The manipulated ‘classification of farm households – the example of Taiwan’s land reform 被操弄的農戶「分類」— 以臺灣土地改革為例
Hsu Shih-jung Professor, Department of Land Economics, National Chengchi University 徐世榮 國立政治大學地政系教授
Introduction: Taiwanese history textbooks have long sung the praises of post-war land reform such as the 37.5% Arable Rent Reduction Act and the Land to the Tiller Act, and the Kuomintang up to today still relishes flaunting it as its past achievement. But as far as the Taiwanese farm households who had their land confiscated are concerned, did the entire expropriation process and relevant laws fulfill the justice principle? Which issues of transitional justice need to be addressed in connection with the land reform? The organizer of today’s forum, the Taiwan Historical Association, has invited scholars and experts to a symposium on “post-war resource allocation problems.” They engaged in in-depth discussions and analyses on Taiwan’s land reform, the KMT party assets, and economic resources allocation in Taiwan. The Taiwan News presents here the forum highlights.
For a long time Taiwan’s land reform has been given high historic appraisal. It is also regarded as the cornerstone for Taiwan’s political, economic and social development under the Kuomintang government after World War II. Relevant research and papers largely focus on the administrative procedures for implementing the land reform and the recording of legal texts. And most of these papers sing the praises and glorify the KMT government and its great leaders, while lacking in-depth reflection over the land reform.
For instance, whose land did the KMT government confiscate when the “land to the tiller” policy was implemented? And those who had their land confiscated, did they truly qualify as “landowners”? We also need to ask whether the KMT government after relocating to Taiwan continued to uphold the definition of “landowner” that it had used in the past when still ruling the Chinese mainland. If it was not the same definition, where were the differences? Were these different definitions advantageous or disadvantageous for Taiwan’s numerous landowners? These are the issues that this paper seeks to explore.
Objective or subjective classification? 客觀的分類？抑或是主觀的分類？
The KMT government’s classification of peasant “status” differed widely during its rule of China and later during its rule in Taiwan. But in all cases it regarded those who owned farmland and leased it out as “landowners,” while “tenant-farmers” were those who leased and tilled land owned by others. As a result, Taiwan had an enormous number of “landowners,” although the acreage that they owned was actually quite small. Based on the classification criteria of the Chinese era, they would only qualify as “middle peasants” or “poor peasants,” but due to their being classified as landowners they became all objects of the revolution, had their land requisitioned and their livelihood jeopardized.
How could such a deeply unreasonable “classification” have come about? Actually the “classification” and its connotations are not a manifestation of fairness and objectivity in our society – rather it is deeply affected by political intentions, interests and ideology.
The traditional landowner definition and classification of farm households 傳統的地主定義及農戶分類
Traditionally the term “landowner” largely meant those who owned a large amount of arable land, but did not cultivate the land themselves, mostly lived in the cities and made a living solely by collecting high amounts of rent for their land. Since they collected high rents from tenant-peasants, the image of the exploitative unfair landowner was created. As a result they became the objects of social reforms or revolution.
When surveys were conducted in China in the past on rural villages or land, farm households were divided into several classes. For instance, the most often cited example, statistics from a land survey released by the Wuhan Central Land Commission in 1928, divided farm households as follows: Poor peasants (44% of the rural population), middle-class peasants (24%), rich peasants (16%), small and middle landowners (9%), large landowners (5%). In order to qualify as a small landowner, you needed to own at least 307.2 acres of land, which based on the Taiwanese unit of land measurement jia roughly equals 3.17 jia (1 are = 0.01031 jia).
And based on a 1952 survey for the general compilation of landowners’ properties, 70.62% of all 611,193 farm households in Taiwan had an acreage of less than 1 jia, while 93.23% had less than 3 jia. Farm households with an acreage of more than 20 jia accounted for an absolute minority of just 1.19% of all rural households. In other words, before Taiwan implemented the land-to-the-tiller policy the ratio of households with more than 3 jia of land stood at 6.77%. This shows that the vast majority of landowners in Taiwan had less land than a small landowner in China at the time. This also means that based on criteria of the mainland era the lion’s share of Taiwanese proprietors at the time did not qualify as landowners.
Unfortunately, after coming to Taiwan the KMT government, guided by an authoritarian ideology and in order to implement the land reform policy, adopted a different classification method for farm households, greatly expanding the definition of the term “landowner.” Anyone who owned land and leased it out was regarded a landowner no matter how much land he owned and how rich he was. Against this backdrop landowners or proprietors were dealt a massive blow. Most miserable were the quite large number of people who co-owned small acreages of arable land. After coming to Taiwan, the KMT government displayed a vastly different attitude, be it regarding the classification of farm households or the definition of these categories. Without doubt this covered up political underpinnings.
