Chinese Land Reform

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Chinese Land Reform
A man reads the Land Reform Law of PRC.jpg
The land reform staff publicizing the Land Reform Law to peasants in 1950.
Simplified Chinese土地改革运动
Traditional Chinese土地改革運動
Literal meaningLand Reform Movement

The Chinese Land Reform Movement (Chinese: 土地改革运动), also known by the Chinese abbreviation Tǔgǎi (土改), was a campaign by the Communist Party leader Mao Zedong during the late phase of the Chinese Civil War and the early People's Republic of China.[1] The campaign involved mass killings of landlords and land redistribution to the peasantry.[2] The estimated death count of the movement ranges from hundreds of thousands to millions.[3][4][5][6] Those who were killed were targeted on the basis of their social class rather than on the basis of their ethnicity; the neologism "classicide" is used to describe the killings.[6] Class-motivated mass killings continued almost throughout the 30 years of social and economic transformation in Maoist China. Out of an estimated 10 to 15 million landlords, an estimated 85–90% of them were either killed or fled overseas,[citation needed] especially from South China.[6][7] By 1953, land reform in most parts of mainland China was completed except in Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, and Sichuan. From 1953 onwards, the Communist Party of China began to implement collective ownership of expropriated land through the creation of “Agricultural Production Cooperatives” transferring property rights from the former landlord class to the Chinese state.


Since the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, China has undergone a series of land reform programs. The founder of the Nationalist Party, Sun Yat-sen, advocated a "land to the tiller" program of equal distribution of land. which was partly implemented by the Nationalist Government under Chiang Kai-shek.

As early as 1927, Mao Zedong believed that the countryside would be the basis of revolution. Land reform was key for the Communist Party of China both to carry out its program of social equality and to extend its control to the countryside. Unlike in Russia before the revolution, peasants in imperial China were not in feudal bondage to large estates; they either owned their land or rented it. They marketed their crops for cash in village markets, but local elites used their connections with officialdom to dominate local society. When the central government began to lose control in the late 19th century and then disintegrated after 1911, the local gentry and clan organizations became even more powerful. [8]

Over the following decades, the Party went back and forth on strategy. Leaders fought over such questions as the level of violence which was to be used; whether to woo or target middle peasants, who farmed most of the land; or to redistribute all of the land to poor peasants.[9] During the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Second United Front, the Party emphasized Sun Yat-sen's moderate "land to the tiller" program, which limited rent to 37 1/2% of the crop, rather than land redistribution.

At the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War, the party attempted to mobilize the village against the Landlord Class, but protected the rights of middle peasants and specified that rich peasants were not landlords. The July 7 Directive of 1946 reversed this relatively mild policy and set off eighteen months of fierce conflict in which all rich peasant and landlord property of all types was to be confiscated and redistributed to poor peasants. Party work teams went quickly from village to village and divided the population into landlords, rich, middle, poor, and landless peasants. Because the work teams did not involve villagers in the process, however, rich and middle peasants quickly returned to power. [10]

The Outline Land Law of October 1947 increased the pressure. [11] Party central sent the work teams back to the villages to put poor and landless peasants in charge, mandating the elimination of land rent, which it termed "feudal exploitation", and the elimination of landlord status. The work teams mobilized poor and landless peasants to take direct and violent action against the leading clans and families of neighboring villages to ensure that family loyalties not interfere with the campaign. [12]

The "Land Reform Law of the People's Repulic of China" of June 1950 coincided with campaigns against Nationalist troops and local resistance. Implementation began in the fall, usually preceded by campaigns of rent reduction.[13]

Mass killings of landlords[edit]

Initial campaign (1947–1951)[edit]

The idea of a violent campaign against the landlord class was already drawn up in 1947 by Communist Party official Kang Sheng, an expert on terror tactics.[14] Ren Bishi, a member of the party's Central Committee, likewise stated in a 1948 speech that "30,000,000 landlords and rich peasants would have to be destroyed."[5] Shortly after the founding of the PRC in 1949, land reform, according to Mao biographer Philip Short, "lurched violently to the left" with Mao Zedong laying down new guidelines for "not correcting excesses prematurely."[1] Beatings, while not officially promoted by the party, were not prohibited either. While landlords had no protection, those who were branded "rich peasants" received moderate protections from violence and those on the lower end were fully protected.[15]

A farmer confronting a landlord, 1946.

