The capitalist transformation of rural China: Evidence from “Agrarian Change in Contemporary China”

The capitalist transformation of rural China: Evidence from “Agrarian Change in Contemporary China”
Image by Sim Chi Yin/The New York Times.

Despite so much attention being spent on the woes of the Chinese stock market and currency wars, in other fields the Chinese state continues its liberalizing reforms. Over the last few years the state has pushed forward with its attempt to scale-up and capitalize agriculture, and Li Keqiang recently argued for the need to “industrialize agriculture.”1 This has led to a debate concerning the character of rural social and production relations. Some continue to claim China is not a capitalist social formation, and rural China and its land system are taken as major pieces of evidence. But this stance can no longer be maintained. Chinese agriculture is undergoing a rapid transformation as it is subsumed by capitalism. In order to understand rural China and contemporary peasant conflicts, therefore, we need to focus our attention on the processes of agrarian change and class differentiation that capitalism brings to the rural sphere.

A recent special issue of the Journal of Agrarian Change (volume 15, issue 3, July 2015) makes this clear. The issue deals with “agrarian change” in China since the late 1970s and especially focuses on the increasing capitalist transformation of agriculture and rural society over the past decade. The eight articles offer new insights into the changing terrain of social and environmental antagonisms in China today, which have implications for how we conceive of anti-capitalist intervention there and elsewhere. Below we summarize points of interest from each article. In future writings, we will elaborate on points raised here and relate them to other debates to draw out their political implications.


“Bringing Agriculture Back In: The Central Place of Agrarian Change in Rural China Studies” by Qian Forrest Zhang, Carlos Oya, and Jingzhong Ye

This opening essay summarizes the major turns in China’s rural policy since 1978, reviews corresponding trends in academic literature, and introduces how the six studies in this collection illustrate various aspects of the “entry of capital into agriculture” since the 2000s, which “has not just introduced fundamental changes to agricultural production,” but also “transformed rural politics and society in important ways” (305).

The policy history is probably familiar to most of our readers, and is summarized (quite differently) in our old article on peasant struggles2: China’s economic reforms that led to its capitalist transformation in the 1990s began in the countryside, with the decollectivization and re-marketization of agriculture and rural life starting in 1978. Following this first set of changes was the development of collective industrial enterprises known as “TVEs” (township and village enterprises), which also helped increase income for many peasants and local governments, until most closed or privatized in the face of competition with new private enterprises in the 1990s. The resulting decline in revenue was exacerbated by the state’s fiscal reform in 1994, which “concentrated more revenue sources in the central coffers while shifting more expenditure to local governments,” thus adding “another impetus that drove local rural governments, especially in inland provinces, into predation” (300). This predation combined with declining peasant income to push peasants out of the countryside, just as China’s integration into global capitalism as a center for export processing pulled them into wage-labor in the new “special economic zones” on the coast. In the 1990s, however, factors such as the household registration (hukou) system forced such migrants to return to the countryside after a few years, and peasant movements against the predation of local officials grew to a scale and intensity that posed a serious threat to the Chinese party-state. In response, the central state began a set of policy changes “which ushered in a new phase aiming to rejuvenate the countryside,” starting tentatively with a reform of rural taxes in 2000, and taking off more coherently with “the nationwide abolition of agricultural tax from 2004 to 2006, accompanied by the streamlining and limiting of township-level government, the launch of the Constructing a New Socialist Countryside programme[,] the building of a rural social welfare system that comprises the New Cooperative Medical Scheme, the New Rural Social Pension Insurance and the Minimum Living Allowance, and the provision of an increasingly wide range of agriculture-related subsidies” (302).

Among these state efforts to “rejuvenate” the countryside in response to the combination of peasant rebellion and concerns about China reaching the limits of its 1990s export-oriented model of economic development, by the late 2000s, the program of “agricultural modernization” had become the most prominent, as indicated in the state’s annual No. 1 Central Policy Documents. According to the authors, “The central government’s hope is that, through promoting modernized agriculture that is larger scale, uses more technology and greater capital investment, and prompts deeper market integration, agricultural producers that are either ‘left-behind’ in rural areas or driven back from their precarious urban sojourn can achieve higher incomes and productivity” (302). Perhaps this is what policy-makers say or even believe, but it strikes us as somewhat naïve to attribute this trend primarily to such concern for the well-being of the rural poor – especially when the authors themselves (in this article and elsewhere) have shown that “urban capital” has both played an active role in influencing the design and implementation of state policy, and benefitted enormously:

Urban capital’s entry into agriculture has been swift and forceful. Legend Holdings, the corporate group that owns the world’s largest PC maker, Lenovo, for example, has established a new agribusiness, Joyvio, which has quickly become the country’s biggest grower–processor of blueberries and kiwi fruits.3 For the central government, this is a welcome change. In its policy design, the so-called ‘dragon-head agribusinesses’ have all along been identified as the key actor to push forward the agricultural modernization agenda (Zhang and Donaldson 2008).

