Author Shih-Yu Chou

Review: Zhun Xu, From Commune to Capitalism: How China’s Peasants Lost Collective Farming and Gained Urban Poverty (2018)

We should support whatever our enemies oppose and oppose whatever our enemies support.

—Mao Zedong

How can we understand China’s transition to capitalism, agrarian reform, ever-widening inequality, and social divisions between the Chinese ruling elite and the masses since 1978?

Criticism over China’s Neoliberal Programs

Zhun Xu’s monograph entitled “From Commune to Capitalism” sought to “look critically at the Chinese agrarian change from a Marxist point of view” (p. 109). As a critic of China’s transition to capitalism, he claimed that “The nearly seventy-year history of the People’s Republic of China can be roughly divided into two periods: during the first thirty years the prc mainly followed the socialist path, but in the last four decades China has gradually become a champion of capitalism” (p. 11). He lamented over the death of Chairman Mao Zedong whose “intervention… personal charisma and authority played a crucial role in the pursuit of the socialist path in China” (p. 14). However, “everything that sustained the Maoist society seemed to change” (p. 69).

In stark contrast to Mao’s leadership, Deng Xiaoping’s ascension to power marked a decisive turning point in China’s economic development. The dismantling of rural collectives in China between 1979 and 1984 represented the rightward shift of the Chinese Communist Party (ccp) to capitalism. Furthermore, “decollectivization” or what Xu referred to as “the household responsibility system” (hrs) served as both “the very first step in cracking the Maoist system” (pp. 39, 110–111) and “the political basis of the capitalist transitions in China. It not only disempowered the peasantry, but broke the peasant-worker alliance, and thus greatly reduced the potential resistance to the [neoliberal] reform” (pp. 16, 46, 58). From then onwards, the ccp has gradually stripped away all the social gains made by the proletariat and the peasantry under Mao’s rule. Moreover, “Every single aspect of social relations in China is marked by the retrogression from state socialism to capitalism. Everything has seen a great reversal. Red becomes black, noble becomes vulgar—and revolutionary becomes reactionary” (p. 11).

Xu then called into question claims about higher productivity during the reform period, as asserted by pro-hrs studies. To examine how the productivity gains came about, he scrutinized those studies and subsequently categorized them into two major types: total factor productivity (tfp) in China and the role of hrs adoption in the transition period (p. 46). The problem with the first type of studies, as Xu indicated, was that they failed to adequately address the question of why post-1984 tfp figures tended to decline despite the fact that the hrs had become a dominant feature of agricultural reform (pp. 46–47). The problem with the second type of studies, Xu wrote, was that they posited that the hrs was uniformly instituted and implanted across the country. They additionally assumed away the use of Green Revolution techniques (e.g. the use of hybrids and chemical fertilizers) during the reform period (p. 48). In other words, the so-called Chinese agricultural miracle could not be attributed to the hrs.

In Xu’s view, taking a pro-hrs line, the scholarly research conducted by Justin Yifu Lin, who later served as Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank (2008–2012), was far more sophisticated than the aforementioned inquiries (p. 49). However, Lin’s opt-cited research, mistakenly assumed that “the hrs variable” was “the ratio of hrs adaption at the end of a given year,” neglecting a well-known fact that every crop was planted, grown, and harvested only in specific seasons (p. 51). Put differently, after the harvest, the adoption of the hrs could not impact on productivity until next year. Moreover, Lin failed to take account of changing weather and climate conditions during the reform period (p. 52). In the absence of credible evidence, the official claims and pro-hrs studies about agricultural productivity rises during the reform period, as Xu stated, did not hold much water.

Dubious Premises of the Book

While Xu’s book made some useful criticism of China’s neoliberal reforms, it would be rather misleading to suggest (or imply): (1) that Maoism is a variant of Marxism; (2) that China’s transition to capitalism represented a fundamental break with the system previously instituted by the party under Mao Zedong’s leadership; (3) that collectivization of agriculture under Mao’s rule was a concrete and genuine expression of socialism. Conversely, decollectivization imposed on peasants could be entirely attributed to neoliberal policies advanced by the post-Mao Chinese ruling class; and (4) that there existed a peasant-worker alliance in the Mao era. The way forward for China is to “rebuild” it (p. 111).

