by Ramin Mazaheri for The Saker Blog
There are almost too many socioeconomic gains for me to list… and yet the idea that China’s Cultural Revolution (CR) represented not gains but regression is dominant in the West.
The Chinese know better, and that’s why I’m discussing Dongping Han’s indispensable academic and investigative book: The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village. Han intensely examined rural Jimo County, where he grew up, interviewing hundreds of locals about the CR and poring over local historical records. Han was kind enough to write the forward to my brand-new book, I’ll Ruin Everything you Are: Ending Western Propaganda in Red China. I hope you can buy a copy for yourself and your 300 closest friends.
When I ended Part 5 the Rebel Faction Red Guards (who wanted a People’s dictatorship) had, over the course of three years, democratically bested the Loyalist Faction Red Guards (who wanted to maintain a Party dictatorship) – a new generation of revolutionaries had been fostered and were now taking over. What did their time in power produce?
“Since the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese Government had been talking about eliminating the three gaps: between urban and rural areas, between mental and manual labor, and between workers and farmers. … It was only during the Cultural Revolution that some students took it so seriously that they adopted it as a concrete goal of the struggle.”
What’s certain is that it’s very hard to have a revolution in power and culture in just one generation; Iran tried to speed up their revolutionary timeline by implementing the world’s second and only other Cultural Revolution just one year after ousting the Shah, whereas China waited 15 years.
The 1949 Revolution installed the collectives, which earned total Western capitalist-imperialist enmity for promising the “five guarantees (wu bao)” – food, clothes, fuel, education for children and a funeral upon death. This was a revolutionary and unprecedented social security system for rural Chinese. However, the social safety net for urbanites was much, much better, which inspired justified resentment.
However, we cannot only discuss the first pillar of socialism – redistribution of wealth; the second pillar – redistribution of power – was almost totally absent in Chinese village life 15+ years after their revolution. This is made apparent by the fact, related by Han, that it was not until spring 1967 that a mass meeting was held in Jimo to discuss the collective local planning and goals for the farm year. “This simple act turned villagers from passive followers into active participants.”
I refer back to my mathematical summary of the CR decade’s gains from Part 1: “You just read about 2 times more food and 2 times more money for the average Chinese person, 14 times more horsepower (which equates to 140 times manpower), 50 times more industrial jobs, 30 times more schools and 10 times more teachers during the CR decade in rural areas.”
We can only understand these massive, unprecedented gains in rural areas when we accept that the CR was only able to create it only via local empowerment of worker/citizens. After grasping that, it becomes easier to accept Han’s primary, and revolutionary, assertion: that China’s post-1980s boom rested on this explosion of economic and human capital in the rural areas, which represented 80% of the country in 1980.
Revolutionary gains in education for rural areas
The idea that the CR persecuted intellectuals is totally false – the CR created them, via 30 times more schools and 10 times more teachers. An “intellectual” does not only mean someone with 2 PhDs – an everyday person’s standards are much lower, and they were certainly much more sensibly lower in 1960s rural China. Han’s research thus describes a stunning great leap forward in rural education which occurred across the entire continent of China, a total inversion of the usual Western propaganda.
Why was China so backwards in 1966 that children were not going to school? Was it because of 17 years of CCP rule? This is what the Mainstream Media would have you believe… as if in the pre-socialist era the same widespread lack of education didn’t exist. No, the backwardness should be attributed to their “Century of Humiliation” as colonial victims. Beyond colonialism, why did this not happen in 1600, 1700 or 1800? The answer is – the advent of socialism. The basic building materials were all available locally – the communes built all the high schools collectively – what was needed was to cut out the capitalist view of economics and to institute the local empowerment of socialist democracy. The resources for building schools did not come from heaven, nor foreign banks – villages collectively pooled their resources and worked together, i.e. socialism.
Where did they get the teachers? There were huge advertising efforts to get educated teachers to return to their hometown – i.e, socialist culture, as opposed to individualist culture. “This policy, unpopular among many government schoolteachers, turned out to be a windfall for Jimo’s joint village middle schools.” Something like this is anathema to the West. It is a denial of absolute freedom, I agree, but it is also the promotion of equality. Socialism insists that one MUST give back; the West says “give back… if you feel like it”, and then their culture encourages them to not feel like it.
The schools also ended the absurd, elitist, anti-intellectual emphasis on passing tests – this policy was only necessary when spaces were so very few. But in the CR era,“All primary school graduates from the seven villages would automatically enter the middle school without any examination.” The capitalist celebration of “academic competition” exists only to cover the fact that their state refuses to create enough schools for all the applicants.
In 1968 Mao did something which in 2019 remains incredibly radical: he proposed that workers and farmers get involved with education, i.e., he fought against technocratic elitism in education. This necessarily creates a revolution in the curriculum, and it is an undeniably democratic one.
