Change and Continuity in Vietnamese Villages: The Consequences of Decollectivation

Paper delivered at 13th Conference of the International Association of Historians of Asia, Tokyo, September 1994.
by Prof. David Wurfel, International Christian University, Tokyo.

This paper, based on interviews in both northern and southern villages in 1991 and 1994, plus consultations with Vietnamese researchers and a survey of existing documentation, attempts to assess the extent and pattern of change and continuity in the Vietnamese village over the last 15 years, primarily the resuIt of changes in agrarian policy. This combination of change and continuity, creating new or reviving old social structures, social organizations and elite composition, could be destabilizing for Party/state control of rural areas.

Even though the market economy is now more developed in the South, change during the period of this study is probably less there than elsewhere, simply because collectivization even at its height was mostly on paper in that region. The de facto private ownership of today thus does not constitute a great change. Viewed from the perspective of the early 1970s, there is a surprising degree of continuity.

In the North, on the other hand, almost all villages had been effectively collectivized by the 1960s and remained so for a generation. So rapid transition to long term use rights for the family farm, approximating private ownership, was in some respects a greater change than in the South. Yet from pre-revolutionary times there has also been continuity, with some old landowning families reemerging among the most prosperous in the village, while pre-revolutionary communal consciousness tempers the process of privatization.

Fundamental change in agrarian policy began incrementally in the late 1970s with the locally initiated “contract system” which allowed farm families to keep rice produced over and above their assigned quotas — which had to be sold to the government at a low, fixed price. Finally by 1981 the Party accepted the advantages of this contract and made it national policy in Decision #100 of the Central Committee.

With increased incentive for labor input, production grew — on some land by more than 30% in the first two years. But such growth did not continue; from 1985 to 1987 productivity actually declined. A major reason was that the state (i.e. village cadre) could, after three years, increase the quota for the farm family as their production increased, thus undermining the incentive for further increases.

To deal with this production crisis, the Party introduced another major policy change in 1988 in Politburo Resolution #10 and the Land Law enacted by the National Assembly. Land was to be allocated for farm families for at least 10 years and all the produce could be sold in the market, with farmers able to pay taxes either in cash or in kind. Farm inputs could also be bought on the open market, thus undermining an important role of the cooperatives. Furthermore, Politburo Directive #47 in the same year had a special impact on the South, allowing the return of land to pre-1975 owners if it had been “illegally or arbitrarily appropriated” during the collectivization campaign. Ensuing conflicts between former owners and the Party sometimes erupted in street demonstrations.

Pressures for full private ownership of land, especially from the South, where land allocated to families was already treated as if it were privately owned, were beat back in the 7th Party Congress in June 1991 by local party representatives from the North and Center who feared that this would upset the rural power structure. Finally in 1993 further policy change was to be found in Central Committee Decision #45, followed by a new Land Law from the National Assembly — which struck a compromise. (Many provinces issued decrees to implement the 1992 draft of the Land Law — so much for the niceties of constitutional government.) While these documents reiterated state ownership of all land, the rights of “long term use” were almost equivalent to ownership: inheritance, mortgaging (but only to state banks), sale (but only to other cultivators), and lease.

However, the state did reserve the right to “recover” land allocated to individuals under certain circumstances. All of the rights granted were already being widely exercised in the South. In the North, however, “transfer of rights”, or sale, was rare, and de facto mortgaging to private parties seemed to be infrequent. Restrictions on “long term use” seemed to be enforceable only where Party authority was still largely in tact and where a communal spirit in the village was still strong.

Change in Vietnamese villages over the last fifteen years has, of course, been the result of more than just agrarian policy. Population growth has reduced farm size, overseas workers’ families have been able to inject new capital (often apparent in house construction), and loss of CMEA markets has required rapid changes in patterns of production. Yet agrarian policy has probably had the greatest impact: (1) by increasing incentives for production by abandoning the wage basis of collective cultivation, assigning family production quotas, and then abandoning quotas altogether for a system of open market sales and revenue through taxation; (2) by allocating land to farm families, which by 1994 they had largely come to regard as “their own”; and (3) by sharply limiting the role of the cooperative, e.g. abandoning collective ownership of tractors and work animals, and reducing it in many case to only one among several village input dealers, thus requiring a reduction in staff by 2/3 or 3/4. Tax collection and land assignment in the 1990s has been transferred from the cooperative to the People’s Committee, which is the state authority at the village level. Coops are dead in the South, and often moribund in the North.

