(2 of 2, continued from yesterday's post)
Raised on hot and tingling peppers, tempered by relentless harsh winters with no central heating, my
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,
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
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
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
In January 1962, during a congress of seven thousand government officials from the county level up, a
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
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,