In this vein Mao insisted that the people themselves, not the security organs, should become involved in enacting the Land Reform Law and killing the landlords who had oppressed them, which was quite different from Soviet practice.[1] Mao thought that peasants who killed landlords would become permanently linked to the revolutionary process in a way that passive spectators could not be.[1] Those condemned as landlords were buried alive, dismembered, strangled and shot.[15]

Estimates for the number of deaths range from a lower range of 200,000 to 800,000,[3][4] and higher estimates of 2,000,000[3][4][16] to 5 million[17][18] executions for the years 1949-1953, along with 1.5 million people,[19] to 6 million,[20] being sent to "reform through labour" camps where many perished.[20] All these estimates are much lower than Ren Bishi's belief that 30,000,000 would need to be annihilated.[5] There were policies in certain regions of China not necessarily obeyed[citation needed] which required the selection of "at least one landlord, and usually several, in virtually every village for public execution".[4] Philip Short noted that such estimates exclude the hundreds of thousands driven to suicide during "struggle sessions" of the three-anti/five-anti campaigns, which also occurred around the same time.[21] Brian DeMare adds that sexual assault may well have been as common as mass killing. [22]

Retaliation by landlords[edit]

During the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang helped establish the "Huanxiang Tuan" (還鄉團), or Homecoming Legion, which was composed of landlords who sought the return of their redistributed land and property from peasants and CCP guerrillas, as well as forcibly conscripted peasants and communist POWs.[23] The Homecoming legion conducted its guerrilla warfare campaign against CCP forces and purported collaborators up until the end of the civil war in 1949.[23]

Land redistribution[edit]

Land seized from Landlords was brought under collective ownership resulting in the creation of "Agricultural production cooperatives".[24] In the mid-1950s, a second land reform during the Great Leap Forward compelled individual farmers to join collectives, which, in turn, were grouped into People's communes with centrally controlled property rights and an egalitarian principle of distribution. This policy was generally a failure in terms of production.[25] The PRC reversed this policy in 1962 through the proclamation of the Sixty Articles. As a result, the ownership of the basic means of production was divided into three levels with collective land ownership vested in the production team.

Ownership of cultivable land before reform in mainland China[26][a]
Classification Number of households
Proportion of households
Population ratio
(10,000 mu)
The proportion of cultivated land
The average cultivated land
Per capita cultivated land
Poor Farmer 6062 57.44 24123 52.37 21503 14.28 3.55 0.89
Middle Peasants 3081 29.20 15260 33.13 46577 30.94 15.12 3.05
Rich Farmer 325 3.08 2144 4.66 20566 13.66 63.24 9.59
Landlord 400 3.79 2188 4.75 57588 38.26 144.11 26.32
Other 686 6.49 2344 5.09 4300 2.86 6.27 1.83
Total 10554 100.00 46059 100.00 150534 100.00 14.26 3.27
Ownership of cultivable land before reform in mainland China[26][b]
Classification Number of households
Cultivated land
Per capita cultivated land
Large livestock
( Head/100 households)
Poor Farmer 54.5 52.2 47.1 12.5 46.73
Middle Peasants 39.3 39.9 44.3 19.0 90.93
Rich Farmer 3.1 5.3 6.4 25.1 114.86
Landlord 2.4 2.6 2.2 12.2 23.19
Other 0.7 -- -- -- --
Total 100.00 100.00 100.00 15.3 64.01

Economic effects[edit]

An example of a people's commune collective farm.

