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The New Citizens Movement in China

By Xu Zhiyong, published: July 11, 2012

On May 29th, 2012, Dr. Xu Zhiyong published an article titled “New Citizens Movement,” it was quickly censored by the Chinese authorities, but here we present it in English for the first time with the permission of Xu Zhiyong. This essay and Xu’s activism are truly deserving of further coverage overseas as it offers a comprehensive path for reform in China. – Editor


Freedom, justice, and love.

Freedom, justice, and love.


China needs a new citizens’ movement. This movement is a political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance; it is a social movement to completely destroy the privileges of corruption, the abuse of power, the gap between rich and poor, and to construct a new order of fairness and justice; it is a cultural movement to bid farewell to the culture of autocrats and subjects and instead create a new nationalist spirit; it is the peaceful progressive movement to herald humanity’s process of civilizing.

In the 20th century, China experienced many movements: the Xinhai Revolution, the New Culture Movement, the New Life Movement, etc. In trying to bid farewell to autocracy, they changed the Chinese people’s living habits and spiritual realms. Due to internal and external problems, however, the Republican Era ended quickly. These historical progressive movements were unable to complete fundamental changes in the political system; they were but a flash in the pan. After 1949, China’s totalitarian regime launched a flurry of movements—land reform, the suppression of counter-revolutionaries, the socialist transformation, the anti-rightist movement, and everything from the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution. These regressive movements against the tides of history were destined to have tragic endings. In the 1980s, the Communist Party of China initiated the “five stresses, four beauties, and three loves” campaign, but a social reform movement initiated by a dictator, tainted by self-interest, cannot bring real change in society.

Today, China still has not been able to leave behind authoritarianism, power monopolies, rampant corruption, the wealth disparity, violent housing demolitions, education imbalance, and the black hole of social security … the root of these weighty social problems is autocracy; the Chinese nation needs a great citizens’ movement that moves with the historic tide, moving from bottom to top, from political and social to cultural, from the awakening of individual citizens to the revitalization of the entire Chinese civilization.

The goal of the New Citizens’ Movement is a free China ruled by democracy and law, a just and happy civil society with “freedom, righteousness, love” as the new national spirit.

The core of the New Citizen’s Movement is the citizen. This is an individual concept as well as a political and social concept. The citizen is not a subjectthe citizen is an independent and free entity, and he or she obeys a rule of law that is commonly agreed upon. He or she does not have to kneel down to any given person. The citizen is not a laymanthe citizen is the master of the country. The ruler’s power must come from election by the entire citizenry, bidding farewell to the barbaric logic of  “ruling by the barrel of a gun.” Citizens are neither docile nor mob-like; they share happiness and bear of responsibilities in the order of justice; and they are upstanding, magnanimous, moderate, and rational.

The “new” in New Citizens’ Movement refers to new historical conditions, new forms of behavior, and a new liberal order. The counterpart of the new citizen is not the citizen, but the subject, of the past. The new historical conditions include technological advancement, market economies, ideological pluralism, and the common democratic trend in human society. The new forms of behavior are the lawful defense of citizens’ rights, citizens’ non-violent non-cooperation, and peaceful democracy movements, all under a new system of ideas and discourse. The new liberal order is the constitutional order of democracy, rule of law, republicanism. The social background of the New Citizens’ Movement is new, the model of behavior is new, the movement’s goal is new, and thus it is called the New Citizens’ Movement.

The big change in Chinese society needs direction and spirit. The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the New Citizen Spirit, which is the direction and spirit of great change.

The New Citizens’ Movement is a political movement. China needs to complete a political transformation, establish a free, democratic China with the rule of law. The New Citizens’ Movement is a social movement. The solution to power monopoly, rampant corruption, wealth disparity, education imbalance, and similar problems does not solely depend on a democratic political system, but also rely on the continuous social reform. The New Citizens’ Movement is a cultural movement. It aims to rid of the tyrannical culture, which is degenerate, depraved, treacherous, and hostile, and build a new nationalist spirit of “freedom, justice, and love.”

There must be an end to tyranny, but the New Citizens’ Movement is far from being just a democratic reformation; the New Citizens’ Movement’s discourse is not “overthrow,” but “establish.” It is not one social class taking the place of another social class, but letting righteousness take its place in the Chinese nation. It is not hostility and hate, but universal love. The New Citizens’ Movement pursues facts and justice, but from the aspiration and hard work of not giving up and settling differences. In the process of societal change, there must be new kind of spiritual coalescing of the Chinese people as a whole, from the individual citizen to the entire country.

The New Citizen’s spirit can be summarized as “free, righteous, and loving.”

Freedom implies the sovereignty of belief, thought, expression, life, the pursuit of independence, and the unrestrained, authentic selfhood. People’s freedom is the end goal of society, country, and law. Righteousness: it is the fair justice of this world; it is the ideal status of the country and the society; it is equal opportunity.

The strong will have restriction; the weak will have protection, and every person, to the best of their abilities, will build on their strengths, perform their duties, and do what they want. Righteousness implies democratic rule of law is the cornerstone of the system. It implies individual responsibility, defends and pursues rights, cares for the common good, and respects the boundaries of other people’s rights. Love is the source of humanity’s well-being; it is the highest state of the New Citizen’s mind. A people’s mind must contain love as well as erase hate and hostility entirely, founding a free and well-off civil society.

The New Citizens’ Movement includes the citizens’ rights movement, the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, and the democracy movement. It follows the lead of the New Citizen’s spirit in China’s magnificent movement toward peaceful transformation.

