China’s developmental resettlements


The human costs of China’s Three Gorges dam project are reasonably well known. Since construction began in 1994 between 1.3 million and two million people have been involuntarily resettled to higher ground and to other provinces. The project has created massive environmental hazards for China (link), and has also created a gigantic human cost among the families and communities who were forcibly relocated.

Less well known are earlier waves of “hydraulic refugees” along the Yellow River beginning with construction of the Sanmenxia Dam in 1954 (completed in 1960). And subsequent water control projects through the next several decades have created yet other large-scale displacements along the Yellow River across north-central China. The movements of peoples created by these major projects of post-Revolution-era civil and social engineering have continued to reverberate until the present.


image: Yellow River topography
In the Sanmenxia Dam case the total number of forced migrants is probably lower than the Three Gorges Dam project, though reliable statistics are not readily available. Some estimates of displaced persons created by the Sanmenxia Dam cite 300,000 migrants. But the longterm effects on individuals, families, and communities have been perhaps even more severe. The project was designed without strong geological or hydrological expertise, and it has failed fundamentally to achieve the intended goals of the project. (Journalist Xie Chaoping was arrested in 2010 for writing a sober appraisal of the failures of Sanmenxia in The Great Relocation; link.)
French scholar Florence Padovani has studied the topic of involuntary relocation in China in detail. Her contribution to Forced Migration and Global Processes: A View from Forced Migration Studies provides quite a bit of factual background on the important hydraulic relocations. Here is Padovani’s definition of forced migration:

Forced migration, as it is understood here, involves populations which are uprooted by development programs. These individuals are internally displaced; even when they move thousands of kilometers away from their birthplace, they remain inside national borders. (92)

And here is her summary description of the relocation of population for the SMD project:

The way resettlement was implemented in the SMD case is typical of the way the government at that time considered people to be displaced. The authorities, from top to bottom, adopted the same line of action in a unified rhetoric. As for the resettlers, they did manage to raise their voices through very traditional ways, such as petitioning the central government …, but also through street demonstrations and even physical fights. …  We can summarize resettlement policy during the revolutionary period by the following points: First, the vast majority of displaced people were rural dwellers, mainly farmers. Second, they were not involved in preliminary assessment projects and were informed of the government’s plan at the last moment. Host communities were not involved in resettlement plans either, so some serious conflicts erupted when newcomers settled on their land. And third, displaced people were not well compensated and their relocation was not well planned, leading to their impoverishment. (97)

Padovani’s ethnographic study of Three Gorges Dam emigrants in the Shanghai region sheds much light on the human consequences of forced migration in China (link). This research provides a report of interviews with a few dozen migrants in the Shanghai region.The great majority of displaced people are farmers. So their life prospects following a move are bleak. They need access to land, secure housing, and access to unskilled employment. And none of these  are in ready supply in most destinations. More intangibly, they need access to kinship networks and mutual aid societies of the kind that were available in their home communities. But forced migration has thoroughly shattered those sources of mutual aid. So the lives of these million-plus migrants have not been made more hospitable as a result of the project. 

The disintegration of the social network due to forced migration means that the ‘domestic order” (local and personal ties), “civic order” (equality and solidarity), and “market order” (economic performance) have to be rebuilt. (107)

image: The Chinese Dust Bowl, The Walrus (link)

Yellow River communities have experienced another wave of resettlement in the past thirty years, this time along the upper reaches of the river in Gansu and Inner Mongolia, in response to the combined pressures of development and desertification. Irrigated farming communities have been uprooted multiple times as local authorities have sought to make use of scarce land and water resources. (Benoit Aquin’s photo essay on this region in The Walrus is a great exposure of these dustbowl conditions.)

Reading the story of these massive dam projects and their state-sponsored programs of involuntary resettlement illustrates some of the perverse processes of development that James Scott describes in Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Scott doesn’t consider modern Chinese examples, but he finds a raft of critical problems of environmental impact, social disruption, and human suffering associated with major water projects in other countries. His summary thoughts seem to apply to China’s development experience as well:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements. The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level…. The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs. The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

(Here is an earlier post on Scott’s critique of state-driven modernization projects; link.)

The Sanmenxia Dam is an unmistakeable failure; siltification and massive pollution have turned out to be irresolvable problems along the length of the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Experts are now calling for the removal of the dam altogether. There are very strong indications that the TGD is likewise an environmental and social disaster, though this is still not completely resolved. And for the several million people who were forcibly relocated, the Three Gorges Dam has often turned out to be a catastrophic turning point in their personal lives.

The Cultural Revolution through photography

image: Li Zhensheng, self portrait


Several earlier posts have highlighted how challenging it is to come to firm conclusions about some of the most basic facts about the history of the Cultural Revolution in China (link, link, link, link). The history of this important recent period of Chinese history is still a work in progress.  

A genuinely remarkable book of documentary photography on this history appeared in 2003, with the title Red-Color News Soldier. Chinese historian Jonathan Spence provides an illuminating introduction to the volume and the period. The core of the book, edited and presented by Robert Pledge, is a body of photography by Li Zhensheng. Li was a rank-and-file news photographer in Heilongjiang in the northeast of China who had received film training in the 1960s. Li provides a short but fascinating autobiographical statement of his early years during the Great Leap Forward, and he adds to this narrative in each of the main sections of the book. Li took thousands of photographs during the early years of the Cultural revolution, some of which he knew to be politically dangerous. He therefore succeeded in hiding thousands of these negatives for thirty-five years, before making them available for publication in 2003.The book provides genuinely new emotional insight into this period of chaos in China’s recent history. The photographs capture the passions of committed Red Guards as well as the pathos of the often innocent scapegoats who were the victim of Red Guard violence. Mass emotion and individual pathos are captured in almost all the images in the book.

