Land Reform Movement (China)

The Land Reform Movement, also known by the Chinese abbreviation Tǔgǎi (土改), was a campaign by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong during the late phase of the Chinese Civil War and the early People's Republic of China.[1] The campaign involved the mass killing of landlords by tenants and land redistribution to the peasantry.[2] The estimated number of casualties of the movement ranges from hundreds of thousands to millions.[3][4][5] In terms of the CCP's evaluation, Zhou Enlai estimated 830,000 had been killed and Mao Zedong estimated as many as 2 to 3 million were killed.[6]

Land Reform Movement
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

Those who were killed were targeted on the basis of their social class rather than their ethnicity; the neologism classicide is used to describe the killings.[7] Class-motivated mass murder continued almost throughout the 30 years of social and economic transformation in Maoist China, and by the end of reforms, the landlord class had been largely eliminated from Mainland China or had fled to Taiwan.[8] By 1953, land reform in most parts of mainland China was completed except in Xinjiang, Tibet, Qinghai, and Sichuan. From 1953 onwards, the CCP 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.


In the mid-19th century, the Taiping Rebellion had a short-lived program of land confiscation and redistribution and after the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the founder of the Chinese 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 CCP 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.[9] Mao's 1927 Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan advocated a then heretical strategy of mobilizing poor peasants to carry out "struggle" (douzheng). Mao from that point on rejected the idea of peaceful land reform, arguing that peasants could not achieve true liberation unless they participated in the violent overthrow of the landlords.[10]

Mass killings of landlordsEdit

Destruction of the Chinese landlord class (1949–1953)
Part of Early Mao era of China
A farmer confronting a landlord, 1946
Attack type
Massacre, classicide
Injured1.5[12]–6[13] up to 12.5[11] million sent to Laogai camps
VictimsLandlords, better-off peasants
PerpetratorsChinese Communist Party and radicalized peasants
MotiveMaoism, economic inequality

Initial campaign (1946–1948)Edit

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.[14] 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 37.5% of the crop, rather than land redistribution. At the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War in 1946, Mao began to push for a return to radical policies to mobilize the village against the landlord class, but protected the rights of middle peasants and specified that rich peasants were not landlords.[15] The July 7 Directive of 1946 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, rich and middle peasants quickly returned to power.[16]

The Outline Land Law of October 1947 increased the pressure.[17] 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 compared to 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.[18] In one village in southern Hebei, foreign observers recorded that four people were stoned to death,[19] and William Hinton reported that at least a dozen purported rich peasants or landlords were beaten to death in the village he called Longbow.[20]

Height of the landlord purge (1949–1953)Edit

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 who were on the lower end were fully protected.[21] In this vein, Mao insisted that the people themselves, not the secret police's security organs, should become involved in enacting the Land Reform Law and killing the landlords who had oppressed them, in contrast to the Soviet practice of dekulakization.[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]

Jean-Louis Margolin argues that the killings were not a pre-condition for land reform, because in Taiwan and Japan, land reforms were launched with little violence. Rather the violence was a result of the fact that the land reform was less about redistribution (because within a few years of the reforms, most of the land had to be surrendered to collective farms) than it was about eliminating "rural class enemies" and the assumption of local power by the communists. Margolin observes that even in very poor villages (which covered half of Northern China) where nobody could qualify as a landlord, some landlords were "manufactured" so they could be persecuted. In Wugong village, 70 households (out of a total of 387 households) were converted from middle peasants into rich peasants, making them acceptable targets for class struggle.[22] 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] An official reported 180 to 190 thousand landlords were executed in the Kwangsi province alone, in addition a Catholic school teacher reported 2.5% of his village was executed.[11] Some condemned as landlords were buried alive, dismembered, strangled or shot.[21] In many villages, landlords' women were "redistributed" as concubines or daughters for peasants or pressured into marrying their husband's persecutors.[23][24]

Estimated number of deathsEdit

Estimates for the number of deaths range from a lower estimate of 200,000 to 800,000,[25][3][4] and higher estimates of 2,000,000[3][26][27] to 5 million[28][26] executions for the years 1949–1953, along with 1.5 million[12] to 6 million[13] sent to "reform through labour" (Laogai) camps, where many perished.[13] Philip Short wrote 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.[29] Zhou Enlai estimated 830,000 had been killed, while Mao Zedong estimated as many as 2 to 3 million were killed.[6] Deng Zihui, Vice Chairman of the Central South Military and Administrative Council, estimated that 15% of China's 50,000,000 landlords and rich peasants had been "sentenced to death", 25% had been "sent to labor reform camps for remolding through manual work" and 60% to "participation in production work under supervision".[11] Not all of those sentenced to death were actually executed and therefore there is no way of knowing the exact number of performed executions.[30]

Retaliation by landlordsEdit

During the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang established the "Huanxiang Tuan" (Chinese: 還鄉團; pinyin: Huán xiāng tuán), or the Homecoming Legion, which was composed of landlords who sought the return of their redistributed land and property from peasants and CCP guerrillas, and the release of forcibly conscripted peasants and communist POWs.[31] The Homecoming legion conducted its guerrilla warfare campaign against CCP forces and purported collaborators up until the end of the civil war in 1949.[31]

Land redistributionEdit

Land seized from Landlords was brought under collective ownership, resulting in the creation of "Agricultural production cooperatives".[32] 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.[33] 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[34][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 after reform in mainland China[34][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 effectsEdit

An example of a people's commune collective farm.

As an economic reform program, the land reform succeeded in redistributing about 43% of China's cultivated land to approximately 60% of the rural population.[35] Poor peasants increased their holdings, while middle peasants benefitted most because of their strong initial position.[35] Historian Walter Scheidel writes that the violence of the land reform campaign had a significant impact in reducing economic inequality. He gives as an example the 1940s campaigns in village of Zhangzhuangcun, made famous by William Hinton's book Fanshen. Although poor and middle peasants had already owned 70% of the land:

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]

Great Leap ForwardEdit

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.[36] 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".[37] 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 TaiwanEdit

After its retreat to Taiwan, the Nationalist government carried out a program of land reform under the Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction.[38] The land reform law removed the landlord class, and created a higher number of peasants who, with the help of the state, dramatically increased Taiwan's agricultural output.[39] Land reform also succeeded because the Kuomintang's members were mostly from mainland China and, as a result, had few ties with the remaining indigenous Taiwanese landowners.[40]

See alsoEdit


  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. pp. 223, 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 978-1-4039-9275-8. Estimates of the number of landlords and rural power-holders who died range from 200,000 to two million.
  4. ^ a b c Teiwes, Frederic (1987). "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. Archived from the original on 2019-02-20. 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. ^ Rummel, Rudolph J. (2007). China's bloody century: genocide and mass murder since 1900. Transaction Publishers. p. 223. ISBN 978-1-4128-0670-1. Archived from the original on 2016-11-09. Retrieved 2016-11-02.
  6. ^ a b c d Daniel Chirot. Modern Tyrants: The Power and Prevalence of Evil in Our Age. Princeton University Press, 1996: 187 [ 2014-03-30 ] . ISBN 0-691-02777-3 (original content. Archived in 2014-07-03).
  7. ^ Wu, Harry (2013). "Classicide in Communist China". In Arrigo, Bruce and Heather Bersot (ed.). The Routledge Handbook of International Crime and Justice Studies. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-86850-4., xxv-xxvi
  8. ^ [1]"Wealthy farmers" and rural landlords fleeing the communist land redistribution program (mostly during 1951 to 1954)
  9. ^ Mühlhahn (2019), p. 402.
  10. ^ DeMare (2019), p. 10, 104–105.
  11. ^ a b c d Rummel, Rudolph .J. (2007). China's bloody century: genocide and mass murder since 1900. Transaction Publishers. p. 222. ISBN 978-1-4128-0670-1.
  12. ^ a b Short, Philip (2001). Mao: A Life. Owl Books. p. 436. ISBN 0-8050-6638-1. Archived from the original on 2019-02-20. Retrieved 2019-09-26.
  13. ^ a b c Benjamin A. Valentino. Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the Twentieth Century Archived 2019-02-20 at the Wayback Machine Cornell University Press, 2004. pp. 121–122. ISBN 0-8014-3965-5
  14. ^ DeMare (2019), pp. 6–17.
  15. ^ DeMare (2019), p. 10-11.
  16. ^ Tanner (2015), pp. 134–135.
  17. ^ Saich, Tony, ed. (1996). "Outline of China's Land Law (10 October 1947)". The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party. East Gate. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 1295–1298. ISBN 9781315288192.
  18. ^ Tanner, Harold Miles (2015). Where Chiang Kai-Shek Lost China: The Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-01692-8. p.135-137
  19. ^ CrookCrook (1979), p. 151.
  20. ^ Hinton (1966), p. xi.
  21. ^ 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. Archived from the original on 2017-09-04. Retrieved 2017-09-03.
  22. ^ Margolin, Jean-Louis. "Mao's China: The Worst Non-Genocidal Regime?." In The historiography of genocide, pp. 438–467. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2008, p.452
  23. ^ Su, Yang. Collective killings in rural China during the cultural revolution. Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.111
  24. ^ Margolin, Jean-Louis. "Mao's China: The Worst Non-Genocidal Regime?." In The historiography of genocide, pp. 438–467. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2008, p.455
  25. ^ Stavis, Benedict (1978). The Politics of Agricultural Mechanization in China. University of California: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-1087-1. It would appear that somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 people were killed offi- cially after 1949.... The Chinese Communist leadership had estimated that landlords and their families constituted 4 -5 percent of the rural population-about 20 million people. This would imply that 1 to 4 percent of landlords' families met death. If a half million people were killed in land reform, this would be .1 percent of the rural population or 2.5 percent of the landlord class and would represent roughly one death in six landlord families (pp. 29-30).
  26. ^ a b 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."
  27. ^ 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."
  28. ^ 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."
  29. ^ Short, Philip (2001). Mao: A Life. Owl Books. p. 437. ISBN 0-8050-6638-1. Archived from the original on 2019-02-20. Retrieved 2019-09-26.
  30. ^ Stavis, Benedict (1978). The Politics of Agricultural Mechanization in China. Cornell University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-8014-1087-1.
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ "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. Archived from the original on 27 October 2019. Retrieved 27 October 2019.
  33. ^ ChenDavis (1998).
  34. ^ 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。
  35. ^ a b Fairbank, John King; MacFarquhar, Roderick (1987). The Cambridge History of China: The People's Republic. Cambridge University Press. p. 87. ISBN 978-0-521-24336-0.
  36. ^ Mirsky, Jonathan. "The China We Don't Know". Archived 2015-10-16 at the Wayback Machine. New York Review of Books Volume 56, Number 3. February 26, 2009.
  37. ^ Dikötter, Frank (2010), Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62, London: Bloomsbury, pp. 114–115, ISBN 9780747595083
  38. ^ 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 978-0-521-24337-7.
  39. ^ "The Labour Movement in Taiwan". September 21, 2004. Archived from the original on October 21, 2019. Retrieved November 7, 2019.
  40. ^ 土地改革紀念館 [Land Reform Museum] (in Chinese). Archived from the original on 2011-07-25.

Bibliography and further readingEdit

External linksEdit