Research Review: Chinese Influence in North Vietnam’s 1953 Land Reform Campaign

Research Review: Chinese Influence in North Vietnam’s 1953 Land Reform Campaign
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

Vietnam’s land reform campaign “Cải cách ruộng đất” is a politically controversial and sensitive topic in the country’s modern history. Conducted in North Vietnam between 1946 and 1957 by the leadership of the revolutionary Vietnam’s Workers Party (VWP), the program of land redistribution led to a series of harrowing consequences and unaddressed injustices. However, discussion of this period of chaos and violence remains restricted in Vietnam today.

Official narratives regarding the land reform program, as promulgated by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), the descendant of the VWP, generally glorify the benefits and success of the campaign while excluding its shortcomings. 

Moreover, the current historical account of this chaotic period neglects to mention two critical events: the appalling trial and execution of Nguyen Thi Nam, a wealthy landowner and a loyal supporter of the resistance movement, and the assistance of Chinese advisers in helping the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in developing its land reform campaign.

In a research article titled “Nguyễn Thị Năm and the Land Reform in North Vietnam, 1953” [1] published in 2015, Vietnam history researcher Alex-Thai D. Vo presented conventional analysis and insights into this tumultuous period. Vo studied history as a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, and his research focused on Cold War politics and the Vietnam War.

The paper examines the role of Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam's revolutionary leader, in the decision to execute Nguyen Thi Nam. At the same time, the paper sheds new light on how the Chinese-inspired mass mobilization and land reform program consolidated Communist authority in North Vietnam. The paper is based on research conducted at the Vietnam National Archives III, the National Library in Hanoi, and other provincial archives and libraries in northern Vietnam.

First, Vo elaborated in his research paper that scholars and authors who wrote about land reform had different estimations and interpretations of the scale and consequences of this campaign.

More specifically, Vo writes that most of the discourses are generally divided into two camps. One camp argues that land reform was part of the class struggle, depicting it as a "bloodbath" that caused the deaths of thousands of North Vietnamese. The other offers a narrative more aligned with the VWP’s account, insisting that the campaign successfully redistributes land and improves the socio-economic status of poor peasants.

Chinese Influence in North Vietnam’s Land Reform Campaign

At the same time, contemporary scholars often argue that North Vietnam's land reform policy was the adoption of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) land redistribution model, in addition to the significant involvement of Chinese advisors in helping Hanoi leadership mobilize the masses to carry out this policy.

According to Vo's research, land reform "had been a central objective of the Vietnamese Communist leaders since the formation of the Communist Party in 1929."

In reality, the Communist leadership in China began to assist the VCP with resources and expertise following its victory in 1949. On Jan. 16, 1950, the CCP sent Luo Guibo to Vietnam at the request of Ho Chi Minh as head of the Chinese Political Advisory Group (CPAG), marking the first significant Chinese assistance to North Vietnam's land reform campaign. Luo became China's ambassador to Vietnam in 1954 and remained in that position until Dec. 2, 1957.

North Vietnamese peasants pictured joining a rally in support of the land reform campaign in 1955. Photo: Vietnam News Agency.

The heavy influence of Beijing in shaping and directing North Vietnam's land reform campaign became apparent when the VWP changed its strategy in rural class mobilization in August 1952.

VWP leadership had shifted from its original proposition of "drawing the landlords into the resistance" to "neutralize some landlords and expel imperialist and reactionary feudal large-landlords."

The strategy was understood as mobilizing the peasants to overthrow the landowning class, expropriate their lands and property, and redistribute this to the peasantry.

Two remarkable events that occurred in late 1952 exemplified such an influence.

First was Luo Guibo’s seven-page proposal to the VWP leadership titled "Preliminary Comments on Mass Mobilization in 1953." [2]

The proposal, dated Sept. 3, 1952, outlined the purposes, requirements, and necessary steps in reorganizing the bureaucratic system at the commune and village level by removing the rural elites and replacing them with party cadres. Vo argues that the primary goal of this mass mobilization movement was to "unite the material and popular support to consolidate the party's power."

Second, Luo's preliminary proposal on mass mobilization in rural Vietnam arrived around the same time as he was invited to attend the VWP Politburo in early September 1952 to make recommendations for the preparation of its Northwest Campaign (Chiến dịch Tây Bắc) and other objectives for the resistance movement. 

