The Importance of Land Reform in the Reconstruction of China
Hinton, William, Monthly Review
From the early 1920s through 1949 when the Peoples Liberation Army liberated Beijing, the Chinese people, rising in revolution under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, targeted domestic feudalism, bureaucratic capitalism, and foreign imperialism as the three mountains on their backs that had to be thrown off. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the landlord-dominated feudal land system was the central issue, and land reform - equal distribution of the land to all who labored on it - formed the heart of the revolutionary program. After 1937, when the Japanese embarked on the military conquest of China, their imperialist invasion, threatening China's very existence as an independent country, preempted all other political issues. Chinese revolutionaries responded by forging a united front with all forces, including those bureaucratic capitalists holding state power and those landlords in the countryside, who were willing to join in resistance to Japan. For eight years mobilization for land reform in the countryside gave way to rent-and-interest reduction schemes, a Communist Party policy to which all resisters gave lip service, but not all landlords and usurers put into practice.
Land to the Tiller, the Central Issue
After the Japanese surrendered in 1945, land reform again took the center of the political stage and dominated domestic politics in China throughout the period of the postwar civil war and even for several years thereafter. This dominance lasted more or less intact until all peasants everywhere - with minor exceptions such as a six-year delay in Tibet - took over the land they tilled. This stage of the revolution, the anti-imperialist, anti-feudal stage, was called by Mao Zedong the New Democratic Revolution. It was a massive armed uprising, primarily of peasants, that prepared the ground for socialism but did not place socialism as such on its agenda.
The New Democratic land reform in China was without doubt the most massive expropriation and distribution of property and repudiation of debt in world history. As I wrote in Fanshen, the Draft Agrarian Law of 1947
was destined to play as important a role in China's Civil War of 1946-1950 as the Emancipation Proclamation played in the American Civil War of 1861-65. Lincoln's Emancipation proclamation confiscated without compensation $3 billion worth of property in slaves, put an end to the possibility of compromise between the industrial North and the slave-holding South in the military contest then raging; made the slave system itself, rather than regional autonomy, the nub of the conflict; cleared the way for the recruitment of hundreds of thousands of emancipated black men into the Union Army; and spread the war into every corner of Confederate territory with devastating effect.
Mao's Draft Agrarian Law confiscated without compensation $20 billion in land (no figures for the value of debts canceled are available); put an end to all possible compromise between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang; made countrywide overthrow of the landlords and compradores, rather than the defense of the Liberated Areas, the main aim of the war; facilitated the capitulation and recruitment of huge blocks of Chiang's soldiers into the People's Liberation Army; inspired peasant unrest in the far corners of China; and gave impetus to demonstrations of workers, students, merchants, and professional people in urban centers throughout the Kuomintang area.
The massive distribution of the property at the core of Chinese feudalism that followed promulgation of the Draft Law enabled almost every poor peasant and hired laborer in China to fanshen, to turn over, to stand up, to acquire land, often tools, a share in a draft animal, a section or two of house, even a few clothes - in other words the basic prerequisites for self support, and this egalitarian maternal base undergirding peasant society remains intact to this day.
Liberating Productive Forces
More important in the long run than the equalization, however, the thorough and universal land reform liberated hitherto tightly constrained productive forces, primarily the surplus labor power of the Chinese peasants, and by providing returns from land of their own as incentive, led this huge force to increase production rapidly not only on land already filled but on land newly reclaimed, not only on irrigated fields already in place or restored but on fields newly watered, and by new sideline and industrial projects never before undertaken that added greatly to individual incomes. …