History tells a very different story. The ccp’s use of Stalinist rhetoric and its appeals to the Chinese national bourgeoisie date back to the subordination of the ccp to Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (kmt) regime in the early 1920s, a reactionary force bent on obliterating the independent mobilization of Chinese workers and peasants. The Communist International (Comintern) under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship, considered the kmt to be a “progressive” party best suited to lead the anti-imperialist revolution in China. He subsequently instructed ccp cadres to cede the leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle to the kmt and to join this bourgeois party in 1922. The Stalinist policy inevitably led to the catastrophic defeats of the second Chinese revolution between 1925 and 1927.1 From 1927 onwards, the ccp rapidly reoriented itself away from the proletariat and toward the peasantry, and Mao subsequently emerged as a charismatic protagonist of this Chinese Stalinist tendency.2

This should not be taken to imply that the ccp, made up of Chinese peasants, was under the democratic control of the peasantry, however. Seeing China to be too backward and too impoverished for building socialism, Mao pronounced in 1935 that the ccp-led revolution was directed “against imperialism and feudalism, not against capitalism” and that the Chinese revolution was one of “bourgeois nationalist” based on a bloc of four classes, namely a coalition between the proletariat, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie. For him, there existed a marked difference between the comprador bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. The former functioned as an instrument of imperialism against which the ccp fought; the latter, a progressive force against imperialism, with which the ccp aligned itself. In other words, collaboration between the ccp and one or another faction of the bourgeoisie to perpetuate the social relations based on exploitation and oppression was deemed unproblematic

One might reasonably ask the question as to where China would head under the ccp. Contrary to Xu’s assertion that the ccp under Chairman Mao opted for a state socialist path, Mao envisioned a Chinese capitalist path to socialism. In a speech dated 31 May 1945 to the seventh National Congress of the ccp, Mao explained that there were two types of capitalism. These were “reactionary fascistic capitalism” and “democratic capitalism.” He considered democratic capitalism to be more “progressive” than its fascistic counterpart, despite the former being essentially colonialist and imperialist in nature. He then propounded the notion of “new democratic capitalism” to alleviate those problems. This “new” variant of capitalism, in his words, would “play a revolutionary, useful and beneficial role in fostering the development of socialism.”

Anyone who has some acquaintance with classical Marxism knows that Mao’s proposal was nothing new. It arose out of the Menshevik two-stage theory. The Stalinist bureaucracy openly endorsed this class collaborationist program in order to strangle the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.3 In short, such a program not only amounted to a capitulation to the Chinese bourgeoisie but also betrayed the very principle of revolutionary struggles.

It perhaps came as no surprise that as opposed to the Marxist perspective of the self-emancipation of the working class, the principle of “the bloc of four classes” was reaffirmed in the documents adopted by Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on 9 September 1949.

Moreover, the ccp gave the word “class” its own twist. Having feudal vestige, the peculiar party definition of class was based not on one’s relation to the means of production, but on family bloodlines. 4 For example, expropriated landlords no longer retained their private properties, but their descendants (born after 1949) were branded as offspring of landlords by the party and then became legitimate targets for blacklisting, political persecution, and public humiliation during the Mao era. Conversely, inheriting the class designation (階級成分) of revolutionary carders from their parents, descendants of party bureaucrats deemed nearly blanket access to power and privileges to be their birthright.5 Designed to entrench and expand the power of the ccp, such a system not only obscured the fundamental class antagonism between the exploiters and the exploited, but also effectively glorified the state violence meted out by “red” aristocrats to dissenters—all in the name of “class struggle.”

