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.