Some of the studies in this collection, summarized below, provide further evidence of the central role of capital in this process, and details about how it has influenced the lives of the rural poor these polices are supposed to benefit.

The essay concludes by responding to its initial question “why is China important for the literature on agrarian change and agrarian transitions?” with a set of disappointingly vague and apolitical answers. Among these, the most promising is “because of the implications of ongoing processes of agrarian change for the overall process of capitalist development in China, which is one of the most quantitatively and qualitatively important in current times, and with global implications” – but what are those implications? They don’t say, but we will try to tease some out below and in our forthcoming work.


“Class Differentiation in Rural China” Dynamic of Accumulation, Commodification and State Intervention” by Qian Forrest Zhang

Surprisingly, no one has really attempted a contemporary class analysis of rural China until this article. This is in part due to the fact that rural China studies has been dominated by political science, a result of the Cold War shaping of China studies, and to a lesser extent sociology, and the latter have tended to shift to a quantitative approach to understanding rural China. Zhang’s article, therefore, is a first-run attempt at developing a class analysis, one that stresses the dynamic aspects of class logics of capitalist agrarian change. He argues that rural China is undergoing a dramatic transformation, one that most scholars are missing, under the pressure of capitalist accumulation strategies.

Looking at four sectors of commodification (of land, of labor, of outputs, and of inputs), Zhang develops a qualitative description of five classes in rural China, and then outlines the class dynamic of each in this moment of agrarian change.

The most important premise of Zhang’s argument is that rural China is capitalist. One reason some still argue that China is socialist or at least non-capitalist is that rural land is nominally owned by the rural collective and is not a form of private property.4 Zhang makes a convincing argument against the likes of Charlie Post that, despite land being nominally being owned by the rural collective, in fact the market for land use is highly developed. Overall, Zhang argues that capital dominates each of the four sectors of commodification he looks at. Because of this domination, rural Chinese society has been undergoing a rapid class differentiation and has reached a stage in which “relatively stable structural positions can be identified in the new social relations of production” (342). The five rural classes are: capitalist employers (including corporate farm managers and entrepreneurial farmers), petty bourgeois commercial farmers, dual-employment households, wage workers, and subsistence farmers. Zhang does not discuss subsistence farmers to any extent, in part, assumedly, because they have been discussed too much already.

Entrepreneurial farmers are a favorite of the state to accomplish its goal of “scaling-up agriculture,” and they have received a great deal of financial support from the state as well as political support in their localities. Their success has often led to them being invited to become local leaders, allowing them to further cash in on political connections. Entrepreneurial farmers constitute a form of “accumulation from below” (352), as these capitalist farmers emerged from the petty bourgeoisie. Petty bourgeoisie farmers are in a less stable position. They depend far more on their own family’s labor power and means of production. But they are still dependent on the market to sell their output and buy inputs. In a more precarious position, there is a strong tendency of differentiation among them (357); they often either move up to become successful entrepreneurial farmers or down to sell their labor or even become subsistence farmers. The main problem they are confronted with is the competition to increase productivity through more and more expensive inputs and technological changes.

“Dual-employment households,” the largest class in rural China, “combine petty commodity production using family labor and land and wage work” (357). Wage employment income has risen dramatically for rural household since the 1980s, and Zhang argues that “wage employment spearheaded commodification more generally” (358). Wages have been used, in other words, to capitalize and commodify family farming as well as subsistence. Some wage workers (the fourth rural class) “retain nominal ownership of their allocated land rights” but have leased their land and become full wage workers (360). Others became wage workers because of their loss of land altogether. Zhang concludes that what has been largely missed in discussions of rural China is that it has been “fundamentally” transformed by capitalism, arguing that “family farming in today’s China is no less capitalistic than corporate farming organized by agribusiness using wage labor” (362). He also points out that we can’t understand rural unrest without attention to rural class fault lines.


