The Secret Agreement that Revolutionized China

Alex Tabarrock offers some remarkable history on Marginal Revolution. Talk about a natural experiment!

In our principles textbook, Modern Principles: Macroeconomics, Tyler and I illustrate the importance of property rights with the incentive effects of collective farming and the secret agreement of Xiaogang village. We write:

http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/ctenglish/se/download/site127/20090710/00142ad54b730bc0ee3d02.jpegFarmers from 18 households in Xiaogang signed a secret life-and-death agreement ending collective farming with their thumbprints. (From Cowen and Tabarrok, Modern Principles: Macroeconomics)

The Great Leap Forward was a great leap backward – agricultural land was less productive in 1978 than it had been in 1949 when the communists took over. In 1978, however, farmers in the village of Xiaogang held a secret meeting. The farmers agreed to divide the communal land and assign it to individuals – each farmer had to produce a quota for the government but anything he or she produced in excess of the quota they would keep. The agreement violated government policy and as a result the farmers also pledged that if any of them were to be killed or jailed the others would raise his or her children until the age of 18. [The actual agreement is shown at right.]

The change from collective property rights to something closer to private property rights had an immediate effect, investment, work effort and productivity increased. “You can’t be lazy when you work for your family and yourself,” said one of the farmers.

Word of the secret agreement leaked out and local bureaucrats cut off Xiaogang from fertilizer, seeds and pesticides. But amazingly, before Xiaogang could be stopped, farmers in other villages also began to abandon collective property. In Beijing, Mao Zedong was dead and a new set of rulers, seeing the productivity improvements, decided to let the experiment proceed.

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