 1978-84 and the 1950s in Taiwan, when radical land reform created and consolidated former tenants into a prospering owner-cultivator class, whose demand for farm implements and other manufactures triggered and sustained the island’s early import-substitution industrialization.
The Great Reversal
But as in Taiwan, the golden age of the peasantry came to an end, and the cause was identical: the adoption of a strategy of urban-centered, export-oriented industrialization based on rapid integration into the global capitalist economy. This strategy, which was launched at the 12th National Party Congress in 1984, was essentially one that built the urban industrial economy on “the shoulders of peasants,” as Chen and Wu put it. Primitive capital accumulation took the form mainly of the requisitioning of peasant surpluses via heavy taxation. And as in the Great Leap Forward, the party organization in the countryside played the role of overseer in the new strategy. The consequences of a development strategy oriented towards urban industrial development were stark.  Peasant income, which grew by15.2 per cent a year from 1978 to 1984 dropped to 2.8 per cent a year from 1986 to 1991. Some recovery occurred in the early 1990s but stagnation of rural income marked the latter part of the decade. In contrast, urban income, already higher than that of peasants in the mid-eighties, was, on average, six times the income of peasants by 2000.
Key reasons for the stagnation of rural income were the rising costs of agricultural inputs, falling prices for agricultural products, and rising taxes, all of which operated to transfer income from the countryside to the city.  But the main mechanism for the extraction of surplus from the peasantry was expanded taxation. Taxes on 149 items of agricultural products were levied on the peasants by central state agencies by 1991, but this proved to be but part of a much bigger bite, as the lower levels of government began to levy their own taxes, fees, and charges. Currently, the various tiers of rural government impose a total of 269 types of tax, along with all sorts of often arbitrarily imposed administrative charges.
While taxes and fees were not supposed to exceed five per cent of the income of farmers, the actual amount was likely to be much greater, with some Ministry of Agriculture surveys reporting that the peasant tax burden was three times the official national limit, or 15 per cent.
Expanded taxation would perhaps have been bearable had peasants experienced returns in the form of improved public health and education and more agricultural infrastructure. In the absence of tangible benefits, the peasants saw their incomes as subsidizing what Chen and Wu describe as the “monstrous growth of the bureaucracy and the metastasizing number of officials” who seemed to have no other function than to extract more and more from them.
Aside from being subjected to higher input prices, lower prices for their goods, and more intensive taxation, peasants have borne the brunt of the urban-industrial focus of economic strategy in other ways. According to China: the Balance Sheet (Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Institute of International Economics: Washington, DC, 2006), “40 million peasants have been forced off their land to make way for roads, airports, dams, factories, and other public and private investments, with an additional two million to be displaced each year.”
The Threat of Trade Liberalization
But the impact of all these forces may yet be dwarfed by that of China’s commitment to eliminate agricultural quotas and reduce tariffs when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). These commitments were, as China: the Balance Sheet underlines, substantial:
“The challenge of managing the farm sector has grown with China’s WTO commitments in agriculture, which are more far-reaching than those of other developing countries and in certain respects exceed those of high-income countries. The Chinese government agreed to reduce tariffs and institute other policies that meaningfully increase market access; accepted tight restrictions on the use of agricultural subsidies; and pledged to eliminate all agricultural export subsidies — commitments that go far beyond those made by other participants in the Uruguay Round negotiations that led to the WTO’s creation.”
The WTO deal reflects China’s current priorities. If the party leadership has chosen to put at risk large sections of its agriculture, such as soybeans and cotton, this is because the party wants to open up or keep open global markets for its industrial exports. The social consequences of this trade-off are still to be fully felt, but it is likely that it contributed to the dramatic slowdown in the pace of poverty reduction in the period between 2000 and 2004.
The New Overlords?
Corruption, which multiplied among party cadres in the “to get rich is glorious” climate of the post-Mao era, was oil poured on this already volatile relationship between peasants and the party, and when local party officials were seen to abetting or coddling mafia elements–many of them party members themselves–peasant anger at people they now seemed to regard as their new feudal overlords intensified. Chan and Wu’s book is a dismal chronicle of this transformation of the party from dedicated and respected cadres to a veritable rural ruling class lording it over the peasants. It is worth reproducing in full their description of how this class exercises one of its “privileges”:
“The fact of the matter is the vast countryside of China has become a gourmand’s paradise. Like a cloud of locusts, officials with their appetites in tow descend on the countryside and are infinitely inventive in coming up with excuses to eat and drink: dinners for inspectors, dinners for conferences, dinners for rural poverty relief; dine if you can afford it, and dine if you can’t; dine on credit, dine on loan; keep the dinners going from one year’s end to another, from one month’s end to another, from morning till night; enjoy dinners when you take office and when you leave office.
