Newly released documents on the land reform

vu tuong <>
date May 25, 2007 9:45 AM
subject [Vsg] Newly released documents on the land reform

Dear list,

Just to piggyback on the comments from my dear
Mongolian comrade Balazs, I have run into two recently
released Party documents which are relevant to the
topic. Before I discuss these documents, let me say
that I am focusing on the particular issue of executed
and persecuted people during the land reform. I am not
trying to assess all the good and bad things about the
land reform, which is a different topic.

1) “Chi Thi Cua Bo Chinh Tri Ve May Van De Dac Biet
Trong Phat Dong Quan Chung” (Political Bureau’s Decree
on Special Issues in Mobilizing the Masses), May 4,
1953. Van Kien Dang Toan Tap v. 14 (2001), 201-206,


“In this campaign, [we] will have to execute [xu tu] a
number of reactionary or evil landlords. In our
current situation, the ratio of executions [xu tu] of
these landlords to the total population in the free
areas is fixed at the rate of 1/1000 in principle.
This ratio will be controlled by the leadership and is
to be applied for the rent and interest reduction
campaign this year and next year; it does not mean
only for this year, and it does not mean that every
village will execute landlords according to this
ratio. (Thus there may be communes that execute 3-4
people, others that execute only one or none at all).

The lives of people are an important matter. It is not
that we don’t want to execute those who deserve
execution. But the number of executions should not be
too many; if so, it would be difficult [for us] to win
popular support.

[The document went on to mention several mitigating
factors (such as “dia chu tre tuoi co hoc thuc va co
hy vong cai tao duoc”) and special cases such as
Catholic priests that require special treatment].

“[The executions of] criminals [pham nhan, referring
to landlords to be executed] who were local cadres
from district level up, who were soldiers from the
company level up, must be approved [in advance] by
central leaders [Trung Uong]. [The executions of]
local cadres at the commune level [and below] must be
approved by Interzone Party Committee. [The executions
of] soldiers from the platoon level [and below] must
be authorized by the Central Party Committee of the
Army [Tong Quan Uy].

At the central level, an executive committee will be
formed....This Committee is authorized to collect and
protect information about criminals, make
recommendations to the Chairman of the Government [Chu
Tich Chinh Phu—Ho Chi Minh himself, who was also a
member of the Politburo which issued this decree] for
approval, and deliver the decision to the special
people’s court for ruling on the cases.”


I am not sure if this document had ever been released
before—I would appreciate any information on this. In
all the five volumes that contained documents on the
land reform (1953-1957), this was the only document
that mentioned the issue of executions in specific
terms. Now what is the value of this document?

First, one often hears the argument that the central
government did not intend to kill so many people
during the land reform. This happened only during the
implementation of the policy and was the acts of some
zealous low-level cadres. Perhaps this was true to
some extent. The question is how much of the mistake
was the responsibility of the central government?

On the one hand, the document shows that Politburo
members (or at least some of them) were concerned
about indiscriminate killings. This caution, if not
for humanitarian reasons, was driven by political
concerns for popular support for the policy as the
document explicitly mentioned. The Politburo also
suggested that the ratio or quota was to be applied in
a flexible manner depending on local situations.

On the other hand, the Politburo had calculated and
decided in advance, before launching the campaign, a
targeted ratio of 1/1000, or 0.1% of the total
population, to be executed. If we take the population
of North Vietnam in 1955 to be 13.5 million (Nguyen
Tien Hung, Economic Development of Socialist Vietnam,
1955-1980, Praeger 1977, p. 98), about 13,500 people
were to be executed. The population in “the free
areas” that this execution ratio was meant for were in
fact much fewer, perhaps about 10-11 million people.
In this case, the number of executions planned for for
1953-1954 was 10,000-11,000. But after 1954 the
campaign was extended to most of North Vietnam, so the
figure of 13,500 was perhaps within the expectation of
the Politburo.

The document (together with many others in the same
volume) also demonstrates the careful planning of the
campaign. There was a clear process of required
approval for executions that could go all the way up
to the Chairman of the Government. I am sure that
there were many cases (persecutions out of personal
revenge) in which local committees did not report the
executions (against central order), but I doubt that
this was widespread. It seems more plausible that
those local committees would rather fabricate crimes
to get their requests for executions approved than to
kill people without approval from above. I am also
aware that the campaigns moved left and right a few
times during 1953-1956, but the dominant trend was the
fear of committing rightist rather than leftist
errors. Given this fear, and the way these political
campaigns were run in North Vietnam (read To Hoai’s
new novel Ba Nguoi Khac [Three Different Characters]
for a sense of campaign-style politics; To Hoai served
as a land reform cadre), local committees must have
had greater incentives to over-report than
under-report executions. The central government, and
its Chairman, must have approved most, if not all,
executions. Central leaders could blame local
officials for fabricating charges and for
overreporting, but it was they who gave the final
approval to most executions. At the very least, the
document suggests that, besides the fact that the
central government was responsible for the overall
supervision of the campaign, it must bear sole
responsibility for at least 10,000-11,000 deaths that
it planned to carry out.

