Making Socialist Agrarian Regime: Quantifying Rural Labor with Environment in China, 1949-1979

Ziwei Zhang, Harvard Universtiy

The dominant narrative of China's agricultural history characterizes the socialist period as unnecessarily labor-intensive and credits the success of economic reform in the 1980s to transferring "rural surplus labor" to the urban sector. However, the current environmental and rural social crisis calls for a reevaluation of this narrative and the definition of "rural surplus labor.” Through an analysis of the rural labor accounting system in the socialist period, the paper finds that a significant amount of rural work was devoted to social and ecological reproduction. Specifically, to encourage women's participation in agriculture, domestic work, including babysitting and cooking, was socialized in rural communes. In addition, socialist agricultural modernization aimed to find a different way of addressing nature-society metabolism from capitalism. To achieve this anti-capitalist vision, the state mobilized rural labor in ecological reproduction including soil, water, and soil fertility maintenance. However, labor in social and ecological reproduction was viewed as "surplus" in the post-socialist period by economists who only value agricultural production. The paper uses the case of a tea village in Quanzhou, China, to illustrate the social and environmental changes that occurred as "rural surplus labor" was transferred to the urban sector. The paper argues that revisioning the future of agriculture requires first reconsidering the work in agriculture.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 210. Work in agrarian times and societies