Given the remarkable changes in agrarian policy, to discover continuities in the contemporary village is perhaps surprising. The dimensions of continuity are several:

(1) Despite the emphasis in government policy on the desirability of partici pation in the market, half or more of Vietnamese farmers still produce primarily for family consumption, often participating in no market beyond the village itself. (Tuan [1994]) The exclusive emphasis on rice production in past policy is so deeply engrained that it is not easily changed; this slows diversification, and thus market involvement.

(2) The persistence of pre-revolutionary practices is revealed in the revival of the importance of the hamlet, or thón. Thus cooperatives which cover more than one hamlet are either split, or are less likely to survive than coops that are coterminous with only one. (Neither Party nor government have any separate structure at hamlet level.)

(3) Pre-revolutionary elite are also reviving: in the South by the recovery of previous landholdings; by the use of hidden savings to finance trading or animal husbandry; by the persistent family tradition of stressing education; and by revival of the significance of lineage in village society, as well as of traditional ceremonies. (Luong, 1993; Lai, 1994:47; Kleinen, 1994) In fact, there is now evidence that the inequality in size and productivity of household plots, the “5% land”, during the collective period was sufficiently important to permit savings by the more fortunate. (Tuan [1994]:7)

(4) In fact, the plots of land now farmed under allocation by provisions of the New Land Law are often the very same plots held by the family before the revolution. While more common in the South, this is also often true in the North. For the peasant cultivator this creates a strong sense of continuity.

(5) Nevertheless, despite these signs of continuity with the pre-revolutionary past, continuity with the 1980s is still more important: continued Party/state control of village political life, even though its legitimacy may have declined.

Signs of declining legitimacy may be found in the growing backlog of uncollected fees and taxes, which often causes the cooperative in the North to seize the land of delinquent farmers. (Fforde, Dec. 1993:60) Researchers now sometimes hear open criticism of local Party leaders from farmers, or guffaws from peasants when Party slogans are naively repeated as if they represented reality. In the South the legitimacy of state law is ridiculed by ignoring the limitations on sale and mortgaging of land. In effect, Party control is sustained in large part because with doi moi its scope has been narrowed — control is no longer attempted over wide areas of village economic and social life. But despite doi moi, and the announced intention to separate the roles of Party and state, no such separation is apparent at the village level.

What are the likely consequences of these uneven patterns of continuity and change for the future structure of village life? and for the party/state hierarchy itself? There are at least four dimensions to the answer.

(1) Increased productivity has been the goal of agrarian reform for more than a decade; it is the basis of peasant satisfaction and thus the security of the state. As noted, productivity of rice lands did increase after the policy changes of 1981 and 1988. (However, since 1989 paddy yield per hectare has scarcely risen. Fforde, Dec. 1993; 45.) Since the security of tenure offered the peasant under the new Land Law is greater than before) this should, theoretically, provide new incentives for family investment in the land, but whether the peasant perception of such security is strong enough to modify behavior remains to b e seen. It seems likely that in the near future increased productivity will be more strongly affected by credit policy, input and commodity prices, crop diversifica tion and new technology. In fact, adequate credit for small farmers has been proven to be crucial in the success of the Green Revolution in other Asian countries. But until recently the Vietnam Bank for Agriculture has been engaged in providing cheap credit to inefficient state farms. Only in mid-1991 did it begin to offer credit to individual farmers. (World Bank, 1993:149-150) By 1992 only 26% of its portfolio went to the private sector — of which small farmers were only part.

In fact, the Bank was only able to provide credit to about 10% of potential private rural borrowers, even though it had branches in almost every province and in 405 districts. And even the 10% figure may have been an exaggeration, since a substantial portion of the loans were diverted to the private pockets of local cadre and perhaps not used for agricultural purposes. (Fforde, Dec. 1993:61.) In the meantime many small farmers are forced to go to usurers asking interest of 100% and up.

Nor do the prices of agricultural inputs or commodities in recent years seem likely to spur production. Input prices have risen sharply in the last few years as they have been based on the free market, while rice prices, rising previously, fell 23% in 1993. So for the farmer fertilizer is more difficult to buy than ever. Crop diversification, though scienti fically advisable, is blocked by the tra’ditional overemphasis on rice. New technology, though available, is slow in getting to the farmer because of an entirely inadequate agricultural extension service, and because it also requires capital and risk taking.

In the longer run most experts agree that increases in farm income, especially in the overcrowded Red River Delta, are more likely to come from expanded non-agricultural production, handicrafts, rural industry, etc.

But advances in this area are small compared to the need. If the initia tive is taken by new rural elites to provide employment, the consequence will also be increased inequality in the village.