Strangulate a Common Struggle against the Chinese Ruling Class

Mao Zedong’s definition of class was directed against the “enemy within.”6 This, then, raises a question. How would the ccp deal with the peasantry with whom it had previously stood shoulder to shoulder? The Chinese state bureaucracy had every interest in bringing Chinese peasants to their knees. Immediately after the fighting of the Korean War ended, Mao set the tone for the two-stage theory in a speech dated 12 September 1953 to the Central People’s Government Committee of the prc. Mincing no words about the need to industrialize the newly established state, he pronounced that industrial development must take precedence over agriculture and that holding down rural living standards to advance industrial development would be far more benevolent than raising the living standards of the peasantry. In his view, the benefits of a collectivized and industrialized economy along with a series of five-years plans would have eventually improved the living standards of the whole Chinese populace.7

Furthermore, from the early 1950s onwards, the ccp adopted a policy called “unified procurement and marketing,” which “meant that the government had a certain monopoly power in terms of the purchase and pricing of agricultural output” including “strategic goods like grain, oil crops, and cotton” (p. 44). What Xu omitted to mention was that this policy was designed to extract a surplus from the peasants whose agricultural products were subject to compulsory purchase orders with product prices being kept artificially low. Conversely, manufactured goods they acquired from the Chinese state always came in at inflated prices. The peasantry, therefore, was profoundly undermined by the ccp.

In his address dated 15 November 1956 to a meeting of Central Committee of the ccp, Chairman Mao explicated that the imposition of price scissors (剪刀差價) served to accelerate capital accumulation by the Chinese state and forced-march industrialization. Fully aware of the implications, he readily admitted that price differentials between agricultural and industrial products inflicted on the peasantry contributed to approximately 30 percent of Chinese national income, while, agricultural taxes, by contrast, made up merely 10 percent of the national income. He enunciated that the system of unequal exchange between the rural and urban areas should be scrapped only if its abolition would not have frustrated capital accumulation by the state.8 His remarks made crystal clear that the Chinese state bureaucracy functioned to “manage the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” to borrow Karl Marx’s phrase.

Xu reckoned that “The potential threat of peasant revolts was always immense to the ccp leaders, who had led the peasant revolution themselves” (p. 75). One question immediately arises. How did the ccp fend off potential mass upheavals? In January 1958, Mao’s repressive state apparatuses instituted a household registration system to entrench the existing rural-urban divide. Simply put, this system provided essential social services for only those who were granted non-agricultural status (e.g. public sector workers in urban areas) while simultaneously assigning agricultural status to peasants who were then denied access to social benefits such as subsidized housing, health care, and pensions. Peasants, thus, had no choice but to take care of their own livelihoods.

It should be pointed out that the real purpose of this system was twofold. First, it gave a proletarian and socialist veneer to the Chinese state bureaucracy that had upheld the two-stage theory. Second, it isolated the Chinese proletariat from the peasantry. Designed in parallel with the system of price scissors, the functioning of household registration, effectively placed urban workers who received various public benefits never enjoyed by the peasantry firmly in the hands of the Chinese ruling class. Consequently, this politically insidious system both exacerbated the urban-rural divide and sowed division between the proletariat and the peasantry.

Compounding the problem, the Chinese ruling class has deliberately presented the issue of household registration in terms of social order since 1953. The ccp branded peasants who tried to find a better life for themselves in urban areas as blind vagrants (盲流) and then justifying stepped-up measures, falling squarely under the remit the Department of Public Security, against the peasantry.9 Under the guise of “maintaining social order,” this system not only extended nationwide social control to every household of the new Chinese state, but also smothered the fundamental question about the class nature of the ccp regime along with an explosion of class struggle. Taking different forms, the Maoist system of household registration has continued to the present day and has adversely impacted on hundreds of millions of migrant peasant workers (農民工).

Against the backdrop of a Chinese Stalinist tendency that had dominated the political landscape, the organization of peasants into agricultural communes along with agricultural collectivization, to which Xu referred approvingly, came into force. Similar to the debilitating systems of price scissors and household registration, collectivization was carried out to expedite the process of industrialization. During the ccp-led Great Leap Forward, peasants were instructed to surpass steel productions of the United States and the United Kingdom in 15 years with their backyard furnaces. This vast diversion of manpower and resources away from agriculture to “steel” production led to catastrophic consequences. Trapped by the much-hated household registration system that assigned benefits only to non-agricultural status holders, tens of millions of peasants faced starvation and died in the ensuing famine.

