The Commune System (1950s)

The Commune 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 time.

Chart Comparing Commune Organization to Traditional Administrative Divisions

Commune Organization under the PRC Traditional Administrative Divisions
County (Hsien) County (Hsien)
(District) (District)
Population 10,000-80,000
(Labor Force 1/3)
2,000-20,000 Households
10-30 Brigades
Large market town with market network
Population 1,000-2,000
200-400 Households
10-20 Teams

"Natural village"

* In some cases a natural village corresponds to a team, in others to a brigade, depending on the size of the village.

Population 100-200
(Labor Force 1/3)
20-40 Households
Household Household

Stages of Rural Collectivization and the Evolution of Land Policy in China


Land Reform

  • Land was redistributed. Labor exchanges were developed.

Collectivization into Agricultural Producers' Cooperatives (APCs), in two stages

  • Land was pooled.

Stage One of Collectivization: Lower APCs

  • Farmers retained ownership of land;
  • produce was divided 70% on the basis of labor and 30% interest on contributed land, animals, or tools.

Stage Two of Collectivization: Higher APCs

  • Land was collectively owned at the village level;
  • produce was divided on the basis of labor alone.

Communes (The Great Leap Forward)

  • APCs were amalgamated to form larger administrative organizations called communes. Ownership of land transferred to the commune level.
  • Produce was divided on the basis of 60% "free supply" or equal division of all goods among members, and 40% by labor.
  • Private plots of land and private markets were eliminated.
  • The labor force was reorganized into work crews for large projects — e.g. water conservation (irrigation) or local industry.
  • Accumulated funds at the commune level were used to support education, health care, etc.

Reorganization of Communes ("Retreat")

  • Urban youth were sent-down to the countryside to provide new skills;
  • local industry was encouraged (cement, electric power, farm machinery, fertilizers, iron and steel) as well as brick-making, canning, powdered milk, and other small-scale enterprises.
  • Proper balance between collective enterprise and private plots was sought. The goal of raising the level of ownership from the team to the brigade remained the ideal.
  • (As of December 1978, the state paid 20% more to communes for grain purchased under quota, and 30% more for grain purchased over quota. Agricultural tax and grain quotas were based on 1975 levies. Prices on farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, and insecticides were cut by 10-15% in 1979-80. The market price for food in the cities was kept stable in order to raise the standard of living in rural areas without taxing urban dwellers. The drive for the mechanization of all grain production by 1980 was abandoned, and targeted mechanization was promoted instead.)

Responsibility System

  • The cultivation of land, for which the production team was responsible, is now subcontracted to a) groups of families, b) single families, or c) individuals, depending on the circumstances of the particular team. (The richer the team, the larger the group given the subcontract). The subcontractor is responsible for meeting a certain production quota and is paid accordingly for the work. Subcontractors are also well paid for overfulfilling the quota in an effort to raise agricultural output. Although land is still owned in common, this new system is called "the second land reform."
  • In addition, 15% of all team land is allocated for private plots and divided among individual households which are free to consume or sell the produce as they choose. Sideline production, such as the raising of pigs and chickens, is also encouraged and private markets are open where peasants can sell these goods independently.
  • Emphasis is now placed on the diversification of agriculture to produce a more varied diet. While this means a less exclusive emphasis on grain than in the past, there is still concern that grain production will remain inadequate to feed the vast population.
1990s and Beyond