The citizens’ rights movement is the soil of the democracy movement. It includes the social movement for the defense of the rights of individual cases, rights of building demolition [property rights], rights of ex-servicemen, rights of the environment, right of the freedom of belief, and right of opposing the housing registration system, which strives for the rights and interests of the group.

The citizens’ rights movement emphasizes an individual’s or an individual group’s demand for rights. However, China’s internal power monopoly, rampant corruption, wealth gap, black hole of social security, and other serious societal problems have already reached the point of needing a political solution. The citizens’ rights movement, after developing to a certain point, will inevitably enter into a democratic political movement.

The citizens’ non-cooperation movement runs through the entire rights movement and democracy movement, including the negative resistance of authoritarianism and the positive protection of free rights. As compared to the citizens’ non-cooperation movement, the New Citizens’ Movement moreover emphasizes establishment. The establishment of a civil society will do away with tyranny, not only putting an end to tyranny, but also establishing the future of civilized politics and civil society.

In a broader sense, the New Citizens’ Movement also includes a campaign appearing in many recent democratic countries that is centered on the demands for fairness and justice. Background to the morally-upright fourth wave of democratization is new technology changing peoples’ societal structure. China’s New Citizens’ Movement gathers the previous democratic era’s civil rights movements and democratic revolutions as well as the social revolutions of democratic countries.

The New Citizens’ Movement already has a social basis. Thirty years of Reform and Opening Up has established the economic basis of private property and the market process. It has also brought with it a pluralistic society. The party in power has gone from a totalitarian regime to an authoritarian regime and then to an oligarchic regime; the forces of tyranny have already become weak, and therein the citizens’ movement already has a certain amount of leeway. The Internet, telecommunications, and other new technologies have sped up China’s enlightenment and the formation of citizens’ interpersonal networks. The trend of international democratization is transforming and restraining autocratic violence, and imbuing the political movements in newly democratic countries with the peaceful and rational spirit of world citizens.

Without the New Citizen, there can be neither a new civil society nor a constitutional China; the New Citizens’ Movement emphasizes the New Citizen, from the individual and the small matters on upward; it practices citizen responsibilities and does not obey the despotism of unspoken rules. It is not concurrent with privilege and corruption, believing instead in democratic rule of law, in the pursuit of freedom and fairness, civil movements, and a constitutional China.

The New Citizens’ Movement includes all types of current social movements and political movements: the “Grass Mud Horse” campaign, the displaced residents campaign, the campaign to oppose the household registration stratification, the campaign to remember June Fourth, the freedom of belief campaign, the blogging campaign, the environmental protection campaign, the food and health safety campaign, the campaign to elect deputies to people’s congresses, the microblog-based campaign attacking human trafficking, the campaign to oppose monopolies, the campaign to oppose corruption. These social and political movements are brought together by way of the New Citizens’ Movement.

The New Citizens’ Movement advocates the practice of the New Citizen spirit and societal responsibility in every sector: the New Citizen judge is impartial and evenhanded, loyal to the law and of good conscience. He or she does not pervert the law for the sake of dominance and selfishness. The New Citizen policeman is an impartial implementer of the law, removing the evil and content with the good, never torturing for confession, uncorrupted by dark and evil forces. The New Citizen public prosecutor is loyal to the country’s laws, does not appease corruption, does not pervert the course of justice and does not indulge in crime. The New Citizen deputy to the people’s congress has the courage to carry out the law for the benefit of the public; it is not a voting machine and rubber stamp.

The New Citizen teacher loves his or her students, never passing lies onto them. The New Citizen physician loves patients and does not accept bribes, arbitrarily prescribe medications, or discriminate against patients. The New Citizen lawyer abides by the law, lawfully defends the rights and interests of clients and does not bribe judges. The New Citizen accountant abides by accounting regulations and does not cook the books. The New Citizen editor and reporter seek the truth and do not report lies.

The New Citizen college student diligently studies, cares for the society—does not cheat on tests or plagiarize essays. The New Citizen scholar seeks truth with professionalism—does not flatter or ingratiate, or use another’s ideas as his or her own. The New Citizen artist expresses truth, goodness, and beauty and rejects unspoken rules. The New Citizen sports referee makes calls with impartial independence—does not blow the whistle unfairly. The New Citizen athlete competes fairly—does not throw competitions for profit. The New Citizen entrepreneur faces the market and runs business honestly—does not parlay favor with bigwigs. The New Citizen industrial worker guarantees the quality of products—does not use inferior materials to turn out substandard products or make fake, shoddy products. The New Citizen food manufacturer does not mix in poisonous and harmful materials. And so on.

To push forward the New Citizens’ Movement, the New Citizen can:

Disseminate the New Citizen Spirit: Explain the “freedom, righteousness, and love” of the New Citizen Spirit by way of online posts, street fliers, t-shirt slogans, and any other method of spreading the New Citizen Spirit. The New Citizen Spirit must appear on the Internet, flourish in the streets, and, most of all, take root in the deepest part in our hearts.

Practice New Citizen Responsibility: Promise to practice New Citizen Responsibility, stand fast to New Citizen behavioral standards, reject corruption in one’s life, reject the practice of seeking private gain at the expense of the public, be loyal to good conscience and do not actively do evil, do good service for society, and mutually supervise one another to carry out this promise. The New Citizen Spirit is the spirit of commitment, sacrificing one’s profit to be an example, to maintain good conscience and righteousness, up until righteousness exists all over the Chinese nation.

Use the “Citizen” sign or other identifying methods: Citizens design their own “Citizen” insignias, and strengthen their own Citizen status and self-affirmation by wearing the insignias in everyday life.

