hina and the Comparative Analysis of Land Reform Author(s): Ben Stavis Source: Modern China, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1978), pp. 63-78 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/188966 Accessed: 22-04-2018 21:23 UTC

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China and the

Comparative Analysis

of Land Reform

BEN STAVIS Michigan State University

John Wong, Land Reform in the People’s Republic of China, Insti- tutional Transformation in Agriculture. New York: Praeger, 1973. 317 pp. $20.00

Victor Lippit, Land Reform and Economic Development in China,

A Study of Institutional Change and Development Finance. White Plains, NY: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1974. 183 pp. $15.00.

These two books illuminate different aspects of the role land reform has played in China’s development process. Lippit shows how land reform helped finance industrialization. Wong, on the other hand, demonstrates that land reform was not able

to solve the problems of equity or of agricultural development in the short run. These books can help other countries absorb

China’s important experiences. Yet at the same time, they underscore the degree to which Chinese studies can benefit by comparative analysis, as the conclusions of the books would

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am very thankful to Norman Uphoff, Solon Barraclough, and Edwin Moise for their helpful suggestions for this review.

MODERN CHINA, Vol. 4 No. 1, January 1978

? 1978 Sage Publications, Inc.


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have been sharper if China’s experiences had been compared and contrasted more fully with experiences of other countries.

Victor Lippit’s book develops a single point with clarity, and in its narrowness lies its power. He says that before land reform, China’s rural economy was characterized by a large amount of waste. Landlords acquired money from rents, interest, and profits, and used it largely for luxury consumption. They lacked the willingness (or incentives) to invest their surpluses in either agricultural or industrial production. Land reform had the effect of taking these flows of income from the wealthy, and redirecting them to the poor. At the same time, however, the state manipulated the price ratio of farm products to con- sumer and industrial goods so that most (but not all) of these income flows went back to the state to supply funds for invest- ment. In this way, the poor could get some short-term benefits in income, while the rate of investment in the whole economy could be raised substantially, permitting long-term growth.

Lippit tries fairly successfully to quantify these flows of income. Rents from land before the revolution totaled 10.7% of the value added in the economy (computed on the basis that real rents averaged 49% of value added; that 33.5% of the total land was farmed by tenants; and that the value added in agriculture as a share of the total value added in the economy is 65%). The rural elite captured another 3.4% of the total value added by exploiting landless laborers, who contributed 10.6% of the total agricultural labor input. The wealthy obtained yet another 2.8% of the value added through interest payments, computed on the basis that 39% of the families were in debt, and they each paid 24 yuan in interest on loans of 76 yuan. Total interest for the 87 million rural households was 822 million yuan, out of a total value added of 29 billion yuan. Yet another 2.1% of the total value added was taken from small farmers as land taxes. These funds were used to maintain the existing order, Lippit argues, rather than for investment in development. Altogether, these sources of extraction took roughly 19% of the value added in the whole economy. Illegal taxation, bandits’

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protection money, and so on, were even more, but unquan-


This exercise of computing the surplus in a rural economy

has a wide range of methodological problems. The figures

on rents may be exaggerated by failure to consider the extent

of the renting in and out of land between small cultivators

seeking different types of land in different locations. Not all

owners of rented land were landlords whose income was spent

on luxury consumption. Also questionable is the presumption that rents on farmland not owned by individuals (6.7% of farm- land owned by schools, temples, and so on) were used for luxury

consumption. It is not uncommon for people to consider ritual

needs a necessity. The amount of profit on landless labor may also be overstated; Lippit presumes that 10.6% of the total agricultural labor input comes from landless labor, but some surveys show such laborers to constitute only 1.57% of the

rural families (National Land Commission, 1937). Additional biases may be caused unavoidably by reliance on John Buck’s surveys to make the estimates. Generally, the surveys are biased in favor of more developed areas-where there is more surplus

to extract. For these reasons, Lippit’s estimates of the surplus

are probably on the high side. But if there were a way of quan- tifying the excess taxes, protection money paid to warlords,

and the surpluses stolen by bandits, then this might more than compensate for the overstatements in the specific categories Lippit has computed. The conclusion that roughly 20% of the economy was extracted from the poorer classes and used for luxury consumption by the rural elite seems justified.

