Qunjian TIAN

Farmers cart their produce to sell at market. Because farmers are now allowed to sell their surplus crops after government quotas are fulfilled, incentive is a factor in China’s reformed agricultural system. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The household responsibility system is an essential component of the agricultural reform initiated by China in the late 1970s. Under the system, land or certain tasks are contracted to individual households for a period of time. After fulfilling the procurement quota obligations to the state, farmers are free to keep their surplus for their use or sell it on the market.

Having transformed China’s countryside into a system of agricultural cooperatives by 1957 (the process called collectivization), the Chinese leadership moved on in 1958 to more ambitious programs of the Great Leap Forward. Existing collectives were soon organized into people’s communes, much larger units with an average of about 20,000 to 30,000 members. Communes as a basic organization of the Chinese countryside remained until late 1970s when reform impulses began to pop up in various places. The household responsibility system (jiating chengbao zeren zhi) was one of the agricultural reforms that emerged at the time. Although forbidden by the central government until the autumn of 1980, the household responsibility system was introduced experimentally in rural China, most famously in Anhui Province.

The household responsibility system had two major forms. The first involved contracting output to the household (baochan daohu); the second involved contracting everything to the household, or contracting tasks to the household (baogan daohu). Under both forms the collective retained the ownership of the land. Under the form of contracting output to the household, land was divided equally and then leased to individual peasant households on a per capita basis for the return of a certain kind or amount of yield as specified by the contract to the state. Peasant households had the autonomy to decide what and how much to produce. Any surplus beyond the fixed quota would be kept by peasant households either for their own consumption or for sale in the newly liberalized rural markets.

Under the form of contracting everything to the household certain plots of land were assigned to individual households in return for fixed payments to the collective as procurement quotas, taxes, welfare funds, and collective investments. The household would keep anything else for its own use or for sale.

The terms of household contracts varied in different areas. Initially some areas used annually renewed contracts that reallocated land to allow for changes in a household’s size or situation. In other areas the duration of the contract was not clearly stipulated but was assumed to be long term. In the latter, land allocations were to remain unchanged regardless of household situations such as births or deaths. Over time the system gradually evolved into explicit long-term leases of land under collective ownership. The government even began to grant land-use certificates through county offices that would be good for fifteen to twenty years. Eventually the government extended leases to fifty years on land that could be inherited and sublet.

The essential feature of various forms of the responsibility system was the establishment of a direct and effective link between work and rewards. The system did not change the nature of collective ownership of land and property, but it did change the way the land and property were used and the way agricultural production was managed. The work-point system that had been in place since collectivization was gradually replaced by various forms of the responsibility system.

Early forms of the household responsibility system were introduced in response to excesses of the crash collectivization movement in the mid-1950s. But this endeavor was quickly reversed with Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong’s intervention. Accused as “rightist opportunism,” these nascent experiments were soon submerged in the waves of “agrarian radicalism” during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Their revival came in the late 1970s in response to initiatives taken by the farmers and local governments.

Experiments with various responsibility systems in the late 1970s started in Anhui Province when Wan Li was appointed provincial party secretary. In November 1977 the provincial government began to liberalize the rural economy with the passage of a policy known as the “Six Articles,” which called on officials at various levels to respect local units’ autonomy. In 1978, when a severe drought hit Anhui, with the endorsement of the provincial government Shannan District in Feixi County began the practice of “lending” pieces of land that were not used by the collectives to peasant households.

With the benign neglect and implicit support of some reform-oriented regional and local leaders such as Wan Li, other localities in Anhui began experimenting with various forms of the responsibility system. These experiments included contracting output to groups (baochan daozu), contracting tasks to groups (baogan daozu), contracting output to the household, and contracting tasks to the household. These forms of the responsibility system calculated rewards based on yields and distributed bonuses for output over quotas (lianchan jichou and chaobao jiangli). For example, in 1978 Xinjie Commune in Tianchang County adopted a limited version of household contracting by fixing output responsibility for certain crops such as cotton to individuals (in reality, households). In the spring of 1978 Mahu Commune in Fengyang County and Weiying Production Team in Lai’an County began linking production and reward via contracting output to groups or contacting everything to groups (da baogan daozu). At about the same time in Xiaogang, Fengyang County, eighteen peasant households secretly began practicing the household responsibility system. Given the political uncertainty at the time, they signed a pledge in the spring of 1978 to take care of the dependents of team cadres in case they were arrested for allowing such a practice.

