This narrative of stagnation and liberation became the foundation for postsocialist Chinese liberalism, and the Chinese peasant was its foil. During the 1990s, the duality in Marxist and Maoist notions of the nature of the peasant was again transformed; in this iteration the dichotomy between feudal peasant and petty capitalist entrepreneur reached its most extreme form—a split between the dependent peasant and the independent citizen farmer. Peasants were no longer the holders of a revolutionary subjectivity, but the foundation of an anticitizen and anti-rights-based populist politics. It was only when peasants acted in a petty-bourgeois manner as entrepreneurial property owners that liberal intellectuals considered them positively as “citizens.” Here, “the citizen” was defined as a person who was independent from the state, an independence primarily derived from their control over private property. In the most explicit forms of this argument, intellectuals portrayed the peasant, a backward subjectivity of dependence and ignorance, as the negation of the citizen.

Qin Hui, a leading Chinese liberal from the 1990s until the present and a historian of rural China who studied with Zhao Lisheng (discussed earlier in conjunction with the AMP), began his historical research critical of the Maoist historical dictum that rural class struggle and rebellion were the motor of Chinese history. Within Qin’s narrative, the determining factor of whether one was a peasant is the relationship between collectivities and individuals. To break from being a “peasant,” the key to modernization, meant to become independent of large collectivities, the most important of which was the state. “Peasants” are dependent on collectives and are part of organic communities, whereas “farmers” are independent producers who are citizens of a society.98 Land ownership becomes the primary way to distinguish “farmers” from “peasants.” Qin had to reference the English for “farmer” and “peasant” to make this distinction clear, as in the Chinese it is not. In fact, in Qin’s work, the Chinese term “nongmin” (which he explicitly translates as “peasant” and not “farmer”) was sometimes used as a generic category that simply stands in opposition to the category “citizen” (gongmin or shimin).

In Qin’s writings, “peasant” was not simply a category pointing to an empirical social group, therefore, but often operated as a trope for people dependent on collectives, a position that would be eliminated in the modernization process. In this way, even city people might be understood as “peasants” through their position of dependence on the urban work unit system, in which housing, schooling, and food were determined by one’s unit. Qin stated in one passage,

China’s so-called nongmin problems of past and present have all been peasant problems and not farmer problems, and were not merely about those who cultivated the land. . . . Particularly after 1949, the little citizen status that existed was gradually eliminated, “city people” were more peasantized (or de-citizenized) than country people [“peasant,” “farmer,” and “citizen” are in English in the passage].99

Modernization, therefore, is the transformation of “peasant states, agricultural civilizations, and traditional societies” into “citizen states (shimin [gongmin]guojia), industrial civilizations, and modern societies.” This is a process in which everybody, whether they live in the city or the countryside, had to be transformed from “peasant to citizen.”100 While in this formulation the peasant is somewhat abstracted from the rural, the main opprobrium of this critique is still directed at rural dwellers. The category “farmer,” therefore, emerged in Chinese discourse within a very particular political and historical context: the party’s own ideological justification of the rural reforms and the institution of antiegalitarian remuneration policies brought about the effacement of a dialectical understanding of the peasant as a class.

History, Capitalism, and the Making of the Postsocialist Chinese Peasant 69

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