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2018-08-03 09:29:14 Commentary

Beginning in the late 1970s, the reform and opening-up period brought boom times to a large swath of China — especially along the coast — and the success of the country’s new market reforms has turned collectivization into a byword for inefficiency.

Yet not every boat was lifted by the rising tide of economic growth. In some areas, the side effects of the new reforms were so severe that local residents began to pine for the collective era — though not necessarily its full restoration. To better understand this phenomenon, I travelled to Dai Village — located in Lanling County, in the northeastern province of Shandong. There, a combination of nostalgia for collectivization, strong local leadership, and economic gains from urbanization has enabled village leaders to reestablish aspects of the collective economy.

At first glance, it is not hard to understand why collectivization has such a strong hold on the collective imagination of Dai’s residents: It is seen as a glorious chapter in the village’s history. Between 1958 and 1983, all village land was organized under the People’s Commune system, and everything, from land use to production quotas and villager movements, was closely governed by collective organizations. Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the village collective turned over more than 500,000 kilograms of rice to the state, earning special recognition for its efforts.

Li Xuequan — a local who turns 77 this year — lived through this period. When he reflects on his youth, his face lights up with pride. "At the time, Dai villagers were all extremely productive,” he said. “Under the leadership of the collective, our village flourished."

This legacy became a millstone in the post-1978 period, however. As part of the country’s marketization reforms, the vast majority of rural villages — including Dai — implemented what was known as the household responsibility system, whereby the use rights to collectively owned land were leased to individual households. In Dai, however, the entirety of village infrastructure had been built around the collective. Now that there was no longer one body responsible for their upkeep, the area’s vast irrigation facilities — built at the peak of the collectivist period — fell into disrepair. Soon the village’s prized rice paddies had run dry.

During the 90s, the surrounding villages boomed while Dai fell into a state of relative poverty. Some blamed market deregulation, claiming it fostered individualist attitudes and bred conflict. The three smaller settlements that comprise Dai soon fell to fighting over resources, and village committee operations ground to a standstill.

It took until the late 90s for things to begin to change. In 1999, Party officials installed a new Party Secretary, Wang Chuanxi.

Dai represents less a return to Maoism than an innovative use of the village’s historical traditions within the context of the market economy.

Shortly after Wang took office, he and the other recently elected members of the village committee began researching the case of Nanjie Village. Located in the central province of Henan, Nanjie was a well-known example of collectivized development in the opening-up period. In 1984, under the guidance of Nanjie’s Party Secretary, Wang Hongbin — who is not related to Wang Chuanxi — plots of land in Nanjie that had been distributed to families under the household responsibility system were re-collectivized. The village then focused on developing village-run companies, mostly related to food processing. In 1984, Nanjie’s village enterprises produced just 700,000 yuan worth of goods; By 1999, this figure had ballooned to 1.4 billion yuan.

Impressed by Nanjie’s success, Wang Chuanxi decided to imitate its development model.

The first thing he did was redistribute all of Dai’s land. Although every household in the village had received separate plots under the household responsibility system, the quality and size of these plots varied greatly from one family to another. So in early 2000, the village committee reappraised all the land in the village and gave each household one plot of “high quality land” and one plot of “poor quality land.”

This was not enough to restore the local agriculture industry, however. Increasingly, Dai’s residents were finding work in the nearby county seat — though most of them continued to reside in the village — leaving fewer and fewer villagers to plant and harvest crops. In response, in 2002 Dai began reacquiring land management rights from residents in order to level the terrain and build basic infrastructure improvements. The village then leased this land back out to villagers, co-ops, and companies willing to farm it. By mid-2005, all of the village's farmland was under cultivation, and in 2008 Dai acquired the management rights to over 1,100 acres in neighboring villages as well.

Once these rights were secured, Dai officials undertook a number of development projects — including a mall and agricultural parks — designed to increase both output and collective revenues. Wang claims that by 2017 the village collective had amassed over 2 billion yuan in assets and had a net income of 110 million yuan. He says this success has trickled down to villagers, too: Each year, the village makes a dividend payment to each of its 3,600 residents, along with a yearly 500 yuan stipend for Chinese New Year celebrations, provides them with housing subsidies and basic health insurance, offers retiree apartments to residents over 60, and funds scholarships for village children. As for the rest of the money, according to Wang it is reinvested, mostly in tourism development projects.

Summer camp attendees eat lunch in an ‘Educated Youth Canteen,’ part of a new red tourism theme park in Dai Village, Lanling Couty, Shandong province, June 28, 2018. Fu Danni/Sixth Tone

Summer camp attendees eat lunch in an ‘Educated Youth Canteen,’ part of a new red tourism theme park in Dai Village, Lanling Couty, Shandong province, June 28, 2018. Fu Danni/Sixth Tone

However, for all of the benefits collectivization has brought the village — and all of the attention and praise village leaders have gained from their higher-ups, including a June decision by provincial Party officials to launch a “Learn from Wang Chuanxi” campaign — it should be noted that Dai’s economic success would not have been possible without the rapid growth of China's cities that has taken place in recent years.

Dai was favorably positioned to take advantage of this trend — thanks to its location right where the city meets the countryside in Lanling County. The speed at which Lanling has urbanized has seen Dai nearly merge with the county seat over the past decade — though it remains administratively separate. As more villagers have taken jobs in the city, the collective has furthered its control of the area’s farmland. 

Meanwhile, urbanization — and China’s recent real estate boom — have caused the price of land in Dai to increase over tenfold in just ten years. The rapid rise of land prices has helped the village accumulate capital, which officials have used to build modern commercial plazas and agricultural parks — essentially highly modern farms that are also open to tourism — on land rented back from farmers. Profits from these ventures are then used to fund the villager benefits system.

This is one of the advantages of the collectivist model commonly touted by supporters. Without the collective’s capacity for coordinated action, they argue, land rights would be scattered, and it would be impossible for Dai to develop such large-scale projects — or realize such large-scale gains.

But while Dai is held up as a collectivization success story, in truth Dai’s current village collective has little in common with its Mao-era predecessors. Collectivization in Dai is limited to collective control of land-management rights — the land itself is managed in line with corporate and market principles — and villagers' lives are not as strictly controlled as they once were. Stripped of much of its original political purpose, the Dai collective is in a sense just a holding company. Villagers invest in this “company” — using land as shares — and in return they get a share of the dividends.

Dai represents less a return to Maoism than an innovative revival of the village’s past within the context of the market economy. Collectivization requires a concentration of resources, both economic and human, to work, and Dai has benefitted from a unique and difficult-to-replicate set of circumstances. The government may want people to "Learn from Wang Chuanxi,” but whether his approach is viable elsewhere in China — and in the absence of such favorable conditions — remains an open question.

Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell

This article was funded by the Sixth Tone Fellowship. In 2018, Sixth Tone sponsored eight young scholars to come to China for a six-week research trip to conduct fieldwork in eight provinces all over the country.

(Header image: A partial view of an agricultural park in Dai Village, Lanling Couty, Shandong province, June 28, 2018. Fu Danni/Sixth Tone)