Contracting Spreads

Although Fengyang County later reversed its decision to permit the household responsibility system when other areas demanded the same right, its initial endorsement emboldened residents in other localities, and household contracting began to spread even though this practice was often concealed from higher authorities. By the time of the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee in December 1978, over one thousand production teams had already adopted the household responsibility system.

Although the Third Plenum reaffirmed the Dazhai model, a brigade widely heralded during the Cultural Revolution for its spirit of hard struggle and self-reliance, it also encouraged experimentation with various forms of the responsibility system that linked work with pay under unified accounting and distribution by the collective. More important, while the Third Plenum still forbade the adoption of the household responsibility system, the fact that it tolerated the development of different forms of the responsibility system was a sign of relaxation. In such an atmosphere responsibility systems in the form of contracting output to small groups and even contracting output to households were soon adopted in various places, especially in remote and poor areas. Although not all of the practices were sanctioned, none was really punished or banned. Therefore, well before the central government permitted the practice of group and, later, household responsibility in agriculture, various localities had already adopted them secretly.

But the household responsibility system continued to face strong opposition, and in most provinces the responsibility system was still limited to contracting to small groups, not households. Even Xiaogang was among the first to adopt the household responsibility system, it was forced by county authorities to switch to small-group responsibility in 1979 because of complaints from neighboring brigades and communes.

While the general atmosphere during this period was favorable to various experiments of agricultural reforms, it was not until 25–28 September 1979 at the Fourth Plenum of the Eleventh Central Committee did the official policy regarding the household responsibility system began to relax. Although contracting output to households was still prohibited, it was allowed with the exception of certain sideline productions with special needs and isolated households living in remote poor areas.

Even this limited opening to allow households in poor remote areas to contract land in certain sideline productions became a window of opportunity for those looking for change. By late 1979 contracting output to households quickly spread. According to the economist D. L. Yang (1996), 25 percent of rural households were already engaged in output contracting in the spring of 1980. By July–August of the same year the number increased to 30 percent. In Anhui production teams practicing household contracting grew from less than 1 percent in 1978 to 16 percent in 1979 and 90 percent in 1980. The rapid expansion of the household responsibility system was due largely to the permissive attitude and even support from reform-minded regional and local leaders such as Wan Li in Anhui and Zhao Ziyang in Sichuan. Wan Li openly defended the practice of the household responsibility system as simply one form of responsibility system and it was socialist because the land still belonged to the collective.

Despite the much-improved political atmosphere, rural reform, and especially the household responsibility system, still faced strong opposition. Even in Anhui, the most radical of China’s provinces, the household responsibility system was still not widely accepted. Although Feixi County had adopted the system from the beginning, most of Anhui had adopted the alternative system of contracting to small groups. In Fengyang County, which became famous for pioneering the system of contracting to small groups, the party leader gave his support only to contracting output to small groups but opposed the adoption of the household responsibility system. As noted earlier, the county authorities who had originally allowed Xiaogang to adopt the household responsibility system reversed their decision when Xiaogang’s example came into conflict with the policy of contracting to small groups in nearby areas. Although the leadership at the prefecture level in Chuxian supported the more radical household responsibility system, resistance from local cadres, especially at the county level, persisted.

From Permitted to Popular

During the next two years the first tentative endorsement of the household responsibility system was gradually extended, and the corresponding increases in grain production helped alter attitudes toward the system. The subsequent policy changes evolved from permitting the household responsibility system to recognizing and then popularizing it. This change was due largely to Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping’s endorsement and Wang Li’s open support after he became vice premier in charge of agricultural affairs and head of the State Agricultural Commission.

