Isaac Deutscher 1951

The Myth of the Chinese Landlord

Source: The Reporter, 26 June 1951. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Examination of landholding shows that Mao has been wrestling with a ghost.

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A curious statement on the most important issue of Chinese domestic policy has recently been made by the Communist regime. It says that land reform, which the authorities regard as their major justification and as the pride of their social policy, has so far been carried out in only one-third of China. In the rest of the country the reform is to be made gradually over the next two or three years. At the same time a new law has drastically changed its main lines.

This announcement undoubtedly reflects the first major internal difficulty Mao Tse-tung has had to face since the day in 1949 when his armies emerged triumphant from the civil war. Its essence is a sharp clash between Stalinist myth and reality. It is a Stalinist myth that the Chinese Revolution is freeing the peasant from the domination of the feudal landlord. There is no class of feudal landlords, such as most European countries and Russia have known in the past, in China. Stalinism has invented the Chinese feudal landlord for doctrinal and tactical reasons which cannot be analysed here. But the invention has had odd consequences. The imaginary character has assumed, as it were, a life of his own, and he has been playing strange tricks with the Chinese Revolution. Mao’s successive land reforms reflect his wrestling with a ghost.

To explain this, we must solicit the reader’s patience for some plain but not widely known statistics. The table below throws a revealing light on the social structure of rural China. It shows how the land used to be distributed among the various social groups. The table was computed in the 1930s by the Chinese economist Tao Chi-fu and reproduced in Volume 32 of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. It contains, as far as we know, the most comprehensive data available on this subject to this day. Recent reports from China indicate that the social structure of the countryside changed very little, if at all, from the 1930s till the moment when the Communists took power.

Distribution of Land in China
Category Number of Families % of total Possession of land (acres) % of total
Landlords 2,400,000 4 108,000,000 50
Well-to-do farmers (‘kulaks’) 3,600,000 6 38,900,000 18
'Middle peasants' 12,000,000 20 32,400,000 15
Poor peasants & farm labourers 42,000,000 70 36,700,000 >17

Forty-Five-Acre Barons: On the face of it, this table seems to confirm the notion about the feudal character of China’s rural economy. Until recently, four per cent of all families living on agriculture possessed fifty per cent of the land. If landlords and well-to-do peasants are treated as one group, then ten per cent of the families owned nearly seventy per cent of the land. Poor farmers and farm labourers, who made up seventy per cent of the rural population, owned only seventeen per cent of the area under cultivation. So striking a contrast in the ownership of land is usually associated with the predominance of feudal landlordism. Indeed, nearly all Chinese landlords rent their land to the peasant-tenants and share in the crops. At least fifty per cent of the tenant’s crop goes, or went until very lately, to the landlord; and a sixty or even seventy per cent rate in sharecropping has not been uncommon.

But this is only half the story. The other half emerges when we find out just how much land an average Chinese landlord possesses and how much is owned by the peasants of the various categories. About this, Stalinist sources have been completely silent. But from the table reproduced here it is evident that the Chinese ‘feudal’ landlord possesses an average of only forty-five acres of land. The ‘kulak’ has nearly eleven acres, the middle peasant less than three, and the poor peasant less than one. To treat the owner of forty-five acres as a feudal lord is downright absurd.

To be sure, an acre in China is not the same as an acre in Europe or America. Despite its primitive technique, Chinese farming is highly intensive, and often produces two, three or even four crops a year. But even if we assume that forty-five acres in China are the equivalent of 150 to 200 acres in Europe and America, their owner is still very far from the social status of a Prussian Junker. The landlord whom the Russian Revolution dispossessed had owned five to six thousand acres on the average. Compared with him, the Chinese landlord is economically and socially a dwarf. (It should be added that these statistics relate to China proper but not to Manchuria, where there were once much larger estates.)

The point discussed here is of more than academic interest. It has had, and it will still have, far-reaching practical consequences. It closely affects the alignment of social and political forces in China. Nearly two and a half million owners have been classified as landlords. With their families they number about twelve million people. This is a social class with numerical weight, not a handful of aristocrats.

Revolution by Instalments: A comparison with the situation in Russia in 1917 again reveals a striking contrast. The Russian Revolution had to deal with only thirty thousand landlord families sitting on vast estates. An unbridgeable gulf separated the Russian landlord from the peasant. His manor house or castle usually stood well outside the village, towering high above the muzhiks’ huts and cottages – a symbol in stone and masonry of his social domination. On it centred automatically the furious hatred of an exploited peasantry.

