|CLASS STRATIFICATION IN THE CHINESE COUNTRYSIDE
by Róbinson Rojas Sandford
(Paper delivered at SOAS, London, February 1979)
TABLE A.- DISTRIBUTION OF LAND, RURAL LABOUR FORCE AND OUTPUT
IN 1978. CHINA
THE PEOPLE'S COMMUNE
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL INEQUALITIES
In this paper I will discuss social structure in rural China after
1949. Therefore, the analysis will not deal with social structure
in the Chinese society as a whole. Nevertheless, as the rural
sector in China accounts for about 80% of the total population,
the importance of rural social stratification is self-evident.
I will focus on the organization of labour, or, the relations
between labourers and means of production, and, as derived from the
above, relations between direct labourers and non-labourers (if
there are any).
Firstly, I will look at the material mode of production. Next, the
social and economic inequalities created by that particular
organization of labour, and, last but not least, the political
inequalities generated by the social and economic differentials.
After 1949 until 1957, China's new government changed the old
relations of production through a programme of agrarian reform and
the creation of cooperative labour in the countryside. In 1958, the
development of cooperative labour reached its peak with the
creation of the people's commune. Up to 1978-79 the people's
commune was the major organization of production in China.
OWNERSHIP OF THE LAND
There were three levels of landed property: state, collective and
private. In terms of surface, about 5% of cultivated land was
owned by the state, 7% by individuals and 88% by small cooperatives
called "production teams", and, in some cases, by production
brigades (a group of production teams), or even the commune.
The land owned by the state was exploited as state farms, where the
direct labourers are paid in money. They were wage earners in the
same way as industrial workers are in the urban areas.
Relations of production in state farms are the same as in urban
factories: means of production belong to the state, direct
labourers sell their labour power to the state and produce a
surplus-value administrated by the state.
State farm workers are members of the chinese proletariat. State
farm managers are members of the chinese bureaucracy. According to
official data, there were five million workers in state farms in
1978, as compared with 302 million peasants doing collective or
individual rural work in the same year. That is, the state farm
workers accounted for less than two per cent of the rural labour
force. Table A gives us a clearer picture of the relative
importance of this sector.
TABLE A.- DISTRIBUTION OF LAND, RURAL LABOUR FORCE AND OUTPUT
IN 1978. CHINA
OWMNERSHIP OF LAND LABOUR FORCE OUTPUT
(as percentage of total)
1- state 5% 1.6% 8-10%
2- collective 88% 96.1% 67-66%
3- private 7% (same as above) 25-23%
(landless self-employed 2.7%)
Source: R. Rojas, "China: Una Revolucion en Agonia", Martinez Roca,
1978. Chinese source: CC of the CCP archives.
Note: Total rural labour force was 307 million. The 7.0 million
not included in the Table are those landless individual workers who
did not work in production teams and earned their living as self-
employed. On the other hand, the same figure of workers was valid
both for collective and private workers, because commune members
did both jobs on collective and private lands.
Chinese state farms played an important role in reclaiming large
tracts of wasteland and in the construction (development) of the
THE PEOPLE'S COMMUNE
A commune was an economic, social and political unit collectively
owned and run by the people who live there, which organized
agricultural and other production, but also catered to the
educational, medical, welfare and cultural needs of its
It was an administrative and productive organization. At the
administrative level, managed the civil affairs, militia, public
security, culture, education and public health of its members. At
the productive level, organized agricultural and industrial-
related-to-agriculture production within its territorial limits.
Some 786 million persons out of a rural population of 818 million
were organized into 50-70,000 communes, which were administrative
sub-units of the county (around two thousand).
On 27th September, 1962, the Tenth Plenum of the Eighth Central
Committee of the Chinese Communist Party passed a resolution on
people's communes, known as The Sixty Articles on the Communes.
From that date, this resolution constituted the legal charter for
communes in China.
The resolution confirmed the three levels of ownership within the
commune (commune, production brigade and production team), as they
were from the setting up of them in 1958, but did transfer to the
lowest level of organization - the production team - the role as
basic accounting unit, or, in other words, the basic unit of rural
It stated that "all the land within the production teams belongs to
the production teams. The commune is not allowed to rent, buy or
sell the land owned by the production teams, including the private
plots, private hills and residential land of commune
members"..."all collective forests, water surface and grassland
should be owned by production teams if it is advantageous for the
production teams to own them"..."the production teams have the
right to freely manage production and distribute gains"..."the
private land generally accounts for 5 to 7 per cent of the
production team's total cultivated land. This is allotted to a
commune member for his own use on a permanent basis"..."The
products and income from family sideline production of the commune
members shall be owned by them and distributed as they like"..."The
State will not collect any agricultural tax on them and will not
consider them as agricultural products subject to unified
In addition, dealing with the administrative hierarchy: "under the
leadership of the commune administrative committee the brigade
administrative committee shall manage the productive work and
administrative work of the production teams within the brigade, and
manage the civil affairs, militia, public security, culture,
education and public health in the whole brigade".