To be sure, this was the number planned for, not the
actual number of executions. But the intention to kill
was there, and the percentage of the population to be
killed was calculated and fixed in principle, before
any verdict had been made on those to be executed.
Furthermore, there is no reason to expect, and no
evidence that I have seen to demonstrate, that the
actual executions were less than planned; in fact the
executions perhaps exceeded the plan if we consider
two following factors. First, this decree was issued
in 1953 for the rent and interest reduction campaign
that preceded the far more radical land redistribution
and party rectification campaigns (or waves) that
followed during 1954-1956. Second, the decree was
meant to apply to free areas (under the control of the
Viet Minh government), not to the areas under French
control that would be liberated in 1954-1955 and that
would experience a far more violent struggle.

Thus the number of 13,500 executed people seems to be
a low-end estimate of the real number. This is
corroborated by Edwin Moise in his recent paper “Land
Reform in North Vietnam, 1953-1956” presented at the
18th Annual Conference on SE Asian Studies, Center for
SE Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley
(February 2001). In this paper Moise (7-9) modified
his earlier estimate in his 1983 book (which was
5,000) and accepted an estimate close to 15,000
executions. Moise made the case based on Hungarian
reports provided by Balazs, but the document I cited
above offers more direct evidence for his revised
estimate. This document also suggests that the total
number should be adjusted up some more, taking into
consideration the later radical phase of the campaign,
the unauthorized killings at the local level, and the
suicides following arrest and torture (the central
government bore less direct responsibility for these
cases, however).

Second, the decree suggests that the campaign in
Vietnam was proportionally just as murderous as the
one launched in China after 1949. Viviene Shue
(Peasant China in Transition, University of California
Press 1980, 80) who is very sympathetic to the Chinese
revolution quotes Benedict Stavis, who estimates the
number of executions in China during 1949-52 based on
official sources to be between 400,000 and 800,000
(These executions may also have come from other
campaigns besides the land reform in the same period,
and if unofficial deaths are added, the total number
could reach more than a million). If 500,000 deaths
(officially and unofficially) can be assumed to be
specifically related to land reform, then the
proportion was also about 0.1% in the total population
of 572 million Chinese in 1952 (Dwight Perkins, ed.
China’s Modern Economy in Historical Perspective,
Stanford University Press 1975, 122). Given that
Chinese advisors were heavily involved in the
Vietnamese campaign, a relationship may have existed
between this Chinese ratio and the Vietnamese decree,
but this hypothesis needs further research to confirm.

2) “De cuong bao cao cua Bo Chinh tri” (Draft Report
of the Politburo), Van Kien Dang Toan Tap v. 17
(2001), 432-474.
(This was Party Secretary General Truong Chinh’s
report at the Tenth Central Committee Plenum, August
25-October 5, 1956, which ordered the Error
Rectification Campaign [Sua Sai]. Truong Chinh was to
resign from his post after this Plenum). I am very
certain this document had never been released before.
This document offers the most details as yet about the
number of punished cadres but unfortunately it
contains no information on those who were executed (or
the number may have been removed before publication).

In this document, Truong Chinh cited statistics about
the land reform “yet to be confirmed.” He said that
three-quarters (2,876) of all Party cells (3,777) in
16 provinces had been rectified in the rent reduction
and land reform campaigns by the time these campaigns
were suspended (some time in May 1956). 84,000 members
in these cells were punished [xu tri] among the total
of 150,000, or 56%. “Punishment” usually meant being
expelled from the Party after torture, and could
amount to execution. As Truong Chinh (ibid., 435)
frankly but belatedly admitted, “most cadres and party
members who were arrested were subject to brutal and
barbaric torture [nhuc hinh rat tan khoc, da man].”
The goal of the Party was to purge only members of
exploitative class backgrounds but in practice those
of working classes were purged as well. In the Ta Ngan
Zone (provinces to the left of the Red River), it was
found out that 7,000 of the total 8,829 persecuted
party members belonged to “peasants and other
[non-exploitative] classes.” While the persecutions of
these working-class cadres based on fabricated charges
were clearly not intended by central leaders, they
could not have been carried out without their prior