Even in 1980 at a meeting of provincial party secretaries most provinces still opposed the household responsibility system. However, a major breakthrough occurred at a meeting of provincial party secretaries on 14–22 September. With strong support from Wan Li, the meeting issued a resolution on “Certain Problems with Respect to Further Strengthening and Improving Responsibility System for Agricultural Production,” known as “Document No. 75.” Despite continued opposition from some provinces at the meeting, this document endorsed the experiment of various forms of responsibility system, including the continued practice of the household responsibility system even in some prosperous areas that had already adopted it.

At the time of this meeting an estimated 20 to 30 percent of all production teams had already adopted the household responsibility system despite continued opposition. In the aftermath of the release of the document most provinces and autonomous regions responded promptly and positively, and subsequently various forms of the responsibility system developed quickly. Apart from contracting output to small groups and contracting output to households, many places began dividing labor according to specialization and linking rewards to yields (zhuanye chengbao, lianchan jichou). At the same time restrictions on rural markets and fairs were further eased, and measures were also taken to encourage crop diversification, specialization, and production for expanding internal and external markets. Most important, by July 1981 many basic accounting units in rural China had adopted some form of the household responsibility system even though the document stipulated that “average areas should not adopt” this system.

A variety of responsibility systems was used in different regions. More-developed regions along the coast preferred some form of specialized contracting. The poorest and least-commercialized areas in the interior would find the household responsibility system most appropriate. Regions in the middle would tend to adopt a hybrid system of the two. By this time most people still viewed contracting output to individual households as an effective way to raise rural income levels because it could alter the incentive structures in the “backward” areas where the collective economy was weak and ineffective. But suspicion and even opposition to its adoption in more prosperous regions persisted.

By the time of the National Rural Work Conference on 5–21 October 1981 about half of the production teams had already adopted the household responsibility system and divided up team property. The household responsibility system gained legitimacy at the conference when it was formally recognized as a form of socialist collective economy. This policy shift was reaffirmed by the CCP Secretariat the next month.

The Chinese political system has an inherent tendency to swing between extremes. Although there was still some resistance to adoption of the household responsibility system, resistance soon collapsed after the system was endorsed and pushed from above. Like the socialist high tide during the collectivization movement, party apparatus at various levels again lapsed into rigidity after an initial flirtation with experimental innovations and local flexibility.

With the promulgation of Document No. 1 of 1982, rural reform became unstoppable. Despite the government intention for a period to slow down the new system and reflect, stabilize, and improve on it, the momentum toward household contracting was so strong that the household responsibility system was accelerated. Within a year production teams that had already adopted some form of the household responsibility system increased from about 50 percent of the total in 1981 to about 80 percent in 1982.

The effect of the adoption of the household responsibility system was remarkable. By the time of the Rural Work Conference in November 1982, there were dramatic increases in the production of grain, cotton, and oil crops. Consequently the household responsibility system was reaffirmed in January 1983 by Document No. 1. This reaffirmation led to further acceleration in the pace of decollectivization. Rural households engaged in the household responsibility system jumped to 98 percent of the total in 1983 and 99 percent in 1984.

Litmus Test

After the central authorities accepted the household responsibility system, implementation of the system soon became the litmus test in many areas of a cadre’s support for reform despite government calls for selective adoption of the system where the collective had failed. Most cadres, skilled at sniffing shifts in the political wind, quickly jumped on the bandwagon of reform. Those that did not were subjected to political pressure by 1982. Although adoption of the household responsibility system was to be originally voluntary and based on peasants’ “democratic decisions” in regions where it was suitable, primarily in the poorer and remote rural areas where collectivized farming had failed, the system soon became mandatory throughout China.