To summarize, the basic level of organization of labour in a
people's commune was the production team composed of twenty or
twenty-five households who live close to each other (generally
forming a village). Every dozen or so production teams were
organized in production brigades. Then, a dozen or so brigades
composed a people's commune.
The commune was run by a management committee, which in part
consisted of people sent by the state but also included elected
members of the commune. The leaders of the commune were paid by
the state, the head earning about 840 yuan and the ordinary cadres
about 600 yuan per year. These figures must be compared with the
average income of peasants: less than 187 yuan per annum; moreover,
about one quarter of commune members had, in 1978, a per-capita
income of less than 133 yuan per year. Thus, there was a
differential in income of 6.3:l to 3.2:l between the state
bureaucracy and the direct labourers.
The commune participated in production managing rural industrial
enterprises and organizing collective undertakings such as building
of roads and irrigation works.
Under the commune management committee were the production brigades
which were administrated by management committees as well, mainly
composed of commune members. The brigade's productive tasks were
the same as communes, but on a smaller scale.
In total, the rural industrial enterprises managed by communes and
brigade employed 17 million workers in 1977 out of a total of 28
million workers in this particular type of small industries. The
rest belonged to industries run by production teams. In other
words, production teams managed almost 40 per cent of rural
The foundation of commune's organization was the production team
who owned the land, livestock, machinery, funds, products, material
resources and allocation of manpower.
Each member of the team received, on a permanent basis, a tract of
land. There was not constraint as to what to cultivate and market
the produce of that land. The size of the plot varied according to
the number of members of the family, or the members of the team.
On that private land, the labourer normally raised pigs, poultry
and even one or two draught animals ( the latter after 1977), and
As a whole, this individual labour accounted for between a range of
23-25 percent of the total rural production.
Therefore, chinese peasants as members of production teams
performed two types of productive labour:
a) collective, in the cooperative team
b) individual, in the private land they possessed
as members of the production team.
The collective labour was performed in the fields, in some of the
small industrial enterprises, in collective irrigation works and so
forth. For this labour, the team members got "points of work"
which, at the end of the year, were given a value in accordance
with the final production of the team. On national average, about
40-50 per cent of these points of work were paid in kind (mainly
cereals), and the rest in money.
The individual labour was performed in the private plots, after
doing collective labour, and the produce of this individual labour
was realized in free markets ( in the villages, mainly) and even by
selling some products to the state, for example, pigs. More often
than not, the money the team's members got for their individual
labour was a substantial part of the cash they gathered through
collective labour, and, in many cases, more than the latter.
So, it is possible to argue that at the level of production teams,
the peasants were proprietors of land and other means of production
and owned a substantial part of the product of their work.
Property of land was at two levels: cooperative and individual.
Also, they culdn't rent, sell or buy land, but they possessed the
land and were in a capacity to manage means of production and
labour power. At the same time, given specific conditions, they
could buy or sell labour power, as is written in article 31 or the
Sixty Articles quoted before:
"in order to facilitate the organizing of production, the
production team may set up fixed or temporary work team according
to localities and contract work may be subscribed by period, by
season or by the whole year so that a rigid responsibility system
may be established. The system may apply to stock-breeding,
forestry, fisheries and other sideline production and also to the
administration of draft animals, farm tools, irrigation and other
public properties. The production team or an individual may be
subjected to such a system..."
Therefore, if I argue that class differentiation is based upon
relations between men and means of production, and that the basic
class differentiation is established in accordance with the
incapacity/capacity to manipulate means of production and labour
power, whether this incapacity/capacity is based upon
ownership/possession or control/management of the means of
production, I can attempt to describe a sort of class
stratification in China's countryside before the demise of the
people's commune. It is necessary to keep in mind that figures or
percentage related to China's statistics are only for reference.
Nevertheless, this is sufficient to establish a rough analysis of
LANDLESS PEASANTS: There were about 40 million; among them
approximately seven million were individual labourers not belonging
to people's communes and doing petty trades, for example, peddlers,
cobblers, etc. Another five million worked
in state farms, thence, wage earners; and 28 million worked in
small rural industrial enterprises. The latter even though they
were commune members, didn' cultivate the land and, therefore,
didn't have private plots. So, I group them with the wage earners.
So, about 13% of the rural labour force was landless and had not
property of means of production.
LANDED PEASANTS: They amounted to 267 million labourers who
owned/controlled land in two ways: as co-operative property (in
production teams) and as individual possession (in private plots).
They were proprietors of means of production and could allocate
labour power and even hire labour power in specific conditions.
The size of these cooperatives was rather small: less than 0.4
hectare per labourer - of which less than 0.03 hectare was private
land - and around 40 labourers per cooperative (production team).
Landed peasants accounted for around 87 per cent of rural labourers
and about 66.4 per cent of the Chinese labour force.
Therefore, those landed peasants were the most important social
sector in China and their political behaviour was a most important
influence in the policies the national leadership had to put
forward after 1958.
