This talk is co-sponsored by the Center for Global Work & Employment. It will be in hybrid format, with an in-person component with limited seating and a live Zoom broadcast. RSVP is required for the in-person component and registration is required for the Zoom component. Info can be found in the following.
At the end of World War II, most of Asia remained thoroughly agrarian. Mainland China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia were no exceptions. Traditional elites dominated local politics, even as larger state structures were destroyed or remade. New political regimes came to power, each of which pursued distinct reforms and reorganization in the area of land tenure and extraction and distribution of surpluses from agriculture. By 1965, none of the four economies resembled its pre-War form and their societies had also been transformed. These new political, economic, and social structures have shaped outcomes and trajectories ever since, in a manner that holds general implications far beyond Greater China or Southeast Asia.
My principle argument is that redistribution and commodification each promote specific aspects of economic and social change, pulling rural residents out of agriculture or helping keep them there and either releasing or locking away the agrarian surplus as capital for potential industrial investment. The mix of outcomes in this earlier period puts countries on trajectories from which they have had difficulty diverging up through the present day.
In Taiwan, the KMT regime, working with the US Military, adopted a program of redistribution of land that also included meaningful commodification. This combination laid the foundations for Taiwan’s developmental state, but also created distinct classes of winners and losers, who later came to shape aspects of its evolving electoral politics.
In Mainland China, the CCP embarked on a radical program of redistribution. Landlords and other gentry were dispossessed, even killed, by the millions. Formerly impoverished peasants received land and other assistance. But they were not given commodity title. Eventually, the state became a kind of ‘landlord of last resort’, aggregating rents and surpluses from collectivized agriculture to generate capital for investment in industrialization. Despite essential reforms like decollectivization in the last 1970s and early 1980s, the ongoing stability of China’s particular strain of authoritarianism and viability of its economic model in many ways depend on the maintenance of its peculiar land regime.
In Indonesia, Sukarno launched an initiative for mass redistribution of land in Java, Bali, and Madura under ‘Guided Democracy’ in the early 1960s. But then, the gentry struck back. Amid massive counter-redistribution after the 1965 coup, a new campaign for commodification (through cadastral surveys and assignment of land title) was launched in the 1970s. The end result was commodification that has never been entirely comprehensive without any enduring redistribution. Land conflict thus remains embedded at the core of Indonesian politics, while most of any agrarian surplus remains locked away and inaccessible for industrial investment.
Malaysia comes closest to a negative case. Relatively little land reform was initiated, with two critical exceptions. Landed elites remain influential in Malaysian politics and play critical roles in the country’s economy. Subsidies and side payments ensure that potentially aggrieved groups have remained mostly quiescent, despite Malaysia’s lack of meaningful redistribution or commodification of land.
William Hurst is the Chong Hua Professor of Chinese Development in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, where he is also Director of the Centre of Development Studies, Deputy Director of the Centre for Geopolitics, and a Fellow of Wolfson College.
He works mostly on the politics of labour, law, and land in China and Indonesia and has examined these topics from perspectives in political economy, institutional analysis, law and society, and contentious politics and social movements.
Hurst is the author of Ruling Before the Law: the Politics of Legal Regimes in China and Indonesia (Cambridge 2018) and The Chinese Worker after Socialism (Cambridge 2009), in addition to four edited volumes, more than two dozen journal articles and book chapters, and over twenty essays, op-eds and shorter pieces. He is currently at work on a book that will explore the politics of land and land reform, as well as their long-run implications for state formation and political economy, in Mainland China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia since 1945.
Besides these projects, he also has long-term research and teaching interests in international relations – especially pertaining to China and Southeast Asia – as well as the interplay between geopolitical structural factors and domestic politics in shaping countries’ foreign policy and behaviour on the world stage.
Before coming to Cambridge in 2021, Hurst worked for eight years as associate professor and professor of political science at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Prior to that, he was an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and the University of Texas at Austin. He’s held fellowships or fixed-term appointments at Harvard University, the University of Oxford, Bowdoin College, and Airlangga University in Indonesia.
RSVP (for in-person) or Registration (for Zoom):
If you'd like to attend the talk in person, RSVP is required by sending an email to Tao Jiang (