Several things shout out from the photos in this volume that perhaps shed light on the experience for Chinese people of the Cultural Revolution. One is the intensity, size, and rage of the crowds that are depicted. It is perhaps extreme to say this, but many of these photos evoke mass madness — people caught up in the emotions and hatreds of the period in ways that obliterated their ordinary human impulses of pity and kindness. What we see instead is a sea of human faces, taking in the humiliation and abuse of their neighbors, while shouting support or laughing at shaming self-confessions, dunce caps, and raw physical abuse.

Related to this is the cruelty that the photos depict. There is no pity shown for the victims forced to humiliate themselves, who are physically tormented, and who were sometimes killed. What is portrayed is a merciless public scapegoating of people, often for the most trivial or spurious of reasons. People were accused of belonging to one of the “four elements” — landlords, rich peasants, counter-revolutionaries, or “bad characters” (55), and they were dealt with summarily. Physical violence was common; but so too was a deep and sustained imposition of shaming on the hapless school teacher, local party official, or slightly better-off peasant. Li describes the scene of the execution of seven men and one woman, two of whom were “counter-revolutionaries” because of a flyer they had published titled “Looking North”. The scene of the execution troubled Li for many years. “All eight were put on the backs of trucks in pairs, driven through town, then out to the countryside northwest of Harbin. There, on the barren grounds of the Huang Shan Cemetery, they were lined up, hands tied behind their backs, and forced to kneel. They were all shot in the back of the head” (139). The sequence of photos Li took of this execution are harrowing. The final photos of the volume depict the execution of Wang Shouxin, a former Party branch secretary, on charges of embezzlement, in 1980 (after the end of the Cultural Revolution). Li Zhensheng was present for this killing as well. (The woman kneeling in the photo above is Wang.)

Another striking feature is the cult of Mao that many of the photos demonstrate. “By the fall of 1966 Mao had become, to most Chinese, a living god” (144). Portraits of the Chairman and peasants shaking their Little Red Books abound at these mass meetings. A headline in the Heilongjiang Daily in 1966 shouts its praise: “Long life to Chairman Mao, Great Leader, Great Commander in Chief, Great Helmsman” (71). This is the very same great helmsman who led China into the Great Leap Forward and a devastating famine resulting in more than 20 million deaths, only eight years earlier. Mao publicly greeted over 11 million Red Guards in Tiananmen Square in appearances over the first several years of the Cultural Revolution, according to Li (131). The many images of Mao in these news photos were not accidental; news editors made sure that there were ample posters in the published photo, even if they were not visible in the original scene:

Another time I made a picture of a crowded rally at a sports field from behind, so you couldn’t see all the portraits held up, only their wooden frames — and for the final image, my editor instructed me to add pictures of Mao to the back of the frames, even though this skewed the perspective and it made no sense that they were facing the wrong way. (133)

So the book provides a rich canvas through which we can begin to grasp some of the human meaning of the experience of the Cultural Revolution. It is important to be clear about the limits of the book, however. It is geographically limited to the extreme northeast of China, the province of Heilongjiang. So it is suggestive of the nature of the experience in other places — but only suggestive. It would be striking to have other images from Souzhou, Wuhan, or Xian; how similar or different were the currents of rage and violence in those other parts of China?
Second, the book does not shed light on the causes or dynamics of the Cultural Revolution. Li refers to the politics of rival factions on several occasions, but we don’t get much of an idea of what the shouting was about in those struggles. And there is no basis for drawing inferences about the leadership’s intentions and strategies on the basis of this collection. Li’s perspective is from the street: these are the demonstrations that occurred, this is how the crowds looked, here are some of the acts of humiliation and violence that occurred in my presence. It is for others to set the stage by uncovering the political dynamics of the Cultural Revolution from beginning to end.
But the questions raised by this volume are enormously important. Li’s camera depicts a population gone mad; and yet these were ordinary people just like the citizens of Albany or Albuquerque or Peoria. So we are forced to ask, what are the conditions that make a populace ready for this kind of raging cruelty; and what are the sparks that unleash the outbreak of a period like the Cultural Revolution?

A sense of injustice in China?


Quite a few years ago Barrington Moore explored in his book Injustice the idea that a sense of justice sometimes plays an important role in history. Here is how he put his central question:

This is a book about why people so often put up with being the victims of their societies and why at other times they become very angry and try with passion and forcefulness to do something about their situation. For the most part, the book focuses on people at or near the bottom of the social order: those with little or no property, income, education, power, authority, or prestige. (xiii)

Moore is interested in a particular moment in history, the moment when …

… people come to believe that a new and different set of criteria ought to go into effect for the choice of those in authority and the manner of its exercise, for the division of labor, and for the allocation of goods and services… In this chapter we are looking for general processes that occur at the level of culture, social structure, and individual personality, as groups of people cease to take their social surroundings for granted and come to reject or actively to oppose them. (81)

We might summarize this idea in these terms:

  • A sense of justice is a broadly shared set of factual and normative beliefs about how existing society works when it comes to fair and equitable treatment of individuals by institutions and groups.
  • People are likely to mobilize in an effort to change the social order when their sense of justice is profoundly offended.

Moore offers examples of how offenses to a prevalent sense of justice can influence collective behavior, mostly drawn from German working class history. But for other examples we can also turn to E.P. Thompson’s concept of the moral economy of the crowd (link; also included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture) and James Scott’s application of this concept to the situation of rebellion and mobilization in SE Asia (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance).

This set of ideas raises two different sets of questions. First, can we confirm the idea that the motivations that arise from the experience of justice and injustice are in fact important in influencing the outcomes of specific cases of social life? Or is the sense of justice simply an epiphenomenon? And second, can we empirically investigate the particulars of the sense of justice and injustice of a particular people at a point in time? Is the sense of justice itself a social fact that can be investigated and mapped?

These ideas seem especially relevant to the case of China since the Revolution. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Revolution depended upon a set of values that couched social justice in terms of equality across classes. On the other hand, China’s economy and society have witnessed an explosion of inequalities of income and influence since the 1980s. It is natural to ask, then, whether people who came to adulthood in the 1930s and 1940s in China acquired an egalitarian sense of justice and injustice; and whether they and their children experience today’s inequalities as being unjust. And in fact, some observers believe that rising inequalities in China are contributing to dangerously high levels of dissatisfaction and outrage among ordinary citizens. Or in other words, China is ripe for the kind of morally induced protest and resistance that Barrington Moore described. China is a “social volcano” in the early stage of venting and steaming, with an eruption to follow.