Historian Walter Scheidel writes that the violence of the land reform campaign had a significant impact on economic inequality. He gives as an example the village of Zhangzhuangcun, made famous by William Hinton's book Fanshen:

In Zhangzhuangcun, in the more thoroughly reformed north of the country, most "landlords" and "rich peasants" had lost all their land and often their lives or had fled. All formerly landless workers had received land, which eliminated this category altogether. As a result, "middling peasants," who now accounted for 90 percent of the village population, owned 90.8 percent of the land, as close to perfect equality as one could possibly hope for.[2]

By 1958 private ownership was entirely abolished and households all over China were forced into state-operated communes. Chinese leadership insisted that the communes must produce more grain for the cities and earn foreign exchange from exports. These reforms were generally unpopular with the peasants and usually implemented by summoning them to meetings and making them stay there for days and sometimes weeks until they "voluntarily" agreed to join the collective.

Great Leap Forward[edit]

During the Great Leap Forward, the state introduced a system of compulsory state purchases of grain at fixed prices to build up stockpiles for famine-relief and meet the terms of its trade agreements with the Soviet Union. Together, taxation and compulsory purchases accounted for 30% of the harvest by 1957, leaving very little surplus.[27] Rationing was also introduced in the cities to curb 'wasteful consumption' and encourage savings (which were deposited in state-owned banks and thus became available for investment), and although food could be purchased from state-owned retailers the market price was higher than that for which it had been purchased. This too was done in the name of discouraging excessive consumption.

During 1958–1960 China continued to be a substantial net exporter of grain, despite the widespread famine experienced in the countryside, as Mao sought to maintain face and convince the outside world of the success of his plans. Foreign aid was refused. When the Japanese foreign minister told his Chinese counterpart Chen Yi of an offer of 100,000 tonnes of wheat to be shipped out of public view, he was rebuffed. John F. Kennedy was also aware that the Chinese were exporting food to Africa and Cuba during the famine and said "we've had no indication from the Chinese Communists that they would welcome any offer of food."[28] With dramatically reduced yields, even urban areas suffered much reduced rations; however, mass starvation was largely confined to the countryside, where, as a result of drastically inflated production statistics, very little grain was left for the peasants to eat.

Land reform in Taiwan[edit]

After its retreat to Taiwan, the Nationalist government carried out a program of land reform under the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction.[29] The land reform law, inspired by the law which was enacted in occupied Japan, removed the landlord class, and created a higher number of peasants who, with the help of the state, dramatically increased Taiwan's agricultural output.[30] Land reform also succeeded because the Kuomintang's members were mostly from mainland China and as a result, they had few ties with the remaining indigenous Taiwanese landowners.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The number of households, population, and total arable land are based on the 1950 agricultural production annual report. The figures for each class are calculated based on the proportion of each class before the land reform in each region.
  2. ^ The number of households was calculated based on the survey data of 9900 households in 21 provinces and autonomous regions. Others are calculated based on the survey data of more than 15,000 rural households in 23 provinces and autonomous regions in 1954.


