When provinces fought back against reform

Here is an interesting and little-known episode from the early days of China’s reform era, dealing with the early days of the household responsibility system in the 1980s. The adoption of this system, a fancy name for allowing individual farmers to manage their own plots, is one of the most storied episodes in Chinese economic reform, and is often portrayed as a kind of bottom-up revolution by farmers fed up with collectives.

The household responsibility system did indeed spread rapidly once Deng Xiaoping and the central government endorsed it, but there were some holdouts. The governments of the three northeastern provinces–sometimes called the “little Soviet Union”–had a strong attachment to Soviet- and Mao-style collectives that could practice large-scale mechanized farming, and fought back against the household responsibility system:

Because the problems of collective farming were so widely recognized for so long, unless the center’s preference did not differ, many provinces were willing and eager to adopt the system of household farming. If the new policy could bring about enhanced productivity and increased income, there would be little lost on the part of the provincial authorities. Furthermore, household-based experiments of the 1960s provided some assurance about the workability of the new system.

The same could not be said of a few “resisters”: Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning. The average compliance rate for these three provinces was only 26.9 percent in December 1982. Even in December 1983, the rate stood at 92.1 percent, still lower than the national average by 6.2 percent. The common factor for these Northeast provinces was a complex relationship between the size of land available to individual households, the average size of a production team, and the specific type of mechanization pursued there. Unlike elsewhere in China, the Northeast provinces had an exceptionally large plot of land for each household, which was not susceptible to manual labor or even small machinery-based mechanization.

Spread of HRS

Heilongjiang, for instance, highlighted the unique characteristics of the province as follows: “Our province has one outstanding difference from the rest of the country: our province is a region of modernized large-scale agriculture…with a mechanization level of 60 percent…. This indicates the advanced level of our production forces. Therefore, the implementation of the household responsibility systems should proceed in accordance with these local characteristics.”

Even after Central Document No. 1 [of 1982] was issued, Heilongjiang was still of the position that the scope of household-based farming was to be confined only to poor teams (accounting for 15 percent of all teams there) with low levels of mechanization and that the pace of implementation should be gradual in accordance with the principle of safeguarding local interests. Liaoning’s and Jilin’s positions differed little from that of Heilongjiang throughout 1982–1983.

Over time, Beijing came to identify the pace of local compliance with the legitimacy of the policy, thereby raising the level of urgency for the reform. Soon, Beijing put political pressure on the noncomplying provinces, starting in the second half of 1982. In July, Premier Zhao Ziyang visited Liaoning and called for an immediate popularization of the household responsibility reform in the Northeast. In August, Hu Yaobang went to Heilongjiang, where he criticized the sluggish pace of decollectivization there. In October, Du Runsheng of the Rural Development Research Center issued a stern warning: “In carrying out the household responsibility reform, we have to continue liberating our ideology and relax control…. A few regions are still unwilling to act on the demands of the masses by refusing to change the ‘one big bowl’ situation.”

Beijing’s pressure reached its apex with the speech by Wan Li, vice-premier in charge of agriculture at the National Agricultural Secretaries Conference in November. Wan remarked: “Comparatively speaking, the household responsibility reform has not been successful in all corners of our countryside. In fact, there exists certain ‘passivity’ in many areas and, in some areas, such passivity is of a very bad sort…. The implementation of contracting to the household has not been very smooth due to the obstruction on the part of some leading cadres.”

Heilongjiang and its first party secretary, Yang Yichen, did not succumb to the pressure from Beijing. One day after the publication of Wan’s speech, Yang delivered his own at the Prefecture, County and City Party Secretaries’ Work Conference: “In determining which responsibility system to implement, we have to value the opinions of the masses that will eventually choose a system on the basis of their local conditions.”

The center drew the last card: personnel reshuffle. In February 1983, Yang Yichen was transferred to Beijing as the supreme people’s procurator-general. Given that his transfer had already been decided in December 1982, Yang’s speech was apparently the last expression of his firm stance on the household responsibility reform. With Yang’s departure, Heilongjiang’s pace of implementation skyrocketed within two months, from 12 percent in December 1982 to 73 percent in February 1983. Because Yang’s successor, Li Li’an, was known to be sympathetic to the decollectivization reform, Heilongjiang’s household responsibility reform took off thereafter.

The quote is from Jae Ho Chung’s Centrifugal Empire: Central-Local Relations in China.

The topic of local resistance to reform seems timely, as it’s emerged as a persistent theme under Xi Jinping. Premier Li Keqiang made headlines in 2014 when he called local officials “passive” and “lax,” and this year Xi Jinping devoted much of a meeting of his reform task force to urging better implementation of reform plans.

The comparison with the 1980s episode helps clarify some of the differences: it doesn’t look like China is experiencing ideologically driven local opposition to specific reforms. Rather, as investigations into the resistance to reform have found, the central government is making huge numbers of contradictory demands on local officials, and then punishing them severely when things go wrong. The result is an understandable lack of willingness to take risks and make commitments, quite the opposite of the valorization of local initiative and experiments in the 1980s.

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