Last week, Du Runsheng passed away at the ripe old age of 102. The death of the “father of rural reform” was widely covered in China and Hong Kong, as Du’s proteges include such Chinese economic luminaries as Zhou Qiren and Justin Yifu Lin, not to mention Wang Qishan, who is now one of the seven most powerful men in China. But I have yet to see a proper obituary of Du in the foreign press, which is a real pity. You could make a case that Du was one of the most influential economists to have ever lived.
He was one of the primary authors of the rural reform policies China adopted in the early 1980s, which reversed agricultural collectivization and returned control of farmland to individual farm households. It is no exaggeration to say that as a result, hundreds of millions of people were able to escape poverty. If you measure influence by the sheer number of lives affected, then it seems Du would have to rank pretty high.
By all accounts, Du was a sensible and modest fellow who would never have described himself in this way. As a 2012 article in Caixin, on the occasion of his 99th birthday, said:
Since retiring, Du has downplayed his personal contributions to the rural household contract system. Rather, he credits farmers with coming up with the basic ideas that led to the successful policy.
It’s most important when handling rural land reform, he has often stressed, that government officials “respect farmers’ choices” and “investigate” in the field before adopting new policies.
At the birthday party, Du was honored for his special contributions to rural development research. A tribute cited the work of a Rural Policy Research Office team under Du that led to the household contract system, which was called the economic theory that’s had the greatest influence on modern Chinese society.
Du said he would accept the honor as “just a symbol of this team” because “rural reform relied on a team.”
Like many reform-era figures, Du survived earlier purges and was later rehabilitated. Though it is tempting for someone who went through so much and made such great contributions, we should probably not see him simply as a saintly figure dedicated to the welfare of farmers. Du was a military leader during the civil war, and also contributed to the initial post-1949 land reform; both roles would have meant being involved in quite a bit of violence. But I am pretty sure his life offers some great, complex stories that are begging to be told more widely.
For further reading, there is a first-person account by Du of the early days of rural reform, published in English by the International Food Policy Research Institute. There is also of course a Wikipedia page, and some of Du’s policy speeches have been translated and collected.
“[Du Runsheng’s policies] reversed agricultural collectivization and returned control of farmland to individual farm households. It is no exaggeration to say that as a result, hundreds of millions of people were able to escape poverty.”
It is without question an exaggeration, a very big one, to say that the poverty reduction was solely the result of the division of land. This ignores many other factors:
1- the diffusion of new green revolution hybrid seeds occurred largely simultaneous with the HRS and was not caused by it
2- chemical fertilizer supplies increased rapidly because of domestic production surges and especially increased imports
3- huge irrigation gains were made in the 1970s with full benefits coming on line right at the beginning of the reforms
4- grain prices paid by the state to farmers were increased substantially till 1984, paying the farmers back for Mao/Hua-era price scissor exploitation, allowing a virtuous circle of fertilizer purchases and application
5- the market reforms allowed much more local freedom of choice in cropping patterns and use of off-farm labor compared to the autarky and restrictions of the Maoist years; this is the most important part of the reforms, surely much more important than dividing the land
There is no evidence that villages which divided the land later had faster growth than those that divided earlier. Furthermore, the advanced, east coast areas that first received the green revolution technology package had their growth spurts before the introduction of the HRS.
Dividing the land was a good policy because it was what the majority of farmers wanted, not because it was a miraculous poverty reduction device.
China’s plans to transform livestock production by concentrating it and industrialising it, were first announced by Du Runsheng in 1987.
His profound misunderstanding of the nature of a grazing economy led him to assert “the contradiction between raising livestock and growing grass becomes daily more pressing.” He could not accept the basic premise of mobile nomadic grazing, and its skilful productivity, all of which rely on moving the herds from pasture to pasture well before the grasses are grazed too heavily. He took the classic Chinese peasant farmer viewpoint, that moving with the animals is primitive and backward, that “Most of the livestock raising areas in China are still in a condition of nomadic or semi-nomadic grazing.”
Du argued for grass must be sown and harvested as fodder to feed penned animals: “Cultivating grass to raise livestock produces larger incomes than growing grain and achieves rational input-output ratios.” He failed to notice that in Tibet this is climatically impossible.
As an influential policy maker he argued that: “We must promptly take steps to convert from the extensive natural mode of management to an intensive, technologically advanced mode of management.” This, he said, requires fencing of pasture lands, the creation of artificial pastures, a fodder industry, faster slaughter of surplus livestock especially male yaks and sheep.
The tragedy of the current compulsory removal of nomads, blamed for the degradation of the fragmented pastures his policies called for, arises directly from these mistaken approaches. Intellectually Du Runsheng, back in 1987, was the source of today’s improper policies, as leading Chinese scientists now call these wrong-headed approaches.
Du did however also propose policies that, had they been implemented, would have helped Tibetans. He proposed that in livestock areas such as the Tibetan Plateau the people “should engage not only in the livestock industry, but also ij industries such as processing livestock products. The livestock areas should establish their own integrated systems of production, supply, marketing, industry and commerce.” In Tibet this never happened. Although it is development economics 101, China never fostered value adding to pastoral products.
Lucy Hornby at the FT has answered my plea for a proper obituary of Du in a global publication, which includes some interesting comments from his grandson and a colleague.