Martin Whyte’s recent study of this question leads to surprising findings (for me, anyway). In Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China Whyte sets out to use the tools of survey research to assess and measure the contours of the assumptions about justice and inequality that are shared by several generations of Chinese men and women. He and research colleagues (including Shen Mingming and Yang Ming) conducted a national survey in 2004 aimed at probing Chinese attitudes towards inequalities. The survey involved responses from about 4,344 individuals, stratified in terms of region and rural/urban status.

Here is Whyte’s assessment of the survey data (chapter 3):

How can we summarize Chinese citizens’ feelings about issues of inequality and distributive justice? Which aspects of current inequalities in China do they accept and view as fair, and which do they see as basically unjust? In general, our survey results indicate that the majority of respondents accept and view as fair most aspects of the unequal, market-based society in which they now live. There is little sign in our results of strong feelings of distributive injustice, of active rejection of the current system, or of nostalgia for the distributional policies of the planned socialist era. (kl 1191)

In fact, Whyte describes a set of attitudes that place China squarely within what we might call the values of social democracy, favoring a social safety net and a market society that provides widespread opportunities for advancement. Here is a particularly relevant chart (figure 3.3):

The results in this chart display an intriguing blend of liberal and socialist commitments. Equal distribution (the Mao principle) receives 29.1% support, significantly lower than the 44.7% who oppose the principle. But another anti-liberal principle, government guarantee of jobs, receives higher positive than negative support (57.3% in support, 23.9% against). And there is overwhelming support for the idea of a government guarantee of a minimum living standard (80.8%).

Whyte singles out a number of principles of legitimacy and justice that he discerns in the survey findings (quoting from chapter 3, kl 1191 ff.):

  • There should be government-sponsored efforts to provide job and income guarantees to the poor …
  • There should be abundant opportunities for individuals and families to improve their livelihoods …
  • There should be equality of opportunity …
  • Material advancement and success should be determined by merit factors …
  • The pronounced social cleavage between China’s rural and urban citizens … are unfair
  • Since individuals and families vary in their talents, diligence, and cultivation and deployment of merit-based strategies for success, society will have a considerable amount of inequality …
  • Upper limits should not be set on incomes …
  • It is acceptable for the rich to use their advantages to provide better lives for their families
  • People in positions of political power should not be entitled to special privileges …

It is the generally optimistic character of these findings that leads Whyte to doubt that China is a “social volcano”. He finds that the bulk of the Chinese population possesses a conception of justice and economic expectation that aligns fairly well with China’s current social and economic realities. He does not find a rising sense of injustice and resentment that might fuel anti-regime mobilization. So China is not approaching a social eruption driven by a deepening sense of injustice among ordinary people; or at least this is how Whyte reads the data.

But it seems possible to read the data in another way as well. The principle of equal distribution — the Maoist principle — does actually correspond to the moral sense of a very large number of Chinese men and women in the survey (29.1%). (This number falls to 11.3% if it is specified that inequalities derive from a system of equal opportunity; figure 3.5.) How strongly does this minority hold this egalitarian view? Who are they? Is there a generational split on this question? And how about perceptions of conflict? Figure 3.7 presents opinions about the severity of conflict between various groups in Chinese society; there we find that 38.5% of respondents find large or very large conflicts between poor and wealthy people. Is this a large number or a small number?

In fact, there is an alternative reading of Whyte’s data that comes to a somewhat darker conclusion. It is true that there is a large majority in Chinese society who are optimistic about the direction of change China is undergoing, and who are optimistic about their futures and those of their children. But there also seems to be a meaningful percentage of China’s population who do not share these attitudes and beliefs. And perhaps this group is large enough to portend the kind of social conflict that Whyte is so skeptical about. When it comes to the likelihood of social unrest, perhaps it is not the modal individual but the disadvantaged minority who is most salient. So maybe a Moore-ian crisis is brewing in China after all.

Skocpol on the Chinese Revolution

(Sources: States and Social Revolutions, pp. 155, 282)

In States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (1979) Theda Skocpol set out to discover a causal analysis of the occurrence of social revolution, and she offered case-study narratives of the major revolutions in France, Russia, and China. She provides a 54-page narrative of the Chinese Revolution which can serve as a thumbnail account of the major events and causal factors that made it up. Her narrative is deliberately framed in comparative terms; she wants to locate features of the Chinese situation in relation to relevantly similar characteristics of the French and Russian cases.

Here is Skocpol’s definition of a social revolution:
Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below. Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval; and the coincidence of political with social transformation. (Introduction)

The summary tables above both mirror the definition Skocpol has crafted and reveal the essence of her comparative causal analysis of the three primary cases. Tables 1A and 1B provide a coding of the states of affairs in France, Russia, and China in what she identifies as the relevant initial structural conditions — conditions relevant to political crisis and peasant uprisings. Table 1C represents her view of the proximate outcomes of these conjunctions in the three cases — breakdown of effective state power and emergence of widespread rural unrest. And Table 2 reflects her effort to code the more distant outcomes in the three cases, when the dust had settled — the nature of the political configurations and state systems that emerged from the revolutions that took place.
This is historical sociology, not social-science history. The goal is not to be a full historical account of these revolutions in detail, but instead to identify relatively limited number of structural and agentic causes that may be relevant to the occurrence of revolution in the individual cases.
It is worth noting what this account does not provide. It does not attempt to disaggregate revolutionary processes into underlying causal social mechanisms. Rather, it presupposes a fairly macro-level conception of causal conditions and factors. This is what allows Skocpol to make use of a Millian method for discovering what she takes to be necessary and sufficient causes for social revolution. And second, it gives no attention to the possibilities of contingency and path dependency. Rather, she is looking for causal conditions that co-occur in some historical circumstances and then lead to social revolution as an outcome. This is the conjunctural part of her story.
This is a very specific conception of comparativist social explanation. It is anti-positivist, in an important sense, in that it expressly rejects the idea that there might be fundamental laws from which the occurrence of revolution might be derived. But it is also anti-reductionist, in that it is not interested in explaining the large outcomes, or similarities of oarge outcomes, based on underlying mechanisms or processes. I find it hard to think of an example of causal explanation in biology, geology, or physics that has a similar structure. Explanations of the transition of a group of tree species within a forest might look similar — the ecologist looks for macro-level circumstances that favor one species over another. But there is always the underlying mechanism of natural selection and differential rates of reproduction that provides a microfoundation for the explanation.
In Skocpol’s analysis of China several events and structures were most fundamental in the unfolding of China’s social revolution.

