John Q. TIAN

A woman carries tea-laden baskets at the Dragon Well Tea Commune in Hangzhou, 1970s. During the 1950s, small family farms were consolidated into larger agricultural cooperatives. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The agricultural cooperatives movement, which sought to move rural China beyond small family farming, was a significant step in the socialist transformation of the Chinese countryside. It was achieved without much turmoil despite the excesses associated with various stages of the process. Once collectivization was completed, though, some of the excesses laid the seeds for the radical policies of the Great Leap Forward.

The agricultural cooperative movement was a major campaign by the Chinese government to transform rural China in the 1950s. After land reform China’s agricultural economy operated on the basis of small family farming. However, the small size of family farms and the use of simple tools not only left many peasant households vulnerable to natural disasters but also limited the scale of production. The latter made it difficult for the state to mobilize resources to supply sufficient agricultural commodities needed for industrialization. More importantly, family farming based on private ownership of land created conditions for the emergence of new class polarization in the countryside, a phenomenon that could have posed political problems for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose victory in the civil war was based largely on the support of poor peasants. Hence, the party leadership decided almost immediately after the completion of land reform to organize peasants into mutual aid teams and cooperatives in preparation for the transition to socialism.

Despite differences over the pace of collectivization, a consensus existed within the CCP leadership on the socialist transition in the countryside. As stipulated in the party’s first decision on such an issue on 15 December 1951 (published in February 1953), the party’s basic policy was that such a transition would evolve through three stages. The first stage was to organize peasants into mutual aid teams. This stage was to be followed by the establishment of elementary cooperatives. The final stage was to be the completion of the socialist transformation of agriculture with the formation of advanced cooperatives or collective farms.

Mutual Aid Teams

Experiments with mutual aid teams and cooperatives began soon after the completion of land reform in some liberated areas even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But major momentum developed when the CCP Central Committee issued its first decision on mutual aid and cooperation at the end of 1951.

The formation of mutual aid teams was based largely on traditional forms of mutual aid in rural areas. Mutual aid teams usually consisted of several peasant households working together in the spirit of voluntary participation and reciprocity. Members of mutual aid teams retained their private ownership of land, means of production, and outputs. Mutual aid teams were formed primarily to exchange labor, draft animals, and implements. Compensation was based on mutually agreeable terms.

Two types of mutual aid teams existed. One was the smaller elementary type with three to five households. It operated on a seasonal or temporary basis and was limited to certain kinds of important farm work such as planting and harvesting. After the work was done the team would disband. The other type was more advanced. It was larger, consisting of six to ten or more households. Operating on a year-around basis, its members over time might well accumulate a small amount of common property, such as farm tools and draft animals.

In both types of mutual aid teams, land, farm tools, and draft animals were still privately owned, and each peasant household continued its own production. The formation of mutual aid teams, however, made it possible for members to exchange labor and other means of production, an especially important factor for the poor, who often needed to exchange their labor for the use of the tools and draft animals of the middle peasants. Politically, the alliance forged in this process could also serve to isolate the rich peasants.

After publication of the policy guidelines regarding the socialist transition in the countryside in February 1953, mutual aid teams developed rapidly. Their number grew from 4.68 million in 1951 to 9.93 million in 1954, with the participation of more than 58.4 percent or more than 68.5 million of all rural households.

Elementary Cooperatives

Experiments with elementary agricultural cooperatives began at about the same time as the initial formation of mutual aid teams in various parts of the countryside. Given the failure of mutual aid teams to prevent the emergence of a new group of rich peasants, and the increasing polarization along class lines in the countryside, the government decided to shift the focus of rural work from mutual aid teams to elementary agricultural cooperatives.

The cooperatives were several times larger than mutual aid teams and usually consisted of thirty to forty households. Initially peasants were organized into elementary cooperatives based on the same principle of voluntary participation and mutual benefits. Elementary cooperatives were regarded as semisocialist organizations because members would retain ownership of the land and other means of production but would pool these resources as shares under a unified management. Under the new system members were paid according to the work done as well as with dividends drawn from each member’s contribution of land and other capital assets such as farm implements, farm transport, and draft animals.

Elementary cooperatives organized peasants more efficiently than did mutual aid teams. The pooling of land under a unified management would eliminate a major structural weakness of Chinese agriculture: small, dispersed, and uneconomic landholdings. The consolidation of fragmentary pieces of land under unified management would also expand the size of fields and the scale of agricultural activity by eliminating boundary lines between individual plots.