(2) For a Party which preached egalitarianism for so long, the growth of rural inequality as a result of agrarian reform is a particular worry. In January 1990 and again in 1993 a large sample survey was conducted in Vietnamese villages from all regions. Income inequality did indeed increase, more rapidly in the North than in the South, where inequality was greater to start with. (Tuan [1994]:3). Another study found that differentiation was greatest where the market economy was most developed, with incomes of the wealthiest families sometimes 100 times those of the poorest. (Long, 1992:42)

In the South particularly land accumulation by wealthy farmers has sometimes reached several times the legal limit, while private mortgaging and usury is widespread. Nevertheless, while the trend is toward inequality, North Vietnam is still perhaps the most equitable rural society in the world, with Gini coefficient of 11 in 1989. Yet for social stability the trend may be more important than the absolute level.

(3) Changes in social organization reflect changes in social structure — and policy. The government-imposed cooperative, the one rural institution clearly dedicated to egalitarianism, is dead in half the country, and weakened or dying elsewhere. Only in the north cent er and the north are there a significant portion, perhaps 20-30%, of cooperatives still active; many show their strength, and their financial desperation, by reclaiming land distributed to delinquent farmer members. But even in the North there are many villages where the coop has been officially dissolved.

In some villages where the official cooperative is moribund, new voluntary coops, fulfilling particular functions, e.g. credit, irrigation, or sugar production, are springing up. These seldom emerge with official blessings, but so far do not seem to have produced overt official hostility. Not all are successful in achieving their goals, but many are. Some observers regard these new coops as the most important, and most hopeful, development in the Vietnamese village this decade. While this may be true, they are not likely to be a panacea.

For one thing, the organization of a cooperative usuallly requires initial capital input by members, thus excluding the poorest families. Furthermore, the exper ience in other SE Asian countries has shown that it takes a few years for what ever problems there may be to emerge. So it is too early to judge their success. But this is a development to be supported, and closely watched.

Alongside these new cooperatives, usually production-oriented organizations, is the revival, mentioned above, of groups within the village devoted to traditional ceremonies and beliefs. Their activities are, in theory, regulated by the People’s Committees, which in practice seem to have been reluctant to interfere.

(4) De facto private owneship of land in many areas, a burdgeoning market economy and cultural revival help to create increased inequality and new elites.

Before doi moi, when political cadre controlled economic life and traditional ceremonies were prohibited or effectively discouraged, there was but one elite in the village. Now there are distinct, potentially even competing, elites, though the Party/state cadre in the People’s Committee, the Party commitee, the — military and police, as well as in other state agencies that intrude upon the village, are still dominant.

In some villages cultural, economic a nd political elites are distinguished by age and ideology, as well as by function. Elsewhere the political/economic distinction may be blurred by Party/state cadre increasingly involved in the market. They have access to the state budget (an instruction project provides them with “private income”); they control, and thus manipulate to their own benefit the release of state credit to farmers; and they determine the disposal of state land in the village, often illegally for residential or commercial construc tion, having received their “cut”. (See Fforde, Dec. 1993:57; April 1993:65)

Thus they have capital to engage in legitimate trade and commerce. (Such engage ment is contrary to party guidelines, but they have found that they cannot recruit local cadre without allowing for extracurricular income. Being of some urgency, this matter was systematically researched by the provincial party in Hai Hung.)

In some respects this fused political/economic elite might be the most stable arrangement, with political cadres being tolerant of rich farmers and private entrepreneurs (having acquired more than their own share of the increasing wealth. In turn, the non-official economic elite accept the arrangement as long as they too can prosper. There is, nevertheless, a serious danger in this situation, now so widespread: the obvious corruption, well known in the village whether it is publicly denounced or not, undermines what remains of Party/state legitimacy. A configuration more dangerous for the Party and government would be one where a new economic elite largely excluded cadre, either because those cadre were rather old fashioned and not very enterprising, or because, as often happens in the South, the village People’s Committee is not reinforced by a Party commit tee located in the village, and thus is not so bold. If the new economic elite has close links with the revived cultural elite and increasingly displaces and is resented by the Party/state cadre, this may lead to draconian measures to restrict its role)and thus to conflict. An early version of such conflict seemed to emerge in the Mekong Delta in 1988-91 around competing land claims. (In this situation, however, it was the former owners, acting under terms of Politburo Directive #47 of 1988, who took the initiative.)

In any case, the likely patterns of elite interaction, cooperation and conflict, within the decollectivized village, and the consequences of growing inequality are not yet clear, and need considerably more study. To understand these trends may be the key to understanding the future prospects of the Vietnamese state and society as a whole.


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