Publication Date01 August 1983
AuthorKeith And,Kimberley Griffin
Date01 August 1983
Keith and Kimberley Griffin
The rural areas of China are going through a period of major institu-
tional reform.1 The Chinese People's Commune, one of the great social
inventions of the twentieth century, is being radically transformed in
directions which only now are beginning to become clear. In assessing
this transformation, however, it is important to maintain an historical
Institutional change is not new to the people of China. Indeed the
commune system as we know it today can be regarded as the outcome
of a rapid sequence of institutional reforms that began around the time
of liberation in 1949. The sequence started with a redistributive land
reform and the creation of small family farms. This was complemented
by the formation of mutual aid teams consisting of small groups of
three to five households in a village neighbourhood, the purpose of
which was to facilitate sharing in the use and purchase of agricultural
implements.2 Thus even in this early period, long before mechanization
was significant, it was efficient and mutually beneficial for small
farmers to work together and pool the tools that were then in very short
The mutual aid teams, in turn, paved the way for more complex
forms of collective organization. They evolved first into lower-level or
'Much of the material used in preparing this paper was obtained by a delegation of econo-
mists who visited China for three weeks in July and August 1982. The other members of the
delegation were John Enos, Ajit Ghose, Azizur Rahman Khan, Eddy Lee and Ashwani Saith.
Financial assistance was provided by the British Academy/S.S.R.C., the Chinese Academy of
Social Sciences, the I.L.O.'s Asian Regional Team for Employment Promotion, Oxford's webb
Medley Fund and the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. We are most grateful for this
assistance. We are also grateful to Cyril Lin of St. Antony's College, Oxford, and Professor
Shigeru Ishikawa for observations on an earlier draft.
2See Stavis (1978) p. 39; Shoe (1980) chapter 4.
Volume 45 August 1983 No. 3
elementary agricultural co-operatives and later into higher-level or
advanced agricultural co-operatives.3 In 1958, when the Great Leap
Forward was launched, the co-operatives were merged into very large
communes in which an attempt was made to apply communist prin-
ciples of production and distribution. As early as August 1959, how-
ever, it was evident that this attempt had not succeeded and it was
therefore necessary once again to reconstruct China's rural institutions.
That reconstruction produced the commune as we knew it until about
1979. That is, the arrangements made after the failure of the Great
Leap Forward survived with relatively modest modifications for about
two decades. In particular, the three collective tiers of the system (pro-
duction team, brigade and commune) and the fourth tier of the house-
hold economy, explained below, took their form after 1959. Now, of
course, major modifications are again underway.
The point we wish to emphasize, however, is that the commune was
not a single, once-for-all invention; rather, it was the product of experi-
mentation and adaptation. The commune, to repeat, was the product
of a process, not the consequence of an ephemeral happening, or one
man's imagination or even of a unique momentous event. The commune
system has a history, a history of change and transformation, and the
mutations that have recently captured so much attention are evidence
that the process of experimentation continues. This feature of the
Chinese style of rural development, namely its encouragement of
experimentation, is highly distinctive and helps to ensure that institu-
tional arrangements are responsive to the wishes of the peasantry and
the needs of the economy.
The institutional changes in post-liberation China occurred with the
agreement and active co.-operation of the great majority of the rural
population. The commune system was not imposed from above upon a
hostile, unwilling or reluctant populace. Apart from the initial land
confiscation which accompanied the triumph of the revolution and
which abolished the landlord class, the changes introduced into the
rural areas usually were made voluntarily, after much consultation
between the peasantry and local government and party officials. The
institutional transformation of rural China was not accompanied by
massive violence, widespread passive resistance or by a sharp fall in
output. This is not to say that there were no cases of violence, intimida-
tion, coercion, intense social pressure, or of officials exceeding their
authority; similarly, it would be untrue to imply that every innovation
was greeted with enthusiasm by the peasantry and that no resistance
ever was encountered anywhere; but on the whole change occurred
with the consent of those affected, peacefully, rapidly and effectively.
It was a remarkable achievement.
The story is well told in Shue, op. cit., chapter 7.

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