Participate in civic life: Hold regular mealtime talks, discuss current political situation, pay close attention to people’s livelihood, care for public service as well as public policy, help the weak, serve society, promulgate fairness and justice. Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance.

Unite to share labor and coordinate work. Repost messages, file lawsuits, photograph everyday injustices, wear t-shirts with slogans, witness everyday events [specifically referring to the phenomenon of standing in a circle around someone causing a scene to witness it], participate or openly refuse to participate in elections, transcribe [things that you see happen], hold gatherings or marches or demonstrations, do performance art, and use other methods in order to jointly promote citizens’ rights movements and citizens’ non-cooperation campaigns—such as assets reporting, openness of information, opposition to corruption, opposition to housing registration stratification, freedom of beliefs, freedom of speech, and the right of election. Practice the New Citizen Spirit in action. Citizens’ power grows in the citizens’ movement.


(Translated by an anonymous friend of

Chinese orginal


Sheng Shuren: A Journalist in New China – Part 4

By Yaxue Cao, published: June 28, 2012


I almost forgot; I had been to Shanghai before. It was the Chinese New Year of 1990, I decided spontaneously to go to a friend’s home to spend the holidays. On New Year’s Eve, I boarded an airplane in Guangzhou, and landed, several hours later, at Hongqiao Airport in Shanghai. From the airport, I took a taxi to the Shanghai Train Station. I remember it was dusk, the sky overcast, the air chilling beyond a northerner’s assumption of Shanghai. There was not a soul on the streets. I don’t know why, but right at this moment, I am thinking about six o’clock. Two clicks away now, I know the trip is sixteen kilometers long, and passes a zoo, at least one movie theater, the Sun Yat-sen Park that every major Chinese city has, and streets that once had names like Jernigan Road and Edinburgh Road. But I was either dozing off or lost in wandering thoughts in the taxi, for all I can recall of Shanghai are a section of a gray wall and a few buildings whose shapes are as illusory as objects in a dream. At the train station, I boarded the train, according to my friend’s instructions, to go to my destination, Hefei.

My friend lived on a university campus where all the students were gone for the holidays and, blanked under a new snow, silence reigned. After the lunar New Year’s Day, I walked on the streets of Hefei. Even though I had never been to that city before, or anywhere near it for that matter, everything seemed familiar to me, the streets, the buildings, the shops, and the people; the wintry bareness and the muddy slush underfoot. It was just like my hometown, or thousands of other Chinese towns. It was China. To my ears, the first winter after the summer of ’89 was as silent as death, the roar of bulldozers and dump trucks were yet to arrive, and I was preparing to leave the country. I had always known the path I could take would be narrow, but I didn’t know I would be up against the wall in only a few short years after college. About the place I was planning to go I had not the faintest idea and, therefore, no fantasy of it to speak of; the only thing I knew for certain was I had to go, anywhere I could. The year after, I left China and came to the United States.

In the following days, I talked to Mr. Sheng via telephone and email. I learned that, when his brother was arrested the second time in the north, he was a student of astronomy in Nanjing University with a focus on celestial mechanics. I asked how he would describe celestial mechanics to a layman like me, he said, “It is the mathematics dealing with the motion of the three bodies—the Sun, the Earth and the Moon.” I said I still couldn’t imagine what mathematics that would be, but I liked the words the sun, the earth and the moon. He said, the broader question was the “n-body problem,” or, to predict the motion of celestial objects under mutual gravitation. It was a problem unsolved for the past three hundred years, said Mr. Sheng, and probably wouldn’t be in another three hundred years, but I was determined to do just that! He chuckled in self-mockery, but I was very much affected by the young mathematician’s ardor. Mr. Sheng escaped the cataclysm that had befallen millions of China’s educated class, university students included, during the Anti-rightist Campaign in 1957, but it stoked fear in him as he came to the realization that everything about him, his family background, his disgraced brother and his own education, could be a liability. He said he woke up every morning not knowing what the day would bring and went to bed every night worrying about what awaited him tomorrow. He was one of the top students but not selected to join the faculty of Nanjing University, nor for graduate study. He was assigned to a teaching job at Anhui University in Hefei and has stayed ever since.

I told Mr. Sheng about my trip in early 1990 that took me to Shanghai and Hefei, two places I have come to associate with through writing this story. I learned from Mr. Sheng, not without a small sense of wonder, that the Shengs’ in Shanghai was only a short walk from the train station except that, at that time, their home at No. 426 Lane, N. Jiangxi Road, had long been empty. At the Mathematics Department of Anhui University, Mr. Sheng found a certain solace and security in pure mathematics. After the ten-year Cultural Revolution, in the early 1980s, he passed the selection exams for faculty studying abroad. He studied and researched in the Université de Strasbourg in France and the Universitat de Barcelona in Spain for three years. I asked Mr. Sheng when he had learned French, and he told me he started in his boyhood when attending the affiliated secondary school of the Université l’Aurore, a French Jesuit institution in Shanghai before the communist liberation, and later in the famed Li Da Institute. In college and later on, he read mathematical literature in French that he could get a hold of. For the first seven years of the 1970s, when he and some of his colleagues, including his department chair, were sent away to the countryside on the bank of Yangtzi River, he worked in the fields, coached a basketball team on loan to the county’s Sport Committee, and took part in the Peasants’ Propaganda Team.

