Academic journal article McGill Sociological Review

Changing Relations of Production in Chinese Agriculture from Decollectivization to Capitalism

Academic journal article McGill Sociological Review

Changing Relations of Production in Chinese Agriculture from Decollectivization to Capitalism

Article excerpt

I.Introduction

For a long time it has been assumed that capitalist agriculture requires the existence of fully established property rights on land and predominance of the use of wage labor in agricultural production. According to this assumption, transition from customary or communal landownership systems to private landownership and transition from feudal or independent smallholder production to production in large private farms employing wage labor are two preconditions of its development. However, numerous regional and national case studies have shown that after centuries of capitalist development these two preconditions have still not been fully realized in most of the world. A number of studies have established the fact that capitalist agriculture does not necessarily depend upon the predominance of private farms employing wage labor and is compatible with the existence of a sizeable small peasantry (Bates 1988; Bernstein 2003; Brenner 1982; Davis 1980; Lewontin 1998; Mann and Dickinson 1978). It has also been established that it can develop in places where land tenure laws are either unclear or short of securing private landownership.1 This essay suggests that contemporary Chinese agriculture reflects both exceptions; here, capitalist agriculture has developed to a certain extent but has neither eliminated small peasantry nor been based on completely private landownership. Although wage labor has not become the dominant form of capital-labor relation, different relations (such as contract farming) that allow capital's appropriation of surplus value from labor have developed in China. Therefore, Chinese agriculture has continuously acquired a capitalist character in recent decades.

The transformation of production relations along capitalist lines and its various impacts on class, gender, and state-society relations has been one of the key concerns of the study of social change in China since the beginning of the "reform and opening up" in 1978. However, until recent years, social scientific research on capitalist development in China has neglected agriculture largely. This does not mean that the literature has an urban bias. In fact, a vast literature has examined the transformation of rural China after 1978. However, when the rural residents of China come under the radar of social sciences as an issue of capitalist development, they have been studied either as workers in rural industries near their villages or as migrant workers in urban factories. Until recently, the development of capitalism has not been studied systematically as an agrarian subject.2 Since 196 million people are still employed in agriculture in China (Huang and Gao 2013: 56), there is certainly a need to bridge the gap in the literature regarding the capitalist transformation of Chinese agriculture. This article aims to contribute to this endeavor.

This article has five main arguments. Firstly, it argues that consecutive land tenure reforms since 1978 have primarily intended to promote capitalist agriculture by making land transfers from smallholders to larger farmers and agribusiness companies increasingly easier. Secondly, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that imperfect property rights on land constrains capital accumulation in agriculture, this article suggests that semi-private landownership has actually played a supportive role in this process. Thirdly, it identifies the roots of capitalist agriculture in the early years of decollectivization where some individual farmers managed to transform themselves to capitalist farmers by increasing their scale of production through acquiring more means of production. Fourthly, as the limitations of this "American path" of capitalist development from below became clear in the 1990s, the "agribusiness path" of vertical integration of the agricultural sector by the urban capital became the dominant developmental pattern and policy paradigm in China. Finally, contrary to the studies which present farmer cooperatives as embodying an alternative to capitalist agriculture, this article suggests that many of the farmer cooperatives in contemporary China are company-like cooperatives that are not very different from agribusiness companies in terms of shareholding and decision making structures and the production relations they facilitate. …

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