Land reform stopped these forms of exploitation, and made the rural economy more accessible to government extraction,

much of which could be used for productive investment. Lippit computes that new agricultural taxes brought the state 2.7 billion yuan, of which 1.16 billion yuan were considered to have gone to finance investment. By raising the price of industrial goods sold in rural areas (compared to 1930s prices), the state

was able to obtain about 3.88 billion yuan, all of which went to investment. (I do not understand why Lippit says that all

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the excess profits from terms of trade went to investment, while only 43% of the taxes went to investment.) The state

did not make a profit in its domestic grain trade. Thus, land reform made available 5.04 billion yuan of the net domestic

investment of 11.26 billion yuan-44.8%. This extraction was politically acceptable to small peasants because redistribution of assests and income had raised their net income anyway. (It might be noted that in Taiwan, land reform also transferred surpluses from rural consumption to industrial investment. The mechanism was different, as land owners were paid off

partly in bonds in government-controlled industries.) Lippit believes that land reform did not have much impact

on the total level of agricultural production. There may have been some additional production incentive to peasant producers, but he thought this effect was “only marginal at best.” In the absence of new forms of labor organization, new inputs, and new technology, agricultural production, depressed by years of international and civil war, could only bounce back to pre- existing levels of production. Production could not rise above these levels. He points out that succeeding institutional changes -collectivization-rule out any analysis of the long-term impact of land reform on China’s economy,

John Wong’s book is almost an encyclopedia on land reform, drawing on most available Chinese documents and surveys. It adds a bit even to the careful collections of documents and analyses by Chao Kuo-chun (1957, 1960). Wong brings to these data two major economic themes: that China’s land reform was moderate and that it had only limited effects.

The first major theme is that land reform in China was fairly “moderate,” at least in comparison with other land reforms around the world. In general, even the land owned by the rich peasants was untouched. The “enemy” was confined to the landlords (only 4% of the population); and only its surplus land (and land belonging to temples and other institutions) was redistributed. Altogether, roughly 43% of the land in China changed hands in this way. (A detailed analysis by Schran, 1969: 22, agrees with this number.) This contrasts to 70% in

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Bolivia, 75% in Cuba, 60% in Iran, 55% in Iraq, 59% in Mexico,

and 64% in Egypt. In Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea a smaller percentage of the land-32%-37%-was redistributed in land

reform (Wong, 1973: 160). Because in China land available

for redistribution was limited, there was not enough land to raise the poor peasants’ holdings to the point of equality with the rich or even the middle peasants (p. 178).

However, Wong is not adequately cautious in quoting M. Riad El Ghonemy’s statistics on the percent of land transferred in land reform in various countries. Data on this question are usually not accurate, and there are very complex problems

involved in correcting for differences in quality of land. In most cases, after corrections are attempted for the quality of land, the figures Wong cites are significant overstatements. From a simply quantitative viewpoint, China’s land reform was, in reality, not as modest as appears from the figures Wong cites.

Land reform in China was limited for both political and eco- nomic reasons. Mao was fearful that a broad attack on the fairly large group of rich peasants would generate too much opposition to the Communist Party, especially when it was seeking widespread support to fight Japanese intervention. At the same time, China’s rural economy was fragile, and any substantial disruption of the rich peasants could cause a serious slump in the rural economy, and in the supply of agricultural products for the cities. The precise size and power of the rich peasants is subject to debate. Schran (1969: 18) estimates that very large farmers constituting 8% of the households owned 17.6% of the land; and landlords, who were 4% of households, owned 28.7% of the land. These two groups, with 12% of the families, owned about 46% of the land. However, some Chinese statements claim that landlords and rich peasants, constituting

about 10% of the rural families, owned 70% of the land. Wong argues that while the Communist leadership wanted to stamp out feudalism, they were planning to allow rural capitalism- represented by the rich peasant economy-to grow spontan- eously for a while, as it represented a progressive historical

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trend. Wong cites articles by Mao Ze-dong, Liu Shao-qi, and others to document this general position of the top leadership.

He offers no evidence to confirm charges made during the Cultural Revolution that Liu deviated from Mao’s position on this issue.

