Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why Didn't Peasants Riot During China's Three-Year Famine? (2)

(2 of 2, continued from yesterday's post)

Raised on hot and tingling peppers, tempered by relentless harsh winters with no central heating, my Sichuan folk are known to have firecracker tempers. This was one reason that, during the early years of the Cultural Revolution, Sichuan, especially my home city Chongqing, became the biggest factional battlefield in China, killing thousands and thousands.

This makes the lack of protests during the three-year famine more puzzling. Local characteristics notwithstanding, at the point of life-and-death, even the herbivorous rabbit will bite.

Some might attribute the "peaceful" deaths to the government's tight control and the peasants' fear of retribution. That line of reasoning does not stand up to scrutiny. In the 1950s and 60s, China's countryside had limited law enforcement. The main force to maintain public order was the so-called "people's militia"(民兵), who were peasants themselves. In the rural communes where my mother was sent down to during late 50s and early 60s, each commune had only one "public security officer." In terms of training, arms and size, they were no match for today's riot police who still can’t prevent riots.

Historically, when there was more than one way to die, Chinese peasants did not hesitate to choose rebellion. The famous Chen Sheng uprising that destroyed the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) was a good example. Chen Sheng and other peasants were being escorted to a military post as compelled recruits, when days of rain delayed their trip. The punishment for missing the deadline was said to be beheading. Chen Sheng said to his fellow recruits, "It's death either way, why not die for a big cause?" His calling was echoed by all. They killed the two escorting officers, "chopped down trees to arm the soldiers, and hoisted their banner on a bamboo pole." That is the first peasant uprising on written record, followed by numerous others in every dynasty during disastrous times.

The tradition ceased in the Mao era. Again, this can't be simply explained by fear. The peasants loved Mao. It was Mao who took the land from the old-society's land owners and gave it to them. When Mao died in September 1976, I was a sent-down student in the countryside. The villagers cried sorrowfully, which made me feel guilty for my dry eyes. A decade after Mao's death, in the mid-1980s, my American husband, Bob, rode a bike through rural China. He was surprised and baffled by the peasants' apparent veneration for Mao. He did not realize at the time that such veneration was consistent with thousands years of Chinese people's dependency on and loyalty to wise and able emperors. When life was bitter, they'd rather take on corrupted local officials; the emperor was the last person they would lay blame on.

As for the local officials, in the 1950s-60s, party members and cadres were required to "be the first to eat bitterness and the last to enjoy life." Mao had believed that wealth was the cause of corruption, and the way to keep corruption at bay within the ruling party was to keep everyone equally poor. He apparently took Confucius's edification, that "the head of a state need not be concerned lest his people be poor, but only lest there be ill-portioned distribution among them" (不患寡而患不均) to an extreme.

In those years, from elementary school on, children were taught to "build up the country through arduous struggle and frugality." Nationalism and idealism were high, and making personal sacrifices for the country did not need much mobilization. A slogan that excited everyone then was "Surpass England and catch up to America in twenty years," my father recalled, thus the enthusiasm for the "backyard steel making" that ended up producing useless iron lumps while crops rotted in the fields. Meanwhile, no individual was allowed effective means to obtain wealth.

That was why the peasants could not see whom, or what, to blame for the famine. In the grassroots government, the commune and village cadres ate – or did not eat – the same as the peasants. So did the cadres sent-down from the district, like my mother and Mr. Chen. Though there indeed existed an urban-rural gap, across the visible community equality prevailed. It was a collective poverty; no one was rich or corrupted enough to become a target for mass protests.

They did not realize, however, that corruption does not have to involve money. Mao's practice of maintaining collective poverty did keep embezzlement at bay, especially at the grassroots government level. But beyond the peasants' sight, corruption took a different form, as exemplified by what Sichuan's then-governor Li Jingquan did to accelerate the peasants' starvation: blocking famine information from the central government, inflating grain production statistics to cover up the disaster, transporting large amounts of grains to Beijing and Shanghai despite Sichuan itself suffered severe food shortages…

The internet was still in the remote future then, and the provincial courtyard was too far away. The peasants had no way to know what Li Jingquan did. The grassroots cadres like my parents and Mr. Chen didn't either. Not even the central government knew what their trusted Sichuan governor was up to, until it was too late.

In January 1962, during a congress of seven thousand government officials from the county level up, a Sichuan man wrote an anonymous letter to the national leaders, exposing Li's crime and Sichuan's severe famine for the first time. Li was then criticized in the meeting, but never punished, because the fact that he had sent grains to support Beijing and Shanghai was regarded as a major credit, enough to cancel his "mistakes." The fact that he was Deng Xiaoping's close friend also helped.

After that congress, Li's crime remained unknown to the public, until the Cultural Revolution began in summer 1966. The rebelling Red Guards, while destroying every level of government, dug up Li's history and denounced him as the number one "capitalist roader" in the province. The facts of what he did during the famine years were listed on "big character posters" and put up on urban walls everywhere, but peasants in the countryside remained largely uninformed. When I was in middle school in early 1970s, we often had sessions to "recall the bitter past and think of the sweet today," in order to enhance our concept of "class struggle." The school would invite a poor peasant to vent his grievances against a land owner of the "old society," referring to the pre-communist regime. In one of the sessions, an old peasant invited by my school was asked to tell us his bitterest experience, and he immediately began to cry over his suffering during the "three difficult years" – the official term for the famine period starting in 1959. The teacher who was chairing the meeting got confused and asked who he was complaining against, and the peasant was agape, unable to name a name. Quickly he was taken away.

