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Squeezing the Peasants: Grain Extraction, Food Consumption and Rural Living Standards in Mao's China

Abstract

At the end of Mao's life farmers still accounted for some 80 per cent of China's population. Its declining share in GDP notwithstanding, agriculture continued to carry a heavy developmental burden throughout the Mao era. The production and distribution of grain – the wage good par excellence – held the key to fulfilling this role. But despite a pragmatic response to the exigencies of famine conditions in 1959–61, state investment priorities never adequately accommodated the economic, let alone the welfare needs of the farm sector. Thanks to the mechanism of grain re-sales to the countryside, the Chinese government's extractive policies were less brutal in their impact than those pursued by Stalin in the Soviet Union. Even so, a detailed national, regional and provincial analysis of grain output and procurement trends highlights the process of rural impoverishment which characterized China's social and economic development under Maoist planning.

At the end of Mao's life farmers still accounted for some 80 per cent of China's population. Its declining share in GDP notwithstanding, agriculture continued to carry a heavy developmental burden throughout the Mao era. The production and distribution of grain – the wage good par excellence – held the key to fulfilling this role. But despite a pragmatic response to the exigencies of famine conditions in 1959–61, state investment priorities never adequately accommodated the economic, let alone the welfare needs of the farm sector. Thanks to the mechanism of grain re-sales to the countryside, the Chinese government's extractive policies were less brutal in their impact than those pursued by Stalin in the Soviet Union. Even so, a detailed national, regional and provincial analysis of grain output and procurement trends highlights the process of rural impoverishment which characterized China's social and economic development under Maoist planning.

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I am grateful to the participants of the China Quarterly Conference (October 2005), at which a very different version of this article was initially presented, for comments and advice on how I might go about making a very diffuse paper more focused. I also take special pleasure in thanking Professor Colin White (La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia) – a dear friend of almost half a century – for his insightful and encouraging comments from afar on an interim version of this article.
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The China Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0305-7410
  • EISSN: 1468-2648
  • URL: /core/journals/china-quarterly
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