This moderate line emerged from years of practical experi- ence in land reform. Wong carefully outlines Chinese Com-

munist Party (CCP) statements on land reform going back to July 1928, and reviews the experiences in Jiangxi in the early 1930s and in Yanan in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He also reviews the land reform in the northeast, as revolutionary war was breaking out in the late 1940s. This previous land reform work gave the CCP leadership a clear understanding of the issues involved, a well-developed organizational technique, and vast administrative expertise. Rare is the government which carries out land reform with this much practical experience. Rare are 20-year “pilot programs.”

Wong’s second major theme is that China’s land reform had only limited effects. Because land was taken from only a small percentage of families, not enough land was available for redistribution to achieve full equality. (Wong’s elaborate mathematical models on pages 165-169 seem unnecessary to prove this important but simple point.) Rich peasants continued to have more land and higher incomes than poor peasants. Within a few years, there were tendencies for the rich to become richer, and for the poor to be caught in the traditional trap of selling land to meet short-term needs, and becoming more and more impoverished. The pressures toward collectivization, both for ideological and political reasons, become clearer in this context.

In setting up collective agriculture, the Chinese leadership was cautious and pragmatic, in Wong’s careful account (pp. 207-220). Mutual Aid Teams were set up on the basis of pre- existing patterns of labor sharing, and were related to real problems of seasonal labor shortages and tool and animal shortages. Collective agriculture did not spring solely from Marxist textbooks or from some other country’s experience.

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Wong points out that after considerable experimentation

with larger basic units of organization for production and

distribution, the Chinese leadership in 1962 again went back to a small unit, not much larger than the original Mutual Aid Team.

From the point of view of short-term agricultural growth, land reform had very little impact because it could not change the basic technology of production. “In reality, no distribu- tionist land reform can remedy the rural economic problem arising from overpopulation. . . . The two immediate post- land-reform years, 1953 and 1954, witnessed no growth in unit yields for grain and a fall for cotton…. By far the most important contributing factor was that land reform itself was not coordinated with the introduction of modem inputs for agricultural production” (pp. 239, 247, 249). This agrees with Barraclough’s (1970: 938) observation for Latin America:

“Increases in agricultural production that would result from a mere redistribution of rights to land appear rather limited.” Wong does not appear to agree with Kang Chao (1970: 43) that land redistribution resulted in seriously inefficient combina- tions of resources.

Yields did not go up substantially until the 1960s, when modem inputs became available. Institutional reform was relevant then. “The commune organization had certainly faci- litated the investment in fixed capital, which the small inde- pendent peasants would otherwise have no economic reason to undertake. . . . Thus the Chinese experience of agricultural transformation was a unique case of a close interaction between institutional changes and technological changes” (pp. 266-267).

Wong may well be correct that from a strictly quantitative point of view land reform was “moderate” in China. But in its social and political aspects, land reform was profoundly radical and revolutionary. Land reform was a crucial first step in the destruction of the political power of the rural elite. This not only transformed rural politics but also changed the character of urban-rural relationships. By eliminating a political ally of the urban based polit-ical system, land reform contributed

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to ending the urban exploitation of the countryside. It was also

an important step in a psychological transformation of peasants from a mode of passivity in the face of social and natural condi-

tions to a realization of their power to change society and nature.

This confidence and power of the peasants has continued,

and this is one of the reasons that the central government must

be responsive to peasants’ needs today. Wong is not unaware of this dimension of land reform. He

quotes Deng Ze-hui: “To isolate land reform or to detach it

from this network of struggle and look upon it as a matter of redistribution of land, a pure technical matter, would be

committing a grave political error” (p. 66). Wong also observes that “the preference for psychological and political mobili-

zation of the peasants over technical refinements had certainly helped create the image that the CCP was primarily more inter- ested in the political manipulation of the peasants than in land reform per se. . . . Throughout the hectic land reform years, the political consciousness of the peasant masses was for the first time aroused, and many young peasant activists were trained who provided invaluable leadership for the subsequent socialization drives” (pp. 119-120, 225). Unfortunately, however, Wong emphasizes the economic issues and does not follow these other themes in adequate depth; ultimately, this hinders

a full comprehension of the significance of land reform. More sensitivity to the experiences of other countries could

have highlighted the fact that land reform is not necessarily revolutionary in its impact on national politics. An urban elite may favor land reform to weaken a feudal rural elite so that revolutionary pressures will be reduced. Such a land reform would be conservative (Iran, Mexico, India). An industrial

elite may want land reform to expand rural markets and to provide more labor supply; such a land reform is progressive in the manner that capitalism represents progress from feudalism (Taiwan, South Korea). In other cases land reform can be used by one portion of the elite to undercut the political resources of a rival group (Philippines). Land reform can also have ethnic overtones when it enables one ethnic group to take land from

