The political economy of agricultural development in the Soviet Union and China

Type Journal Article - Food Research Institute Studies
Title The political economy of agricultural development in the Soviet Union and China
Volume 21
Issue 2
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 1989
Page numbers 97-138
Attempts to advance understanding of the political economy of agricultural
development and structural transformation must come to grips with
the experience of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. l
Agricultural policies in both countries are currently in a state of flux that
make confident predictions about future policies and performance impossible;
but a great deal of new information, scholarly analysis, and a much
improved data base are now available for China and the Soviet Union.There are similarities in the experience of the two countries because of
their authoritarian past as well as the strong influence of Marxist-Leninist
ideology. It is essential, however, to emphasize some highly significant contrasts
that should be kept in mind when comparing agricultural and rural
development in the two countries.
There have been a number of major changes in China's agricultural
policies during the past few decades whereas the Soviet system, despite a
great deal of tinkering, only now appears to manifest the possibility that
major policy changes will be introduced. Over the longer period there was
a large increase in the emphasis on state farms at the expense of an earlier
emphasis on collectives, and during much of the period since Khrushchev
came into power following Stalin's death in 1953 there has been a significant
increase in farm prices, but with surprisingly little impact on productivity.3
The Soviet experience is also less relevant for the contemporary less developed
countries because of differences in timing and in demographic and
structural conditions. Rates of growth of population and labor force have
been low compared to China and other late-developing countries that began
their demographic transition following World War II. (The average rate of
population growth of only 1.2 percent in the Soviet Union between 1927
and 1939 was to a considerable extent a consequence of high mortality associated
with the famine that struck the countryside in the 1930s (Lorimer,
1946, p. 112)). However, the fact that Russia's demographic transition
took place before the era of antibiotics and post-World War II advances
such as oral rehydration therapy is alone sufficient to account for a much
more gradual reduction in infant and child mortality than has characterized
the contemporary late-developing countries including China. Those differences
in timing and in the demographic situation in the two countries go far
toward explaining why structural transformation is much further advanced
in Russia than in China. It is estimated that 80 percent of China's labor
force was still dependent on agriculture in 1965 compared to only about 35
percent in the Soviet Union in that year. By 1985, only a fifth of the total
labor force in the Soviet Union was dependent on agriculture whereas about
three-fourth's of China's workforce still relied primarily on agriculture for
income and employment.
For nearly a decade after its victory over General Chiang Kai-Shek's
Nationalists, the Mao Tse-tung regime's policies unfolded in a series of increasingly
drastic changes. The first was a conventional "land-to-the-tiller" land reform that established a family farm system without tenancy or feudal
practices such as corvee labor. That was soon followed by the establishment
of producers' cooperatives that increasingly brought land and other assets
under collective ownership. In 1958, the advanced producers' cooperatives
that had become general were transformed into agricultural communes. By
1961, this sudden move to complete collectivization, compounded by bad
weather in 1960-61, had led to a calamitous decline in agricultural production.
With recognition of the disastrous consequences of the commune
system and of the Great Leap Forward, major reforms were adopted in
1961. Partly because of setbacks associated with the Cultural Revolution
that began in 1966, the recovery was slow until 1977. However, the fundamental
reforms in agricultural policy implemented since 1978 have led to a
remarkable upsurge in farm production and rural nonfarm activity.
How can one account for China's pragmatic willingness to make major
changes in agricultural policy and the lack of major changes in agricultural
policy in the Soviet Union in spite of the persistently mediocre performance
of the agricultural sector? A major difference in the experience of Soviet and
Chinese leaders must be part of the explanation. Stalin, Lenin, and most of
the other Soviet leaders had very weak links with Russia's farm population,
but Mao Tse-tung and his colleagues and the Chinese peasantry had a long
period of intimate association, especially during the Yenan period. 4 The
number of policy shifts in China, however, also reflects the fact that periods
of pragmatism were interrupted by Mao's radicalism during the Great Leap
Forward (1958-60) and again during the 1966-76 period of the Cultural
Revolution (Perkins and Yusuf, 1985, pp. 4, 90).

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