Decollectivization of China's rural economy in the early 1980s was one of the most significant aspects of the country's transition to a capitalist economy. Deng Xiaoping praised it as an "innovation," and its significance to the overall capitalist-oriented "reform" process surely cannot be overstated.1 The Chinese government has repeatedly referred to the supposed economic benefits of decollectivization as having "greatly increased the incentives to millions of peasants."2 Nevertheless, the political-economic implications of decollectivization have always been highly ambiguous, and questionable at best. Individual or small groups of peasants were frequently portrayed in mainstream accounts as political stars for initiating the process, but this served to obscure the deep resistance to decollectivization in many locales. Moreover, the deeper causes and consequences of the agrarian reform are downplayed in most writings, leaving the impression that the rural reform was in the main politically neutral.
A few works did address the political-economic aspect, but even those works were generally conformist analyses, presenting the usual stereotypes, and in accord with the official history. One of the popular stories was that peasants wanted freedom from collective controls and so they creatively and collectively dissolved their own collectives.3 A typical analysis tends to follow this story line: collective farming caused years of poverty and laziness, so brave and wise peasants signed secret contracts to perform household farming. Due to the powerful incentive effects of decollectivization, agricultural production was dramatically increased. Once this was imitated nationwide with impressive results, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had to accept this institutional innovation from the peasants.
However, increasing evidence has shown that decollectivization did not have its acclaimed effects on efficiency.4 These studies, challenging the consensus in the literature, have important implications. The economic benefits of decollectivization, it now appears, were actually not that large. This suggests that there were perhaps more important factors beyond the efficiency and incentive aspects offered by conventional wisdom. In particular, a class analysis is missing from the mainstream stories.
In what follows it will be argued that decollectivization served as the political basis of the capitalist transitions in China. It not only disempowered the peasantry, but broke the peasant-worker alliance, and greatly reduced the potential resistance to reform. The political significance for the CCP of the rural reform to capitalist transition cannot be overstated, and this was exactly why the CCP officially interpreted decollectivization as spontaneous and purely economic.
Debunking the Myths Around Decollectivization Politics
There are many myths created regarding the history of decollectivization. The two most prominent are that: (1) the whole movement was largely spontaneous and apolitical, and (2) the only people who opposed decollectivization were the cadre, rather than peasants. Since these myths are the pillars of the mainstream interpretation, they are worth critical examination.
Decollectivization in 1980s has been labeled as a spontaneous, grassroots collective action against the previous collectives. In this story, most peasants wanted decollectivization, and the CCP was passive in the reform.5 But a closer reading of the actual history reveals the opposite is true.
All the anecdotes of peasants dismantling their own collectives seem to be in conflict with the basic logic of decollectivization. The mainstream explanation was that peasants did not agree with collective production. But as Chris Bramali argues, if the peasants were capable of organizing their decollectivization in the way they are said to have done, then collective agriculture would have been a huge success and there would have been no need for decollectivization. …