“From the standpoint of traditional Chinese beliefs, allowing these less-educated farmers and workers to lead the educational reforms was outrageous. How could the less-educated lead the better educated? Fundamentally, this was a philosophical question. The criticism reflected the arrogance of the Chinese educated elite, and their narrow mindset towards knowledge. While these workers and peasants had no formal education, what they did have was practical knowledge and a different perspective on education. They braved the traditional bias and prejudice in Chinese schools and society because they felt they had a mission in education reforms. … In the face of jesting and ridicule, they did not back down. They continued to work with students and teachers.”
As Han relates, peasants won respect by working with the students. That’s revolutionary, and that’s how you decrease the cultural urban-rural divide – sustained contact (even if forced).
Gone were the textbooks made by a few educational elite in Beijing – locals created new curricula and textbooks, in proof that socialism is “central planning” but “local control and local implementation”.
How did the curriculum change? Practical math such as bookkeeping and accounting was introduced; students learned agricultural science by working with farmers; applied science was advanced by studying small-scale machines and engines like those found in rural industries and farms. Instead of physics, machines and pumps were studied; practical over analytical. Given their poverty, this practical knowledge would have huge and immediate effects in nascent rural industries and post-Great Leap Forward re-collectivised farms. This is really the socialism-isation of science – bringing science to the masses. It is the opposite of the capitalist demand for breakthroughs and growth. Because China was full of socialist revolutionaries, the popular changes in education were not as we would expect in a Western version – which would wind up being a curriculum of something akin to “Business MBAs for everyone” – but were obviously geared towards promoting thoughts and actions which were collectively useful, and not just individually profitable.
Absolutely crucially, this is how the Cultural Revolution created the human capital on which the 1980s boom was based: how could the post-1980s boom occur without literate workers? Creating this human capital – via a decided emphasis on elevating the rural citizen – is the ignored or denied central achievement of the CR. No more would “rural” equal “wasteland of human potential”, and the West – still wracked by an urban-rural divide in 2019 – has much to learn here.
“There was a tendency during the Cultural Revolution to elevate physical labor above academic learning, and as a result many students were assigned too much physical labor. The mix of academic and physical labor, however, varied greatly from place to place and from time to time. … The goals of these activities were to increase the school’s annual income and to develop a love for physical labor in the students.” Yes, Chinese schools engaged their students in money-making activities in order to help raise school funds.
If there’s one thing which separates men from boys and women from girls it is the capacity for hard work – if you cannot work hard and learn to enjoy it… be prepared for an unsatisfying life, because decadence is always ultimately unsatisfying to humans. The idea that Western schools would not teach this seems insane, but it is not taught. Furthermore, this work-instead-of-more-sitting is something which boys would love – to get out of the strict classroom confines and get moving. Anyways, Han relates that in the first half of the 1970s at high schools we are talking about just 6 hours per week of non-academic time, or about 1/7th of overall school time. Personally, I have absolutely no idea how leaders will create policies which are sympathetic and respectful to the working class unless they have spent ample time working alongside them….
Again, these well-rounded high schoolers would be the human capital that created the explosion in rural development, up to and including today, and that should be obvious to all.
Han cites a former teacher: “He cited three major achievements of the educational reforms in Jimo. First, rural schools built during the educational reforms trained large numbers of local youth in practical industrial and agricultural skills and knowledge, which has long-term impacts on the development of rural areas. Economic development in Jimo relied on this practical knowledge. Second, the educational reform began to alter the views of teachers who had previously looked down upon farmers. When they were obliged to participate in some forms of manual labor, they learned to respect villagers and other working people. Third, it empowered villagers. Farmers no longer viewed the educated elite with mystic feelings because they knew the educated teachers better after working with them.” These are all universal issues, I am sure: it was the CR’s aim to fix them, and that is incredibly revolutionary and democratic.
Han on the suspension of university in 1966, which Western urban, elitist, technocratic reporting loves to focus on: “From the perspectives of the individuals whose dreams of going to college were shattered, this reform of the college entrance examination system was deeply disappointing. But from the perspective of rural development, this reform measure, not unlike a blood transfusion for a sick patient, brought knowledge and skills that revived rural areas. … Every student had to work in rural areas or in a factory for at least two years before becoming for eligible. Academic performance was not a sole criterion in the selection of candidates for college. Students also had to prove themselves as good farmers or workers before going to college. Starting in 1976, college students from rural areas were required to go back to their original villages after graduation to serve the villagers who sent them to college.”
This is a drastically different perspective than the usual “broken dream” reporting of the West regarding the CR, no?
It is also a drastically different admission standard: good grades AND good working ability, versus the West’s good grades AND tons of money (or influential parents AND tons of money).
