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Joshua D. Eisenman

Comparative Politics and International Relations


Burying the Commune: Why China Abandoned Its Rural Collectives


Ronald Rogowski (Chair), Arthur Stein, Michael Ross, Marc Blecher, and Michael O. Moore (Economics)

June 2014

Joshua D. Eisenman



My dissertation uses economic models and collective action theories to examine the political economy of contemporary China. Using previously unavailable data collected in China in 2011-12 my work reveals how beginning in 1970 increased rural savings rates funded investments that produced sustained increases in food output. After examining these agricultural surpluses I apply neoclassical economic models to explain their sources and place them in a comparative context alongside much earlier agricultural and industrial revolutions in Europe and the U.S. My work addresses the cross-national question of how a populous developing country can increase food production. Climate change and pollution will ensure that food shortages continue to be a top concern for the international economy, and insights gained from China’s experience may suggest solutions.

I begin by asking why – after a quarter century (1958-1983) – China abandoned the commune as its primary rural political, economic and military institution? The familiar – but, I argue, incorrect – answer has long been that the commune was unproductive: to wit, it failed to provide sufficient income incentives for workers, leading them to shirk collective responsibilities and focus on their more profitable private sideline plots and ventures. The research reported here shows this grassroots-based economic failure argument for the commune’s abandonment is almost entirely erroneous. Instead, I present a top-down political explanation that challenges the contentions that households abandoned the commune and that it was dismantled because it was unproductive. I argue households simply did not have the power to opt out of the collective system, and that through coercive measures that increased savings rates the commune succeeded in increasing China’s agricultural output.

China’s new leadership abandoned the commune for distinctly political reasons. An alliance of rightists and liberal reformers led by Deng Xiaoping destroyed the system to consolidate their newfound political power. The campaign to abandon the commune began after Mao Zedong’s death in late 1976 and culminated with the system’s elimination in 1983. Unified by anti-leftism and a desire to solidify their tenuous grip on power, Deng’s coalition set out to boost rural household incomes, end Maoism, and “modernize” the military. Each of these three interrelated policy goals removed one “leg” of the commune’s tripartite economic, political and military support structure: its mandate to extract household savings for capital investment, its cohesive leftist ideology, and military backing for its people’s militias, respectively. Without these supports the system quickly collapsed.

China did not experience a V-shaped growth line with economic collapse narrowly avoided by life-saving new reforms begun in 1979, as the common wisdom suggests. Conversely, post-1970 policies that increased household savings rates kick-started a continuing cycle of investment that produced sustained growth in agricultural output. Innovations that increased output per unit land also freed rural labor to move into urban-based capital and export sectors after decollectivization. China’s economic success was not primarily the result of “big-bang” reforms begun in 1978; instead it was built on the previous decade of painful, forced household austerity that underwrote agricultural modernization.

Whether it was distributed to households (e.g. farm machines) or remained as in-field infrastructure (e.g. irrigation works), the commune’s capital remained productive years after decollectivization. Moreover, the system’s dissolution crippled the localities’ ability to extract households’ resources at the same time Beijing increased the state procurement price for agricultural products for the first time in nearly a decade. Taken together these transfers delivered a sizeable consumption boost to previously deprived rural households. In this way the liberal-right coalition succeeded in persuading farmers to remain in rural areas and won grassroots support. China’s new leaders eliminated the commune to consolidate their political power, not because the system failed to produce.


Comparative politics, International political economy, Chinese politics, International relations of East Asia, U.S.-China relations, China-Africa relations


University of California, Los Angeles
Teaching Fellow, Department of Political Science
• World Politics (PS20) Fall 2013.
• International Political Economy (PS124) Spring 2013.
• China-Africa Relations (PS139) Winter 2013.
• Introduction to American Politics (PS40) Fall 2012.
• The International Relations of China (PS135) Spring 2011, Spring 2009 and Spring 2008.
• China in the Reform Era (PS159B) Winter 2011.
• International Relations Theory (PS137) Fall 2010.
• Politics of Cultural Pluralism in Africa (PS151) Fall 2009.

New York University
Adjunct Professor of Politics and International Relations
• The Political Economy of East Asia: Chinese Development in Comparative Perspective, Spring 2012 and Fall 2011. (NYU-Shanghai campus)
• Introduction to Contemporary China, Spring 2012. (NYU-Shanghai campus)
• The Rise of East Asia, Summer 2011 and Summer 2010. (New York, NY)