“Agrarian Capitalization without Capitalism? Capitalist Dynamics from Above and Below in China” by Yan Hairong and Chen Yiyuan

Yan and Chen look at the new subjects of agrarian transformation promoted by the Chinese state: namely, cooperatives, family farms, and dragon-head enterprises. They do so in order to argue against Philip Huang and others who, they say, take a Chayanovian populist perspective on rural inequality. The state has identified and given policy and financial support to cooperatives, family farms, and dragon-head enterprises in order to scale-up agriculture, supposedly leading to greater productivity and capitalist accumulation in the countryside. This policy, announced in 2013, amounts to a “shift towards de-peasantization” (367). Yan and Chen are critical of pro-peasant advocates for believing that recent rural change amounts to a struggle between outside capital and internal peasant developments. This “populist” stance misunderstands and even hides the real capitalist dynamics and class differentiation going on in the countryside by viewing rural politics through the lens of a unified peasantry. To the contrary, they argue, class differentiation in the countryside has meant that agriculture’s subsumption to capital has come about in a complex process that is both bottom up and top down, with rural entrepreneurs as well as agribusiness and the state playing important roles. This stress on internal differentiation lines Yan and Chen’s contribution up with that of Zhang discussed above.

The main target of criticism, however, is Philip Huang, who for Yan and Chen represents a Chayanovian populist position within rural China studies. Chayanov, in contradistinction to Lenin, argued that differentiation among peasants was mainly due to demographic and generational factors, not capitalist subsumption and secular trends. Giving Huang this Chayanovian hat is a bit misplaced: Huang is not one to dismiss secular and historical trends in agrarian change. Nonetheless, what Yan and Chen do well is to show that the three subjects of rural scaling-up named by the state—cooperatives, family farms, and dragon-head enterprises—entail a complex interplay of forces that have led to capital’s subsumption of agriculture. Like Zhang, they see petty commodity production as a “seedbed” for “agrarian capitalism from below” (370), one that has been supported by the state.

Yan and Chen argue that dragon-head enterprises, firms which sell inputs and buy outputs by contracting directly with farmers, have played an important role in the commodification of agriculture and constitute a “capitalist dynamic from above” (376). Likewise, specialized rural cooperatives (which the authors argue are mostly fronts for private enterprises) have played a similar role, strengthening vertical integration and facilitating capitalist subsumption. The third subject, specialized family farms, represent “capitalism from below” and emerge from petty bourgeois commodity farmers. As such, successful family farms do not represent an alternative to capitalism but a key agent of its development.


“Land Transfer and the Pursuit of Agricultural Modernization in China” by Ye Jinzhong

Ye Jinzhong’s article provides a historical overview of agriculture-related land policies starting in 1949, and culminating in the current phenomenon of “land transfers”. Ye’s central argument seems to be, quite simply, that we can’t understand the present without understanding the past. To that end, he outlines changes in land institutions and policies starting with land reform from 1949-53, to collectivization in the period from 1953-78, to the Household Responsibility System (HRS) that started with reform in 1978 and continues today. Within each “phase”, he details how land ownership was defined and operated, how accumulation was managed and surplus distributed, and what the implications were for peasants in particular.

Building on agricultural accumulation from the state socialist era, he argues that the policy drive for agricultural modernization since the late 1990s has been inexorably tied to the state’s shifting position on land transfers: in the early 1980s, the practice was strictly forbidden, but by 2013, land transfers had become a key mechanism for scaling-up agricultural production. While the village collective continues to officially own land, peasants own land-contract rights, and can transfer their land-use rights to other farmers or entities, “mostly industrial capital interests from the cities” (324). Ye cites Ministry of Agriculture statistics that indicate 23 million hectares, or 26% of the total land contracted to all peasant households, had been transferred by the end of 2013. The amount of peasant-household contracted land transferred to industrial and commercial enterprises increased by 40% from 2012, after an increase of 34% between 2011 and 2012 (327). This has effectively split land ownership, contract, and use rights, “widely called ‘the split – or the division – of three rights’ (sanquan fenli) on rural land” (324). For Ye, land transfers also represent a new form of commodification and accumulation, led by “external” urban capital, with disastrous consequences for peasants.

This second line of argument, never fully elaborated, is perhaps the most Chayanovian in this collection. Ye proposes that in the convergence of land transfers and agricultural modernization, peasant livelihoods are at risk and need to be protected from full-scale land marketization. Aside from citing a few studies that claim “land transfers bring about changes in the income of peasant households, labour mobility and rural societal structure, and thus disrupt the conventional village order, differentiating the peasantry and intensifying conflicts within villages,” (327) and another that warns of potential “land grabbing,” this argument is vague at best. And at worst, it oversimplifies “peasant” and “capital” relations, assuming a universality to both.

