Seeing like the State: Understanding China’s Rural Land Reform from a Historical Perspective

Tiantian Liu, Johns Hopkins University

When the Chinese state announced the Three-Division of Land Right Policy in 2016, which encouraged land transfer to promote big agricultural enterprises, many believed that it marked the triumph of agrarian capitalism and worried about its impacts on China’s peasant population. However, in 2017, the more comprehensive Rural Revitalization Strategy came out, in which the state, for the first time, emphasized the necessity to protect small peasantry. Situating these policy-shifts in the context of China’s changing political-economic structure and focusing on central-level policy-makers, this paper reconstructs a historical narrative of China’s evolving rural and land policies during the reform-era and explores the concerns, goals, and ideas that shape their transformation. I argue that China’s rural and land policies go through four distinct periods and can be better explained in relation to broader political-economic dynamics. 1. Late 1970s to 1989: Rural-led capital accumulation through rural industrialization. The Household Responsibility System worked primarily to increase food production to support rural growth. 2. Early 1990s to mid-2000s: Urban-led accumulation through export industries. The countryside became the supplier of cheap food and labor. Household farming worked to maintain rural social stability, ensure food supply, and squeeze out surplus labor. 3. Mid-2000s to 2016: Solving rural crisis through continuing urban accumulation. Labor migration reduced the population pressure on land but also depleted rural young labor, both allowing and forcing the state to promote land transfer. 4. 2017-present: Back to agrarian capital accumulation? Rapid urbanization would no longer absorb all rural labors. Compounded by global uncertainty, the state slowed down land concentration to maintain social stability and tried to re-generate rural economic growth. The development of agrarian capitalism in China is shaped by China’s integration into global capitalist system. Concerns for social stability and population pressure on land may powerfully constrain the scale of land concentration.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 199. Changing States and Changing Economies