Implementation of the household responsibility system was further facilitated by the dismantling of the commune system in 1984. In accordance with a state constitution adopted in December 1982, the political and administrative authority of the people’s communes was transferred to township (xiang) governments. The central government required that separation of the government administration from economic management be competed throughout China by the end of 1984. The separation of the government administration from economic management, along with the establishment of xiang governments, was a major institutional reform in rural areas in the early 1980s, and these changes made the individual peasant household the main unit of production and management.

Thus, the initial changes in the form of production since 1978 in rural China soon turned into a new high tide of decollectivization. In this sweeping process of change the old commune system was replaced by the new household responsibility system based on individual family farming. By 1984 most villages divided their land and collective properties; even villages that never divided their land and collective properties were pressured to adopt various forms of the responsibility system and make necessary adjustments.

Adoption of the household responsibility system—together with rising procurement prices, increased supplies, use of farm inputs such as chemical fertilizer, and revival of rural markets—produced spectacular growth in agricultural output and in peasant standards of living. With growth in the agricultural sector exceeding that of the industrial sector, the urban-rural income gap declined for the first time. Consequently peasant demand for consumer goods mushroomed, providing strong market support for increased production in the light industrial sector.

Peasants Lose Confidence

But the limitation of the household responsibility system soon began to manifest itself. Lack of explicit ownership rights of land and the initial short-term lease undermined peasant confidence in the durability of the contracts and prompted peasants to engage in short-term economic behavior. Critics were also concerned that the household responsibility system seriously depleted public assets such as draft animals, farming tools, and machinery. A more serious consequence of decollectivization is that many of the collectives’ functions began to lapse. This lapse could be seen in the deteriorating conditions of flood control, irrigation projects, and the provision of basic public goods. More important, as stimulus effects from institutional change began to taper off after 1984, growth of agriculture became sluggish.

In response the government introduced long-term leases of collective land to peasant households. These long-term leases were expected to provide a means of reestablishing all the incentives of family farming without turning all the land over to direct private ownership.

The rapid growth in productivity resulting from all these institutional changes has ushered in a period of great transformation in rural China. The surplus labor created by increased productivity, together with the easing of travel and residence restrictions, has led to massive rural migration. Many have abandoned tilling the land and found employment in village and township enterprises. More have become migrant workers, seeking jobs and even permanent residence in cities and, in the process, fueling rapid urbanization in China.

Further Reading

Chen Wenxing. (1999). The political economy of rural development in China, 1978–1999. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Fewsmith, J. (1994). Dilemmas of reform in China: Political conflict and economic debate. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Hartford, K. (1985). Socialist agriculture is dead; long live socialist agriculture! Organizational transformation in rural China. In E. Perry & C. Wong (Eds.), The political economy of reform in post-Mao China (pp. 31–61). Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press.

Kelliher, D. (1992). Peasant power in China: The era of rural reform, 1979–1989. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lin, Justin Yifu. (1987, May). The household responsibility system reform in China: A peasant’s institutional choice. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 69(2), 410–415.

Lin, Justin Yifu. (1988, April). The household responsibility system in China’s agricultural reform: A theoretical and empirical study. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 36(Suppl.), S199–S224.

Naughton, B. (1996). Growing out of the plan: Chinese economic reform, 1978–1993. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Putterman, L. (1985). The restoration of the peasant household as farm production unit in China: Some incentive theoretic analysis. In E. Perry & C. Wong (Eds.), The political economy of reform in post-Mao China (pp. 63–82). Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press.

Unger, J. (2002). The transformation of rural China. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Yang, Dali L. (1996). Calamity and reform in China: State, rural society, and institutional change since the Great Leap famine. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Source: Tian, Qunjian. (2009). Household Responsibility System. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1066–1072. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A farmer displays the head of a sunflower, the seeds of which will be dried for food. After fulfilling their quotas owed to the state, farmers are free to keep the surplus for their use or sell it at market. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Farmers take a break from threshing. In the household responsibility system, local managers are in charge of, and therefore can account for, the success or failure of a business or farm. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

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