When the revolution came, the lines were clearly drawn. This is how an American scholar who watched the Russian agrarian upheaval describes the final clash:

One September day in the fateful year 1917 [that is, even before the Bolshevik Revolution], by a roadside in the South Central Steppe, a man climbed a telephone pole and cut the minute thread of communication which joined a manor house on the northern horizon with the towns, the police stations and the barracks... In one sense the manor house now stood quite alone, but not really so, for within sight of its groves there were several peasant villages. Thus, the two elements – peasant and proprietorial – were left momentarily to react upon each other in isolation. And within a few hours the estate had been looted, the mansion was in flames, and somewhere within the fiery circle the master of the house lay dead. (GT Robinson in Rural Russia Under the Old Regime)

Such scenes occurred in 1917 all over the Russian countryside. The Bolsheviks did not stage the agrarian upheaval; they merely rode the crest of a wave stronger than any party.

It is now clear that no such upheaval of elemental force has occurred in China, with the probable exception of Manchuria and a few isolated districts elsewhere. Otherwise it would have been impossible for Peking to plan now that the land reform over two-thirds of the country should be carried out gradually within two or three years. Such an agrarian revolution by instalments was unthinkable in Russia. The Kerensky regime attempted it and was swept away. If the Bolsheviks had attempted it, their lot would not have been better. Mao must attempt it precisely because there is no sharp dividing line between the mass of the petty landlords and the peasantry. The Chinese landlord often lives among his tenants (no doubt in a relatively comfortable country house); and sometimes he does not differ very much from them. Significantly, in its latest commentaries on the new land law, the Peking government instructs the peasants what the distinctive marks of a landlord are. The need for such instruction speaks volumes. Where feudal landlordism really exists, the peasants need not be told how to recognise it.

This is not to say that the Chinese landlord is not, in the economic sense, a parasite. As a rule, he lives almost exclusively on sharecropping, and himself does not contribute to the nation’s wealth. Usually he is also the village usurer. But apart from these parasitical traits, he has nothing in common with his feudal counterpart.

Social relations in rural China, with extreme poverty on the one hand and this pathetic parody on feudal landlordism on the other, reflect centuries and millennia of economic and social stagnation. The prevalent form of ownership, the tiny landholding, has not allowed for that concentration of wealth in the hands of the few which in other countries has sometimes promoted economic progress. Yet without allowing the few to become very wealthy, it has condemned the many to utter destitution. This determines the starting point of Mao’s regime. Nothing suits a revolutionary party better than to be able to isolate and dispossess a small group of exploiters. But for such a party it is a tremendous handicap when it is confronted from the beginning with a vast mass of petty ‘parasites’ densely spread over the whole body of the nation.

Blowing Hot and Cold: Embarrassment over this peculiar issue has been a steady undercurrent in Chinese Communism ever since its inception. For some years the Communist Party was torn by a controversy between those who favoured abolition of landlordism according to the classical revolutionary models and those who saw little opportunity for an imitation of those models. Some Communist leaders advocated the view that the landlords should be dispossessed only of what they possessed above thirty acres, even though so modest a reform would have left a negligible amount of land to be shared out among the peasants.

Eventually the Communist Party committed itself to the confiscation of property exceeding roughly ten acres. But this programme was shelved after the Japanese invasion. In Yenan, Mao, anxious to secure cooperation with ‘patriotic landlords’, stopped expropriation altogether and merely reduced the land rent. Only in May 1946 did he proclaim an end to the truce and resume the old policy, which was later embodied in the law of 1947.

That law provided for the confiscation of the landlords’ estates; the requisitioning of the ‘surplus’ property of the ‘kulaks'; the egalitarian distribution of confiscated and requisitioned property; and the abolition of all rural debts.

This law governed, until quite recently, the reform in Manchuria and in the north-eastern fringe of China, where relatively large estates had existed. Nearly 100 million acres were divided there among the peasants – not much less than all the landlords’ estates in the whole of China proper. The difficulties began with the attempt to carry the reform into the other provinces. As a recent publication of the Economic Department of the Moscow Academy of Science put it, in central, southern and south-western China ‘the position of the landlords has proved much stronger than in the north and north-east’. The same source clearly implied that the peasants have welcomed the reduction of the landlords’ share in the crops but have shown lukewarmness towards expropriation.