  1. The devolution of power to the regional level that had occurred in the final years of the old regime (pre-1911). This reflects the great weakening of the central imperial state and military and the emergence of warlords and local elites with their own militias.
  2. The poverty and oppression of the peasantry. The deprivation of farmers at the hands of landlords and local elites left peasants in a state of misery and deprivation that left them ready for radicalization and mobilization.
  3. The fact of European imperialist military and economic pressure from mid-nineteenth century forward, which both weakened the imperial state and delegitimized it.

The account of the Chinese Revolution provided by Bianco and described in the previous post gives attention to another key factor: the organizational capacity and revolutionary strategies of the CCP. To some extent this runs contrary to Skocpol’s vigorous opposition to the idea of revolution as an intentional process. But Bianco is clearly right, that the strategies and coordination of the CCP provided a vital component of the eventual success of the Chinese Revolution.

Moreover, the more disaggregated studies of the Chinese Revolution that have emerged since Skocpol’s book make it clear to me that there were deep contingencies in the process as it unfolded, and that multiple outcomes were possible. So the antecedent structural conditions that she identifies did not suffice to bring about the eventual revolution.
Skocpol’s comparativist methodology was an exciting innovation when it appeared in 1979. With the hindsight of thirty-five years, however, I am inclined to think that it is a failed experiment. It remains too close to the methodology that asks the researcher to find a set of conditions that vary appropriately with the outcome, and in the end it is methodologically committed to the idea that we can discover an answer to the question, what conditions do all social revolutions share? The critique that McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly offer of theories of contentious politics that simply look for large generalizations across groups of large scale contentious events seems to apply here as well. The focus in Skocpol’s analysis remains too macro, with social revolutions constituting the units of analysis. But as MTT argue, it is more useful to drop down a level or two and look to the mechanisms and processes that make up social revolutions, rather than trying to identify high-level generalizations across groups of cases, whether large-N or small-N.

Understanding the Chinese Revolution

source: Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, frontispiece

The Chinese Revolution is one of the world-historical events that has set the stage for the modern world. And, unlike the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, it is sufficiently contemporary that there are very substantial sources of data and informants about its occurrence. Several generations of China historians have sought to provide explanations and elaborations on the occurrence of the Chinese Revolution (link, link). The Revolution set the course for a population of over 1.1 billion people, it affected the economic and international development of the rest of the world, and it established a government that continues to rule the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, vast amounts of scholarship have been written in attempting to describe and explain the course of the Revolution.

So we might imagine that the story has been written, and that we know everything we need to know about the causes, events, and main directions of the Revolution. However, this would be a mistake. As earlier posts have shown, there continue to be new questions, renewed debates over old questions, and deep uncertainties about the best ways of understanding the occurrence and development of this momentous series of events.

It is interesting, therefore, to return to one of the earlier efforts at historical explanation of the Chinese Revolution, the widely read book by Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915-1949. The book first appeared French in 1967, and therefore much of what we now understand to be the development of modern China was yet to occur. The Great Leap Forward and attendant famine had occurred in 1958-1959, the Cultural Revolution was just getting underway, and of course the major reorientation of the Chinese state in the direction market reform was decades in the future. In a meaningful sense, Bianco was writing the history of a revolution that was still underway.

The title of the book captures Bianco’s central goal in his treatment of the Revolution: to identify the large factors that explained the occurrence and characteristics of the success of the CCP’s struggle for mobilization and power. Ideology and doctrine play an important role; Bianco spends a lot of attention on the question of whether Chinese communism was heterodox or orthodox in relation to classical Marxist theory. Another key question in Bianco’s treatment is the role of the peasantry in Mao’s strategy for creating revolution. The ideological frameworks brought forward by Nationalist and Communist leaders play a large role in Bianco’s account.

Bianco organizes his analysis around the role of Marxist ideology and theory, the role of the Comintern in attempting to “manage” Communist activism in China, the role of the Japanese war of aggression against China, and the economic and social circumstances governing the agrarian world that brought Chinese peasants into a state of latent revolutionary activism, just needing the mobilization efforts of the CCP to ignite a social conflagration. And he takes up the nationalism thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson in Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 just a few years earlier (1962; link), treating Johnson’s work respectfully but critically. In other words, he raises the central explanatory ideas that observers of the time thought potentially important: ideology, exploitation, war, nationalism, and military competition between the Guomindang dictatorship and the Communist Party.

Three large factors emerge as being the most important sources of revolution in Bianco’s account: the tactical effectiveness of the CCP in mobilizing the peasantry, the crushing exploitation and poverty of the countryside, and the military realities created by the three-sided conflict between the GMD, the CCP, and the Japanese army. Of these, the poverty of agrarian China was the most pervasive:

The source of the revolution, the real strength of the CCP, must be sought in the living conditions that prevailed from one end of rural China to the other, where poverty, abuse, and early death were the only prospect for nearly half a billion people. (87)

Bianco’s greatest contributions to Chinese history are focused on pre-revolution peasant politics. These writings are exemplified in Peasants Without the Party: Grass-Root Movements in Twentieth-Century China, “Peasants and Revolution: The Case of China” (link), and “Peasant Movements” in The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 13: Republican China 1912-1949, Part 2. Here is a summary offered in Origins:

To the extent that the non-Communist peasant movements I have studied can be characterized in general terms, they seem to me diffuse, sporadic, and lacking in coordination and firm leadership. Above all they seem defensive: peasants may arouse themselves to protest an assault on the status quo, but they almost never attack the deeper causes of their exploitation and misery. (107)

Bianco incorporates his own study of earlier peasant rebellions into his account of the politics of mobilization, and he highlights the non-revolutionary character of those earlier movements (107). As he had argued in his research on China’s peasantry, it was the organizing and mobilizing role of the CCP that turned peasant discontent from local unrest to sustained revolutionary action.