Not long after, between late September and November 1952, Ho Chi Minh made a secret trip to China and the Soviet Union to discuss North Vietnam's strategic plans, including land reform. He asked for Moscow's support for North Vietnam's revolutionary cause. However, Vo suggests that based on the timing of Luo's preliminary proposal, Ho and the VWP leaders “seemed to have decided on their position" on the land reform implementation before he arrived in Moscow.

Nguyen Thi Nam’s Conviction and Execution

The trial and execution of Nguyen Thi Nam, a prosperous merchant and businesswoman in North Vietnam, illustrated the horror of the land reform program while exemplifying how the North Vietnamese leaders utilized recommendations from Chinese advisers in carrying out this campaign.

Nam was born in 1906 in Lang Buoi, outside of Hanoi. She was also known as Cát Hanh Long, named after her business in Hai Phong, which used the combination of her two sons' names. After building a successful business in construction materials, she began to invest in plantation farming in Thai Nguyen, a midland region in North Vietnam.

The businesswoman was also known for the affection and gentle treatment of her fellow compatriots and the Viet Minh cadres. During a famine in northern Vietnam between October 1944 and May 1945, she used her wealth to buy food and essential supplies for people living on or near her plantation, relieving their misery.

Nam, a patriotic businesswoman, also harbored Viet Minh forces and revolutionary cadres in her Thai Nguyen plantation after Ho Chi Minh and Việt Minh's occupation of Hanoi when the August Revolution proved short-lived following the return of French forces.

She also donated her land to the revolutionary cause and encouraged her sons to join the Việt Minh army. It was from Nam's plantation that Ho and the Việt Minh forces launched their resistance war against the French on Dec. 19, 1946, eventually leading to the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Nguyen Thi Nam and her two sons, Nguyen Cat and Nguyen Hanh. Photo: Vietnam Women’s Union

However, on April 14, 1953, Ho Chi Minh and the VWP leadership initiated the experimental mass mobilization campaign for land reform, as the Chinese adviser Luo Guibo recommended.

The reform was implemented in 20 communes in northern Vietnam's Việt Bắc Interzone and Interzone IV, including six communes in Thai Nguyen Province, where Nguyen Thi Nam's plantation was located. She was among around 150 people categorized as landlords in Thai Nguyen and Phu Tho, and she was publicly denounced along with 54 other "landlords" before standing trial on May 22, 1953. A firing squad executed Nam on an unknown day in July 1953; the peasant crowds humiliated her and cheered for her execution.

According to Vo's research, Chinese advisers were the main force behind the organization and mobilization of the whole campaign, including the conviction and execution of Nguyen Thi Nam, while "Ho Chi Minh and other VWP leaders were just bystanders."

The intriguing execution of Nam, an earnest supporter and contributor of the Việt Minh, indicated that "no one was safe—not even a woman who had extended generous support to the revolutionary struggle." The legal framework used to convict the businesswoman was primarily based on Decree 151/SL issued on April 12, 1953, by Ho Chi Minh, under Luo Guibo's recommendation.

Scholars and historians are still in disagreement about Ho Chi Minh's involvement in the condemnation and trial of Nam and how he could have used his authority to intervene and save her life but didn't do it.

However, strong evidence suggests that Ho let the execution happen as he believed it would serve as a necessary example of the class struggle to push forward mass mobilization in rural North Vietnam. He even penned an article called "Địa chủ ác ghê" (The landlords are cruel), published in VWP mouthpiece Nhân Dân Newspaper, to condemn further and vilify Nam.

Vo's research paper concludes that Ho and the VWP leadership were aware of the brutal aspects of the land reform program. However, they decided to pursue these aspects to acquire political power by instilling fear and obedience among the rural populations.

The research also sheds light on Beijing's close involvement in directing and supervising the campaign through the active participation of Chinese advisers. The human costs and injustice induced during land reform further bring into question the idolized image of Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party, challenging the foundation of its legitimacy as the only rightful political force in modern Vietnam.


[1] Vo, A. D. (2015). Nguyễn Thị Năm and the Land Reform in North Vietnam, 1953. Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 10(1), 1–62.

[2] Vo, A. D. (n.d.). Tư liệu: Vai trò của Trung Quốc trong Cải cách Ruộng đất thập niên 1950s.

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