The reform, as envisaged by the 1947 law, threatened to provoke a common front at least of landlords and ‘kulaks’. The core of that opposition might have consisted of about six million families (thirty million people), wielding considerable influence in the countryside. The cataclysm their resistance might have produced would have been more like that of the Russian collectivisation of 1929 than like the upheaval of 1917. One of the results would have been the disruption in the supply of agricultural produce to the towns; and this danger Peking has been anxious to forestall, especially in view of its involvement in war.

The New Law: A new land law was passed last June, almost simultaneously with the outbreak of the Korean War; it has been enforced since the end of 1950. It altogether exempts the ‘kulak’ from expropriation, and it even tries to encourage his efforts. ‘The party’, says Mao, ‘ought to switch over from requisitioning surplus land and property from the kulaks to a policy of preserving well-to-do farming, which should help in the rehabilitation of agricultural production.’ The new law further softens the impact of the reform on the landlords themselves. It slows down the tempo of dispossession. It provides for a partial reclassification of landowners, under which some of those hitherto labelled landlords will be allowed to acquire peasant status and escape expropriation. Even large estates are exempt from the reform if they are used for industrial or commercial businesses. The lowering of rents is to be carried out only gradually, province by province.

Peking places strong emphasis on the provision that the expropriated landlord should not be driven from the land altogether but be allowed to retain a peasant-like holding, in curious contrast to Russia, where the peasants pitilessly smoked out the landlords from the countryside. Thus, since he had faced the real Chinese landlord and peasant, Mao has had nothing to exorcise but the ghost of the feudal landlord.

Another purpose of his new policy is to associate the mass of the peasantry with the modified reform. It is at village meetings, with the participation of all villagers, that it is to be decided who is a landlord and who is a kulak, a middle or a poor peasant; who is to be dispossessed and how; and who is to benefit. At the village meetings detailed inquiries are conducted into the standards of living, the wealth and the moral conduct of every villager. A feature is the ‘confessions’ of the landlords, followed by condemnation or rehabilitation.

Mao has owed much of his success to support from the peasantry. But in the light of the new policy, one may ask how great is the peasants’ stake now in the Communist regime. It is still considerable but probably not so great as Mao had hoped. It is definitely less than was the initial stake of the Russian peasant in the Bolshevik Revolution. Having been relieved by Mao from the burdens of sharecropping and indebtedness, the peasantry is almost certain to oppose to the utmost any attempt at a restoration of the old order. The Kuomintang will forever be associated in its mind with the compulsion of the peasant to give up one-half and more of the produce of his toil. The redistribution of the land, if and when it is completed, will create for a time a new link between the regime and the peasantry. But the landless seventy per cent of the peasantry will receive at most one acre of land per family, and eventually about ninety per cent of the rural population will till not more than two.

It is easy to foresee the problem this will create. The two-acre farm is condemned to low productivity. It cannot secure the supply of food to the cities and the armed forces, especially if the government should embark upon ambitious industrialisation projects. The poor peasant will eat more than hitherto – this is the usual concomitant of any land reform – and, unless crops are much more abundant, the urban population must consume less. This danger is even now casting its shadow ahead.

Mass Migration? For all its social and political merits, land reform creates an economic impasse. It cannot do away with rural overpopulation and with primitive techniques of farming. According to some authorities, not more than sixteen per cent of the arable land has so far been under cultivation. If so, a vast fund of land should be available for internal colonisation; but this seems very doubtful. Peking makes no secret that eventually it will seek a solution in collectivisation. For many years, however, the material and political preconditions for collectivisation will be lacking. Another solution, discussed by experts and envisaged in one of the programmes of the Communist Party, might be sought in the mass migration of the peasantry. Across the frontier lie the underpopulated spaces of Asiatic Russia, ready to absorb into newly-built industrial centres millions of immigrants accustomed to a standard of living much lower than the Russian. The ‘yellow flood’ which has for so long haunted some minds in the West will be only too eagerly welcomed by Moscow’s economic planners.

Thus land reform in China is likely to be only the beginning of vast population movements and upheavals that may, in the course of time, alter the face of Asia beyond recognition.