And he also kept up with his mathematics. For entertainment, he tried his hand at translating French literary classics that he had bought from the Foreign Language Book Store in Shanghai published by the Russians for language learning purposes. Carmen, Colomba and Ninety-three were some of the titles he ventured into. With The Lady of the Camellias, he did the novel as well as the play. He enjoyed it a lot, sharing his translations with his old school mates in secret. When I asked about his life in retirement, he said reading, writing and playing basketball. Since retirement, he has published a dozen or so papers and written two books, one was Mathematics in the Social Disciplines that had been printed twice and sold out twice; the other is Geometry of Election that he hopes would be published soon. I said jokingly, from the titles of your books, it seemed that you had turned from the celestial to the earthly.

Cover of Journalistic Practices, 1957

When Sheng Shuren returned to the Xinhua News Agency in 1956, he went alone. He was thirty-six years old, father of four, the youngest a newborn. His wife, a head nurse at a children’s hospital, had not wanted to move to Beijing the first time and, with the two years in Beijing ending the way they did, she wouldn’t go this time. At Xinhua, Sheng Shuren resumed his old job of translating foreign media. There is no way to retrieve the products of his work except for three articles in his name in Journalistic Practices, a monthly published by the Xinhua News Agency, in 1957. Two of them are translations, one is his own writing. Both translations are from Russian, one describing “the Central Home for Journalists” in Moscow, how it was “a place for all journalists to engage in creative activities.” Another relates how, during what it calls “the Hungarian Incident” broken out on October 23, 1956, “political adventurists” (they become “gangsters” and then “an anti-revolutionary group” as the article progresses) occupied media apparatuses and controlled newspapers and journals, and how, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, to which the article avoids making direct reference, Hungarian newspapers were printed more beautifully and, more importantly, how freedom of the press was better serving the interest of the people and socialism without falling into the hands of the enemies of the people and freedom. His translation is smooth, unfolding with clarity when there are multiple modifiers. But what is more telling is probably the unhurried tone with which he writes. When I mentioned his translation from Russian to Mr. Sheng, he was very surprised because he had no idea his brother knew Russian, but he obviously did.

Sheng Shuren’s own piece appeared in the September issue, and the title, when I first saw it, almost made me jump: The Headquarters of American Fabrications and Intelligence—the U.S. Information Agency. In the few hundred words that followed, he presented USIA from its budget, setup to its operations, using the same composed language and with the same clarity, except here and there, words like “flagrant”, “fabrication” would stick out like thorns from an otherwise smooth surface. Then, in the very last sentence, also the concluding paragraph, the tone rises sharply and the language turns into the kind of abusive language that I saw everyday in newspapers when I grew up and still is the standard language of China’s state media to threat, to vent and to express displeasure. “It is therefore clear that the USIA is a spy agency that robs over a hundred million dollars from the American people each year to engage in fabricating lies and collecting intelligence.” He might have written this himself, or the editor did. In any case, he had to learn to talk like this in the Xinhua News Agency. For a man with a liberal arts education like he had, it had to be a steep remaking of himself even just linguistically. If this article tells anything at all, it shows he still had a long way to go to adjust.

In March 1958, Sheng Shuren and Uncle Erning, part of a large group of Xinhua personnel, were sent to Xushui, a county some 200 kilometers away from Beijing in Hebei Province, to help the Great Leap Forward campaign there. Xushui at the time was a national model of the Great Leap Forward promoted by the Central Committee of the Party, and universities and cultural institutions in Beijing, Xinhua included, had been sending their people to participate in this great leap forward to a communist society. In the previous winter, the impoverished county with a population of 300,000 had built more than two hundred reservoirs in response to the call for water management from the Center in Beijing, declaring that, for the first time in history, the county had once and for all eliminated both flood and draught. Literature about the Great Leap Forward in Xushui abounds, and from it I learned people in Xushui lived the life of the People’s Commune, eating together in the Communes’ canteens and marching with their hoes and baskets in military formation to the fields. They worked twenty-four hours a day in three shifts. The earth was dug as deep as three feet in order to use more fertilizer for higher yield; and grain was planted in improbable density to create agricultural miracles. I also learned that factories sprung up like bamboo shoots, and, overnight, each commune and each village claimed to have dozens of them. By the time the Steel and Iron Production Campaign peaked, “every household built a furnace and everyone was participating.” Xushui dared itself to open up universities, and lo and behold, it announced the establishment of 101 universities one day in July. Xushui also had a “Committee for the Movement of Writing” that covered the streets and walls with poems singing the praises of life in the People’s Communes and pictures in which farmers picked cotton on ladders, tall silos pierced through clouds, and pigs, as big as cows, were bursting their sties.

The Great Leap Forward in 1958.

If all this does not sound busy and tiring enough, study sessions and debates were held frequently. For study, there was the People’s Daily that sent the Center’s directives everyday. But what was to debate? People—whoever expressed any doubt about the Great Leap Forward and whoever was perceived as being halfhearted or lazy were the objects of the debate. According to documentation, the debatees were encircled, “shoved and pushed…until they were bruised and dizzy, kowtouing to admit they were wrong.” The debates were indeed effective, and, according to a piece in the People’s Daily on April 17, 1958, that promoted Xushui’s practices, “before the debates, 1,400 workers only dug 300 meters of irrigation channel in 14 days; after the debates, 1,000 workers dug 500 meters in 3 days.” In July that year, the Party mounted a nationwide campaign called “Bare Your Heart to the Party” and everyone in the Xinhua group was required to describe his or her thoughts and actions during the recent Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Rectification Campaign. During the Purge of Anti-revolutionary Within Campaign in 1955, Uncle Erning, a young man in his twenties, had been reviewed for the uncompleted drafts of poems and stories that he had scribbled during the post-Korean war days when he was still stationed in North Korea as a war correspondent for the Xinhua News Agency, and conclusions had been made that “the ideas behind his works are reactionary and his own thoughts backward.” Now, asked to speak his mind to the Party, he hesitated. He was scared, “knowing that …the consequences will be serious.” Yet he didn’t want to hide it from the Party, “feeling that it would constitute unloyalty and dishonesty to the Party and therefore a crime.” So he bared himself: “I am still unable to accept the conclusions made about me by the Agency, but I am willing to be tested by the Party for as long as needed, reform myself and prove myself through my actions.” Days after that, Uncle Erning was arrested without warning during an often-held mass gathering of ten thousand people. He was dumbfounded, for he had no idea why they were arresting him (he had committed no crime) and how, in a matter of days, he had been incriminated a step higher to “a reactionary” and expelled from his job at Xinhua. Three hundred people were arrested on the same occasion, including Sheng Shuren. Now I know that, Xushui had newly built three labor camps that year and a local leader had ordered, “Each camp needs 1,000 workers, hurry up to arrest people and send them to the camps.” Within a few months, more than four thousand people had been arrested in the same manner in Xushui.

