Revolutionary China

Turning peasants into workers

Revolutionary China

Tim Megarry surveys how the Communist regime in China greatly alleviated the hardship of rural peasants. An article which first appeared in SACU's China Now magazine 1971.

The spectacular economic achievements made by China's communes since 1958 have depended upon the continually rising level of political consciousness, among the masses of the peasantry. Commune organisation demands the willing co-operation of peasants within a whole area for collective goals. Yet in 1949 China's peasantry was still largely individualistic, illiterate and superstitious. Despite the poor peasants' wholesale rejection of the basic features of the traditional society - the landlord, clan leader and money lender - many aspects of the old feudal order remained.

Peasant children
Peasant children at a commune near Guangzhou, 1978

A conversation between some English visitors and peasants in the early 1950's revealed that the cultural straitjacket of the isolated and closed village community was still partially effective, even after land reform. With almost no conception of the world beyond the nearest town many peasants assumed that their English guests were members of national minorities from a remote Chinese province. The explanation that England was a European country far to the west of China satisfied some of the younger peasants, but one old villager, still in great confusion, replied:

I can't understand all this stuff about Europe and England. Just tell me, when you leave our village do you turn to the right or to the left?

During the recent SACU young people's tour of China we were able to meet commune members whose political understanding and world outlook had reached a level where the term 'peasant' no longer seemed appropriate. Owing to the intensification of class struggle and struggles for production, implicit in the development in the people's communes China's peasantry now appears to be taking the form of a 'rural working class'.

Rural development in China has proceeded in the form of a political alliance between Party and peasantry which has placed great emphasis upon self-reliance. This in turn has led to direct, grass roots democracy within each brigade and commune. Peasant participation and spontaneity in organisations has tended to undercut the power of bureaucracies.

The political will and indigenous knowledge of poor peasants is often placed before the directives of specialists and experts. The founding of commune-based industry, the introduction of both elementary and advanced medical services, the establishment of commune-based schools and the migration of urban educated young people to the countryside has often proceeded on poor peasant initiative. (There is not simply one class of peasantry in China see Mao's article 'Analysis of the Classes in Chinese Society'). In consequence a large scale social transformation of China's peasantry seems to be in progress. In fact the task of transforming men, even though it may be temporarily at the expense of production, is seen as paramount by the Chinese Communist Party and leading peasant cadres.

Our visit to the July First People's Commune near Shanghai was one indication of the great social and economic changes being made in rural China. This commune is situated on the rich alluvial land of the Yangzi delta and is technologically very advanced. Begun in 1958 the commune now has a population of 16,000 with 88 work teams and 11 production brigades. Since liberation 21 schools, a modern hospital and several clinics have been established. Dramatic improvements in agricultural output have been made possible by extensive land improvement projects.

Thirteen electric irrigation stations and 200 pumps send water through underground conduits direct to large paddy fields. From 1950 to 1970 the rise in grain production was 300 per cent; for vegetables it wets 450 per cent; for cotton 500 per cent and 1,000 per cent for pigs. In its attempts to become an industrially self-reliant entity the commune has built its own factories and workshops which, besides making agricultural machinery, also produce powerful electric motors. Rice planting machinery is being developed along with walking' and conventional tractors.

Before 1949 the area in which the commune stands suffered from an unusually high degree of exploitation. In 1932 Wang Yinzeng, a Chinese economist, found that 65 per cent of all arable land was owned by landlords who amounted to only 10 per cent of the community.

Among the 70 per cent of poor peasants in the area only 15 per cent of land was owned outright. Land rents and extortionate taxes for poor peasants often amounted to as much as 60 per cent of total production. The avaricious landlord class constantly attempted to enlarge their holdings, thereby creating an increasing number of dispossessed, landless peasants who sank to the level of serfs.

Mao rally
Maoist rally with books by Chairman Mao

The life story of Qu Weiming, who we met on the commune, exemplified the fate of the landless peasant before liberation. Orphaned at the age of eight Qu was taken as a slave by a local landlord in lieu of a debt her parents had accumulated after their land had been taken. For the next 19 years she endured brutal treatment in the landlord's manor. 'I was given only rice gruel and grain husks to eat. My clothes were rags and straw matting bound up with a piece of rope. I saw no hope for the future; I would sit and cry for hours and three times I tried to kill myself.'

When the Communist forces first arrived in the village Qu was very frightened:

All soldiers were thought of as bullies in those days but these men from the PLA behaved moderately; they patiently taught us the policy of the Communist Party. They helped us organise a peasant association. Together we struggled against the landlords. I spoke out at meetings against all those that had oppressed me. The landlords were humbled before us and we felt a new power in us for the first time.

Chu Wei-ming, like millions of Chinese peasants, had 'stood up'. She had gained a new self-confidence in a new society where the creative energies of the peasants could be applied to their immediate problems. Now at 48 Qu has three children who attend the commune's primary and middle schools.

On the commune live a number of urban educated young people who have integrated themselves with the peasants. Many new techniques and political benefits have occurred as a result. The political understanding of the peasants has been raised and the development of a potential middle class elite of urban specialists has been precluded. We met Ban Xunqi, a 25-year-old student from Shanghai who had been on the commune for a few years. Ban, a graduate of middle school, had come to the countryside to learn about agricultural conditions. Besides working in the fields Pan is also a local journalist for the commune and county press and radio.

Many of the peasants we talked to gave us the impression that great changes in political outlook had occurred. They had come to identify themselves with the poor peasantry as a social class and with the whole commune rather than just the village. Political education has made the peasants aware that there is a wide range of technological skills which must be acquired and has given greater insight into the precise nature of China's agricultural needs. But above all the fundamental commitment to socialist construction marks the political break with the fatalism and apathy of the past. The descriptive category of 'peasant' has become less apposite to the masses of China's commune members. As one member of the July First peoples' commune told us:

Chairman Mao makes us aware that we are not working just for ourselves. We are working for the revolution. Only revolution will benefit the masses. We are working for the Chinese revolution and for the world revolution.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 17, Page 7, December 1971

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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