So the "nice peasants" in the countryside accepted their fate quietly, apparently believing that the "emperor" in Beijing knew about their situation (how could he not?), and would eventually do something to save them. Even long after the famine, people still believed it was a natural disaster caused by bad weather. I wonder, had the starving peasants in Sichuan seen their commune's storage rooms full of grains waiting to be sent to other cities, had they heard their governor's dismissive words about their insignificant life and death, what would they do?

In a nutshell, the appearance of equality (= collective poverty), the lack of information, and the tradition of Chinese' faith in wise emperors, had all contributed to the "peaceful" mass deaths during the three-year famine. Today, the first two conditions are diminishing, which at least partially explains the rapid rise of mass protests in recent years. As for the third, it still exists, and it is too soon to judge its present impact.

An additional observation: now as in the 1960s, China's government corruption is much worse at the city and provincial levels than at the grassroots and national levels. The grassroots governments are too closely watched by people, and the national leaders of such a big country usually have aspirations and incentives beyond personal wealth. The city and provincial governments are less encumbered by observation and ideals, thus providing the most fertile soil for corruption. The latest issue of the Economist has an article suggesting that "part of the problem lies with there being too many tiers of government—China has five, compared with three in America." Cutting one or two layers might indeed be a great idea.


wuming said...

There is possibly one more factor to consider. Famines of such scale were frequent in Chinese history (换子而食 has been recorded many times). Though some of these famines resulted in peasant uprising, they were by no means easily triggered. I have no proof, but I think the threshold of the riot was very high up until recently. Ironically, Cultural Revolution and the later "Reform and Opening Up" might have been the reasons for for lowering of this threshold.

China has been a sad sad land.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Yes, Wuming, I think you are right: the frequent famines in Chinese history have resulted in a high tolerance for bitterness. Thanks for pointing this out.

alfaeco said...

As living conditions improve it may paradoxically increase the instability of a society.

It seems China is directed to crossroad, if political reform is not performed and living conditions improves, instability will increase too.

The other option is to keep living conditions from improving, or at least to do it too rapidly for the greater part of the population. And in this way reduce the pressure of political reform.
Basically a great part, if not the majority, of the population is intentionally used to keep the country for evolving politically and socialy.

For that big chunk of people, living standards improve, but only slow enough to feel grateful to the system, but not fast enough to question it.

Sam said...

Thanks for these two posts. I will share your insights with my students.
I think, as you suggest, the state's monopoly on the means of communications is important here. With that power, central authorities could keep local peasants from knowing that their terrible experience was shared my many, many others all across the country. Peasants only had local knowledge and, with that, were more likely to believe that local conditions (weather, etc.) were to blame.
We should also remember how the central authorities maintained poltical unity at the top. After the purge of Peng Dehuai, people like Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi - even when the came to realize that the GLF was a disaster and had to stop - did not openly break with Mao. They pushed him aside from day to day policy-making, but they did not try to deprive him of power completely. They needed him, as the face of the Party and nation, or at least they seemed to believe that they needed him. I think this is one of those things you cannot really talk about in the PRC: where was Deng Xiaoping in 1959? Why did he, and others, not side with Peng? By sticking with Mao, they, too, deserve to shoulder some of the historical responsibility for the horrendous famine.

Anonymous said...


Are you aware of the books Tombstone by Yang Ji Cheng?

Xujun Eberlein said...

Sam, thanks for the comment. I certainly agree with you that Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi and others in the leadership at the time should also shoulder the historical responsibility. Chinese people do talk about things like that, even though the official media doesn't. An important reason that Mao's colleagues did not try hard to oppose him might be the traditional Chinese thinking that, while it was considered a great virtue for a loyal court official to risk his life to criticize (谏) the emperor's mistakes, it was the biggest treason and heresy (大逆不道) to betray the emperor. Peng Dehuai certainly followed the "loyal official" tradition. The first generation of CCP leaders had deep traditional roots and generally took personal virtues and their names very seriously. Zhou Enlai was a prominent example. Evidence suggests that Zhou's loyalty to Mao – at times against Zhou's own conscience – had a lot to do with this tradition and his attempts at "keeping integrity in one's old age"(保持晚节). This made Zhou a great tragic figure in his late years. For those who followed Mao all their lives, to rebel against Mao at a late date was to negate themselves.

Alfaeco, it's true that rapid economic development tends to increase inequality, and in turn instability. This is a difficult dilemma for the leaders of China. I also think visibility, or information availability, might be playing a key role in the rise of mass protests.

Anon, I'm not aware of the book and I couldn't find it on Amazon either. If you have a complete citation that would be helpful.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure that corruption is worse at the provincial level than at the grassroots level? I keep hearing about the ridiculous powers of "dirt emperors" in the countryside, many of whom enrich themselves at the benefit of the local public. I don't know how much true local "supervision" there is at the village or county level.

I really think there is more supervision at the provincial level.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Anon, you may have a point that there's more supervision at the provincial level from above, but that level is much harder to monitor by common lao-bai-xing. I think one reason that we more often hear bad things at the grassroots level is because things are more directly observed by people. Also, when there is lasting corruption among local cadres, it is usually because they are backed up from a higher level. This is certainly true in Chongqing's organized crime that was recently exposed: the local tyrants were working under the umbrella of the city's police chief Wen Qiang. Only when Wen Qiang was arrested, was the organized crime brought under control.

The Monkey King said...

Xujun, I think the book that Anonymous was referring to is 《 墓碑:中國六十年代饑荒紀實(上、下篇)》by 楊繼繩 (天地圖書), 2008).

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks, Monkey King. I'll look for the book to read. By the way, why is your own blog about China discontinued? Just curious.