(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 19 June 2013)
Last week’s essay concluded that China took the Communist path in the process of transformation from a subsistence agrarian economy into a commercial and industrial one. The key figures in this process were the Chinese landed gentry (鄉紳) – the traditional landed upper class elite – who failed to develop themselves into agrarian entrepreneurs like the English, French and American landlords. The Chinese landed gentry were basically rentiers (食租者) with political connections, and at their pinnacle were the landed Chinese gentlemen who devoted themselves to scholarship and the pursuit of officialdom and who did not take part in manual labor like other landlords, including rich ones.
The traditional Chinese system of private agriculture was sufficiently productive to support a centralized bureaucracy, a result Europe, Japan and India could not attain. Private ownership enhanced the incentives of peasants who became landowners. It laid the economic foundations for China’s military strength and its unification. Private agriculture provided the necessary revenue, arguably marginally adequate in peaceful times, to maintain a central bureaucracy to enforce rent payments, collect taxes, and exercise effective administration of justice over an agrarian economy. Landlords and officials ran the central state administration alongside a functioning private agriculture system. Both needed each other to benefit. This arrangement was a critical element that kept China as a unified nation for most of its history. Chinese civilization owes much of its achievements to this traditional system.
China’s traditional economic system is often called “feudalistic”. This is inappropriate. An agricultural landownership system based on freely transferable private property rights cannot be feudal in any sense of the word. The “well-field” system abolished by Shang Yang can be described as feudal in some respects. The European manorial system, Japanese fief arrangements, and even the Indian system under the Moguls – where agricultural land could not be transferred and taxes were collected by government assignees (受讓人), most of whom were powerful and independent local chieftains rather than genuine officials of the state – can be described as variations of feudalism. But the Chinese system cannot. Some Marxist historians have described the Chinese traditional agricultural system as feudal in order to force it to fit into the Marxian conception that feudalism must precede capitalism as a stage of historical development. As we shall see, political sociologist Barrington Moore’s neo-Marxist approach rejects the orthodox Marxist schemata and invites us to examine Chinese history directly for a better answer.
Feudal Shackles Broken Early
The traditional Chinese system also created a Chinese peasantry more prone to erupt in peasant rebellions than those in Europe and other Asian nations. Moore explains why. In the absence of feudal compulsions, like those in Europe, Japan and India, landlords in the Chinese villages had to get the peasants to work for them using tenancy agreements. These contractual forms were fundamentally similar to those under modern capitalism: they were primarily sharecropping arrangements supplemented by hired labor. So the landlord furnished the land and the peasant his labor. This is an arrangement familiar under modern capitalism, but adopted in a traditional subsistence agricultural setting.
Under the Chinese system, as long as the landlord paid his taxes and the peasant paid his rents the central bureaucracy left them alone. A government official posted to a locality and rotated every three years had little contact with the peasants. He dealt mainly with local notables who were the landlords and were essentially people of his kind. The landlords wanted the bureaucracy to be strong enough to enforce their economic authority over the peasants, but not so strong as to interfere with how the landlords conducted local affairs. The role of the central bureaucracy was expected to be a limited one.
Corruption was the landlords’ defense against an invasive bureaucrat, whose ignorance about local conditions was perceived to be counter-productive by the local populace. The peasants often became victims of a coalition between officials and landlords, who additionally wished to avoid paying their full share of taxes. Corruption in government projects to build, say, water-control systems, could lead to huge cost overruns that were ultimately paid for by the peasants. Such projects, if shoddily completed, often worsened the catastrophic effects of natural disasters like flooding. When corruption took place in excess, the central bureaucracy’s status as an impartial enforcer of rules and keeper of justice was eroded. Endemic and systemic corruption in traditional China has often been associated with dynastic decline and peasant rebellions.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Private Land
The traditional Chinese machinery for managing state and economy was, for Moore, simply an elaborate rent (or surplus) extraction system. This was his neo-Marxist mode of thinking. But what deserves to be noticed is that this system had obvious modern capitalist features. The relationship of the landlord and the peasant was contractual not obligatory as under a feudal system. The conception of the role of the state primarily as collecting agrarian taxes in exchange for enforcing law and order, providing safety from external marauders, and perhaps engaging in water control projects for public good is similar to the modern conception of the limited state. Enforcing law and order of course entailed protecting private property rights in agricultural land.