The miserable owners of co-owned tenanted farmland 悲慘的共有出租耕地業主
Under the land-to-the-tiller policy co-owned tenanted farmland was invariably also confiscated. However, in Taiwan the lion’s share of privately owned farmland is co-owned land. As a result the vast majority of requisitioned privately owned land was co-owned. Many as 82.18% of expropriated households had shared land ownership rights, with their land accounting for 69.51% of the confiscated acreage, a ratio that was comparatively very high.
Moreover, surveys from the Japanese colonial era until before the implementation of the land reform show that Taiwan’s land distribution was highly unequal. Statistics from 1920 show that 64% of all households owned less than 1 jia of land and that their accumulated acreage accounted for just 14.65% of total cultivable land. However, households with more than 10 jia of land accounted for just 2.03% of all farm households, but their acreage still added up to 35.8% of all farmland. These figures show that land distribution was quite unequal. Statistics from the general compilation of landowners’ properties after World War II, one year before the land to the tiller policy was implemented, show that households with less than 1 jia of land accounted for 70.62% of all households. Their accumulated acreage accounted for 24.97% of all farmland. As many as 93.23% of all households had less than 3 jia of land, with their accumulated acreage accounting for 58.43% of all farmland. But the just 0.82% of households with more than 10 jia of land owned 15.87% of all farmland, which shows that land distribution was as unequal as before.
From these figures we can infer that the lion’s share of expropriated co-owned tenanted farmland (99,796 jia) was owned by small landowners. Based on the acreage of the subsequently confiscated co-owned farmland and the number of households that had their farmland requisitioned, every expropriated owner of co-owned farmland owned an average of 1.15 jia of land. This is a quite vastly discrepant from the definition of landowner used in the past during the mainland era. Having come to this point, the government’s one-sided propaganda that landowners were economically advantaged, should probably be open to objection. And our general belief that all landowners were allowed to keep at least 3 jia of tenanted middle-grade paddy field is also a misunderstanding, because all co-owned tenanted farmland had to be confiscated. Consequently, many small landowners with co-owned land had their livelihood thrown into jeopardy.
Therefore the uniform application of the expropriation policy to co-owned tenanted farmland actually dealt a quite cruel blow to proprietors of co-owned tenanted farmland. Although they were later on granted partial redress, the threshold was again very high so that only a very small number of people benefited from these measures. Back then the Taiwan Province joint supervisory group for the Land-to-the-Tiller-Act made the following statement:
Article 8 of the Land-to-the-Tiller-Act stipulates that in line with the standards of Article 10 the old, infirm, orphaned, widowed, and handicapped people whose livelihood depends on co-owned land may keep their land. In a supplementary rule, Article 17, Paragraph 1 of the Enforcement Rules of the Land-to-the-Tiller-Act again restricts this to households whose total annual tax burden for fiscal year 1952 was less than 100 yuan. Due to this strict rule only a very small number of people in each county or city were allowed to keep their land. In large counties just 300-500 applied for retaining their land, while in smaller counties just 100-200 applications were filed, of which a scarce 10-20 percent were actually approved. Among those whose applications were not approved were inevitably a small number of people who definitely belonged into the category of single-living elderly or orphans and widows without relatives. According to reports from land offices across the island, people tearfully pleading for their land were a common sight. This group has already seen generations of orphans and widows left without any livelihood after their land had been expropriated. Even those whose household tax exceeded the 100 yuan cap just by a tiny amount had their land taken away. Even when tenant-peasants couldn’t bear it and out of sympathy wanted to renounce acquiring the expropriated land, land office personnel would not allow it, citing the law.
These descriptions quite clearly demonstrate the tragic lot of owners of tenanted farmland. They did not own much land and relied on it for their livelihood. But back then they were all labeled “landowners” just because their land was co-owned and leased out so that they became unpardonable exploiters. Without doubt this is a quite wrong accusation and it did not come as a surprise that some tenant-peasants sympathized with the owners of co-owned tenanted farmland and were willing to voluntarily give up the land and return it to the original owners. However, due to the government’s compulsory rules, most moves to return the land to the original owners could not be realized as wished.
The KMT government’s inconsistent standards must actually be reexamined and reconsidered. This situation should be corrected. There must be a more appropriate classification, and based on this, belated redress must be made.