  1. ^ a b c d Short, Philip (2001). Mao: A Life. Owl Books. pp. 436–7. ISBN 0-8050-6638-1.
  2. ^ a b Scheidel, Walter (2017). The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press. p. 226. ISBN 978-0-691-16502-8.
  3. ^ a b c Roberts, J. A. G. (2006). A History of China (Palgrave Essential Histories Series). Palgrave Macmillan. p. 257. ISBN 978-1403992758. Estimates of the number of landlords and rural power-holders who died range from 200,000 to two million.
  4. ^ a b c d Teiwes, Frederic. "Establishment of the New Regime". In Twitchett, Denis; John K. Fairbank; Roderick MacFarquhar (eds.). The Cambridge history of China. Cambridge University Press. p. 87. ISBN 0-521-24336-X. Retrieved 2008-08-23. "For a careful review of the evidence and a cautious estimate of 200,000 two 800,000 executions, see Benedict Stavis, The Politics of Agricultural Mechanization in China (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978), 25-30.
  5. ^ a b c Rummel, Rudolph J. (2007). China's bloody century: genocide and mass murder since 1900. Transaction Publishers. p. 223. ISBN 978-1-4128-0670-1.
  6. ^ a b c Wu, Harry. "Classicide in Communist China". Comparative Civilizations Review.
  7. ^ [1]"Wealthy farmers" and rural landlords fleeing the communist land redistribution program (mostly during 1951 to 1954)
  8. ^ Mühlhahn (2019), p. 402.
  9. ^ DeMare (2019), pp. 6-17.
  10. ^ Tanner (2015), pp. 134-135.
  11. ^ Saich The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party Outline Land Law of 1947
  12. ^ Tanner, Harold Miles (2015). Where Chiang Kai-Shek Lost China: The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253016928. p.135-137
  13. ^ DeMare (2019), p. 167-168.
  14. ^ John Byron & Robert Pack, The Claws of the Dragon: Kang Sheng - The Evil Genius Behind Mao - And His Legacy of Terror in People's China, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992); Zhong Kan, Kang Sheng Pingzhuan [A Critical Biography of Kang Sheng] (Beijing: Hongqi, 1982); Lin Qingshan, Kang Sheng Waizhuan [An Unofficial Biography of Kang Sheng] (Beijing: Zhongguo Qingnian, 1988)
  15. ^ a b Scheidel, Walter (2017). The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton University Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-691-16502-8.
  16. ^ Maurice Meisner. Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic, Third Edition. Free Press, 1999. ISBN 0-684-85635-2 p. 72: "... the estimate of many relatively impartial observers that there were 2,000,000 people executed during the first three years of the People's Republic is probably as accurate a guess as one can make on the basis of scanty information."
  17. ^ Steven W. Mosher. China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality. Basic Books, 1992. ISBN 0-465-09813-4 pg 74: "...a figure that Fairbank has cited as the upper range of "sober" estimates."
  18. ^ Lee Feigon. Mao: A Reinterpretation. Ivan R. Dee, 2002. ISBN 1-56663-522-5 p. 96: "By 1952 they had extended land reform throughout the countryside, but in the process somewhere between two and five million landlords had been killed."
  19. ^ Short, Philip (2001). Mao: A Life. Owl Books. p. 436. ISBN 0-8050-6638-1.
  20. ^ a b Benjamin A. Valentino. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century Cornell University Press, 2004. pp. 121-122. ISBN 0-8014-3965-5
  21. ^ Short, Philip (2001). Mao: A Life. Owl Books. p. 437. ISBN 0-8050-6638-1.
  22. ^ DeMare (2019), p. 162.
  23. ^ a b Zaiyu, Liu (2002). 第二次國共戰爭時期的還鄉團 (PDF). Hong Kong: Twenty First Century Bimonthly.
  24. ^ "在中国共产党第七届中央委员会第六次全体会议上". Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China. Retrieved 27 October 2019.
  25. ^ ChenDavis (1998).
  26. ^ a b 国家统计局编:《建国三十年全国农业统计资料(1949-1979)》,1980年3月印制。
  27. ^ Mirsky, Jonathan. "The China We Don't Know." New York Review of Books Volume 56, Number 3. February 26, 2009.
  28. ^ Dikötter, Frank (2010), Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62, London: Bloomsbury, p. = 114–115.
  29. ^ Clough, Ralph (1991). "Chapter 12: Taiwan under Nationalist Rule, 1949-1982". In MacFaquhar, Roderick; Fairbank, John K. (eds.). The People's Republic. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]: Cambridge University Press. p. 837. ISBN 9780521243377.
  30. ^ "The Labour Movement in Taiwan". September 21, 2004.
  31. ^ 土地改革紀念館 [Land Reform Museum] (in Chinese). Archived from the original on 2011-07-25.

Bibliography and further reading[edit]

External links[edit]