Uncle Erning and Sheng Shuren were sent to the August First Camp to receive their “education through hard labor.” Behind the barbed wire enclosing the Camp, they were organized, just as people outside, to create “Satellite Fields”—fields that would have such unheard-of high yield that it would be like launching a satellite. They dug, composted, moved rocks, and made cotton-padded shoes in the winter for perhaps the army. Outside the barbed wire, Xushui was becoming the center of attention in all China. Waves of visitors, from leaders of the country to the leaders of the provinces to the generals of the Republic, from the Congress of People’s Representatives to members of the People’s Consultation Committee, from scientist to literary figures, from foreign diplomats to friendly foreign news reporters, swarmed the place to witness the spectacular new look of a communist county. The People’s Daily touted that “the People’s Communes in Xushui will bring their members, in the near future, to the most wonderful arcadia in human history, that is, the free kingdom where ‘everyone does his best and takes whatever he needs.’” The frenzy peaked in August 4, 1958, when Mao Zedong visited a village in Xushui, only a few miles from the Camp where Sheng Shuren and Uncle Erning were confined. Local officials answered the Great Leader’s questions and briefed him about their goals: 10,000 kilos of millet and 500,000 kilos of potato per mu (about 0.16 acre), so on and so forth. “How are you going to eat that much food? What are you going to do with it?” Mao asked. When the officials conceded that they had not thought about that, Mao laughed and continued, “It’s certainly good to have a lot of food. The state doesn’t want it, others don’t need it, and the farmers can eat five meals a day!” We all know what followed was not the question of eating three meals or five meals a day, but a famine that lasted for a few years, resulted in the death of millions, and was labeled “the three-year natural disaster” by the official history book. In Xushui, the famine started as early as in 1959, people left en mass to search for food, and the government set up barriers and checkpoints on roads to stop them from leaving. At the end of 1960, the August First Camp was disbanded, and Uncle Erning and Sheng Shuren, greenish and edematous, were dismissed and told to go back to their respective hometown.

I must add now that, while Uncle Erning was in the camp, in Beijing, meetings were held to criticize and “educate” his young wife, my aunt, who was given the choice of being associated with a reactionary or “drawing a line” between him and her. She had been expelled from the Youth League for dragging her feet. Finally she wrote a letter to Erning in the Camp, telling him she had signed the divorce certificate which was brought to her by two men, all filled out and dated already, bearing the name and the seal of the People’s Court. The couple then had only been married for eleven months.


Part 1,  Part 2, Part 3, Part 5

Chaos Theory

Last week I carefully broached the subject of Tian’anmen Square with one of my co-workers. Together we looked through a series of pictures from that day from The Atlantic (excellent), which sparked a very interesting, and yet minimally productive conversation. It was her first time seeing evidence of civilian casualties, and I explained that no one was certain how many students and workers had died in the Square, but most foreign sources say hundreds. With the ongoing violence in Syria (which she is following), this wasn’t an easy idea to accept.

So I told her that I had never really heard about June 4th from a Chinese view, and asked her to tell me what it had been like.

She said here in Nanjing and in Beijing many workers and students gathered to protest against the gov’t. Some of them might have been working with foreign gov’ts and that many others had joined in. On the third, the students had attacked the military. She emphasized that just like with Syria it was sad anytime civilians were killed by their gov’t.

But she didn’t stop there. “You know, they were blocking the roads and it made traffic very bad. And all of the factories had to close. Nobody was working. It was chaos. The gov’t had to stop it. You can’t just have people not working and blocking traffic.”

Even though this co-worker is critical of most of what the Party says, and was willing to accept that the number of students was probably higher than what had been reported in China, she couldn’t shake this fear of chaos.

Then in Hangzhou yesterday, I got into a cab operated by a Christian. I could tell this because of a small plastic box on his dash that preached the Gospel for him with the push of a button. Over the crackly hymn he shouted back to me, “You know, our government is really terrible. Just terrible.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Yeah, we all want to get rid of them but what can we do? I’m a patriot, and I know they are no good for China, but if we over throw them there will be chaos…”

This fear of chaos is pervasive, and is reproduced over and over again in China’s media. Discussion of the Arab Spring had very little to do with the power of the people, or their desire to shape their own countries; instead it focused on what the GDP losses must have been for Egypt with all those people milling about in Tahir Squarethe soaring prices of tomatoes, and the unnecessary casualties. If one took People’s Daily and Global Times seriously, they would assume that most of the world remains plunged in chaos with no end in site. In fact the word “chaos” appears on at least a weekly if not daily basis in both papers.