One thing I find interesting in rereading the book today is the fairly general level at which it is written. Bianco essentially summarizes his perceptions of the main elements of the complicated economic, political, and military events that transpired in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s in China. He was a highly expert observer, and was intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the Comintern, the Guomindang, and the CCP. But the work is offered at a very high level of discourse, not really intending to provide new historical understanding of the politics of nationalism and the social program of the party.

This contrasts with the level of historical detail and richness of Bianco’s own primary research on peasant movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in China. Here his work is archival and detailed, and offers genuine new insights into the particulars of the phenomena. And it contrasts as well with the level of detail and precision of the treatments of various parts of the revolution in China that were written in the following thirty years.

Origins was influential and widely read. That said, it should be understood as a work of historical synthesis rather than a contribution of original discovery. It remained for the next generation of historians — people like Mark Selden, Yung Fa Chen, and Odoric Wou — to push the historical inquiry more deeply into the mechanisms and variations of these processes of revolution. In his forward to English edition in 1976, Mark Selden attempts to summarize the key issues for future research posed by the book: the need to give a more fine grained taxonomy of the peasantry (rich, middle, poor), the effects of the rapid commercialization that were underway in the twenties and thirties, and the relative importance of domestic and foreign factors in the occurrence of the Revolution. Selden himself takes up some of these issues in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). And historians like Chen and Wou have given substantially greater detail about the specifics of mobilization, strategy, and military tactices in the base areas than was possible in 1967 when Bianco wrote his book.

Change in peasant China

Image: Shanxi countryside

In 1978 China’s government initiated a major change in the agricultural economy. It began a rapid transition from communal agriculture to the household responsibility system, which returned the responsibilities and incentives associated with farming to the farmer rather than the commune. This was the beginning of the market-friendly reforms that led to the transformation of agriculture, industry, and transport in a remarkably short time.

These market-oriented reforms have also stimulated a continuing economic revolution in China, with growth rates exceeding 10% in many years and an intensive period of infrastructure build-out (roads, high speed rail, telecommunications).

Much has transpired in the Chinese countryside since 1978. Rural incomes have risen; significant numbers of rural people have transitioned from farming into better-paying market and logistical activities; and many millions of young people have exited the countryside in search of work in manufacturing and construction. On balance, how has this tumultuous 35 years affected the quality of life for China’s rural population?

In 1990 William Hinton offered his own predictions about the effects of the rural reforms in The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-1989. Hinton believed the future was dire for China’s peasants, as they would be squeezed by market forces into even lower-productivity farming techniques and the wealth of the countryside would be extracted by urban elites. Hinton was a continuing supporter of collective agriculture because he believed it permitted economies of scale and more reliable support for the welfare of the people in the countryside. It seems that no one in China continues to advocate this view.

Deng Xiaoping took a different perspective. He believed that all of China would benefit from the accumulation of wealth created by market incentives. His famous words — “To get rich is glorious” — legitimated the workings of the market in creating inequalities. And he evidently believed that these processes of economic growth and market incentives would be good for the rural sector as well as the urban sector.

So how has it worked out? How has China’s agricultural economy performed in the past three decades? Is China food-self-sufficient? Have rural people gained income? Is rural poverty falling significantly? What is the trend in the quality of life of China’s rural populations? And what happened to the range of income inequalities in the countryside?

Here are a few important data points.

First, it appears to be true that China has made rapid progress in reducing poverty in its population. According to Li Xiaoyun’s tables below, just under 13% of China’s population lives in extreme poverty at incomes lower than $1.25 per day in 2011. (The next three slides are taken from an extensive presentation on China’s poverty strategies by  Professor Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University; link.) This is a dramatic reduction from an estimate in excess of 80% at this level in the late 1970s. This means that rural incomes have risen substantially since 1978.

Moreover, there have been nationally coordinated programs of poverty alleviation that have been supported by meaningful levels of central and provincial resources.

The central government has attempted to target its poverty alleviation efforts towards the most backward regions in the country. 

Here is a very interesting poverty map for Yunnan Province in the southeast part of the country (link):


Second, it is also true that China’s income inequalities have increased sharply during the same period. The share of income flowing to the poorest 40% has fallen from 20% to 14% from 1990 to 2009. Studies indicate that the Gini coefficient for income inequality has risen sharply during that time. It seems likely that wealth inequalities have increased even more. Here are charts documenting the rise of income inequalities in China from the 2005 China Human Development Report (link):

The following figure documents the overall rise in urban/rural income inequalities in China since 1997 extending the data represented in Fig. 2.2 above through 2010 (Liu M., link). Interestingly, this graph suggests that urban/rural inequalities leveled off in about 2003.

Third, food security has improved. China is a net exporter of rice (link) and has substantially increasing its production of pigs and poultry, and it has not suffered famine or extensive malnutrition since the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959. Nutritional levels throughout poor areas have improved in the past twenty years, although there are still significant levels of underweight or stunted children under 5 (fig. 3.14, CHDR 2005).

What has been less visible to the western public is the dynamics of life quality that these changes have created in the countryside. What is needed is disaggregated studies of quality-of-life indicators like education, health, nutrition, and longevity. World Bank reports and China’s own major statistical reports do not highlight these kinds of data. However, the UNDP has prepared six triennial reports on China’s performance with respect to the Human Development Index (link), and it turns out that Chinese researchers are in fact doing careful work on the task of measuring these characteristics in rural areas. Three leading Chinese scholars focused on poverty alleviation (Wu Guobao, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Liu Minquan, Peking Univerisity; Li Xiaoyun, China Agricultural University) provide a good snapshot into a world of policy research currently underway in China.