Elementary cooperatives were popular with the rural population not only because members were allowed to retain their ownership of land and other assets but also because participation was based on the principle of voluntarism and reciprocity. In addition, members were allowed to keep a certain amount of land as “private plots” (zi liu di), which usually did not exceed 5 percent of the size of individual landholdings. Given their popularity, the number of elementary agricultural cooperatives grew rapidly from around 300 at the end of 1951 to 497,000 at the end of 1954. By June 1955 the number of elementary cooperatives was around 650,000, with the participation of about 17 million rural households.

But the rapid growth of elementary cooperatives also created difficulties and confusion in management. First, how to accurately evaluate work and pay turned out to be a challenge. Disputes over dividends paid for land contributions also drove a wedge between the middle and poor peasants. All these problems were caused by the complexity involved in organizing large groups into collective action but also by the lack of well-trained personnel in the countryside to fill leadership positions. Because of this lack of appropriate leadership skills and proper incentive structure, most of the elementary cooperatives formed during this period were no
t efficient. Many had trouble with even simple tasks such as bookkeeping.

The worst problem, though, was not management and organization but rather the weakening state capacity to extract resources from rural areas. Largely because of the slaughtering of livestock and lack of accumulated fertilizer to improve the land, China suffered two grain crises from the spring of 1953 to the summer of 1955. Lower-than-expected grain production in 1953 and 1954, and increased consumption by the rural population, created uncertainty over continued delivery of sufficient grain to the state. The government responded to the situation by establishing a unified method for the purchase of grain. For the government the issue is not only output but also the insufficient amount of grain and cotton alotted for industrialization and urban consumption. In fact, part of the reason for accelerating development of the cooperatives movement was to reduce the number of producing units and to improve planning so the government could have better control over the sales of agricultural commodities and consumption.

But subsequent food shortages in some areas, which resulted from excessive grain purchases at a time of slow growth in production, caused widespread anger and resistance in the countryside. In response, the government implemented a system of assessing peasants’ grain obligations that was known as the “three fix” (fixed quotas for production, consumption, and procurement). This system was designed to ease peasants’ anxieties over their tax burdens.

The agricultural cooperatives movement went through cycles of expansion and contraction. For example, it accelerated in the winter of 1952 but slowed in the spring of 1953. It expanded again in the winter of 1954 only to contract in the spring of 1955. This pattern was clearly linked to the ongoing debate within the CCP leadership, but it also reflected the problems of disorganization and over-ambitious planning, excessive methods by local cadres, and the alienation of more productive peasants—all factors that were related to the rapid expansion of the cooperatives. When China experienced a grain crisis in the countryside in the spring of 1955 that led many peasants to suffer from severe food shortages, Deng Zihui, central government leader in charge of agriculture, advocated a cautious approach to the pace of collectivization. This approach was initially endorsed by Liu Shaoqi who was in charge of the day-to-day operation of the party at the time, and it was agreed to by CCP leader Mao Zedong himself.

But in the spring of 1955, and again on July 31 of the same year, Mao changed his position drastically with a famous speech, “On the Cooperative Transformation of Agriculture.” In this speech he made a strong case for accelerating the pace of the agricultural cooperatives movement to prevent the emergence of a new class of rich peasants and a dangerous new class polarization in the countryside. At the same time he launched a campaign against what he perceived “rightist deviations.” He accused Deng Zihui and those within the CCP leadership who advocated gradualism of underestimating the immense enthusiasm for socialism among the poor and lower middle peasants, denouncing them as “tottering along like women with bound feet” instead of leading the movement in the front.

Mao’s harsh criticism of right-wing conservatism silenced different voices. Under such circumstances few officials had the courage to argue for a gradual approach again. Subsequently Mao’s view was adopted as a resolution at the Sixth Plenum of the Seventh Central Committee of the CCP in October of 1955. The resolution accelerated the formation of agricultural collectives and provided impetus for a new campaign to change the Chinese countryside. Thus the high tide of socialist transformation predicted by Mao at the end of 1955 quickly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The agricultural cooperatives movement quickly picked up steam as zealous local cadres exerted all their efforts to outdo each other in the implementation of the new party policy. Under pressure to show results and eager to avoid being accused of “rightist conservatism,” local and regional authorities tended to carry out the new policy with far more speed than the party resolution originally envisaged. Thus, in the months after the plenum various provincial party committees revised their plans and competed with each other for early competition of collectivization.

