With the introduction of rural reforms in the early 1980s, China broke with its
collectivist past and began the arduous transition from a centrally planned to a free
market economy. The People’s Communes – the institutional basis of
agriculture under Mao – were disbanded, and communal land was
redistributed to users through a family-based ‘Household Contract
Responsibility System’ (HCRS), which offered farmers more managerial
freedom by linking rewards directly to production and efficiency.
The first period of agricultural reform was largely successful, with grain production
increasing enormously and a bumper harvest of over 400 million tons being achieved
in 1984. This success legitimised a move towards the further fragmentation and
individualisation of agriculture – including the forestry and livestock sectors.
The HCRS model was subsequently extended to grazing areas and in 1985 a new
Rangeland Law was promulgated, under which rangeland could be contracted to
collectives or individuals.
The success of previous agricultural reforms was not, however, mirrored in the
livestock sector. Today, the Rangeland Law is unenforceable in many parts of China,
while the contract system for grasslands has failed miserably. Far from promoting the
sustainable use of the rangelands, the new system has tended to enhance pasture
degradation, with economic freedom acting as a stimulus for individuals to increase
production, whatever the long term implications for the range. The situation as it
stands raises a number of questions about the implementation and consequences of
the HCRS and Rangeland Law in the livestock sector. In particular it raises doubts
about the wisdom of extending policy measures designed for crop agriculture to the
livestock sector, without taking into account the inherent differences between
This analysis suggests that the principal underlying cause of the current alleged
‘Tragedy of the Commons’ situation in Ningxia is the establishment of
collectivist institutions which undermined the legitimacy of customary rights
structures over the regulation of grasslands. Communes failed to create the
necessary socio-economic and regulatory conditions that allowed individuals to
pursue their own well-being without harming the prospects of future generations.
Instead, the pattern of resource use that developed bore all the characteristics of an
open-access system, under which resources were squandered. The present
government’s attempt to privatise and individualise rangeland areas also lacks
these essential regulatory conditions, and many features of rangeland use have
changed little since the collectivist era. Most significantly the problem of free-riding
Authors and Publishers
The Pastoral Development Network represents a world-wide network of researchers, administrators and extension personnel interested in the issues of pastoralism and rangelands. Between 1976 and 1996 the PDN was managed by ODI and published regular mailings including newsletters and a wide ranging series of papers on pastoralism and related issues. There were also a number of other related publications.
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