A major hurdle for Chinese democracy activists will be convincing their fellow countrymen that change doesn’t have to be chaotic. Unfortunately, most Chinese people have very vivid memories of chaos, while democracy is an intangible idea that has never been seen by the majority of people. In this way, the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution have helped to cement the Party’s power.

For political reform to be a palatable option, activists will have to demonstrate on some scale that reform and revolution are very different things. Only by convincing farmers and factory workers that democracy is a way to a greater form of stability, one that doesn’t require Chengguan or Weibo censors and could protect their property and wages, will they succeed.

Mao’s Great Famine couldn’t happen again (but June 4th could)

I recently finished reading Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe by Frank Dikötter, which outlines the full scope of horror that was the Great Leap Forward which in four years claimed 45 million lives. However, that number fails to capture the suffering and individual abuse that was pervasive throughout the country.  While it is by far the most complete account of that period, it makes for rather dark summer reading.

I felt a need to push myself through the unpleasant details as a kind of penance for my years of absolving Mao of any wrong doing. In the past I would have argued that Mao had been fed inaccurate information and was clueless about the actual situation, it was a terribly naive position, and one made completely indefensible by the fact that Mao simply did not care that millions were starving in the countryside. As the Chairman saw it, China was still in a revolution, and death was a small price to pay for the rapid development that would supposedly benefit the rest of the country. They were unwilling martyrs for a worker’s paradise that never materialized.

You may have noticed a slight change in my stance since then (and you’ll notice I’ve changed since starting this blog too). After finishing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is also a mistake to blame the Great Famine entirely on Mao. While it could have only happened with a person like Chairman Mao at the helm, it also could have only happened with the complicity of Party officials at every level. There is no single individual to blame for the catastrophe, it was an epic failure of the entire system created by the Party.

The troubling realization I took away from this book was that many of the underlying causes of the famine have never been resolved, and continue to be perennial issues:

  1. Central gov’t officials were aware of abuse and deception in the lower ranks, but were unwilling to investigate the situation and ignored reports that were presented.
  2. Problems were swept under the rug to maintain the illusion of progress.
  3. A pervasive attitude of fear was propagated to ensure that projects were not questioned openly, and those who dissented were labeled as traitors and then silenced. 
  4. General directives were given without any guidance and were interpreted with shocking results by local officials, but no system was ever created to monitor the outcomes.
  5. The Central gov’t placed urban residents far above rural residents, and were willing to deny benefits to rural residents for the sake of stability.
  6. Environmental devastation allowed for a burst of economic “growth,” which later led to massive health problems and natural disasters that were far more costly than the gains.
  7. Massive, poorly-constructed vanity projects were built at great expense to the public, while other more pressing issues were ignored.
  8. Aid and goods to foreign countries were emphasized over meeting the needs of the Chinese people. Rural and urban residents suffered for the sake of “face” abroad.

This list is but a fraction of the parallels one could draw between the past and present, but fortunately, this kind of disaster could not repeat itself in present day China. One major reason for this is that the role of Hu Jintao is radically different from that of Chairman Mao,  and it would be difficult for an individual politician to silence rivals within the Party in the same way Mao did (although Bo Xilai seems to have managed this at provincial level). Secondly, China’s news (aided by microbloggers) is far more open than it was at this time, which makes it more difficult to cover up problems and exaggerate gains at the local level (note: this isn’t a very high bar. problems are still regularly covered up, but failures of this scale would likely be noticed). Thirdly, I doubt that Chinese people would be as willing to suffer for “the greater good” as they were during the Great Leap Forward.

One note that Dikötter makes, but doesn’t really explore, is that the provincial leader in Jiangsu province resisted the absurd goals and was not denounced for this moderate stance. Perhaps he survived because while he did not participate in Mao’s delusions, he also did not criticize them. According to the author, this resulted in a drastically lower death toll in the province. It makes me wonder how many lives could have been saved if just a few other key officials had decided to stay above the mindless rush for accolades.

Mao’s Great Famine, is a powerful reminder of what can happen when power is left unchecked and how quickly society can descend into utter chaos. While some have questioned Dikötter’s claim that 45 million people died, the country he describes based on Party documents is one that would make even the most hardened Mao supporter question the great helmsman. While many detractors have zeroed in on this figure, claiming that it is actually grossly inflated, it does not change the amount of suffering endured during this period by millions of peasants (it’s interesting that deniers of the Rape of Nanking and those who deny the Great Famine have adopted similar arguments).

On a side note: In this week of remembering June 4th, one realizes that while China is safe from the devastating campaigns of Mao’s reign, Tian’anmen Square could very well happen again. One needs to look no further than the Party’s overblown response to whispers of the Jasmine Revolution and its willingness to support brutal regimes that slaughter their own civilians for reasons to worry. While the Party is far less likely to launch impossibly ambitious campaigns to boost production or encourage destructive waves of blind nationalism that undermine stability, it is also no more likely to allow vocal calls for change.

The Physiognomy of Chinese Officials

By Yaxue Cao

A few days ago, I watched a video clip of the 6th plenary session of the Chinese communist party’s 17th Central Committee. I didn’t pay attention to what they were talking about. Instead I was interested by the stony faces of China’s highest-ranking officials when the camera rolled over them one after another: except for Hu Jintao who was giving a speech, each had the same frozen, expressionless face with no discernible muscle movement whatsoever, while it is hard to catch the focus of their eyes. A Weibo commentator said all of them suffered from “facial paralysis.”