According to the same document, in the 66 districts
and seven provinces where the party rectification
campaign was carried out (the campaign at the
provincial level was directed by none but the Party’s
Central Organizational Department headed by Le Van
Luong), 720 were “punished” out of 3,425 cadres and
employees (80% of these 3,425 were party members). The
ratio was 21%. If only cadres from provincial
department level up were counted, 105 were punished
out of 284, or 37%. Among 36 incumbent members of
provincial party committees who were subjects of the
campaign, 19 (or 57%) were persecuted. Among 61 former
members of provincial party committees who were
subjects of the campaign, 26 were punished. At the
district level, 191 out of 396 district party
committee members were punished, or 48%. In an extreme
case (Ha Tinh province), all 19 members of the
provincial party committee, police department, and
district militia commanders were branded
“counter-revolutionaries” and purged during the
campaign (all were later found to be innocent by
central authorities).

To conclude, both documents are not to be taken as
truths but they seem to be the best available sources
about this complex topic. I expect documents to be
released in the future will improve substantially on
what we know. Also it should be reiterated that,
whether some of those executed landlords deserved to
die, and whether the benefits of the campaign for the
peasantry justified or outweighed the sacrifice of
these landlords, are questions that require a
different debate.

Tuong Vu
Naval Postgraduate School

Balazs Szalontai <>
date May 26, 2007 2:46 AM
subject Re: [Vsg] Newly released documents on the land reform
Dear Tuong,

thanks a lot for these extremely interesting documents! I completely agree with you in that "the intention to kill was there, and the percentage of the population to be killed was calculated and fixed in principle, before any verdict had been made on those to be executed." Nevertheless, I slightly disagree with the view that "there is no reason to expect, and no evidence that I have seen to demonstrate, that the actual executions were less than planned; in factthe executions perhaps exceeded the plan." Namely, I am inclined to lay a greater emphasis on swings from right tothe left (and vice versa) than you do. The Politburo resolution of May 1953 was passed in a very "leftist" phase, and thus the quotas set by this resolution may not be representative for every subsequent phase. For instance,

on 2 November 1954 Csatorday, having conversed with various DRV diplomats on the situation in Vietnam, reported that the VWP leaders intended to extend their land reform campaign to the newlyliberated areas, but ‘while during the liberation struggles they used the Chinese method and brought thelandlords to people’s courts or subjected them to the judgement of the people, by now they have already adopted a different method. They confiscate the landlords’ holdings in a much more flexible way, with great circumspection and without making too much noise’. Protest meetings were to be stopped, and landlords were to be allowed to donate their land to the state so as to escape outright expropriation (a change also noted by Moise).

To be sure, the phase from the spring of 1955 to mid-1956 was, by and large, a "leftist" one, and thus one may applythe May 1953 guidelines to it without missing the mark too much. Still, the Hungarian document I previously quoted suggests that a higher number of persecuted persons did not necessarily mean a higher number of executions, and thenumber of executions did not necessarily grow exponentially.

I think we must pay great attention to the possible connections (1) between the land reform campaign and the struggle against the Bao Dai/Diem regimes, (2) between DRV measures and the policies of other Communist regimes (theUSSR, China, and North Korea). These two external factors underwent several changes, and if they really influencedthe progress of the campaign, it is reasonable to assume that the targets of the campaign may have also repeatedly changed between 1953 and 1956. For this reason, we cannot take granted that a land redistribution wave always claimed more victims than a rent-reduction wave. Let me point out that the land reform campaign started only after theestablishment of the Bao Dai regime, and it did not become really radical until the Bao Dai government initiated its own land reform campaign.

All the best and thanks again,

Vietnam Indochina Tours <>
date May 27, 2007 1:35 PM
subject Re: [Vsg] Newly released documents on the land reform

Dear Tuong,

First, thank you for your recent extraordinary post concerning the quotas.

I have several questions/comments regarding your 1) and 2) in your post with
regard to the DRV motivation for proceeding with land reform.