So while the paper serves as an accessible overview of key land policies and moments of change, it could go further analytically. Remaining questions include: Who is this outside capital, and who are the peasants? What, precisely, are the mechanisms of land transfer from peasant households. (For example, what’s the role of the village? Do agribusinesses court individual households, or are there cooperative arrangements and agreements?) And perhaps most importantly, where is the critical engagement with the assumptions that underlie notions like modern agriculture and food security? Rather than analyzing how capital and capitalist logics condition the state’s approach to food, farming, and the appropriation of surplus, Ye seems to accept the premise that scaled-up agriculture leads to food security. The difference is that in Ye’s alternative, investment would go to peasants, who would then consolidate their land for increased efficiency and productivity, preserving agricultural “red lines” while feeding 1.3 billion people. This is, of course, much too simple.


“From Local State Corporatism to Land Revenue Regime: Urbanization and the Recent Transition of Rural Industry in China” by Shaohua Zhan

Shaohua Zhan’s paper continues the study of land and accumulation dynamics. He looks at the relatively recent phenomenon of land revenue (tudi caizheng), in which local governments generate surplus by “expropriating rural land and selling it to developers or very large corporations” (414). Zhan calls this the land revenue regime, a departure from the local state corporatism regime (a la Jean C. Oi) that preceded it in the early days of reform. The paper’s analysis centers on a comparison of these two accumulation regimes, taking a county in Jiangsu Province renowned for rural industry in the 1980s and 1990s as a case study. Zhan’s overall finding is that,

the impact of the land revenue regime on rural industry has been almost the opposite of that of local state corporatism. While local state corporatism promoted rural industry by supporting and involving most rural residents in industrial production, the land revenue regime forced almost all village-based rural enterprises to close and replaced them with a small number of very large corporations, which were concentrated in industrial parks. As a result, rural residents lost their enterprises and jobs while at the same time they were excluded from large industrial corporations and profitable urban sectors. (415).

Zhan’s argument hinges on the relationship between rural residents and village resources, and in particular, on how that relationship is being transformed under the land revenue regime. While both the current and previous accumulation regimes serve to generate local revenue, Zhan tracks differences in how each regime regulates property rights and rural livelihoods. He’s especially concerned to show impacts for rural small producers. He states:

Under the regime of local state corporatism, rural residents were entitled to access land and means of livelihood based on village resources. When a local government took village resources such as land, water and raw materials for the development of rural industry, it had to involve the rural residents because the latter’s rights and livelihoods were attached to those resources. Under the land revenue regimes, however, the rights and livelihoods of rural residents are separated from village resources. After village land was expropriated, for example, the land became the property of local government, and the rural residents were no longer entitled to profits or employment opportunities generated from village resources (415).

He goes on to detail two phases in the separation of rural residents from village resources: (1) privatization of collective enterprises in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and (2) contemporary processes of urbanization, through which local governments turn “rural land into urban areas and rural residents into urban residents” (425), thereby seizing ownership of village (and township) land that they can sell to the highest bidder.

Zhan effectively highlights the mechanisms of change in these two accumulation regimes, with collective enterprises serving as the source of surplus under local state corporatism, while it is private real estate development in the land revenue regime. He ends the article with a fatal prescription for the current regime: it will likely die, he argues, as expropriated villagers are excluded from profit-making activities, undercutting consumer demand for urban real estate, and therefore, for surplus generation. In other words, the land revenue regime contains the recipe for its own demise.


“Can Capitalist Farms Defeat Family Farms? The Dynamics of Capitalist Accumulation in Shrimp Aquaculture in South China” by Huang Yu

This study of shrimp aquaculture in Leizhou illustrates how, in the past decade, competition drove family farmers first to attempt biologically risky technical upgrades, and finally to give up household-based production and become wage-laborers for agribusiness. Huang theorizes this as “agri-capital’s move from ‘formal subsumption’ to ‘real subsumption’” (392).