I probably shouldn’t be promoting physiognomy here, but in China, officials do tend to have highly uniformed facial display. In front of superiors, they pile up ingratiating smiles while uttering eager, sycophantic words. In front of people below them, especially members of the “masses” (群众, qun zhong), they are often domineering and harsh, even when nothing in particular warrants high-strung exasperation. In a situation where they are not sure who you are, they look cautious, unexpressive and distant; if deemed necessary, they will find out about you as soon as they can so as not to offend someone who might have power over them. They will only relax with their family and their trusted henchmen. Sometimes you see them display their best smile in front of foreign strangers because these are people they never have to worry about.

In short, the face of a Chinese official is a high-precision, high-sensitivity meter for power relations.

In China, if you are a young man starting a civil servant career, smart and ambitious, the first thing to do is to map out the hidden and not-so-hidden power relationships around you and cultivate ties with the powerful, especially with the one on the top. To earn his trust, you have to be willing to carry out whatever he asks you to do, which may include non-work related orders from taking his child to school, getting a cup of tea for him, to doing something unsavory for him that he doesn’t want to do himself. In other words, you have to be completely at his service.  It is never enough to just do your job and think about nothing else. As a matter of fact, it is not necessarily a good thing to be an outstanding performer at work, because your co-workers, feeling overshadowed, might began to undermine you, while your boss might perceive you as a potential threat.

You can’t afford to let your boss feel you care only about your working relation with him and, other than that, you are your own person. Chinese officials are highly-trained animals to sniff out this type and they don’t like it.

On Being a Staff Member and an Assistant—the Art of Serving Senior Officers, authored by two faculty members of National University of Defense Technology (the Chinese name is解放军西安政治学院- PLA Political College Xi’an) and published by Northwest University Press in 1994, is making the rounds online now. Chapters include “the art of maintaining senior officers’ dignity,” “the art of studying senior officers’ mood,” “the art of passing on lies by senior officers,” and more.

Recently, a Ph.D candidate in sociology at Peking University (北京大学) defended his dissertation, an investigation into the bureaucratic scene in a county in central China. While the paper has yet to be published, according to a report by the China Youth Daily, he collected evidence of officials making fraudulent claims about their age and education in order to meet the requirement for promotion; he exposed questionable projects built over the last couple of decades for boosting official’s job performance; he collected resumes of a large number of officials, from the lowest level and up, to find the secrets for their promotion.

Also recently, in a Party committee meeting, a deputy director of the Bureau of Justice in Hengyang, Human, was beaten by the Director for refusing his order to accept a personnel arrangement. Others at the meeting helped the Director. The deputy director said later, “The biggest problem in the current bureaucracy is that the first chair has too much power. Some officials have no talent whatsoever, and even retards can fill their positions. What matters is whether you have powerful protection from above, whether you have money, whether you are willing to be unconscionable, and whether you are versed in the art of being thick [thick-skinned] and black [black-hearted](厚黑学, hou hei xue).

Unfortunately, this is not news to the Chinese and is the rule of the day on every level of China’s complicated bureaucratic system, except when it gets to the level of provincial heads or comparable level in the central government, it takes decisively more. For example, being the son or daughter or son-in-law of a party senior really helps!

A favorite essayist of mine recently wrote, in a blog post, about the gambling nature of China’s officialdom. “Being an official is like rolling the dice,” he wrote. “There are no rules, and it all depends on who and what you place your bet on. If your bet wins, you succeed instantly and get promoted to higher and higher positions. If you bet on the wrong side, you are kicked out immediately.  Those who don’t bet are in effect quitting the game.”

“Because of the short cycles of winning and losing,” the essayist continues, “officials by necessity have to engage in Great Leap Forward. Otherwise, how do they distinguish themselves? How are winning and losing decided?”

Elsewhere, someone observed that Chinese officials lack vision. My answer to this is: How could they possibly have vision when their all-consuming concern is to be safe in their positions and crawl up as much as possible, not to mention a great number of them are corrupt beyond the pale. To be safe, they must say and do what the party requires them to say and do; they must never question and never step out of bounds. To crawl up, they must, more than anything else, understanding the needs and will of their superiors and act upon them.

No wonder they appear wooden and are highly predictable. As for me, a certain murkiness on their face has never failed to give me thoughts: It is like a pickled face, so to speak, without any radiance of intelligence, principle or simple kindness.

In their minds, what is their relationship to the people they “serve”? Listen to these:

“Lao-bai-xings (老百姓, ordinary people) are so bothersome, all because they don’t have anything better to do!” (from the head of a Forestry Bureau in Shaanxi province)

“I don’t need to serve anybody!” (from the head of a Court Executive Board in Zhejiang province)

“Leaders are entitled to ride horses and sedan chairs [meaning enjoying privileges]. Who are you, you shameless thing!” (from the head of an Environment Protection Bureau in Jilin province)

“You anonymous nobody, who told you you could call me on my phone?” (from the head of an Environmental Protection Bureau in Fujian province)

The majority of Chinese officials are probably not as stupid as these. But from my own experience, I can tell you that the rest of them don’t think any differently even if they have perfected the art of public relations. Above law and with absolute power, how can they not look down on you and trample over you with utmost distain?

I mentioned in a recent post that I was assigned a job at the State Council when I graduated from college. The second or third day into my first job, the boss summoned me to his office to have a talk.

“Do you understand you are incredibly lucky to be assigned to this job?” he commenced. It was impossible not to sense the distain in his statement: Who do you think you are to deserve working here? “It is an honor bestowed on you,” he continued sternly, “and you should feel grateful.”

I felt neither honored nor grateful. I knew perfectly what was expected of me to say, and at the least, I should be smiling agreeably and saying a few nice things. But instead, I said nothing in return, letting my thoughts reel: “He is so stupid….I never knew northeastern accent sounded so stupid….so repulsive is the stale cigarette smell….”