1) China-inspired wartime strategy - Perhaps the first significant shift
active land reform began with the DRV's 14 July 1949 initial rent reduction
decree which corresponded to the tactical shift to a stronger position on
the battlefield from 1947 to 1949, and as well to the consolidation of Viet
Minh power within the revolution. It argues that the DRV began its movement
away from the strategy of the national front towards a strategy land reform
by mid-1949. Though the Chinese arrived at the border in late 1949/1950,
this shift in policy would have preceded their arrival and would have been
contemporaneous with the Chinese land reforms at least in some measure. A
series of events in 1951, following the battlefield victories along RC-4 in
1950 (which were in great measure thanks to the Chinese arrival at the
border), which seemed to be related followed: (1) the Viet Minh merged into
the Lien Viet in March 1951 signaling VWP dominion over the Lien Viet; (2)
the Dang Lao Dong re-emerged in 1951; and (3) Chinh's admonishment to the
nationalists during the 1951 Lien Viet Party Congress which signaled a
decisive change in policy, that the VWP, not the national front, was the
final authority. Could the shift had been as much prompted by China-inspired
wartime strategy as it was by these other events?

2) Bao Dai Land Reforms - Though the State of Vietnam/Bao Dai land reforms
were first discussed in 1951 they were enacted on 4 June 1953 (Ordinance No.
19) after the DRV's Population Classification Decree was issued on 2 March
1953 and the Mobilization Decree (second land rent reduction expanding
upon the first) was issued on 2 April 1953; both of these decrees were
enacted prior to the adoption of the Ordinance 19. The Agrarian Reform Law
followed on 4 December 1953 however the reform campaign envisioned by Truong
Chinh anticipated three steps to land reform, all inter-related and
inter-dependent to achieve the stated ends of land reform program; this
argues that the three primary laws governing the land reforms should be
viewed as three parts to the same effort, or an effort which pre-dated the
Bao Dai reforms.

There were also perhaps other considerations to the timing of the land
reform campaign as well: Giap, in reference to the Winter 1953-Spring 1954
Campaign (DBP, 2nd Edition, 57) held that a major new factor appeared, 'the
policy of systematic rent reduction,' obviously referring to the
Mobilization Decree. He attributes a dramatic rise in the morale of his
troops ("Hence, the combativeness increased greatly") after training his
troops on the decree, for they would now receive land, if they won. Could
also the timing of the DRV decrees been for the purposes of fostering morale
for the upcoming Winter/Spring Campaign and the battle of DBP itself for the
French occupation of DBP began on 20 November 1953? Contributing to this
were substantial battlefield losses in the immediate years prior, Hoa Binh,
Nghia Lo and Na San among them, which had the affect of depressing morale.
By this time too, after seven-years of war, all hope was fast diminishing
for an early result. Cumulatively, could it have been that in some
significant measure that the battlefield conditions prompted the decrees?

No doubt, as you note, there were clear aims to eliminate the landlords as a
class and use the land reforms as an organizational tool to purge the party
of undesirable elements (landlords and rich peasants), but I question the
relative significance of the Bao Dai reforms in prompting the DRV reforms
vis-a-vis other factors and as
well feel that the connection to the China-inspired strategy may require
elaboration to be thoroughly persuasive.

Though I am not at all clear on this, it appears that there were two series
of mass mobilizations/land reforms cleaved by Geneva which principally
addressed the liberated areas (before Geneva and exclusive of those areas
adjoining the French occupied areas as well as the Autonomous Zones) and the
newly liberated areas (Nam Dinh/Ninh Binh/Day River area, plus French post
Geneva withdrawal areas) after Geneva; there too seems to be a period of
calm after Geneva until the re-commencement of the land reforms . . . in
allowance for the business at hand? famine, regroupment and the occupation
of the French evacuation areas?

Totally agree that the existing literature tends to absolve the land reform
of its surrounding dynamics.

Courtney Frobenius

Judy Stowe <>
date May 28, 2007 6:07 PM
subject Re: [Vsg] Newly released documents on the land reform

Hi Balazs, The ICP or more specifically Truong Chinh was very familiar with the technique of condemning possible opponents as AB elements.According to a memorial volume published in Hanoi on the life of Tran Dang Ninh,( sorry I don't have the exact reference) in August 1941 following his return from the 8th Party Plenum in Pac Bo, Truong Chinh carried out a purge of the Bac Ky Party Committee on the grounds they were AB. Truong Chinh had experienced great difficulty in returning to the Red River Delta and suspected some Party members had betrayed his itinerary to theFrench. At the same time Van Tien Dung ( later General) relates in Mo Ky Nguyen Tu Do (NXB Van Hoa, Hanoi 1980) how in 1942 having been released from detention in Son La penitentiary, he was suspected of being AB and had to spend the next 18 months in the wilderness before being accepted back into the Party's leading ranks.


Judy Stowe, Independent Researcher

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