Although some Southern landlords remained in the countryside, the majority of expatriate and domestic planters moved to urban centers. In their dealings with tenants, absentee landlords largely relied on plantation supervisors and other professional intermediaries.
Correspondingly, tenants or sharecroppers inevitably faced immense economic challenges since they had to pay up to 75 percent of the total crop yield or more to landlords in rent and debt payments. Although some landowners offered their tenants more or less reasonable loans, many landholders practiced usury and forced their sharecroppers to borrow at the enormous rates of 70 to 200 percent a year. These rates were widely known as “throat-cutting,” or cắt cổ. Not surprisingly, most tenants became locked up in a sort of vicious circle of permanent indebtedness.
In colonial Cochinchina the legal rights of peasants were neglected. Notably, many farmers were forced off their land due to land title manipulations by expatriate and domestic planters. Moreover, former farmers turned tenants became totally dependent on landlords. Landowners and their supervisors were in position to decide issues of the tenants lives.
There were countless cases of abuse by the authorities and the collaborators aimed at peasant cultivators. For instance, the so-called Đồng Nọc Nạc affair became a typical case of land misappropriation by well-connected individuals. The incident took place in 1928 in Phong Thạnh village, Bạc Liêu province yet its antecedents dated back to 1910, when one village notable, known as Luông, applied for 20 hectare of land and accepted to pay land tax for it. His application was accepted and he acquired a corresponding land title. Moreover, in 1912 Luông was given an officially approved scheme for his land holdings.
Subsequently, Luôngs son, Biện Toại, inherited his fathers landholdings with a temporary land title. However, in 1917 an affluent ethnic Chinese, Mã Ngân, moved to claim these lands and local officials supported him. In 1926, Mã Ngân received an official land title and in December 1927 a local court ruled to expel Biện Toạis family. Following several warning, in December 1928, two French officials and four soldiers arrived in Phong Thạnh village so as to execute the courts order. However, Biện Toạis family refused to obey and resisted fiercely. As a result, four members of Biện Toạis family and one French official died in the subsequent fight and shootout. The Đồng Nọc Nạc incident arguably highlighted the grave consequences of the French land distribution policy.
The landlords and their supervisors often relied on coercive inducements - such as the expropriation of tenants personal effects due to unpaid debt of physical violence. The tenants were registered legally only as wage laborers. Thus, should the tenants run away with part of the crop, they would be considered thieves and sought by the police.
Some landlords retained the tenants identity cards to restrict their mobility and prevent peasants from traveling to urban centers where they could complain to higher authorities. Actually, it was a living hell for peasants with no light at the end of the tunnel.
The grand landowners discouraged any tenant action, which was likely to limit their dependence. Peasants were usually forbidden to sell any excess paddy themselves; they were required to have the landlord sell it for them. The landlords paid their taxes for them. Tenants were often cheated when they paid their rents and debt payments. In short, landlords were reluctant to treat their tenants in line with the traditional patterns of reciprocity principles, which had existed in precolonial Vietnam.
Not surprisingly, the masses of peasant cultivators were growing restive, mainly for economic reasons. The imported Western capitalist system had had a very little, if any, positive effect for the indigenous population of Indochina in general and South Vietnam in particular. The majority of the rural populace by any standards remained extremely poor. The imported economic system was of advantage mainly to aliens - the French and a small number of local collaborators, as well as the Chinese and Indian trading minorities. The growing discrepancy between poor peasants and wealthy aliens was a cause of unrest.
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