Displeasure coagulated over his face. However he expected me to respond, being rock silent was not it! Our talk lasted only a few minutes, and I left knowing full well that I had just screwed up badly.

Traitor of the Chinese People

By Yaxue Cao, published September 17, 2011


You would imagine that it is easier for Chinese to discuss Mao Zedong and do so in a productive manner, now that over thirty years have passed since the death of the man and there is enough perspective for retrospection. After all, the look of China is so far removed from Mao’s era, Chinese from all walks of life are travelling all over the world studying, sightseeing, working and living, and new and abundant information has shed such light on the man as never before.

No, it is not.

Earlier this year, the Chinese economist Mao Yushi (茅于轼) wrote an article entitled “Turning Mao Zedong Back to a Human Being” (《把毛泽东还原为人》 ), calling for just that: To turn Mao from a god back to a person. In the article, Mao Yushi sketched an unflattering, if not downright evil, man based on what we had already known as well as the newly available information. Without finesse, the economist called Mao Zedong “the enemy of the people.” Mr. Mao Yushi is in his 70s, lived through the entire spectrum of Mao’s reign, and I can only assume that he is not just speaking from his head, but also from his heart.

The ensuing vitriol against Mr. Mao was, to me, both expected and surprising. Expected because, in China, there are many people—people you would think would know better—are more than ready to leap to Mao’s defense; surprising because their show of force, both verbally and visually, was a walking ghost of the Cultural Revolution, stupid to the point of being a joke.  They branded Mr. Mao a “traitor of the Hans” (汉奸,or traitor of the Chinese people, because the Chinese proper are ethnically Hans).

I know why they called him that name, but it’s better to use their own words: “Mao Yushi viciously attacked and slandered Chairman Mao, and [his attack] signaled yet another round of attacks from the west against the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party since the so-and-so-flower revolution had broken out.” Yet, they didn’t seem to feel awkward at all about not being able to utter the word “jasmine.”

So, Mr. Mao is a traitor because his “attack” on Mao Zedong is part of the west’s plan to overthrow the Party. To its credit, the Party didn’t say that about Mr. Mao, at least not directly, as far as I am aware. That said, the accusation is very much in keeping with the Party’s general pattern of argument for as long as I can remember, despite the fact that China and the US have grown so entwined in so many ways these days.

Talking about Mao Zedong among ordinary Chinese doesn’t normally rise to this pitch. It runs more or less like the one I had recently. I was at a party with a few people I went to college with, along with their spouses and kids. I don’t remember how it started, but all of a sudden, the man sitting next to me and I were in a tug of war over what good Mao Zedong did for China and for its people.

“Nothing,” I said, going through in my mind the one hundredth time the purges in the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward, the famine, the Cultural Revolution, and many more smaller but nonetheless atrocious things that should not be lost in the picture.

“No!” the man objected vigorously. “I disagree!”

So I stuck out one hand and asked him to give me five—only five—things that Mao did that were good for China.

Him: “He united China!”

Me: “Ok. Number two?”

The man paused, thinking.

Me: “Just one? Come on!”

Him: “Oh, he liberated women, encouraging equality between men and women!”

Me: “Great! I will refrain from arguing about this one. What else?”

Already, the guy was racking his brains.

Me: “That’s only two. Come on, my fingers are getting sore.”

Him: “Well, he made China a nation standing on its own feet, not becoming anyone’s colony.”

Me: “North Korea is standing on its own feet too, and it’s nobody’s colony either. Isn’t that great!”

That’s how our conversation about Mao went. Ineptly, if not stupidly.

Later, when I brought up the topic of the famine, the same guy, who came from Zhejiang Province, an area with natural abundance and a rich cultural tradition, recounted how, during the famine in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, their food was taken away as soon as it was harvested and how one of his older sisters, eight years old at the time, died of hunger. I was glad we were finally onto something concrete and meaningful, but instead of reflecting on Mao’s disastrous actions and the system that allowed this to happen, he railed, “The city people took everything away from us!”

The man, by the way, has lived in the US longer than I have, and is a university researcher on climate change, hardworking and honest. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that Mao must be kicking and laughing in his crystal casket at night because he had so successfully stunted generations of Chinese and might even have altered our DNA.

In April 1997, all of my siblings and I gathered, as we rarely had done because the seven of us were scattered all over the places in China and beyond, in our ancestral village to “sweep” the grave of our parents. In the evening we filled the old house with the din of voices and laughter. Again, I don’t remember how, but my eldest sister and I started arguing whether Mao Zedong was a great man or not. She is sixteen years my senior and, at the time, the chief engineer of a manufacturer of TV set in Beijing, and she took good care of me whenever I visited. The argument didn’t go well and tension quickly grew between us. My sister insisted that, because Mao had beaten all his rivals and established the new China, he was necessarily a great man; while I said, how could a man be considered great when, because of him, so many people had died, so many families had been crushed into pieces, and so many others—every one of us indeed—had suffered one way or the other. My sister and I went back and forth like that for a while, and suddenly, my sister screamed at me, “You got all of your ideas from the Americans!”

Our argument ended there abruptly, and tears welled up in my eyes. I didn’t remember when had been the last time I felt so insulted. I left the room to hide.

That night, standing on the village’s thrashing ground, where grains—wheat, corn, millet, and occasionally rice—were thrashed, dried and bagged when harvested, I saw Comet Hale-Bopp in the northwestern sky just beyond the hill on the edge of the village. It was bright and beautiful, an arresting sight, but it did little to alleviate my sadness.