China Rural Land Management

The most popular systems in China was rural land management called the People’s Commune and Household Production Responsibility. Since the China’s republic foundation in 1949, the rural land management was all about the land reform. The land reform era started in 1950’s with radical farmland revolution. China was taking land from the landlords, to which it previously belonged and distributed it among the poor peasants. Chinese farmers dreamed about having their own land for many centuries and finally their dream came true. Along with other socialist countries, China took Soviet Union’s example in modeling the farmland policy; the model was characterized by collective ownership.

To accomplish collective ownership model, China declared the second land reform, the so-called campaign of collectivization, were individual farmers were joined in collective unions. This finally comprised a new system called the People’s Commune. The rights for the property were centrally controlled and the egalitarian principle of distribution was applied. Eventually, communes destroyed farmers’ operational freedom and therefore, the enthusiasm to work and to produce was gone. Many facts prove the failure of commune system to be productive.

In the late 1970’s China started a new economic reform, pioneered by rural reform. China derived from the Soviet model of collectivism by introducing a family-based contract system. This contract system got a name household responsibility system. Since then, the system got an enormous popularity and proved to become a nationwide pattern of handling agricultural activities. It became famous as the third land revolution in China and was a great success at that time.

The system allowed farmers freedom of land use rights and decision making concerning their work. Rewards were strictly linked to the performance and so there were lots of incentives for performing well. As a result, the agricultural field in China has been significantly revived. After 30 years of stagnation, China experiences the first growth in agricultural production, during 1980’s the rate of growth increased several times what it was before. Between 1978 and 1984, output of the three main crops, namely grain, cotton and oil-bearing crops, increased at annual rates of 4.8 percent, 7.7 percent and 13.8 percent, respectively, compared with the average rates of increase of 2.4 percent, 1.0 percent and 0.8 percent per year from 1952 to 1978 (State Statistical Bureau, People’s Republic of China, 1985).

The production of grain has always been the leading sphere in agriculture in China since the reform took place up until 1984, the production of grain has increased to 407 million tons. This has generated the net increase of more than hundred million tons within the next several years. This solved the challenging problem of feeding the population China. However in 1985, China experienced a new drop in grain output – six percent off the previous year, this has started the stagnation period up until 1990’s. It became obvious that the household responsibility had ran out of the benefits, though it is debatable whether the rapid boom in agriculture in 1980’s or the stagnation afterward caused this. However, it did have an important role, alongside, for example, real grain price changes.

Household responsibility system was very successful innovation, but unfortunately, it could not address all the issues.

The system was in practice for a number of years, and these years showed many limitations and weaknesses of household responsibility. Tiny and fragmented farming units appeared after the land was distributed, all these units formed independently. The problem was, that the system of distribution was taken from the collectivism structure. Farmland in a village was owned by all of its members collectively. As a result, every member had equal claim on land property rights, and the norm for distributing land was based on the size of the peasant family. Overall, since the amount of land for distribution was very limited, every household received a very little portion to be effective. Besides the land was not equally fertile, some lands were not in a good geographical position in terms of climate. Therefore, some households received portions of land useless for farming. Also, a household usually received land from different grades. So the total was not sufficient and too fragmented, scattered all around the village.

Large areas of cultivated land were wasted in the form of paths and boundaries separating households’ holdings. A survey conducted by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture indicated that in 1986, among 7 983 sample villages from 29 provinces, average cultivated area per household was 0.466 ha (7 mu), [2] fragmented into 5.85 plots, each plot on average 0.08 ha (1.2 mu) (Ministry of Agriculture of China, 1993). The fragmented structure stayed this way for a long time and limited the opportunities for using any mechanical equipment and agricultural machines.

A person was eligible for land depending on his or her village status no matter how and when it was received. Children married and unmarried had equal rights to claim the equal shares of land, but when the villager died, his or her right could automatically disappear. With the increase of population, the system of land distribution had to be changed and adjusted to the new conditions, which made the farmland even more fragmented. The endless redistribution of farmland resulted in many problems:

  • the situation of a small and fragmented farming structure further deteriorated;
  • worried about the risk of losing their land as well as investment, farmers had no incentives to improve land conservation and agricultural infrastructure – irrigated land, one of the most important components of agricultural infrastructure in China, remained almost unchanged during the 1980s;
  • farmers overexploited the soil to pursue short-term returns;
  • the process of land redistribution itself was costly, requiring much labor and time in organization and implementation.

Finally, under the household responsibility system, the land was not provided with the necessarily worked force. Under the household responsibility system, egalitarianism was generally the leading principle guiding land distribution. The factors like labor capability, work experience, and preferences of the individual were not a concern at all. This way, some household with a limited workforce had farmland portions there were too large for them to work at, from the other hand households with a big working capital and capacity with a particular experience in agriculture didn’t have enough land for their full employment.

This kind of problem was much worse in areas experiencing rapid rural industrialization and urbanization. In these areas, there was a general deterioration in the agricultural labor force as the ablest workers tended to leave the villages. Adding to the problem was the fact that that finding off-farm work did not renounce their right to farm but retained a part-time involvement. Many did not give priority to cultivation and at times even let the land lie idle. Thus, the scarcest resource was underutilized. To sum up, the household responsibility system maintained egalitarianism but was less successful in terms of economic efficiency. As for the unsolved problems, the negative aspects of the household responsibility system will inevitably become more and more of a constraint on the further development of China’s agriculture. China faces a challenge once again.

If we compare the two systems: household responsibility and people’s commune, the advantage is obviously on the side of the first one. This has been even proved in practice. The Chinese society and most of other societies would not work properly in the commune collective system, just because they are comprised of individuals that have their own rights, views, and preferences. You cannot make a person share if he does not want to share, thus it is better to let him own land he works at and be accountable to himself only. On the other hand, if the society is perfect and not as individualistic, as our modern societies, possibly the collectivism would more efficient than household responsibility. But clearly, our world has not reached that point, yet. So, the answer to the question, which would be more sustainable and efficient system is household responsibility.


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