How are the government’s pronouncements about poverty alleviation viewed by the Chinese public? I had a very interesting conversation with a man in his thirties in Taiyuan, Shanxi on this question. He is employed in a semi-professional job. His view was very skeptical. He believes the government says it is working toward helping the poor and reducing inequalities, but he doesn’t think these efforts are very broad. His view is that anti-poverty programs are directed towards just a few locations and a relatively small part of the rural population. And he thinks it is very unfair that the inequalities between rich and poor are increasing so rapidly. When I asked him what he thought the greatest problems were that China faces, he listed these: a one-party state that gives ordinary people no voice in the issues they care about; a lack of freedom of expression; and the unfairness of increasing inequalities between rich and poor. This was a very frank assessment by one person which perhaps sheds some light on how many young people are thinking in China today.

(Here is a 2003 volume on poverty alleviation in China published by the Development Studies Network in Australia, including a number of valuable research articles on the subject; link. The China Health and Nutrition Survey conducted by the Carolina Population Center and the National Institute of Nutrition and Food Safety at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention is also a valuable data source; link.)


Unexpected linkages

One of the things that I find most interesting in social development is the discovery of unexpected linkages between innovations in one field and outcomes in another. 

Here is a somewhat hypothetical example. Improvement of long distance banking transactions in Qing China produces an increase in the frequency of rebellion. How so? Because the long distance transport of merchant silver created a sub-culture of rural bandits preying on merchant travelers. The creation of letters of credit reduced these opportunities, and under-employed bandit gangs were more easily recruited into rebel forces. (This corresponds loosely to arguments offered by Liz Perry in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 concerning the dialectic between predation and rebellion, though I’ve speculated a bit about the banking part.)

The general idea here is that large changes in social systems of interaction — roads, railways, telegraph systems, etc. — often create new opportunities for social actors that were not anticipated by designers but that have large social consequences.

Here are some examples of these kinds of effects. Discovery of diamonds in a region leads to severe deforestation (as diamonds stimulate violent conflict, leading to large refugee flows, leading to new destructive uses of forests). Extension of trolleys in the Boston suburbs leads to an increase in the frequency of spikes in disease mortality (as carriers move around the region more frequently). Growth of the electric power grid in Pennsylvania results in a decline in church attendance (as young people find other social options in well-lit towns and cities).

I am led to think about these kinds of effects because of the rapidity of system change in China today. The train system, the extension of video surveillance, changes in social security provisions, the ever-growing population of internal migrants — all these processes are likely to have unexpected and novel consequences. And as complexity theory tells us, systems with multiple interlinked causal processes are vulnerable to abrupt changes of state as causal factors stimulate unexpected behaviors. This is familiar in ecological research, but it seems equally applicable to the social world.

One consequence of this line of thought is that we need to be cautious about predictions of the future that depend on smooth extrapolations of existing trends. In the case of China, perhaps the most confident prediction we can make is that there will be many surprises in the coming decades.

Forum on Rural Areas and Peasants

I’ve just spent an interesting several days in Wuhan at a conference on China’s rural transformation. It was a genuinely productive conference, involving experts from Japan, Great Britain, United States, and China. The central topic was the process of agricultural modernization and urbanization currently underway in China, and some of the strategies the government is taking to steer this process.

The most interesting contributions for me were by Chinese researchers from leading universities and research units, who gave an insight into the ways that Chinese scholars and policy makers are thinking about these crucial processes. The largest takeaway was the degree of effort being given to alleviation of rural poverty, by both researchers and government agencies. I’ll give more details on this in an upcoming post.

In addition to my own contribution to the conference on the crucial role of social science research during this process, I was invited to give related lectures to several large groups of students at two universities. As on similar occasions in the past, I was energized by the interest and reflection these students showed in the issues of social transformation in China that I was treating. The questions were very good. (All of my presentations were translated by two talented students from Central China Normal University.)

As part of this trip I was able to take a short excursion to Henan Province to get exposure to some important developments in Chinese agriculture. We visited two large commercial farms specializing in organic vegetables. The first farm occupies about two thousand acres, assembled through agreements with peasant farmers and local government. The corporation does not “own” the land but has rights of use for five-year periods. It employs about one thousand farm workers, often from the families of the original farms that gave been consolidated. (I estimated about two hundred people working in the fields we saw.) The produce is of high quality and farm management is highly professional. It also produces wheat on rotation with vegetable fields. This farm is one of about eight farms of similar size owned by the company in different provinces “to balance risk and seasonality”. The company is actively exploring establishment of a similar farm in California. The other farm was similar in size but was described as a cooperative in which peasant farmers maintained a larger degree of involvement in the farm process. This farm will produce specialty items including fruit, vegetables, and blueberries.

This seems like a good indication of one likely future for Chinese agriculture: consolidated land, moderate level of mechanization, expert management, high productivity. Our group was able to talk with a local man in a nearby village, the uncle of one of the faculty hosts. He was a former headmaster of the village school who had returned to farming after retirement. His home in the village was concrete block, nicely furnished with five rooms and a small courtyard. We asked him whether the peasants whose land had been absorbed by the consolidation for these large farms were satisfied. He was adamant they were because it permitted some level of income from the lease while permitting young people to leave the village for higher income in the urban sector (as part of China’s large class of migrant workers in urban industry and construction).

All in all, a very stimulating exposure to one of the most important processes underway in China today and for the next few decades.