The race to set up cooperatives soon swept aside any remnants of the previous cautious approach based on gradualism and experimentation. Looking for quick results, local cadres frequently ignored earlier principles of voluntary participation and mutual benefits. Many peasants were pressured to join the cooperatives against their will when local cadres exerted political and economic coercion. For example, cadres frequently withheld credit from private farmers who were unwilling to join. Many were forced to organize into large-scale collectives directly from individual farming or small-scale mutual aid teams. Many of the proven methods of gradualism through trial and error were cast aside under mounting pressures for speedy transformation to socialism. By the beginning of 1957, the main task of the socialist transformation of agriculture had been fulfilled with virtually the entire countryside being reorganized in advanced cooperatives.

Advanced Cooperatives

Advanced cooperatives usually consisted of two hundred to three hundred peasant families. Under the new system, when a peasant became a member his land and other principal means of production were transferred from private to collective ownership. Rents for land shares and other capital assets were abolished. Payment for members of advanced cooperatives was based solely on work points earned according to types of work performed. However, peasant households continued to receive small plots of land for private use.

Mao’s about-face decision to accelerate the transition to full collectivization in the summer of 1955 arose out of contradictory goals: he wanted China to achieve rapid industrialization and yet to continue small-scale farming. Given the rising demand of grain for the development of industry and urban consumption and the slower-than-expected rate of grain production, rapid transition to collective agriculture thus became imperative. As a result, the principle of voluntary participation and gradualism gave way to the new political priority of speedy socialist transformation through collectivization.

Many local officials were worried that their political loyalty would be questioned if they remained behind other regions in the race to set up cooperatives. Therefore they competed, trying to outdo each other in this new campaign. Subsequently, the cooperatives movement went through cycles as Mao and the central party leaders set goals, the provinces outstripped those goals, the central party then revised its targets upward, and the provinces again overfulfilled them. Even at the end of 1955 Mao estimated that another three to four years would be needed to complete the establishment of the advanced cooperatives at the most basic level. But zealous local and provincial leaders again overshot this target; in the rush to collectivize, the earlier cautious policy of advancement by stages was abandoned. While Mao continued to warn against leftist excesses in the autumn and winter of 1955–1956, he was impressed by the enthusiasm and speed of collectivization.

Mao and his allies interpreted this race to collectivize as a sign to further accelerate the socialist transformation of the countryside. In December 1955 Mao personally edited and prefaced a book, The Socialist High Tide in China’s Countryside. He estimated that the formation of elementary cooperatives could be basically accomplished in a s
ingle year—1956—instead of the previously estimated three or four years with total completion in 1960. On 25 January 1956, Mao called a meeting of the Supreme State Council at which he demanded the adoption of the National Program for Agricultural Development 1956–1957, which stipulated that in some areas where conditions were favorable, all peasants should be brought into the advanced type of cooperative by 1957. Accordingly, the program envisioned that the conversion of the whole countryside into advanced cooperatives should be accomplished by 1958.

The new agenda abandoned the earlier gradual approach based on voluntary participation and mutual benefits. After Mao’s call to speed up the pace of the socialist transformation, the collectivization movement reached a fever pitch. In June 1955 only 529 advanced agricultural cooperatives existed, with the participation of forty thousand peasant households. By the end of 1956 the number of advanced cooperatives reached 544,000 million, with the participation of more than 107.4 million, or 88 percent of all peasant households. By the end of 1957 the socialist transformation of agriculture was accomplished, and the number of peasant households organized into advanced cooperatives reached 96 percent.

One reason for the cooperatives movement’s rapid acceleration was shrewd strategy. The government not only provided incentives for a majority of the peasants to join the cooperatives but also left them with little choice but to cooperate. Credit cooperatives, supply and marketing cooperatives, and unified purchase of grain and other key commodities increasingly restricted the space of private economic activities for rich peasants. With economic resources gradually channeled to the cooperative sector, the incentive structure was altered to encourage peasants to join the cooperatives. During the “high tide” the cancellation of land dividends in the advanced cooperatives amounted to a direct transfer of economic resources from the rich peasants to the poor. The latter had the numerical dominance from which the party could draw support to push those who were still hesitant to join the collectives.

This rush to establish cooperatives created numerous problems. Many policies that accompanied the rush, such as direct planning over the size of sowing areas, output, and the closing of most of the rural markets, caused a major disruption in agricultural production. As a result, many officials in the central government realized the seriousness of the problems and the dissatisfaction of the peasants over the rush to collectivization. Subsequently, when the rigidity of the newly formed advanced cooperatives became increasingly obvious, a period of adjustment followed in 1956–1957.

