System: Organization and Evolution
In order to achieve economic modernization,
the Chinese government after 1949 sought to find a general surplus
in the countryside (where 80% of the population live) and turn it into
investment for industry. Leaving it to the market was thought to be
slow, inefficient, and inequitable, so the commune system of collectivized
agriculture was implemented in the 1950s as one solution to the problem. Through the pooling and organization of labor and income, communes
were designed to fill a myriad of functions: to give rural communities
the opportunity to accomplish large water conservation projects; to
establish small factories and produce goods that would increase general
income; to support hospitals and schools; and to care for the elderly
and disabled within the community. Well-organized human labor was seen
as the key to development as China did not have and could not afford
machines. Although the commune system did allow the state to extract
the maximum surplus from the countryside, it was ultimately judged
inefficient, with major disincentive effects, and abandoned; at times
it was disastrous with widespread famine occurring, such as during
the years 1959-62, at the end of the Great Leap Forward.
The Organization of the Commune
The structure of the commune was such that households were organized
into teams, then teams formed brigades, and brigades formed the commune.
Each level of organization was responsible for certain activities:
the team for organizing farm labor, the brigade for establishing small
workshops and elementary schools, the commune for large-scale land
reclamation projects, a hospital, a high school, small factories, and
other side-line industries, as well as a welfare fund to aid the poor
communities within the commune.
Since China was a poor country, the central and provincial governments
were unable to assist poor communities. The solution to this problem
was for rural communities to improve their lot through "self-reliance." Cooperation
through the commune organization was key.
Would a small village with poor land be able to afford a school or
a health care station? The answer is no. Yet by joining with other
villages and sending one or more of its members to work on joint projects,
the village is able to contribute to the general development of the
larger community from which it then benefits in return.
If there were flaws in the system, what were they? Perhaps most evident
was the problem of incentive. Peasants grew less enthusiastic over
time about working as hard as they could for the general welfare, especially
when they saw less productive members of the collective benefiting
from group achievements. The "responsibility system," put
into effect in 1981, was designed to provide greater individual incentive
for hard work.
The Evolution of the Commune
Land Reform: This was the first and most dramatic stage of China's
revolution; during this campaign the landlord's land was taken and
distributed to the peasants.
Lower-Stage Cooperatives: (formed 1954-1955) Peasants pooled
their land to create larger fields that could yield greater output
and shared farm implements. Peasants still received their return on
the amount and quality of the land and tools they contributed. Middle-class
peasants, but not poor peasants, benefited the most.
Higher-Stage Cooperatives: (formed 1955-1956) Peasants now received
their return primarily on the basis of their labor; this made everyone
more equal and poor peasants benefited.
Commune: (formed 1958-1959) The communes attempted to equalize income
among cooperatives by joining several cooperatives (now called brigades)
together; in so doing, a cooperative community with poor land benefited
from the wealth of a cooperative community with very fertile land.
There were approximately 53,000 communes in China, 170,000 peasants
households in the communes, and 90,000,000 acres of arable land under
the control of communes at the height of their existence. Communes
have now largely disappeared and been replaced by the household
responsibility system. In this system, each family is independently responsible for
managing the plots of land it contracted to farm for long periods of