Leizhou Peninsula is renowned as “the Shrimp Capital of China,” but also one of the poorest parts of Guangdong – China’s wealthiest province and pioneer of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms since the 1980s. Leizhou is the largest center of shrimp aquaculture in China for both domestic sale and export, the industry employing over a million people (including 400,000 shrimp farmers) as of 2011. “The prosperity of the industry and the plight of producers epitomize the two vicious circles into which shrimp farmers fall”: competition “has lured farmers to increase stocking intensity, leading to both ecological and economic crises. Ecologically, high-intensity farming has degraded the pond environment and made the shrimp more stressed, rendering them more vulnerable to disease… Economically, overproduction causes the value of shrimp to depreciate, making it difficult for farmers to get out of poverty.” Meanwhile, the region’s nascent agribusinesses have prospered off of this situation by asserting control over “the upstream sector of credits and inputs for shrimp juveniles, compound feed, aeration machines and shrimp pharmaceuticals, as well as the downstream sector of processing, marketing and sales” (393). This is what Huang calls agri-capital’s “formal subsumption” of agricultural labor in the shrimp industry – a process addressed in her dissertation research (Huang 2012) and the background for the new tendency toward “real subsumption” examined in this article.

In light of the “populism” that has played a prominent role in left-leaning research and activism aiming to support the rural poor in China and elsewhere (discussed in the Yan and Chen piece above and Bernstein’s conclusion below), Huang’s critique is strengthened by her own foray into “populist” practice. This study started with her effort to help a group of poor farmers organize a supply and marketing co-op (as part of China’s “re-cooperatization movement” since the mid-2000s) in order to combat this formal subsumption. After only two weeks of mobilizing work in 2013, eight households formed a co-op. However, she was disappointed to discover that “Instead of challenging the monopoly of agro-food capital,” the co-op chose as its first project to build greenhouse covers for shrimp farms owned by agribusiness companies. “Why would the cooperative enter into employment relations with agribusiness rather than acting as a counter-force to them?” For one, because “After 2 years of severe disease outbreaks, many families had lost their income and needed to do some part-time work in the winter,” but more significantly, this decision “reflected the changing pattern of accumulation for agrarian capital” – namely toward real subsumption, i.e. the commoditization of agricultural labor-power and assertion of direct control over the farming process.

Until the past few years, the principal barriers to capital’s real subsumption of shrimp farming in Leizhou have been difficulties in acquiring collectively-owned farmland for long-term use (also true for farming in general throughout China, as noted in the Ye piece and others), biological risks specific to aquaculture, and the costs of labor supervision. Regarding the former, in this case the competition-induced economic and ecological vicious circles drove many villagers to give up shrimp farming in favor of labor migration. Fearing loss of revenue from leasing collectively-owned shrimp ponds to villagers (revenue that had functioned as a “welfare system” forestalling the villagers’ proletarianization), the village officials finally leased them to a local company, which demolished the old ponds and built a new type of shrimp farm, hiring a dozen middle-aged men from nearby villages to work there.

The company managed to overcome the ecological problems that had come to plague household-based shrimp farmers by making technological upgrades that would have been financially and logistically impossible for the villagers to pull off. Huang notes that, “Similar to how large-scale machinery makes artisanal work obsolete,” the new farm’s “mechanized water supply also fragments labour by taking away workers’ knowledge of the tide” (404). Likewise, this “deskilling process is deepened further with the division of labour on the farm”: “more standardized tasks, such as feeding, waste intake and discharge, have now become workers’ routine tasks,” while “The more meticulous work of water-quality control falls into the hands of a hired technician, who also assumes the role of labour supervisor.”

Finally, Huang documents how this new farm “deploys various strategies to tackle labour supervision and management costs, including teamwork and bonus incentives, increases in work intensity and the live-in system” (406). These strategies have managed to increase the intensity of the workday beyond that of the family farm, and to employ full-time workers year-round (in contrast with traditional agriculture in general). “The live-in system takes away workers’ social life and their means of self-sufficiency, contributing to a constant renewal of capital – wage labour relations” (408).

Huang concludes by observing that “At the present time, the income of 2,500 yuan baseline plus a bonus seems quite decent for rural labourers,” but this seems likely to fall as the “reserve army of workers” grows due to pressure on family farms from the “vicious circles” mentioned above, now combined with competition from the new capitalist farms. “Can capital contain the resistance of the emerging rural proletarians?” (410), she asks. At this point we are aware of no collective struggles of agricultural wage-laborers as such in China – perhaps this is simply because so few researchers have recognized the development of capitalist relations in Chinese agriculture until now.


“Commodification and Westernization: Explaining Declining Nutritional Intake in Contemporary Rural China” by Zhun Xu and Wei Zhang

The paper by Xu and Zhang is an econometric analysis of dietary change in the reform era. They start from the question of why, despite rapid economic growth, are both caloric and protein intake declining for China’s rural residents. They then use national and provincial level data to test two hypotheses: first, that declining caloric and protein intake are the result of rural people needing less energy for non-agricultural work; and second, that generalized commodification squeezes household food budgets, as spending increasingly goes for non-food goods. The authors find (econometric) evidence to support both of these propositions, and add that “Westernization” of Chinese diets further exacerbates the problem, as rural residents want to eat more meat and other expensive foods to the detriment of overall household food budgets.

This is an almost entirely apolitical piece of work that does little to enrich our understanding of agrifood and dietary change in China today. It leaves aside, for instance, the formation and reproduction of class diets that result in well- and over-fed middle and upper class urban consumers and burgeoning agribusiness profits on the one hand, and persistent malnutrition in the countryside on the other. These are structural issues, which cannot be captured through econometric analysis alone.


“Some Reflections on Agrarian Change in China” by Henry Bernstein

Henry Bernstein has been a key figure in the interdisciplinary field of agrarian studies since the 1980s, co-founding the Journal of Agrarian Change based partly on his Marxian theorization of “agrarian change” (laid out in his 2010 book Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change) – mentioned above as central to this collection’s framing. Bernstein’s contribution functions as a concluding essay, but like the opening essay, the main implication he gleans from the six studies remains limited to the vague “argument” that “questions about commodification, differentiation and accumulation from below and from above” have “continuing relevance” in China’s ongoing processes of agrarian change (454). Nonetheless, the essay introduces concepts and comparisons with other countries that are interesting and possibly useful for our own investigations and analysis.

He first explains this concept of “agrarian change” or “transition” (to capitalism) by introducing a set of ten heuristic questions organized into four themes, summarized in the following table (459):

1. agrarian questions table

Questions “internal to the countryside” (Theme I) are: 1. commodification of the subsistence of “(peasant) farmers”; 2. commodification of land; 3. “How are new classes of capitalist landed property, agrarian capital and wage labour formed?”; 4. “How… does accumulation of capital in the means of agricultural production (land and instruments of labour) proceed?” 5. “Is there accumulation ‘from above’ and/or ‘from below’, the latter through the class differentiation of farmers?”; and 6. “What are the effects for production growth in farming…?” Under theme II, “rural–urban interconnections”: 7. what are the effects of urban capital that invests in agricultural production?; and 8. “what is the significance of ‘rural labour beyond the farm’ involving rural industrialization… or regular rural labour migration, as vital elements of the incomes and reproduction of classes of labour in the countryside…?” Theme III is “the place of agriculture within larger ‘national’ economies,” with Question 9: “What are the contributions of agriculture to industrialization?” And finally, with regard to “the capitalist world economy” (Theme IV, Question 10), “What are the effects… of the formation and interactions of: (i) international divisions of labour in agricultural production, international trade in agricultural commodities” and “international investment in agriculture; and (ii) the international state system?” (446)

Bernstein points out how this heuristic highlights a “danger” in the recent tendency of “agrarian populist positions that conceive today’s definitive contradiction as between the interests of ‘peasants’ (and sometimes all non-corporate farmers) and (global) agribusiness, and champion ‘the peasant way’ – which also resonates in today’s debates about agrarian change in China” (460). Such positions tend to over-emphasize “the powers of agribusiness capital to shape agricultural production, in order to provide particular answers to Questions 7 and 10,” and to neglect the other questions – especially those concerning class differentiation within the countryside.

The rest of the essay uses these questions to analyze the six China studies summarized above, along with other sources. Regarding question 1, “There has been a more or less encompassing process of the commodification of [farmers’] subsistence since the dismantling of the communes,” manifested in “the increasing need to purchase farm inputs (Xu and Zhang) and sell output (Yan and Chen, Zhang); the need to pay for education and health services previously provided by the communes, and also new consumption goods (Xu and Zhang); and, not least, the massive scale of wage employment – ‘labour beyond the farm’ – in both rural industry (Zhan) and through longer-distance labour migration (Ye)” (460).

Among debates about the exact mechanisms, degree and consequences of this commodification, Bernstein identifies two “broad perspectives”: “One aims to investigate its effects for class differentiation and accumulation” (question 5), exemplified in the studies by Zhang and by Yan and Chen, as well as well as “what appears to be an instance of accumulation from below” in Huang’s study, “with a shift from formal to real subsumption of labour” (461). These studies illustrate a “dual-track process of capitalization of agriculture,” involving (a) “the differentiation of (once ‘peasant’) farmers,” and (b) “the formation, functioning and effects of agribusiness, whether through accumulation from below or above and indeed from ‘outside’” (thus relating to question 7). While they provide evidence of “extensive use of wage labour in some types of farming,” overall these studies show how agrarian capitalism has developed in China “without it taking the exclusive form of large-scale farms employing wage labour” (461).

The second perspective that Bernstein identifies “emphasizes the reproduction (‘persistence’) of its peasant economy,” best exemplified by Philip Huang’s work (against which Yan and Chen argue), and in this collection, by Ye’s piece. (We would add that this perspective is part of a broader alternativism associated with co-ops, alternative marketing, and the notion of “social economy,” that in the 2000s became predominant on the academic left in China –and to some extent globally. This overlaps with the “populist danger” Bernstein mentions.) In Philip Huang’s formulation of “capitalization without proletarianization,” China’s peasant farmers have revived petty commodity production “without rural labour markets of any significance, and hence largely without wage employment” (462). Ye’s even “more explicitly Chayanovian” piece argues that “commodification is incorporated in, and mediated to support, the distinctive logic and moral economy of peasant farming,” so “labour migration is driven by the need for investment in farming and family reproduction centred on land holding.”

Regarding question 2 on land commodification, in an earlier article by Zhang co-written with Donaldson (2013), they had argued that “China’s distinctive ‘system of collective land ownership and individualized land use rights’ works well in underpinning market-based agricultural growth while giving petty commodity producers some room for manoeuvre in their involvement in markets and preventing landlessness,” but Zhang’s piece in this collection “places more emphasis on the rapid development of rental markets through which entitlement to farmland based on village membership is turning into ‘market-mediated access’ to land” (463). The other pieces also illustrate several pressures toward the de facto commodification of land: “the interest in securing additional land connected with differentiation and accumulation from below (Yan and Chen, Zhang); the economic pressures on ‘own account’ farming as a (major) component of household reproduction, and hence incentives to lease out land rights (Zhang); the interest in acquiring land by agribusiness both emergent in the countryside (Yan and Chen, Yu) and from outside (Yan and Chen, Zhang), as well as from industrial and real estate capital (Ye, Zhan); and policies and actions from central to local government to scale up farming by facilitating the acquisition of land by large-scale capitals, agrarian and non-agrarian (Ye, Yan and Chen, Zhan)” (464) These pressures are in turn linked to the dispossession of peasants and concentration of landownership – of which Bernstein identifies four types that have occurred in different places and times throughout capitalist history: 1. “dispossession of small farmers/‘peasants’ by powerful class forces in the countryside (landed property, emergent agrarian capital) is familiar from Marx’s account of ‘primitive accumulation’ in England’s pioneering transition from feudalism to capitalism”; 2. “‘accumulation from below’ as a result of class differentiation of farmers/‘peasants’, the classic materialist source of which is Lenin”; 3. dispossession by “indigenous classes of capital and politically powerful groups not based in, or not deriving their power from, the countryside”; and 4. dispossession by international capitals (and foreign governments), in alliance with national states and classes of capital, as in so-called global ‘land grabbing’ today” (465). These are presented in a second table:

2. land dispossessions table

Types 1, 3 and 4 are “variations on the theme of enclosure,” of which Type 1 is the classic form from early modern England, and Type 4 is what David Harvey influentially termed “accumulation by dispossession.” The latter has become especially fierce in China since the 2000s (as also discussed in Tumbili’s article and our translation of Zhang Yulin’s article on land grabs). Although the piece by Yan and Chen provides examples of “land concentration for agricultural production by different forms of capital,” most of China’s land-grabbing has been for non-agricultural purposes such as housing, industry, and mining, but that is still an “agrarian question” because the loss of land “has a major impact on those who farmed it, and is also a major item in government’s concern with national food security” (465). Dispossessions of Types 1, 2, and 3 also feature in the studies by Yan and Chen, Ye, and Zhang, relating more specifically to the development of a rural land market “in which both emergent capitalist farmers and agribusiness (or capital more generally) are active participants” (466).