Starting in April 1956 and continuing into the summer of 1957, some of the excessive policies associated with the high tide of collectivization were reversed. Steps to deal with problems were taken under a program that became known as “opposing rash advance.” These steps included placing new emphasis on setting realistic targets, coordinating planning and quality in output, increasing the scope of peasants’ private production, reopening some limited rural markets, and reducing the size of the cooperatives. The adjustments continued until they were swept away during the Great Leap Forward by a new wave of agrarian radicalism to organize peasants into much larger communes.

The agricultural cooperatives movement marked an important step in the socialist transformation of the Chinese countryside. It was a significant development beyond land reform to move rural China toward a more equal distribution. Overall, despite the excesses associated with various stages of the process, this was accomplished without much turmoil. First, the rents and dividends paid for the use of land and other assets were capped below compensation paid for labor. Then these rents and dividends were eliminated altogether, and pay was based solely on the type of work performed. By pooling together resources through the establishment of cooperatives, the scale factor contributed to the increase of grain production. However, once collectivization was achieved, the leadership embarked on more ambitious programs that led to the disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1958–1961.

Further Reading

Cheng Chu-yuan. (1982). China’s economic development: Growth and structural change. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Du Runsheng & Tu, J.-S. (1995). Reform and development in rural China. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Fu, C. (2006). Zhongguo nongcun hezuo jingji: zuzhi xingshi yu zhidu bianqian [China’s rural cooperative economy: Organization and institutional change]. Beijing: China Economic Publishing House.

Kueh, Y. Y. (2006, September). Mao and agriculture in China’s industrialization: Three antitheses in a 50-year perspective. China Quarterly, 187(1), 700–723.

Lardy, N. R. (1987). Economic recovery and the 1st Five-Year Plan. In R. MacFarquhar & J. K. Fairbank (Eds.), The Cambridge history of China: Vol. 14. The People’s Republic, part I: The emergence of revolutionary China 1949–1965 (pp. 144–184). London: Cambridge University Press.

Li Huaiyin. (2006, March). The first encounter: Peasant resistance to state control of grain in east China in the mid-1950s. China Quarterly, 185(1), 145–162.

Liu Jianhui & Wang Hongxu. (2006, September). The origins of the general line for the transition period and of the acceleration of the Chinese socialist transformation in summer 1955. China Quarterly, 187(1), 724–731.

Mao Zedong. (1955). Prefaces to socialist upsurges in China’s countryside. Retrieved June 17, 2008, from

Perkins, D., & Shabid, Y. (1984). Rural development in China. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Selden, M. (1982). Cooperation and conflict: Cooperative and collective formation in China’s countryside. In M. Selden & V. Lippit (Eds.), The transition to socialism in China (pp. 32–97). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Selden, M., & Lippit, V. (1982). The transition to socialism in China. In M. Selden & V. Lippit (Eds.), The transition to socialism in China (pp. 3–31). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Shue, V. (1980). Peasant China in transition: The dynamics of development toward socialism, 1949–1956. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Sun, Yafan. (2006). Xinxing Nongmin Zhuanye hezuo jingji zuzhi fazhan yanjiu [A study on the development of new type of farmers’ specialized cooperative economic organization]. Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press.

Tam, O. K. (1985). China’s agricultural modernization: The socialist mechanization scheme. London: Croom Helm.

Teiwe, F. C. (1987). Establishment and consolidation of the new regime. In R. MacFarquhar & J. K. Fairbank (Eds.), The Cambridge history of China. Vol. 1
4: The People’s Republic, part I: The emergence of revolutionary China 1949–1965
(pp. 51–143). London: Cambridge University Press.

Ye Yangbing. (2006). Zhongguo nongye hezuohua yundong yanjiu [A study of the agricultural cooperative movement in China]. Beijing: Zhishi chanquan chubanshe.

Source: Tian, John Q.. (2009). Agricultural Cooperatives Movement. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 26–32. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

In this wood-block-print-style propaganda poster, peasant youth criticize their former landlord, celebrate the arrival of Communism, and dance with soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A traditional peasant-style home in China’s countryside. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

A woman at the Dragon Well Tea Commune in Hangzhou smiles as she displays some of the Tea Commune’s equipment. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Women from the Dragon Well Tea Commune wash food and clothing in a stream. The communal kitchen is a central gathering point for Dragon Well women. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Agricultural Cooperatives Movement (Nóngc?n g?ngshèhuà yùndòng ???????)|Nóngc?n g?ngshèhuà yùndòng ??????? (Agricultural Cooperatives Movement)

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