Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Unknown Cultural Revolution by Dongping Han

Despite his persecution in the period after Mao Zedong's death, Lan Chengwu, one of the middle school rebels who initiated the Cultural Revolution in Jimo, remains undaunted. In South River Village he is still dreaded by the village officials because of his political skills. In fact, Lan continues to publically denounce the village party secretary for accepting bribes, and warned him that one day he would go to the party secretary's door to intercept the bribes. One day in March 1996, at a village mass meeting called by county and township officials, Lan Chengwu embarrassed the village party secretary by exposing his practice of demanding bribes in allocating building lots. The county and township officials were forced to investigate the matter, and had to dismiss the party secretary when the allegation was confirmed by the investigation.

Village leaders call people like Lan Chengwu a "ding zihu" (defiant household). By ding zihu they refer to people who pose obstacles to "normal official business". It seems there are two kinds of ding zihu in rural China. One kind of ding zihu bully both their neighbors and defy village leaders because they have large and powerful families. This kind of ding zihu resorts to force rather than reason. Law enforcement is very weak in rural China today and they can usually have their way, because they have big families and strong clans behind them. This kind of ding zihu is dreaded by village leaders, but even more by ordinary people. These bullies know that the state is behind the village leaders and if they go too far in their defiance the state can intervene. But it is a different story with ordinary villagers. Ding Zihu can beat up villagers without serious consequences, because it is costly and time consuming for victims to bring them to court, and arbitration frequently only requires that the bully pay the medical bills of the victim. The sad thing is that in some villages, these ding zihu bullies often usurp village power.

People like Lan Chengwu are a second kind of ding zihu. They do not have big and powerful families. But they have a daring spirit of popular resistance and effective political skills. They do not bully their neighbors, but they cause a lot of headaches for village party leaders. To local villagers they are an important political resource. They understand China's political process and operations. When it is necessary, they are not afraid to confront village leaders because they believe they have nothing to lose. They have also found that higher government leaders often cannot openly protect guilty village leaders.

How much does the phenomena of the second kind of ding zihu have to do with the political empowerment of villagers during the Cultural Revolution and with the educational reforms of that period? The second kind of ding zihu share a common background: they went to high school during the Cultural Revolution and were active participants in the movement. Lan Chengwu and Liu Zhiyuan, the two most prominent ding zihu in South River village were both educated during the Cultural Revolution. They acquired their political skills during this era, and they have a good grasp of the declared values, philosophies and codes of official conduct of the Communist Party...people like Liu Zhiyuan and Lan Chengw are a democratic force in rural areas. They represent a legacy of the political empowerment of ordinary villagers brought about by the Cultural Revolution.


  1. Standard Chinese government accounts maintain that rapid economic growth in rural China began with the political ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 and the ensuing market reforms. In these accounts, Deng's reforms rescued China, including its rural population, from a decade of economic disaster caused by the Cultural Revolution. This disaster, the story goes, resulted from an overemphasis on the collective economy, vengeful political campaigns that persecuted party officials and intellectuals, contempt for educational standards and institutions, and an overzealous pursuit of egalitarian goals.

    This investigation of the history of Jimo County has challenged that official account. The take-off of the rural economy in Jimo began not with market reforms, I have shown, but rather during the Cultural Revolution decade. Agricultural production more than doubled and a network of rural factories were established which fundamentally transformed the county's rural economy in less than ten years.

    Jimo's story is not unique. The years between 1966 and 1976 were one's of substantial economic development in most of rural China. Rural production statistics might persuade an observer to doubt the government account, while still believing that the Cultural Revolution itself was antithetical to economic development. The rural economy, one might be inclined to believe, developed despite the Cultural Revolution. Perhaps the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution simply did not have much impact on the countryside.

    This study comes to the opposite conclusion: economic development in the countryside was facilitated by the political and cultural changes brought about by the Cultural Revolution. These changes included a change in political culture that allowed ordinary villagers to challenge party officials, promoted a collective work ethic that required cadre participation in manual labor and provided for local initiative and the participation of villagers in economic decision making. The cultural Revolution also led to the reform of the elite-orientated education system that had denied most rural children a chance to finish school, while siphoning talent out of the countryside. The rapid construction of village schools during the Cultural Revolution decade gave all rural children a chance to learn to read and write as well as practical agricultural and industrial skills, facilitating ecnomic development.

  2. By 1966 a major dilemma had developed in Chinese political life. The Communist Party had been granted the supreme authority by the Chinese Constitution to rule. But without appropriate supervision from the people, the party bossess at all levels possessed the human tendancy to become arrogant and corrupt. The corruption of an increasing number of individual party leaders leaders eventually lead to corruption of the party as an institution- from a quantitative change to a qualitative change.

    Because a corrupt institution would not be able to exercise leadership in an effective manner, ultimately this development would lead to its death. During the 50's and early 60's, Mao Zedong had initiated numerous campaigns to prevent that from happening. The Cultural Revolution was Mao's last resort after the previous campaigns failed to do the job effectively. It differed from all the previous campaigns because for the first time in the CCP's history it circumvented the local party bosses and stressed the principle of letting the masses empower and educate themselves.

  3. The main conclusion I hope readers will draw from the experience of Jimo County during the Cultural Revolution decade is that measures to empower and educate people at th bottom of society can also serve the goal of economic development. It is not necessary to choose between pursuing social equality and pursuing economic development. The choice is whether or not to pursue social equality.

  4. This book was published by Monthly Review Press- with a preface by Fred Magdoff, emeritus professor of plant & soil science at the University of Vermont who resides here in Burlington.

    Dongpin Han grew up in Jimo County during the period of the Cultural Revolution and recieved his master's degree in History from the University of Vermont, under the valuable guidance and encouragement of Professor Peter Seybolt.

    He conducted many interviews in Jimo County while researching his PhD thesis at Brandeis University.

  5. "The old political culture of officials that underlay the abuse of power in the rural areas was only part of the problem. The culture of the villagers contributed to the problem as well. At the very bottom of the Chinese social hierarchy, ordinary villagers had become accustomed to oppression and abuse. Official abuse was normal for them.

    The submissive culture of the abused was formed over a long period of time, and it was started in the family, in the upbringing of children. Rural children often get the following advice from their parents: 'laoshi changchang zai, gangqiang shifei duo' (submission ensures a safe life, courage leads to trouble and risk)...

    the timid and illiterate villagers used a familiar strategy to deal with oppressive leaders: 'nilai shunshou' (put up with oppression submissively). Villagers did not know of the law and CCP internal rules much less how to use the law and CCP rules to fight illegal activities. What villagers saw from experience was the traditional practice: 'guan guan xiang hu' (officials look after one another). As a result, instead of confronting illegal village party leaders openly, many chose to accept oppression submissively."(page 18)

    Mao's Cultural Revolution tried to overcome this tradition, especially with Sida, "The Four Bigs": the great airing of opinions, great freedom, big character posters and great debate even among those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

    One of the first things Deng Xiaoping did to re-establish the power of the party and scholastically educated elite and further neo-liberal economic principles after Mao died was to ban big character posters, great thorns in the sides of officials of all stripes through-out the Cultural Revolution