It is also a drastically different philosophy: public funds in their small town paid for the schooling of these fortunate Chinese graduates since their childhood, therefore they must return “to serve the villagers who sent them to college”. There is absolutely nothing like this in the capitalist-individualist West, even though “public funds in their small town paid for…”.
Han relates that an average of 85 people returned to each village in Jimo County. “These students became the new teachers, medical personnel, and skilled workers and technicians on which rural development depended. The reform of the college entrance system and the movement of encouraging education urban out to go to rural areas broke the vicious circle in Chinese education.” (emphasis mine)
Han also specifies how these educated urban youth served as a very real cultural and social bridge between the urban and rural areas, which is precisely what is lacking in modern Western countries and a key reason for their huge urban/rural divide. Again, denying someone their individual right (especially the right of a White middle/upper class person, the type most likely to attend college in their nations) is anathema in the West, but we see how very, very socially necessary and productive it was.
I think that Han’s view – which is relating the common villager’s view – should be shattering in terms of perception of these key “radical” reforms of the CR, which is why I am happy to relate them.
The benefits are so obvious and so broad, I’m sure many Westerners will wonder how they can apply it in their non-socialist systems… they likely cannot, because they will be accused of being “socialists”.
A revolution in rural economy, and thus the national economy, and thus the global economy
Let’s not forget that the CR’s open emphasis on the rural over the urban (revolutionary in itself, and unappreciated by the USSR) was also ordered by any conception of democracy: While China was 56% urban in 2015 it was only 20% urban as late as 1980. The USSR’s emphasis on the primacy of a vanguard party over a People’s democratic dictatorship certainly did not keep socialism flag’s flying after 1991.
It is no exaggeration to say that the CR brought the Industrial Revolution to rural China – it was truly that important.
“During the Cultural Revolution agricultural production more than doubled, but just as impressively rural industry went from ‘negligible’ to 36% of Jimo’s economy. The latter is due to the same developments: political culture which changed to empowerment, collective organization and rapid improvement in education which permitted the intelligence required to understand and adopt modern techniques.”
It is not a difficult formula, nor does it absurdly rely on “market magic”….
In the early 1960s Han relates there were just 10 rural industrial enterprises which employed 253 people; by 1976 there were 2,557 enterprises (2.5 per village) which employed 54,771 people. “More importantly, the educational reforms had provided the local industries with educated youth who had acquired technical know-how while in school.” It’s not just a question of technology, but the people who can run them.
I think that readers in developing countries should be amazed and inspired. Foreign investment (and unequal alliances with foreign corporations) is the West’s solution to such problems, but the real solution to building an effective industry which can fuel local development is local education and empowerment.
Han relates how from 1966 to 1976 farmers, often with simple tools, built more reservoirs and other irrigation projects than all those built prior to and after the CR combined. Where would China be in 2019 without all of the CR’s economic development? This also shows that a key catalyst for such changes is socialist-inspired revolutionary cooperation, commitment and selflessness. In the West the only way such collective actions and fervor happens is during defensive wartime, which is proof of capitalism’s quotidian disregard for the lives of their citizens. Han relates how when a business had grown big enough the village took it over – this, too, is anathema in capitalism, of course.
Who did the CR free the most? Women and children, who were liberated from the tedious chore of grinding and mills, because in 1965 rural Jimo still processed their grain in the old –fashioned way. “Most farm work was mechanized by 1976.” The CR decade saw an 1,800% increase in tractors, 3,500% increase in diesel engines, 1,600% increase in electric motors, 700% increase in mills, 5,100% increase in grinders and a 13,200% increase in sprayers – all in just 10 years. These are video game numbers. Let’s compare this to the (still totally underreported) Eurozone “Lost Decade” of 0.6% economic growth from 2008-2017.
For readers in developing countries with significant rural populations – this must seem like an incredible revolution… well, it was. The implications for the CR on India – which is 70% rural – should be obvious, fascinating, well-studied and adopted by them.
The increase came despite the worst and longest drought in Jimo in several decades – 1967-1969 – so in many ways the CR succeeded where the Great Leap Forward failed.
“In these 10 years, Jimo suffered no less serious and no fewer natural disasters than in previous decades. There were altogether four serious droughts, four serious floods, four wind disasters, nine hailstorms and three serious insect disasters. Nevertheless, agricultural production steadily and rapidly increased.”
The CR also marked a return to grand, collective economic projects – this had not been tried since the Great Leap Forward. The big difference this time was: production decisions were not handed down by high-level authorities. This success was the direct result of the increased socialist democratic empowerment of the CR:
“After the baptism of the Cultural Revolution, farmers refused to follow policies from above blindly, unless they were convinced that these policies would advance their living standards.” Han relates how, when it came to Party experts: “But farmers did not have to listen to them. In fact, there were cases of farmers driving away outside cadres.” Such a thing prior to the CR appears to have been impossible.
