Rural Reform in early Post-Mao China 1976-1981

warren-sun-smCentre for Contemporary Chinese Studies, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

Dr Warren Sun
Monash University

5.30pm-7.00pm Thursday 7 April 2016
Evan Williams Theatre (G03), Richard Berry Building, Monash Road, University of Melbourne

The period from the arrest of the “gang of four” in October 1976 to the final step in the removal of Hua Guofeng in mid-1981 saw CCP rural policy go through a number of phases. The initial emphasis on a moderate version of the Dazhai model gave way to “traditional policies” (luoshi zhengce) by mid-1978; these policies were supplemented in 1979 by “responsibility systems,” the most radical of which, household contracting (baochan daohu), became a sharply divisive issue in 1980, but still not the main aspect of agricultural policy. The tide was moving strongly toward household contracting by mid-1981, but had not yet achieved unambiguous endorsement as the Party policy until the end of the year. The dynamics of this policy movement has never been adequately explained.

A number of inadequate approaches have dominated the literature, notably 1) a power/policy struggle between Hua Guofeng’s alleged neo-Maoists and Deng Xiaoping’s reform coalition; 2) the power of the peasants; and 3) the leading role of provincial reformers. The first has no validity, the second and third must be viewed through more complex lenses. The monograph will explicate the key factors and present an alternative explanation of the success of rural reform. Among the paradoxes analyzed are that Hua Guofeng, while never fully endorsing baochan daohu, took the critical initial steps making the policy possible, Deng Xiaoping basically devoted little attention to the rural sector yet remained critical to the eventual political outcome, Zhao Ziyang and Wan Li, generally treated as co-authors of the push for household contracting in the literature, had different approaches and some conflict as provincial leaders and after their postings to key positions in Beijing in 1980, and a process marked by repeated “fierce debate” from the grassroots to conferences organized by the Party Center did not result in any serious punishment for those on the shifting “losing” side of the argument, at least from the provincial level up.

This study attempts to provide a new interpretation challenging conventional wisdom. Its key finding is that a game changer emerged in spring 1980 at the time Deng replaced Hua as CCP leader, but the significant change in policy was not a product of any clash between these two leaders. Instead, Deng endorsed Zhao Ziyang’s policy initiative that shifted emphasis away from Hua’s pro-peasant policy of increased resources to the countryside, to a pro-state policy that reduced the rural burden on national coffers. To replace the financial resources, policy measures including household farming were implemented with considerable provincial variations. The major unexpected production increases in 1982 confirmed the arrival of decollectivization as the template on the ground.

Originally from Taiwan, Dr Warren Sun studied English and American Literature at National Taiwan University where he also worked as a journalist for the newspaper syndicate, Lianhebao (The United Daily). During his post-graduate studies in Australia, Dr Sun’s research focused on the modern Chinese intellectual history of the late Qing and early Republican period and the works of Zhang Binglin, the last master of Chinese classical learning and influential radical philosopher despite his deep-seated cultural conservatism. Through his position as senior research fellow at the University of Sydney, he collaborated with Professor Frederick Teiwes on many works on contemporary Chinese elite politics, before joining the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University in 1996.

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