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Stavis / CHINA A ND LA ND REFORM [71 ]

another (United States, Brazil) or permits a group to recover

land conquered by another ethnic group in the past (Ethiopia). Political analvsis at the level of the rural villages is also neces-

sary to clarify the significance of land reform programs. Po-

litical inequalities-which are closely linked to inequalities

in land ownership-are an important obstacle to agricultural

development in many parts of the world. Tenants and small holders often lack the political and social connections needed

to obtain credit or to buy fertilizer. They may be by-passed by busy extension agents, who concentrate their efforts on

the larger farmers. So close to the margin of survival, they may be afraid to risk new cultivation techniques or to grow more crops for an unstable or exploitative market. While in some cases the large land owners may be innovative leaders in modern agriculture techniques, sometimes they may subtly oppose agricultural improvement. This would be logical if their incomes depend substantially on usurious interests rates charged on consumer loans, and if they wish to hire labor from destitute people with utterly no bargaining power. In such cases, they may have no desire to see irrigation projects devel- oped if they could not control them. The projects might increase the viability of small holdings and the demand for labor, hence the bargaining power of laborers. To weaken further the bar- gaining power of laborers and tenants, the wealthy may use tractors. Taking everything into account, this may be a tragically inefficient use of resources; but the wealthy do not have to take everything into account. Their decisions are based on what is profitable to themselves, not on total social costs and benefits.

The land-owning elite in most countries has close connections with the local politicians because they often come from the game class, and give money and collect votes for elections. Thus, poorer classes can expect little justice in disputes involving land ownership, settlement of debts, water rights, or attacks on women. An analysis of 18 Asian case studies found that for rural local organizations (including local government, farmers’ cooperatives, and so on) to operate effectively and

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serve the interest of small farmers, an essential precondi-

tion was land reform or reasonable equity of land holdings

(Uphoff and Esman, 1974).

Comparative analysis and greater political sensitivity could

have highlighted China’s success in implementation and admi- nistration of land reform. In many countries land reform exists on paper, but is not really carried out. Large land owners are able to distribute land titles to relatives and dependents and

thus retain actual management. They often can dispossess

tenant farmers who might be entitled by law to purchase the

land they cultivate. Rather than being helped, the tenants

may be hurt by land reform legislation. In addition, courts obstruct government purchase of land, and bureaucracies

are slow in distributing it. In some cases land reform simply is a tool for a political leader to attack his enemies. Implemen- tation can be very selective indeed.

Whether or not land reform laws are carried out depends on the overall political climate and the degree to which the top political leadership benefits from a land reform which eli- minates political rivals and establishes an environment for economic growth that it wants. This is shown clearly in the analysis by Tai (1974) of eight land reforms, not including mainland China’s.

In China, since there was a clear political commitment to land reform and to rural social transformation, land reform was implemented with remarkable effectiveness. Crucial for

this implementation was a very sophisticated combination

of central leadership and mass participation, expressed through a wide range of local organizations. Land reform committees and people’s tribunals were set up at county and higher levels; peasant associations were set up as mass organizations at town- ship levels. People’s militia and special land reform police supplemented the regular army forces to discourage landlords from opposing land reform violently.

Communist Party cadres were “the sinew of the movement,” Wong notes, tying together the mass organizations at the local level, with the Party policy determined at higher levels. The Party guided the activities of over one million cadres, most

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of whom were not Party members, but who had gone to special

training programs to learn how to carry out land reform. Cadres

learned to collect information from poor peasants, to single out the few powerful local gentry, and to arrange verbal attacks

against them at mass peasant meetings. The best cadres in land

reform were not those “who were conversant with land reform

regulations and laws but those who were armed with a mass viewpoint and would better activate the peasant masses” (p. 109).

