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Shandong Province County Prospers in the "Lost Decade"
on December 11, 2008
The standard image of the Cultural Revolution is red guard hooliganism, economic disruption, factional wars, violent army repression, closed schools, extreme emperor worship, persecution of intellectuals, and ideological rigidity. These are all true, for most areas and in certain periods of the CR. However, there was a wide variety of experiences, and all such experiences must be examined for an all-around accurate perception of this tumultuous period. This volume is an account of an altogether different Cultural Revolution period experience.
In this Shandong county, where the author grew up (eventually coming to the US for a Ph.D. in political science), the Cultural Revolution was not "10 lost years" at all, but rather a period that saw substantial gains in educational opportunity and economic development.
The author argues that the advances in education in his village during the CR and a change in the local political culture facilitated economic development; i.e. the three cannot be disentangled.
Traditionally, he argues, China's political culture was one of "officialdom", where local officials had unchecked power and peasants felt powerless and thus were politically passive. One might cite the occasional peasant rebellions in Chinese history as point of balance (there are likely subtler ways of resistance as well). He argues that the traditional education system's bias against peasants, which continued after the establishment of the PRC, helped stabilize this political culture by keeping the peasants ignorant.
In this village, when the "serve the people" communist guerrillas (who had received enthusiastic support from Shandong peasants during the wars against the Japanese and Nationalists) became the new rulers after 1949, they -- having no constraints on their power -- gradually abandoned their war time populist ways and adopted the old "officialdom" ways. Han argues that a major purpose behind the many campaigns from 1953-1965, many of which had vague anti-corruption tags, was to challenge continuing "officialdom". But these campaigns were successfully steered away from the practitioners of officialdom and often towards scapegoats, often supposed "class enemies". These pre-Cultural Revolution campaigns, and their alleged failures are quickly brushed over; more detail can be found on the "Four Clean-Ups" for instance in other village studies like _Chen Village_, _Shenfan_, _Chinese Village, Socialist State_, _The Spiral Road_, _Cadres and Kin_, _Red Earth_). Han argues that the Cultural Revolution was Mao's last major attempt to root out the culture of officialdom and establish a new political culture where the peasants would be empowered to challenge the village elite, and this time it worked, in this particular area, thanks to the actions of CR inspired local rebels.
Han also has chapters detailing the reforms in education, which widely increased both access (especially to girls) and the applicability of the curriculum to local development needs.
The attempts to move to the general, away from the experience of this county raise questions. How typical is this positive experience? It's hard to say, except more likely to have occurred in the north. Some village studies indicate the Cultural Revolution was not the kind of bottom-up populism as described here, but rather horizontal factional jostling for power (e.g. William Hinton's _Shenfan_). We know from Andrew Walder and Yang Su's extensive examination of county annals (China Quarterly, March 2003) of the sobering level of violence inflicted in the 1968-71 period, often the army and party crushing rebel groups, which the "establishment radicals" (see Peter Moody -- Journal of Contemporary China, Fall 1993) were either unwilling or unable to stop. China is so large and complex there is no one-size-fits-all description. Nevertheless, Han's home county experience at least shows the potential of mass education and populist politics to facilitate equitable rural development, and needs recording as one of the varied experiences of the Cultural Revolution.
Han goes on to point out how the reforms have rolled back many of the achievements in rural education during Cultural Revolution years, failed to maintain equity (an important value for Chinese peasants), and also brought back the familiar officialdom style of rule. A case could be made that Han underemphasizes the overall nationwide problems with Cultural Revolution (doubtlessly influenced by his own county's success), and does not give enough praise to the reforms' positive aspects (ex: much more freedom for locals to grow what they want, and market it at fair prices). But just as the reformers were right to blame the Cultural Revolution for ideological extremism and intolerance and the many problems that caused, the reformers should be called to answer why they have not extended or in some cases even maintained the social justice gains of the previous period. Unfortunately, voices like Han's are usually left out of the debate on rural policy in China, because they challenge the official view, and vested interests.