Life quality across structural change


Periods of rapid structural change are particularly likely to lead to decline in the quality of life of some sections of the affected population. Change creates winners and losers; and it is common that the gains and losses are channeled into very distinct groups of people.  This is true during periods of large-scale migration, technology change, and structural change within an economy. Important components of life quality include health, nutrition, education, economic wellbeing, economic security, and security from violence and coercion. Each of these properties is affected by several important dimensions of social life:

  • legal and political institutions
  • institutions of economic production and distribution
  • economic opportunities and income
  • public provision of income supplements
  • public provision of food subsidies
  • public provision of health care resources
  • household support provided by family and community

When a society’s governmental and economic institutions are enmeshed in a period of rapid change, many of the components of life quality are likely to be affected — positively or negatively. The basic institutions of a society determine the value of the private and public assets individuals and households control on the basis of which to support their pursuit of a decent life; this is what Amartya Sen refers to as “entitlement bundles”. (Sen applies his entitlement theory to the study of famine in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation; link.) And shifts in the composition of the entitlement bundle are likely to lead to abrupt worsening of the conditions of the least-well-off.

For example: It is likely that the austerity policies of the Spanish or Greek governments will have a negative effect on the health and nutritional status of the bottom half of those societies. Working people will have lower incomes and they will have reduced access to the social safety net; health status is likely to decline. As another example: Life expectancy in the former Soviet Union declined measurably following the collapse of the Soviet system (link). One part of that decline was the disappearance of the social security net created by state-owned industry — the smashing of the “iron rice bowl”.

This concern is particularly relevant in the context of the rural-urban transformation currently underway in China. Since 1980 China’s rural sector has been subject to at least two major kinds of structural change. One has to do with the economic and political institutions that governed daily life for rural households, from communes to market institutions. And the other has to do with the rapid structural transformation of China’s economy from agriculture to export-led manufacturing. The first set of changes led to a withdrawal of forms of “social insurance” that had been associated with the commune system, including healthcare and old-age care. The second has led to mass migration of younger workers from villages and towns to factories in cities. This migration leaves the remaining population in the countryside older, poorer, and less economically secure.

These observations have several important implications. Foremost among these is the crucial importance of maintaining effective systems for monitoring and measuring life quality across the society. It is important to have good measures of health status, nutritional status, educational status, and old age life quality across regions and sub-populations. So national governments need to create and fund the social research activities necessary to measure health and other quality of life properties across the population. (Here is a recent post on a spatial study of quality of life in China based on 1982 data; link.) Sen argues that it was the availability or lack of availability of information about famine conditions that explained the difference in outcomes between China during the Great Leap Forward and post-independence India; Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.

Second, when it turns out that there are large numbers of “losers” in a large social process of change, it is important for the state and non-governmental actors to find institutions and resources that will help to improve their outcomes. “Winners” need to help to fund the amelioration of harms created by the processes that led to their gains. If NAFTA led to the increase of overall national income for Canada, Mexico, and the United States, but also led to the displacement of workers in a significant set of industries — then it makes sense to tax part of those gains to compensate the losers. And in fact, the NAFTA agreements were premised on such compensation, though this has not occurred reliably (link). This means redistribution across sectors and regions; and it is justified by the fact that the overall gains created by the transformation would not have been possible without imposing these losses on the disadvantaged sector or region.

What might this kind of redistributive policy look like in the context of China’s rural-to-urban transformation? It would seem that public moneys will be needed for several types of problems:

  • Maintenance of income and quality of life and health for the elderly
  • Investments that increase the productivity of labor and the level of employment in rural areas
  • Investments that work to ameliorate the negative environmental effects of rapid change
  • Investments in the institutions of public health — clinics, hospitals, and medical personnel

It might be asked, “Why should developing nations concern themselves with this issue?” There are several answers. Basic justice and fairness entails that the wealth of a society should be distributed in ways that allow all segments of society to improve their quality of life and wellbeing. A society’s wealth and income is a joint product of its entire population; so fairness dictates that everyone should benefit from improvements in productivity. But prudence lines up with this answer as well. A society that ignores the widening of the gaps between rich and poor, and does not concern itself about improving the wellbeing of the poor, is likely to suffer a rising level of social strife as well. It can either go the route of creating gated communities for the rich, or it can use its resources to create fair life outcomes and fair access to opportunity for all its people. Everyone is better off in the long run with the second choice.

In The Paradox Of Wealth And Poverty: Mapping The Ethical Dilemmas Of Global Development I argued that a developing nation should choose an economic development strategy that spreads the benefits of growth over a broader population, over a strategy with a higher growth rate but with substantially greater inequality. I still think this is the right answer to the question. And this approach has the best likelihood of improving the quality of life of the poorest segment of society. The graphs below make the case based on three stylized strategies:

  1. NL neo-liberal growth: choose those policies and institutional reforms that lead to the most rapid growth: unfettered markets, profit-maximizing firms, minimal redistribution of in­come and wealth 
  2. PF poverty-first growth: choose those policies and institutional reforms that lead to economic growth favorable to the most rapid growth in the incomes flowing to the poorest 2 quintiles 
  3. WF immediate welfare improvement: direct as much social wealth as possible into programs that immediately improve the welfare of the poor (education, health, food subsidies, housing subsidies)  

The neo-liberal strategy consistently maximizes GDP; but the poverty-first strategy, which is more redistributive from the start, leads to consistently better improvement for the income for the bottom 40% of the economy.  It embodies the idea that Hollis Chenery advocated forty years ago in Redistribution with Growth: Policies to Improve Income Distribution in Developing Countries in the Context of Economic Growth.

China’s rural transition

Roughly half of China’s population is still rural, living in villages and towns and dependent primarily on farming. In 1985 that percentage was about 76%, so there has already been a massive transformation of China’s economy and society towards greater urbanization. (Albert Nyberg and Scott Rozelle treated this process in an important World Bank publication, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation.)

There are two basic processes through which urbanization can occur. Rural people can migrate to cities, or cities can grow up around rural people. Both processes have been underway for thirty years in China. Estimates vary, but approximately 210 million migrants work in Chinese manufacturing and construction industries, and the vast majority of these men and women are from rural origins. The percentage of migrant workers in urban industries is staggering; W. K. Chan reports in Wuhan, for example, that 43% of manufacturing workers and 56% of construction workers are non-Hukou migrants (link).  But almost all of China’s cities have also sprawled out into their peripheries, into what was previously farm land and villages. This is true in Shanghai and Suzhou, Wuhan, and hundreds of other major cities. 

