The Great Leap Forward in China in 1958, the set-back that followed and the recovery now accomplished form one of the most dramatic episodes in economic history that this dramatic age has seen.

In 1958, in an atmosphere of heady enthusiasm, the agricultural communes were formed; in the ‘bitter years’ that followed they were thoroughly put through the wringer and reorganized into the practical and flexible form which exists today. Of all that has been written on this subject, I find the most enlightening the study by David and Isabel Crookfootnote1 of one commune, concentrated upon one village within the commune. Not that it is possible to generalize from one case; each district, even each village, has its own peculiarities; but it is enlightening to have an account of one small sample of experience in minute concrete detail. The authors revisited a neighbourhood of which they had already made a study (Revolution in a Chinese Village: Ten Mile Inn) so that they were well prepared to gauge the changes that the commune introduced there.

Chinese spokesmen say of the set-back after the Great Leap that it was due partly to ‘faults in our work’ and partly to the bad weather. Here is an illustration. The villagers built an earth dam to provide a reservoir. The old peasant mocked. ‘The Dragon King will only have to stretch out his leg—and down the dam will fall’ (p. 79). The reservoir was useful, though not adequate, in the drought of 1960. But when the rains came, sure enough, the dam was carried away. Yet later on the villagers recovered from the blow and rebuilt the dam, higher and stronger.

The story of the brigade canteens is full of interesting side-lights. One was entrusted to an ex-rich peasant who turned into a crook. (The warnings about class struggle in the countryside that shocked Dumont had evidently some point.) One was criticized for monotony in its menu. These faults were overcome and the canteens became quite successful so far as consumer-satisfaction was concerned, but they had to be abandoned on economic grounds. The economic motive for the canteens was to free the time of housewives for work in the fields, but in many families there was an old grandmother who could do the cooking but not much else—to free her time only created unwanted idleness. Why should such a household pay to support the canteen? Moreover, in winter time it was necessary to have a fire to heat the kang; to have separate stoves in the canteen kitchen was just a waste of fuel.

The most important aspect of the reorganization of the communes was the descent to the team as the basic unit of account. Nowadays, in the typical case, the team, composed of 20 or 30 families, is endowed with the ‘four fixed’—that is, its labour force, a particular section of the land, and its implements and animals. The team undertakes an agreed part of the annual plan of production, pays the land tax and sells an agreed part of its output to the state. The net product, in kind and in cash, after deducting contributions to the accumulation and social security funds of the team, is distributed amongst members according to the labour-days which each has standing to his or her credit. When the Crooks revisited their acquaintance at Ten Mile Inn in 1960, the brigade had become the accounting unit, after a brief experiment in making the whole commune the unit. The brigade was still too large for efficiency. The teams were unable to organize their work when they were subject to orders from above (p. 125). Accounting, moreover, was more manageable at the team level. By a process of adapting to experience, rather than by a priori analysis, the communes have now arrived at a good fit between the functions of the various levels of management and the economies and diseconomies of scale in the various spheres of production.

Foreign visitors smile when a brigade leader assures them that ‘by applying the thought of Chairman Mao, we have increased the yield of rice’. But it is not a joke. Applying the thought of Mao means learning the scientific approach to technical problems, breaking away from ancient superstitions but not neglecting the advice of experienced peasants, using the experimental method of trial and error, respecting facts, learning that man can master nature. Slogans, such as close planting, did harm and caused losses, but this was contrary to the spirit of Mao’s teaching, which requires that all generalizations should be adapted to the specific situation in each locality. The particular errors arising from close planting were corrected and a schedule worked out for various crops on various types of soil (p. 52).

Similarly the phrase ‘putting politics in command’ which causes a shudder to foreign economists (even such a sympathetic visitor as René Dumont) turns out to mean taking a long-term rather than a short-term view of economic policy—for instance that it is worth-while to plant trees on the hillsides to check erosion (p. 222). Above all, it means that the peasants must not be alienated, as happened in ussr, but brought to understand what they are being asked to do.