Although the peasant’s life was poor and harsh, he was a free person and could enter into a voluntary contract with the landlord. The terms of the contracts were determined in the market. Of course, with land being scarce and hungry peasants aplenty, the outcome was hardly generous to the peasant, but this was a market determined outcome. To the poor peasant, capitalist harshness and Marxist exploitation were indistinguishable and of little difference. As a freely contracting person, the peasant had specific contractual rights that he expected the state to enforce, however imperfectly, and was not therefore defenseless. Unlike the European, Japanese and Indian peasant, and the Russian serf, the Chinese sharecropper and hired laborer was a freer man and had some protection from the landlord that the state was interested to offer.
Professor Chen Zhiwu (陳志武) of Yale University has shared with me some preliminary results of his research on homicide and manslaughter cases in the Qing Dynasty related to the collection of debt. He found in his sample that 57% of those killed were lenders and 37% were borrowers. His evidence shows debt collection was a hazardous act for the lender and borrowers were bold enough to be difficult. The landlord needed the state to protect his rights against difficult peasants, and the peasants needed the state to protect their rights against abusive landlords.
The fact that such data is available for Professor Chen to study stems from the Qing Imperial requirement that all homicide and manslaughter cases had to be reported to the central government’s Ministry of Justice for final sentencing. This is also evidence of the seriousness with which the state treated the administration of justice involving serious crimes where there is loss of human life. The landlord class may have been powerful locally, but its power was not unchecked. The state jealously guarded its own interests and its legitimacy in the eyes of the peasants against abusive landlords and corrupt officials. Professor Chien Mu (錢穆) has long argued that checks and balances to ensure good public administration had a long history in traditional China; sometimes they were more effective and at other times they were less so.
During good times the central bureaucracy enforced law and order and administered justice fairly for all. But this was not so when corruption and decay had set in. In these times the role of the government and the Chinese landed gentry came to be perceived as ineffective, unjust and corrupt. The officials and landlords were often regarded as self-serving, opportunistic, and exploitative. Corruption in traditional China was endemically and systemically associated with economic decline and loss of political legitimacy.
When the worst of these conditions emerged, the Chinese peasant, being a free hired laborer or sharecropper, was often ready to protest and even openly rebel. The Chinese village is the basic cell of rural society in China, but it lacked the cohesiveness of villages in India, Japan and Europe. Villagers seldom worked together or cooperated on collective projects as a way to build solidarity. The village was closer to a residential agglomeration of numerous peasant households than an organic community.
The peasants’ only ties to the central bureaucracy and local landed gentry were contractual and formal. With the landlords it was an economic contract to farm his land and receive a share of its proceeds. With the central bureaucracy it was a remote social contract to pay taxes and obtain some public service, and an opportunity for career advancement through official examinations. The Chinese peasant was in these important respects an autonomous individual unencumbered by feudal shackles, religion or caste as in Europe, Japan and India. It has often been observed in the past century that the Chinese people are like a “heap of loose sand”. This phrase may be an apt description of what it was like to be a peasant in China’s traditional agrarian society.
Rebel leadership came from disgruntled scholars, who had sat for the civil service examinations without success or had failed to receive a commission. Initial success in inciting rebellions came by mobilizing their immediate clan and recruiting others. The village clan was the basic social unit in the rural areas. But these leaders could only lead peasant rebellions and not revolutions. Ideologically they were from the same breed as those they sought to replace. Their political movements were not attempts to change the existing arrangements, but merely to replace them with another set of players. The claim that these rebellions “only opposed corrupt officials but not the emperor” is an apt description of their goals. One could have added that the rebels hated bad landlords, but did not oppose the landlords as a class.
Collapse of the Last Imperial Dynasty
In the late Qing Dynasty, for many different reasons the government was deeply in debt. Military expenditures had risen with the arrival of belligerent imperialists and the Taiping rebellion had wrought enormous economic damage, thus increasing the peasants’ burden. The sale of office became rampant at the lower levels, and the examinations system was abolished. Without the examinations the pathway for recruiting officials came to an end. This broke an important link in the old system. With the revolution of 1911 the central bureaucracy formally collapsed.
The agrarian situation prior to and after the 1911 Revolution was one of progressive collapse that was similar to earlier dynastic declines, but there were two important differences.
First, the collapse of the old imperial bureaucracy was total. The landlords turned into local warlords or aligned themselves with regional militarists in a bid to preserve the traditional arrangements in the rural sector. As economic conditions continued to deteriorate, landownership became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the rentier class. Absentee landlords, who chose to live in the cities as urban industrialization, gradually appeared and aligned themselves with the Guomindang, who had successfully established control of the cities.
On the surface a fascist militarist outcome was not impossible, but Moore rules this out. The economic cost of regional warlord rivalry based on modern weapons was too costly an activity for an agrarian economy to support. It is worth noting that the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后), Yuan Shikai (袁世凱), and even the Guomindang had tried to pursue reform and development agendas that promoted a “revolution from above” without success.
The social basis required for this to be successful was lacking in China, according to Moore. As demonstrated by the experiences of Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, the Latin American nations, and the Philippines under Marcos, the central feature of such regimes was a coalition between factions of the old agrarian ruling class who had considerable political power, and the emerging commercial and industrial elites who were politically and socially disadvantaged but had economic power. In China the bourgeoisie was simply too weak.
The second difference from previous dynastic declines was that the Chinese Communist Party finally decided after many false starts to pursue a peasant revolution with new political goals. The centerpiece was a social revolution to transform the countryside. They painstakingly built local organizations in each village to (1) first win over the support of the poor low and middle peasants, mainly the sharecroppers and the hired laborers; (2) neutralize the position of the rich peasants, mainly those who had their own land to farm; and (3) isolate the landlords, mainly the rentier class some of whom were absentee landlords and had ties to the warlords and the Guomindang. The Japanese invasion further disrupted the traditional political and social organization in the villages and indirectly helped the Communists to successfully organize the peasants.
Revolutionary Success Swept Away Obstacles to Modernization
When the Communists captured power in 1949, they were ready to undertake the greatest social revolution in Chinese history since unification under the Qin Dynasty. Land was redistributed not to the family as a whole, but to each member on an equal basis, regardless of age and sex. The Communists broke the village apart at its base, obliterating the connection between landed property and kinship. By greatly weakening and even destroying the economic basis for kinship bonds, the Communists released powerful antagonisms across class lines, as well as those of age and sex. In so doing the struggle was not limited to peasants against landlords, but entailed open and bitter conflicts of tenants against rent collectors, victims against local bullies, women against men, and young against old.
A new link was also forged between the village and the national government. It became evident to every peasant that his daily life depended on the national political power and not the old social structures of traditional society. The old order that had held back economic modernity was finally exploded.
Mao Zedong made history by bringing the social revolution to the Chinese peasant. He turned China on its head, reversed Shang Yang’s changes, reconstituted traditional Chinese society, and swept away the obstacles holding back Chinese modernization. The peasants in turn became the main driving force behind the victory of the Communist Party.
The new social order in the villages, later reorganized into socialist communes and brigades (公社和大隊) with collective ownership of land, allowed the government to extract more resources from the peasants to fuel the initial industrialization in the 1950s. Moore concluded in his book published in 1966 that these changes could only be temporary and transitional. They were preliminary solutions to the basic problem of fostering modernization. Sustaining modernization needed more than just a social revolution to redistribute land and impose collective ownership. This is another story: not the story of Mao Zedong, but of Deng Xiaoping and his successors. They now have a self-appointed task of leading China further down the path to modernization.
Does Moore have anything to teach us about China’s future now that more than sixty years have passed since the elimination of the landlord class and the victory of the Communist Revolution? My next and final essay in this series will explore the choices China faces today, but Moore may not be my only guide.
“Barrington Moore on Dictatorship and Democracy” series, Part III