The “urban development” part of the story has forced displacement of farming villages from their land, as farm land is absorbed into factories, power plants, development zones, and other urban uses. This is one of the most potent sources of protest in China today. Some portion of that population finds employment in the industries that follow this development — in the vast assembly plants of Foxconn, for example in at least nine cities in China. (Foxconn was actively recruiting thousands of workers in Chengdu during a recent visit there.)  Another portion is subsidized for some period of time by the government in compensation for the loss of their farm land and occupations.

In the medium term, Chinese agriculture is shedding workers, and the rest of the economy needs to grow enough to employ this part of the population. This is part of the urgency that policy makers feel for sustaining very high rates of economic growth.

One portion of the population that is least likely to make a smooth landing in the new economic conditions is the elderly. China faces a major social issue in a growing population of aging farmers, and the circumstances of this group are predictable: in need of health care, short on pensions, and often separated from their children who have migrated to better conditions in cities. (Here is a World Bank report on this subject; link.)

So my question here is a simple one: what is the theory of rural-to-urban transition under which the Chinese leadership is operating? There are a range of possible theories:

  • Help employment in industrial and construction activities grow as fast as workers and farmers are expelled from the rural economy, so their standard of living rises overall.
  • Grow rural industry and high-value specialized agriculture so rural people can remain in place.
  • Plan for an extended time during which a much more extensive social safety net will be provided in the form of income supplements, subsidized healthcare, and retirement income until “surplus rural population” can be absorbed by the urban economy.
  • Hope for the best and trust to market-based adjustments.

There is a rural development strategy that would actually make the problem more acute: 

  • Stimulate rapid improvement in the productivity of agriculture. As a unit of rice is produced more productively, it requires fewer units of labor. So the net result of productivity improvements in agriculture is a drop in rural farm-based employment even as it increases income to the individual farmer.

Here is one answer to the question of theory of rural transition that is based on Chinese government policy thinking in the late 1990s. The following analysis is contained in the Nyberg-Rozelle 1999 World Bank report, Accelerating China’s Rural Transformation, based on close cooperation with the Institute of Rural Development in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This close collaboration suggests that it intends to express then-current ideas about strategy and policy within the Chinese government.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the leaders of China have been preoccupied with one overarching goal; the modernization of the nation. Our [Chinese] vision for the early part of the 21st century perceives the rural economy as an integral part of this modernization effort, with equitable increases in income, and the elimination of poverty, achieved in large part by transferring rural labor to the urban−industrial economy—all accomplished in an environmentally sustainable manner. We envision an enormous government effort in transforming its role into an investor for public services and goods and fostering a market environment—enabling individual farm and nonfarm producers, consumers, and traders to make more efficient decisions and improve their welfare. 

In pursuit of this vision, two issues remain central to the government’s rural development objectives: food security and poverty alleviation. China has made remarkable progress in meeting these goals; the economy, including the rural sector, has grown at phenomenal rates during the reform period. The growth of food supplies has exceeded the growth of domestic demand and China exports horticultural, livestock, other agricultural, and aquacultural products. The growth of rural industry has been an important element of recent growth as the rural economy continues to diversify. Increased productivity and income growth have reduced the massive pre-reform poverty problem, improved the standard of living of most residents, and launched the structural transformation of China from a traditional rural to a modern society.

This summary involves some of almost all the options mentioned above — improvement of farm productivity, growth of urban jobs, growth of rural industry, and establishment of a more extensive safety net. In practice, however, it seems that the government has given the greatest emphasis in its economic policies to the growth of urban jobs and out-migration from the rural sector.

In their 2003 report “Scenario Analysis on Urbanization and Rural-Urban Migration in China”, Shenghe Liu, Li, and Zhan (researchers at the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences) summarize Chinese policy thinking on the rural question in these terms:

It has becomes a common consensus that the most headachy “agriculture, farmers and rural areas” (three nong) problems in China are unable to be solved by farmers themselves, inside the agriculture sector and rural areas. Promotion of the urbanization process is needed to help more rural surplus labor forces seek employment in non-agricultural activities and in cities and towns, serving the purpose of reducing the agricultural population, improving agricultural productivity and increasing the farmers’ income. In summary, reducing rural population through active promotion of urbanization is considered to be the only best way to make farmers rich. Thus, the prospects and scenarios of China’s urbanization and rural-urban migration are bound to have tremendous impacts on its agricultural development and policy making.  (link)

Or in other words, Liu, Li and Zhan reiterate the idea that rural-to-urban migration is a key part of Chinese policy for improvement of income and wellbeing in the rural areas.

Here is a short clip summarizing a study by the Institute for Rural Studies at Central China Normal University, finding that the Gini coefficient in the countryside has increased significantly. It also makes the point that a very large component in the growth of rural incomes is remittances from migrants who have found higher-paying jobs in manufacturing and construction.

Here are some resources available on the web on the subject of rural transformation in China.  A very useful treatment of the issue is Francis Tuan, Somwaru and Diao’s working paper for the International Food Policy Research Institute (link). Scott Rozelle et al have a very useful paper, “The Evolution of China’s Rural Labor Markets during the Reforms,” that focuses on the opportunity and challenge of increasing non-farm labor in rural areas (link). A useful resource on urban-to-rural migration is a slide presentation by Kam Wing Chan from 2008, “Internal Labor Migration in China: Trends, Geographical Distribution and Policies” (link). Chan is also the author of Cities with Invisible Walls: Reinterpreting Urbanization in Post-1949 China.

Chinese authors are writing about the human side of these transformations — rural poverty, migrant insecurity, the difficulties of urban life for poor people. Here is a book by Xin Zhang, whose title is loosely translated by a friend as An Analysis of Social Classes in China. I wish I was able to read it.

%d bloggers like this: