Edwin E. Moïse

Land Reform in China and North Vietnam:

Consolidating the Revolution at the Village Level

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. xiv, 305 pp. ISBN 0-8078-1547-0.

In both China and North Vietnam, land reform programs designed to break the power of traditional village elite, recruit new village leaders from among the peasants, and distribute wealth (especially land) from the elite to the poor, were very important parts of the Communist revolution. The ethnically Chinese areas of China underwent land reform between 1946 and 1953, and the ethnically Vietnamese areas of North Vietnam between 1953 and 1956.

During World War II the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had stressed the united front against the Japanese, rather than class struggle. But class struggle was starting to revive by the late stages of the war, and revived very much after 1945. By late 1947 and early 1948, in substantial areas of North and Northeast China, the CCP was carrying out a very radical land reform--extreme in the numbers of executions, extreme in the taking of land not just from real landlords but also from people only moderately (if at all) wealthier than their neighbors, and extreme in the paranoia with which those running the campaign purged village-level Communist Party branches of suspected landlord agents. By mid 1948 the program was moderating in all of these respects, and it was under these more moderate policies that most of China underwent land reform in the following years. But these policies were "more moderate" only by comparison with what had gone before; hundreds of thousands of landlords were still executed. In my study of this later period of the land reform, I have focused on the Central-South Region, and especially on the province of Guangdong.

The Communist Party in Vietnam had followed united front policies during the early years of its war for independence against the French, but was shifting to class struggle by the late stages of that war. A formal land reform campaign began on a small scale at the end of 1953, and then spread; most of the villages of North Vietnam were covered in the final year of the campaign, from mid-1955 to mid-1956. This final year was also the most radical period, with many peasants falsely labelled as landlords and subjected to the confiscation of their land, and many Communist Party members purged from village-level party branches on false charges that they were landlords or landlord agents. Substantial numbers of people were executed, though not the huge numbers later claimed by some anti-Communist propagandists. In the latter half of 1956, the party recognized that it had made serious errors; a campaign to correct the errors lasted into 1958.

This study is based mainly on contemporary Chinese and Vietnamese sources, some read in the original languages, some in translation.


Preface   xiii
Abbreviations   xvii
Chapter 1: Introduction   3
      The Logic of Land Reform   10
      Some Crucial Problems   15
      Terminology   19
Chapter 2: The Background to Land Reform in China   23
      Geography   23
      Land Tenure and Wealth   27
      Early CCP Land Policies   33
      The Shift to the Northwest   37
      The United Front   38
Chapter 3: Land Reform from 1945 to 1948   43
      Rectification   51
      The Outline Land Law   55
      Implementing the Law   62
Chapter 4: Moderation in the New Liberated Areas   75
      Establishing Control in the South   86
      Reduction of Rent and Interest   91
      Organizational Development   96
Chapter 5: The Land Reform Program of 1950   102
Chapter 6: Guangdong and the Central-South Region   116
      The Central-South Region   116
      The Preliminaries to Land Reform in Guangdong   118
      The Progress of Land Reform in Guangdong   122
      The Leftward Shift of Late 1950   124
      Obstacles to Land Reform in Guangdong   132
      Imposition from Above   134
Chapter 7: The Results of Land Reform in China   138
      Economic Results   138
      Political Results   141
Chapter 8: The Background to Land Reform in Vietnam   146
      Geographical Units   146
      Social Structure and Land Tenure   147
      The Vietnamese Revolution   152
      Early DRV Agrarian Policies   155
      Results of DRV Agrarian Policies up to 1953   159
Chapter 9: The Beginning of Mass Mobilization   167
      Rectification   167
      Mass Mobilization is Announced   170
      Implementation   176
Chapter 10: The Land Reform Proper, 1953-1956   178
      The Land Reform Law   178
      The Experimental Wave of Land Reform   190
      Land-Reform Wave One   191
      The Geneva Accords   192
      Land-Reform Waves Two and Three   195
      The Climax: Land-Reform Waves Four and Five   201
      The Reexamination Campaign   203
Chapter 11: Immediate Effects of the Land Reform   205
      Poor Peasants and Laborers   210
      Middle Peasants   211
      Rich Peasants   211
      The Landlords   212
      Despots and Executions   216
      The Role of Women   223
      Production   224
      Fundamental Errors   226
      The Question of Foreign Influence   234
Chapter 12: The Correction of Errors   237
      For Correction on a Broad Scale: The Tenth Plenum and the Giap Report   242
      The Development of Correction   250
      Conflict in the Villages   252
      The Quynh luu Riots   258
      Reclassification   260
      Taxation   267
      Recent Judgments   268
Chapter 13: Concluding Remarks   269
      Land Tenure and Land Redistribution   269
      The Problem of Class   272
      Law and Policy   275
      Correct Policy and Errors   277
Glossary   283
Bibliography   289
Index   297

      The information that is available today, about the land reform in North Vietnam, is more plentiful and more reliable than the information that was available when I wrote this book. It is now apparent that I was seriously wrong on one issue: the question of Chinese influence. I argued, at the end of Chapter 11, that reports that Chinese advisers had pushed the Vietnamese into erroneous land reform policies must be mistaken, since the record of land reform in China made it plain that the Chinese, having made mistakes of that sort in an early stage of their land reform (up to the early months of 1948), had realised that they were mistakes, and had not repeated them during the main part of the Chinese land reform (1950 onward). The logic still makes sense to me, but the conclusion seems to have been wrong. Chinese advisers did push the Vietnamese into making mistakes that the Chinese had not made in the most recent years of their own land reform. I still don't really know why. One possibility is that fairly sophisticated Chinese land reform policies got "dumbed down" in the process of translation and transmission to the Vietnamese. Another is that current Chinese thinking about land reform may have been based entirely on the most recent period of Chinese land reform. Since mistakes of this sort had not been a problem in that most recent period, they may have fallen off the list of known errors that land reform cadres should be warned not to repeat.
      I did not pay enough attention to the artificiality of class labels like "poor peasant" and "middle peasant" when assigned at a particular date to peasants whose economic status was quite likely to change over the course of a lifetime. I am indebted to Andrew Vickerman, The Fate of the Peasantry: Premature Transition to Socialism in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1986), for this insight.
      I wrote that the number of people executed in the North Vietnamese land reform was probably on the rough order of 5,000. Today I would put that a bit higher, perhaps on the rough order of 10,000. But I am still in no position to give a precise estimate.
      On page 217, I wrote that President Richard Nixon estimated that 500,000 people had been executed during the North Vietnamese land reform, and that another 500,000 had died in slave labor camps. My source was the account of Nixon's news conference of July 27, 1972, that appeared the following day in the New York Times. The New York Times had apparently had a typo; what Nixon had actually said was that 50,000 had been executed and 500,000 had died in slave labor camps.

Statements Falsely Attributed to Vo Nguyen Giap Vo Nguyen Giap has been more often misrepresented than any other Communist leader. Many of the quotes supposedly coming from him that circulate in the West have been spurious. Some of these have related to the land reform (see Chapter 12 in the table of contents above), but there have been a variety of others.

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Revised April 5, 2024.

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