The Chinese success with integrating central and local leader- ship is consistent with the findings of Montgomery (1972). In an analysis of 25 land reforms (not including the mainland of China) he found that peasants’ productivity and welfare gains were best

served through devolution of authority to carry out land reform to local political organization.

Also important is timing. If a government is serious about land reform, political dynamics often force land reform to be implemented too rapidly. When landlords begin to organize resistance to reform, the government is compelled to move quickly. Also, ultra-leftist forces, fearful of compromise, may push for overly rapid reforms (Cohen et al., 1976). Because of the experience of the CCP and because of its overwhelming victory in 1949, these pressures were mitigated. Implementation was actually carried out on a regional basis, and spread out over six years. Roughly one quarter of China had land reform

in the context of revolution during 1946-1948. The rest had land reform from 1949 to 1952. Moreover, in regions inhabited by different minority groups, land reform was delayed for a while. The Chinese leadership firmly resisted the temptation of trying to do everything, everywhere, all at once. Indeed, the Chinese may have been forced to speed land reform by the outbreak of the Korean War, and the threat of U.S. generals to carry the war into China (p. 139).

Land reform went through stages. First was rent reduction, return of excess rent, and abolition of debts. (It is interesting

to note that rent reduction was the first stage of land reform in Taiwan Province, also.) To start actual land redistribution, cadres selected a pilot village in each county to develop experi- ence geared to the specific needs of the locality.

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The manner by which rural classes were differentiated in

China was unique. Rather than classifying people simply on

the basis of size of holdings or income, the Chinese stressed

the manner in which income was derived. Did it come through

a person’s own labor? If so, it was judged permissible. If, how-

ever, the income came from the exploitation of others people’s

labor (i.e., from rent, interest, or hiring of other people’s labor),

then resources were excessive and subject to redistribution. In practice, the distinction was often difficult to make, and final judgments were supposed to be made at public meetings

with mass participation. Cadres then handled the details of

computing surplus lands, determining how much land each family would get, and assigning specific plots of land to families. Inspection teams were then formed at various administrative levels and sent to check up on the implementation of land reform.

The way in which land reform in China eliminated one rural

elite and trained a new leadership is impressive. In many places

an alternative cadre of local leaders is not visible, but it can

be created through the process of land reform. Education, literacy, and examinations are not the only ways of selecting and

training local officials. Because of its narrow economic focus, Wong’s book in no

way displaces other studies of rural social transformation that emphasize the social and psychological dimensions (Hinton, 1966; Crook and Crook, 1959; Chen, 1972; Myrdal, 1965;

Yang, 1959). Nor does Wong’s (or Lippit’s) book deal adequately with the pre-1949 pattern of rural development (for a start into the analysis of this period, see Myers, 1969, 1970) or with the Guomindang’s half-hearted attempts at land reform in the 1930s (Brown and Lin, 1968).

Wong refers in passing to the “high incidence of violence and-bloodshed per mow [mu] redistributed” as an “obvious cost of the Chinese approach” to land reform (p. 279). On this extremely important point, he offers no evidence or docu- mentation. I believe that the numbers usually cited to indicate the level of violence associated with land reform in China are fraudulant exaggerations. The figures on violence that have found their ways into books on China-five million landlords, village despots, and so on killed in rural areas during land

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reform, and 14 million killed altogether in various campaigns up to 1952-were first published by the American Federation of Labor’s Free Trade Union Committee News in December

1952. It is now well known that this committee worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, and it seems more than likely that the article was an example of CIA “disinfor-

mation” fabricated for propaganda purposes. (My attempts to confirm this have been fruitless, as the AFL-CIO officials

claim that original documents for this report have been des- troyed, along with all papers of Mathew Woll, deceased Chair-

man of the Free Trade Union Committee.) A better (but incomplete) indicator to the level of violence

comes from Mao’s speech, “On the Correct Handling of Contra- dictions Among the People,” in which he reported that 800,000 people had been executed, presumably after Liberation in 1949, according to a special (CIA?) report to the New York Times which appeared on June 13, 1957. (The number was deleted in the official translation.) Only a portion of the 800,000 were landlords killed in land reform. But in addition there were many unofficial and illegal killings of landlords by angry pea- sants during land reform, especially during the 1946-1949 period when land reform was intertwined with revolution and civil war. It is possible that roughly a half-million people were killed in land reform. This would be 0.1% of the rural population, or 2.5% of the landlord class. This indicates roughly one death in six landlord families. This is a large number of deaths-but there were a large number of deaths, for which tabulation has never been attempted, in the normal course of events in rural

China. And much larger numbers of people were killed in periodic natural disasters. Land reform was a different type of violence from the normal everyday violence-but not a lot more.