My two researchs on people's communes ( the first in the sixties -
Rojas, 1968, and the second in the seventies -Rojas, 1978) show
that most - and in some cases the totality - of the landed
peasants' means of subsistence were extracted from the private
plots. Therefore, to put it mildly, the Chinese rural economy was
one of semi self-supporting peasants.
So, their ideology was the ideology of the small proprietor who see
the individual ownership (or possession at least) of the land as
the source of their subsistence and reproduction.
Thus, the material basis of system of production and the relations
of production of their organization of labour, sourced a highly
conservative political stand, in general, very similar to the rural
petty bourgeoisie in the capitalist countries.
To summarize so far: in China's countryside, after thirty years of
revolution, the class structure was roughly as follows:
Rural proletariat: about 10.7 per cent of the rural workers
Non-proprietor petty bourgeoisie: about 2.3 percent
Landed and owner of other means of production peasantry:
about 87 percent
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL INEQUALITIES:- There are many studies by
Western scholars about differentials in income in Chinese rural
areas. All of them found economic differentials rather wide. For
instance, Keith Buchanan noted that there was a ratio of roughly
4:l between the average incomes of the most and least prosperous
communes he visited, and that among teams of the same commune that
ratio was 2:1, and that among individuals in the same team the
ratio was 3:1.
On the other hand, Jan Myrdal found in the Shensi province income
differentials between households of 8:1 and from 63 yuan to 474
yuan per labourer. (7:1)
Norman Uphoff and Milton Esman found in 1974, in the same village
researched by Jan Myrdal, that the ratio of the incomes from
collective labour of the top 20 per cent of the families to those
of the bottom 20 per cent is about 4.6:1
Charles Bettelheim found in 1966 differentials in cash income (not
in kind) of about 8:1. Edgar Snow, in 1970 cited differentials of
cash income of 9.5:1
In 1973, Peking Review cited differentials in Chingsu province
between teams of 7.5:1. In 1976, the Deputy Secretary of the
Hsiyrang County Committee of the CCP, Shensi Province, quoted
figures which give a differential of 2.4:1 between Dachai brigade
and average income of Hsiyang county.
I found in my research in 1966 the same differentials, with some
extreme cases of 19.1:1. My research in 1976 produced similar
results, pointing to the fact that after the defeat of the cultural
revolution, the peasants didn't improve their economic situation at
On 28th September 1979, the Fourth Plenum of the 11th Central
Committee of the CCP released a document stating that "the average
per-capita annual income for the agricultural population was only
a little over 70 yuan... and nearly one quarter of the production
teams was less than 50 yuan".
These figures meant that approximately the average income per
labourer per year was less than 187 yuan, and that nearly 25% of
the rural labourers earned less than 133 yuan per year. If we
compare these official figures with the findings of Jan Myrdal in
1964 of 454 yuan per labourer in Shensi province, the differential
is still 3.4:1.
So, there were big income differentials between communes, between
brigades, teams and individuals. Therefore, within the ranks of
the landed peasantry there were rich peasants, middle peasants and
On the other hand, as an important source of these differentials is
the quality of the soil and the productivity of the labour power,
and the Chinese leadership was fostering the policy of developing
the richest agricultural areas to support the "four modernizations"
( starting from 1978 ), there was a clear alliance between rich
peasants and state bureaucracy to develop the economy and, by so
doing, improve the standard of living of those already rich
This situation was not new. After the Big Leap Forward in the late
fifties and with the development of the people's communes, in 1962-
1965 there appeared an open alliance between Party and State
bureaucracy with the well-to-do peasants. And, to fight this
reinforcement of bureaucratic socialism the so-called Socialist
Movement in the countryside was launched, which was the first step
of the Cultural Revolution, both ending in failure in the 1970s
with the triumph of the counter-revolution led by Deng Xiao-ping.
Over the years, the economic differentials took the shape of social
differentials, and in so doing, of political differentials. The
above, parallel to the bureaucratization of the socialist state,
with the members of the Chinese communist party playing the role of
managers/controllers of the industrial means of production, and
becoming a sort of "socialist" ruling elite ( or class, may be ),
the countryside witnessed a curious political struggle: different
groups of landed peasants fighting for playing the role of "main ally
of the Party". This struggle, more often than not, has been won by
the well-to-do peasants. It did happen in the 1960s, then in the
1970s, until the demise of socialism in China after 1978.
Therefore, in this paper I argue that the main social basis that
supported the anti-socialist policies of the Chinese leadership,
which ended up with the coup d'etat on October 1976, was constituted
by the better-off strata of Chinese peasantry which is the owner of
land and other means of production; and also that the current Chinese
leadership reflects the anti-marxist and reactionary ideology of
that landed peasantry.
13th December, 1979. Robinson Rojas Sandford.
R. Rojas, "La Guardia Roja Conquista China", Ediciones ML, Chile, 1968
R. Rojas, "China, Revolucion en Agonia", Martinez Roca, Spain, 1978
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