“A popular saying about eating and drinking at public expense runs “There’s nothing to be gained by not eating since it’s free; so why not eat?” To eat free has become a sign of status, an index of position. The quality of a dinner may determine whether or not a project is approved or a deal clinched, or whether a promotion is in the works. It has become part of political culture.”
With the prevalence of such practices, it is not surprising that protests have multiplied. From 8700 in 1993, what the Ministry of Public Security calls “mass group incidents” have grown to 87,000 in 2005, most of them in the countryside. Moreover, the incidents are growing in average size from 10 or fewer persons in the mid-1990s to 52 people per incident in 2004.
A widespread form of protest is tax resistance.  Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace claims that in Xinjiang in 2001, tax resistance was said to be prevalent in 40 per cent of the villages surveyed. In that same survey, about 70 per cent of village cadres felt that collecting fees was the most difficult task. The use of police to force peasants to pay up, such as those documented by Chen and Wu, are common. And in many areas, party officials, according to Pei, “recruited thugs as their collection agents. Such a practice has resulted in illegal imprisonment, torture, and the deaths of peasants who were unable to pay.”
Can the CCP Regain Peasant Confidence?
The relations between the party and the peasantry are perhaps at their nadir today. Throughout their turbulent 75 year old relationship, the party has always been able to bounce back and regain the peasantry’s confidence after disastrous policies, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Is it resilient enough to be able to do so once more?
Emulating the ancient tradition of appealing to the imperial center to curb the depredations of local lords, peasants have sent delegations to Beijing to lodge complaints against local authorities. Yet positive responses from the center in the form of prosecution of corrupt cadres and reining in of abusive practices and corrupt cadres are erratic and inconsistent. There are, as Chen and Wu’s accounts make clear, people in the party who do care about peasants and have taken up the cudgels for them. The problem is that inertia, corruption, bureaucracy, and indifference militate against any serious internal party reform.
Are there possibilities of ideological renewal that could reinvigorate the old relationship? With its jettisoning of its socialist vision-even as it has kept the socialist rhetoric–the party has had to construct an alternative ideology of legitimation for the era of rapid capitalist development. This it has found in a vision that Dennis Lynch in his book Rising China and Asian Democratization (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006) describes as a “CCP-led return to national greatness” through the achievement of “comprehensive national power” and a “recentering of Chinese civilization.” The new, expanding urban middle classes that have benefited from the export-led, urban-centered development of the last two decades have certainly been susceptible to this vision. It is, however, unlikely, that this ideology has significant appeal to the peasants, migrant workers, and laid off workers from state owned enterprises that have borne the costs of China high-speed industrialization.
What about the much-touted village elections? Not even the harshest of China’s critics can deny that there is increasingly a strong element of competition in the village elections, which were introduced in the 1980s. The role that rural democratization, limited though it may currently be, can play in revitalizing the relationship between party and peasants must not be underestimated. But while the elections have allowed rural people some measure of control over local government, all too often they have been manipulated by party and government officials. Moreover, the CCP has blocked elections above the village level, so that the party continues to fill township and country level offices with its cadres.
In looking for “a way out” of the current impasse, Chen and Wu cite the views of a prominent rural specialist Yu Jianrong of the Agricultural Research Center at Central China University: “Yu’s solution is to rally the peasants to form their own organization and replace the current local bureaucracy by peasants’ self rule. Yu proposed that only a network of peasant organizations could truly represent the peasants’ interests and needs and communicate them in an orderly way and prevent and ameliorate confrontations and conflicts.”
Yu’s solution may sound Utopian, but it does reflect what seem to be really dismal prospects for improving the relations between the party and the peasantry. This puts a pall of uncertainty over the future of China, despite the country’s double-digit growth rates. It is one of the greatest ironies of contemporary history that the Chinese Communist Party, after having led the Chinese people to victory against imperialism and bringing about what is undoubtedly an economic miracle, should now find itself alienated from what used to be its primary and, arguably, its most important constituency owing to the consequences of its strategic decision to ride the tiger of global capitalism while retaining authoritarian controls. Few analysts see peasant discontent as a serious challenge to the party’s rule in the short and medium term, but lacking legitimacy among such a great part of the population can only have disastrous consequences ultimately
*Walden Bello is professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines and executive director of the Bangkok-based institute Focus on the Global South. This essay was originally prepared for the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development.