Neither book points out that land reform was an important milestone in the struggle for sexual equality in China. Women and girls received the same share of land as men and boys, reinforcing their claim to property rights. Women, often the victims of past sexual exploitation and abuse, were frequently the leaders in public meetings to criticize landlords and strip them of their status (Belden, 1949).

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It is unfortunate that these two books have so little explicit comparisons with other countries. Equally sad is that other

books or studies on land reform say so little about China (Dor-

ner, 1972; UNFAO, 1971; Warriner, 1969; World Bank, 1975). China’s experience, as shown by Lippit’s and Wong’s books, offers a great number of important lessons for the development

of other countries. As Lippit shows, part of China’s strategy has been the application of very simple, economically orthodox

policies-namely, increase savings and investment. This is commonplace throughout the world. What is distinctive is to combine a high investment strategy with a policy of redistribu- tion of assets and income, so that the brunt of increased invest- ments falls on the few who can best afford the savings. In this way a policy of increasing savings and investments becomes politically acceptable to the great majority.

Increased investment permits increased industrialization; and this eventually makes possible the channeling of resources back to the agricultural sector-steel, electricity, and oil for pumps, tractors, processing machines, and chemical fertilizer. Then agricultural production and income can rise.

The Chinese experience demonstrates-as more and more development economists have been noticing-that the industrial and agricultural sectors are intimately linked, and that mobili- zation of investments is closely tied to patterns of distribution.

Land reform becomes important in development only after it is integrated with a broad political and economic strategy. The contribution to national investment documented by Lippit is achieved because tax and price policies complement land reform. The redistribution of land may not have very many direct economic consequences, as noted by Wong; but the manner in which land is redistributed can crush an existing elite; can help contribute to the emergence of new rural leader- ship, and can contribute to a new psychology of active parti- cipation based on political consciousness. Land reform sets the stage for new patterns of collective organization and for new patterns of urban-rural cooperation.

Of course, all these lessons must be drawn with caution. They emerge from a place where productive investment by the rural

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elite was quite low; where there was very high pressure on

land resources; where the middle peasantry were quite numerous;

where landless labor was a very small part of the rural economy, where there was an overwhelming (albeit not complete) ethnic

and cultural unity, and land reform was essentially a class struggle. Land reform did not interact with ethnic cleavages.

The relevance of China’s land reform experience to other countries

with different preconditions will have to be evaluated critically.

Obviously, land reform in many regions of Latin America, characterized by huge hacienda-type estates, would be a different process. Comparison with eastern Europe may be fruitful. With the help of these two books, the assimilation of China’s experience into the process of development throughout the world can proceed, with a bit less romanticism and with more concrete, tempered information.

Simultaneously, it is also clear that China scholars should study the patterns of development in other regions of the world. It is the experiences of other countries which can help deter- mine which of China’s programs are distinctive and important.


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This article was written when the author was a Research Associate, Rural Devel-

opment Committee, Center of International Studies, Cornell University. He

is now Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics, Michigan

State University.

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  • Contents
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  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Modern China, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1978) pp. 1-120
      • Volume Information
      • Front Matter [pp. 1-2]
      • Marxism and the Mass Line [pp. 3-26]
      • Dazhai: The Mass Line in Practice [pp. 27-62]
      • Review of Land Reform
        • China and the Comparative Analysis of Land Reform [pp. 63-78]
        • Comment: Radical, Moderate, and Optimal Patterns of Land Reform [pp. 79-90]
      • Review of Chinese and Japanese Scholarship
        • New Interpretations of the Han Dynasty Published during the Pi-Lin Pi-Kong Campaign [pp. 91-120]

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