Bernstein then summarizes the literature on “possible paths and means of ‘primitive accumulation’ in rural China in the past 30 years,” identifying four themes: (1) “transfers from agriculture to the accumulation fund for industrialization, and urban growth more generally (Question 9 above),” (2) “massive labour migration from the countryside,” (3) dispossession of land, and (4) “privatization and other organizational changes in the operation of capitalist enterprises” (467). Regarding the first, Ye’s piece discusses “pricing policies and other forms of taxation” facilitated such a transfer from agriculture to industrial accumulation and urban growth in the 1950s-1970s and again in the 1990s, but Bernstein claims that calling such transfers “primitive accumulation” evinces an “agrarian populism that centres on a binary opposition between countryside and town” (468). The second theme, migration, is “perhaps the most confusing… in part because of the lack of wholesale dispossession.” Pun Ngai and Lu Huilin have influentially called this “a path of semi-proletarianization” that is “largely self-driven,” in contrast with that in England (quoted in Bernstein 468). Zhang’s piece in this issue illustrates that “paths to primitive accumulation mix dispossession and market mechanisms in complex ways” (Webber quoted in Bernstein 468). Regarding land dispossession, “Zhang’s analysis indicates why the development of capitalism in agriculture need not take the exclusive form of large farms employing wage labour” (469). And finally, privatization as “primitive accumulation and/or ‘accumulation by dispossession’” has taken various forms in rural China since the 1980s, including the privatization of TVEs addressed in Zhan’s study.

As for Question 10, how China’s recent agrarian change relates to the world economy, although “the contributions to this special issue focus exclusively on questions ‘internal’ to China,” international factors appear in several of the articles, including the very notion of “agricultural modernization” – a “globally hegemonic ideology” according to “critics of the corporate third food regime” (469). “Another more direct instance is the entry of global corporate agribusiness in the provision of technologies, both material and managerial, in some branches of food production and processing, of which livestock, especially pig, production seems to be the main exemplar” – examined elsewhere by Schneider and Sharma (2014), but echoed here in Xu and Zhang’s piece on the rapid growth of meat consumption.

Finally, Bernstein notes that “None of the papers in this special issue touch on resistance to land dispossession and other depredations faced by ‘peasants’, apart from some concluding comments by Zhang on class action in the countryside” (470). To fill this gap, Bernstein draws on other sources to create a third heuristic table:

3. commodification table

“In Table 3, analytically/empirically ‘strong’ indicates that commodification is sweeping China’s countrysides, with ‘accumulation from below’ from the ranks of commercial farmers… or driven by agribusiness ‘from above’. Both paths of accumulation are favoured by the government” (470). The pieces by Yan and Chen, Zhang, and Huang “also present ‘strong’ arguments about commodification,” but from a critical, “anti-capitalist” perspective. “Anti-capitalist sentiment is more explicit in those populist positions that deplore dispossession and ‘depeasantization’ in China, above all as an effect of the rural intrusions of agribusiness (and other types of capital), and advocate the alternative of a ‘peasant way’” – a position “implicit in Ye and explicit in Tiejun Wen” (the latter a central figure of China’s New Left and the overlapping “New Rural Reconstruction” movement). “The analytically/empirically ‘weak’ cells signal arguments that despite… commodification of subsistence in rural China, ‘peasant economy’ continues to prevail, whether seen as a good thing (ideologically positive) or a bad thing (ideologically negative).” The former is exemplified by the work of Philip Huang, which “approves the capacity of China’s small farmers to reproduce themselves through embracing petty commodity production” (471) “On a different scale is peasant ‘resistance’ (2), as an umbrella term for rural protest in China that has attracted much attention from scholars” – a topic and literature examined more helpfully in Tumbili’s article.

Bernstein chooses to merely “finish this paper rather than to arrive at any definite conclusions” by noting that “The most important single contribution by the ‘middle generation’ and younger Chinese scholars represented in this special issue is their focus on dynamics of change,” exemplified by “Zhang’s observation of the shift from village cadres able to use their positions to engage in accumulation (first generation) to accumulators who buy into local political office (second generation)” (474). “More generally,” Yan and Chen’s piece illustrates how “the commodification of the countryside, and the opportunities it provided, enabled some to ‘get rich first’… thereby limiting possibilities for others who might aspire to follow them.” Following this initial phase of transition, “the great majority of the rural population… probably fall into two of the four class categories proposed by Zhang”:

namely petty commodity producers and ‘dual-employment households’. Neither are ‘peasants’ in any useful sense. Petty commodity producers are likely to emerge from differentiation, and have to reproduce themselves in conditions of competition, both of which Zhang observes… And are (most) ‘dual-employment households’ better understood as part of classes of labour in that they reproduce themselves primarily through the sale of their labour power while retaining a limited degree of farming, principally for self-provisioning?

The latter observation is one point where we tend to agree with Bernstein, which we will explore in our forthcoming work.




  1. See (in Chinese) and (in English).
  2. We took that article down, revised and updated it considerably, and are preparing to publish it in the first issue of the Chuang journal, ETA spring 2016.
  3. Our emphasis is indicated with bold, original emphasis with italics.
  4. Gary Blank makes this argument in his book Is the East Still Red? See our review:


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