- Red China's Green Revolution: Technological Innovation, Institutional Change, and Economic Development under the Commune by Joshua Eisenman
Since China decollectivized its own rural economy and dismantled the People's Communes in the early 1980s, the mainstream writings have held a simplistic negative view about the rural commune under Maoist China. People often argue that the Commune was inefficient and unpopular and it was the grass rooted peasant opposition that finally buried the communes and also brought dramatic efficiency gains.
A long term student of the revolution in rural China, William Hinton provided some very insightful critique of the popular view from the beginning.1 It was not until this century, however, that more writings rejecting the conventional wisdom started to emerge both in and out of China.2 Joshua Eisenman's Red China's Green Revolution is a recent addition to the literature that revisits the history of the People's Commune and Maoist China. In its own words, the book shows that "the commune modernized agriculture, increased productivity, and spurred an agricultural green revolution that laid the foundation for China's future rapid growth" (book blurb). The field would greatly benefit from a book that makes such an argument but the methodological problems unfortunately prevent the book from fulfilling its promises.
The main contents of the book are divided into two parts: the first part details the achievements under the commune, and the second part discusses the economic, political and organizational factors that contribute to the commune's achievement as well as the history of decollectivization. The appendix at the end helpfully includes not only agricultural statistics in the Maoist period, but also translations of the official agricultural policies on the commune.
Despite the title, the book is mainly about how/why the People's Commune worked successfully and then why China later dismantled this well-functioning rural development model. Out of the eight chapters, only Chapter 3 is devoted to studying the causes and achievements of the Green Revolution in China. In fact, the author's doctoral dissertation in 2014, which the book is based upon, was titled "Burying the Commune: Why China Abandoned Its Rural Collectives." This seems to be a much more accurate title.
Let's start with Part I "Creating China's Green Revolution" (Chapters 2–3). In Chapter 2, the author clearly lays out the two-line struggles in the party and the historical evolutions of the rural collectives and Commune. Then in Chapter 3, the author attempts to discuss the origins of the green revolution in [End Page 197] the 1970s Commune. The book portrays the broadly defined Chinese Green Revolution policies (population control and investment in physical and human capital and technology) as responses to three "primary economic challenges" in the 1970s.
The three challenges are "increased rate of population growth," "decreasing arable land," and "increased rate of capital depreciation." For each challenge, the author lists and elaborates the related policy responses. However, the alignment of the challenges and their policy responses could seem arbitrary. For example, with an increased rate of population growth, the policy responses included population control, sent-down movement, better rural education and the rise of rural enterprises. With decreasing arable land, the author lists innovation in agricultural technology and land reclamation. Obviously, many of these policies such as innovation in technology and population control can be a response to both increasing population and decreasing arable land.
The bigger problem in this analysis, however, lies in the three identified challenges, as they do not have sufficient empirical ground. First, the population was indeed growing in the 1970s, but the population growth rate started declining from the mid-1960s. From 1970 to 1980, the population growth rate decrease continuously from about 26 percent to about 12 percent (National Bureau of Statistics 2010). Second, the "decreasing land" claim is based on the traditional estimate of arable land, which is inconsistent and unreliable according to more recent estimates based on...