In short, Mao’s understanding of socialism being a state-planned collectivized productivist economy was so reminiscent of Leon Trotsky’s obsession with the so-called socialist achievement of the ussr under Stalin’s dictatorship. In Trotsky’s words,

Socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital… not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity. Even if the Soviet Union, as a result of internal difficulties, external blows and the mistakes of leadership, were to collapse … a backward country has achieved in less than 10 years successes unexampled in history….

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Contrary to Xu’s assertion that the Maoist society vanished, it has stayed on and assumed different appearances in different phases. He vented his frustration and anger over the Chinese state that had “enforced discipline” and “lowered wages” by pitting the migrant peasant workers against the urban workers over the past four decades (p. 111). For him, this illustrated the sharp contrast between the Maoist society and the post-Mao neoliberal programs. However, he failed to turn to the historical context within which the ccp emerged as a Stalinist party and its grave implications for the proletariat and the peasantry. It was (still is) this very tendency, to which he gave a nostalgic nod, that enabled the Chinese ruling class to turn Chinese peasants, who had been deprived of any meaningful social and legal rights, into the largest pool of a cheap, dispensable, and exploitable labor force that has ever existed in Chinese history.10 To put it bluntly, the fact that the post-Mao ccp leans to the right does not show, as Xu presumably thought it did, that Mao was more of a socialist than his successors.

It is worth pointing out that some Marxists in the English and French speaking worlds (e.g. the Monthly Review School and Samir Amin) tend to treat the Chinese Revolution as sacrosanct and then paint a rosy picture of life under Mao Zedong’s rule. For them, the Chinese Revolution signaled the advent of a “socialist” society with Mao Zedong being its intellectual defender and revolutionary leader.

This understanding is patently false in two fundamental respects. First and foremost, the mythical narratives that Mao was a far-left and that Maoism is a genuine form of Marxism are typical of Chinese Maoist representations. Interestingly, those illusory stories have been relentlessly promulgated, amplified and reproduced by the ccp and its cohorts. Consequently, the false identification of Maoism with Marxism enables Chinese Maoists to play an outsized role in advancing ostensibly dissenting viewpoints at home and abroad while posturing as champions of class struggle. In fact, the party apparatus tolerates Maoist criticism over China’s neoliberal programs precisely because Chinese Maoists leave the bourgeois nationalist character of the ccp and the Chinese state virtually unchallenged.

To put it another way, Maoists depict China’s neoliberal programs as exceptional deviations from “state socialism,” and those “policies” can be “reformed” into better projects to serve the interests of the masses. The unspoken premise of Maoist arguments is that the root cause of the problem of China’s transition to capitalism lies in neoliberalism, not in the ccp that has prepared the groundwork for capitalism envisioned by Mao and his cohorts since 1949. Consequently, those arguments let the dictatorship of the Chinese bourgeoisie off the hook.

As Mao articulated on 7 December 1956, “we can go capitalist after the elimination of capitalism” since “capital accumulation by the state relies primary on industrialization, not on agriculture.” Moreover, “we [the ccp] have to safeguard [the interests of] capitalists” because “the [Chinese] state needs them.” Phrased differently, as was made abundantly clear, Mao believed that the defense of the interests of this extremely thin social layer of the bourgeoisie was inextricably linked to the defense of the Chinese state. That is the real face of the Chinese ruling elite, stripped bare of all the socialist-sounding rhetoric.

Second, the Chinese ruling class and Maoists share a common interest in rendering all variants of Chinese Stalinism synonymous with socialism and in maintaining a false dichotomy between the so-called state socialism during the Mao era and the so-called socialism with Chinese characteristics in the post-Mao era. This false dichotomy serves to prevent the oppressed and exploited Chinese masses from calling things by their real names and from coming to realize that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves,” as put forth by General Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association. 11

It does not take great insight to detect that the social relations of production in China have been characterized by class exploitation and that social and technical developments as a whole in the country have been dominated by economic nationalism since 1949. As Marx presciently reminded us,

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

Zhun Xu seemed to have a rather selective memory for history. China’s pro-market “reforms” (e.g. Deng’s “Four Modernizations,” Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” (三個代表), Hu Jintao’s “Three Supremes” (三個至上), and Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream of One Belt, One Road’) were not a manifestation of some sort of capitalist aberration, as Xu wanted us to believe.12 Rather, they were an extension of the counterrevolutionary and bourgeois-nationalist orientation of the ccp.

In closing, similar to the ccp-enforced collectivization, decollectivization, a system of exploitation and oppression, was implemented from top down with the aims of further squeezing the peasantry and of advancing the interests of the Chinese bourgeoisie. This implies that China’s transition to capitalism, for which the two-stage theory had laid the foundations, is not a product of the post-Mao Chinese bureaucracy, as Xu wrote, but a product of the ccp’s bourgeois nationalism and of various forms of Stalinism. By drawing imaginary boundaries between the Maoist society and post-Mao China, From Commune to Capitalism in actual fact toed the party line and left intact the dictatorship of the Chinese bourgeoisie rooted in the capitalist nation-state system.

Much more could be said. Provided that readers subject Xu’s simplistic and ahistorical assumptions about Marxism and “state socialism” to critical and close scrutiny, this volume will be useful for people who are interested in China’s transition to capitalism.

  1. Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961).

  2. For a useful critique of Maoism, see Loren Goldner, “Notes Towards a Critique of Maoism,” Insurgent Notes (October 2012). For a devastating indictment of Maoism and its implications, see 錢理群 (Liqun Qian), 拒絕遺忘「一九五七年學」研究筆記 (Refusal to Forget: Notes for 1957 Studies), 香港: 牛津大學出版社, 2012 (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 2012); 錢理群 (Liqun Qian), 毛澤東時代和後毛澤東時代, 1949–200: 另一種歷史書寫上下冊 (The Mao Zedong Era and Post Mao Era, 1949–2009: An Alternative Writing of History: vols. I and II), 台北: 聯經, 2012 (Taipei: Linking Publishing, 2012).

  3. For a discussion of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, see Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution.

  4. 高華,身份和差異:1949–1965年中國社會的政治分層,香港:香港中文大學出版社,2000.

    Seio Nakajima, “The Paradox of Class Labeling in the Mao Era: Bio-Power, Racism, and the Question of Violence,” Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies vol. 4, no. 1 (2015), 3–20.

  5. For example, see David Barboza, “Billions in Hidden Riches for Family of Chinese Leader,” The New York Times, 25 October 2012.

  6. For a full text of Mao Zedong’s essay on class dated 1 December 1925, see 毛澤東 (Mao Zedong),中國社會各階級的分析 (An Analysis of Chinese Social Class).

  7. For a useful discussion of a classical Marxist perspective of the agrarian question and a critique of industrial programs of the ussr, see Loren Goldner, Revolution, Defeat and Theoretical Underdevelopment Russia, Turkey, Spain, Bolivia (Chicago: Haymarket 2017), chapter one, the Agrarian Question in the Russian Revolution.

  8. For a full text of Mao Zedong’s speech on price scissors dated 15 November 1956, see.

  9. Hein Mallee, “Migration, Hukou and Resistance in Reform China,” in Chinese Society: Change, Conflict and Resistance, eds., by Elizabeth Perry and Mark Selden (London: Routledge, 2003).

  10. Pun Ngai and Lu Huilin, “Unfinished Proletarianization: Self, Anger and Class Action of the Second Generation of Peasant-Workers in Reform China,” Modern China vol. 36, no. 5 (2010): 493–519; Pun Ngai and Lu Huilin, “A Culture of Violence: The Labor Subcontracting System and Collective Actions by Construction Workers in Post-Socialist China,” The China Journal no. 64 (2010): 143–158; Pun Ngai and Lu Huilin, “Neoliberalism, Urbanism and the Plight of Construction Workers in China,” Review in World Political Economy vol. 1, no. 1 (2010) 127–142; Pun Ngai, Chris Chan and Jenny Chan, “The Role of the State, Labour Policy and Migrant Workers” Struggles in Globalized China,” Global Labor Journal, vol.1, no.1 (2010): 132–151.

  11. For a discussion of self-emancipation of the working class, see Hal Draper, “The Principle of Self-Emancipation in Marx and Engels,” Socialist Register vol. 8, no. 8 (1971): 81–109.

  12. Arif Dirlik, “The idea of a “Chinese model’: A Critical Discussion,” China Information vol. 26, no. 3 (2012): 277–302.