It should be clear: the CR was the Great Leap Forward 2.0 – China had learned from the mistakes, and improved. We can fairly say that their Belt and Road Initiative is a Great Leap Forward 3.0, and one which is so great it is incorporating most of Eurasia.
We can see the transition from a China where the vanguard party was everything – like industrial workers in 1917 Petrograd – to a better socialism, because it democratically empowered worker/citizens. It should be no surprise that it worked so well – socialism is something which simply must evolve and grow because it is so very new – treating 19th century Marx as though he was a divine apostle is false, absurd and a guarantee of failure. Conversely, capitalism-imperialism has had 300 or 3000 years (depending on your definition) to grow, and it is not surprising that it has culminated into its most heartless, most inequality-producing format – neoliberal capitalism.
Whereas the Great Leap Forward was a hysterical-with-happiness effort to wipe away more than a century of imperial and/or fascist retardation, locals in Jimo calmly and collectively decided what they needed – the fruits are China’s impressive status in 2019.
A revolution in rural medical care, which appeared for the first time
Again, this is the human capital built up during the CR which produced the 1980s boom. Sickness and infirmity – both your own and that of your children, family and friends – is not just personally debilitating but damaging to the economy.
The CR led to the denunciation of the urban-only medical care program, which was an improvement from the pre-1948 days, but clearly not the finished goal of socialist revolution. “Mao denounced the people’s hospitals as chengshi laoye yiyuan (hospitals for urban lords only).”
Thanks to the CR’s refreshing of the collective mentality: “Each villager paid fifty cents annually to the village clinic, which would then provide villagers with rudimentary free medical care for a whole year. By 1970, 910 villages – 93 percent of all villages – had set up their own village clinics and all had rudimentary medical insurance policies for villagers. The rural ‘barefoot doctors’ who staffed village clinics were mostly returned educated rural youth, who had received rudimentary medical training while in high schools.” It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s better than the previous witch doctors – who were often publicly shamed for the tragedies caused by the false claims of voodoo – and Han notes the “barefoot doctors” worked under the supervision of real doctors.
“If a villager fell ill and needed to be hospitalized, the village would try to pay for his or her medical bills. If the village could not pay, the commune would help. If the medical bills became too big for both village and commune, the hospital would waive the charges. … To be sure, the rural cooperative medical system was of low quality. … But it was the best system of medical care villagers in Jimo had ever had and it provided villagers with important services and peace of mind.”
Again, human capital was created and preserved, allowing Chinese humans to flourish in the 21st century.
A revolution in cultural respect, not a revolution of cultural violence
In an anecdote which shows how gender equality is far more advanced under socialism than capitalism (of course, as is ethnic equality), Han relates an anecdote of twin brothers who abused their wives getting shamefully paraded, but also their mother because she was believed to be the instigator of the abuse.
Han also discusses something the West’s art mavens love to decry with far greater fervor than the continued existence of human poverty: how cultural treasures were lost at the start of the CR, which attacked the “four olds”: old thoughts, old culture, old traditions and old habits.
Han relates how it was the superstitious funeral and wedding ceremony shops which were the main victims in Jimo – in many ways the CCP was trying to replace the old polytheism with communism.
But what Han explains is that as the CR progressed, and rural students were given more funds, time and consideration, rural students began to enjoy subsidized travel outside of their village. For many this was the first time poor rural students had ever had an opportunity to widen their vision of the world, and they immediately realised the error of naively destroying genuine cultural artefacts.
“In Jimo County, the Cultural Revolution took a dramatic turn after young people returned from trips to Beijing where they gained new perspectives. The independent mass associations emerged (Rebel Red Guard Faction), and destruction of the si jiu (four olds) stopped after students returned from their travels.”
It seems the lesson was very quickly learned – the “four olds” should be regarded as quaint relics, and even worth protecting as part of China’s cultural heritage, but they should no longer be feared and thus destroyed, because idols have no power (which was the message of Abraham and monotheism). That point of view seems difficult to grasp when the “four olds” are lorded over you your whole life, and you think that they are all-dominating instead of being paper tigers.
This is very reminiscent of the trips sponsored by the Iranian Basij: poor young people are given their first chance to travel outside of their village or town, and the result amazingly broadens their perspective.
Such trips also accentuates class consciousness by revealing disparities between town and country: “They were humbled to some extent, but they also felt indignation over the gap in the living standards between the rural and urban areas.”
Not only were new relationships formed, but genuine political intelligence about China’s current situation was increased among rural minds.
“It was during these trips that Lan Chengwu and his comrades learned about the widespread corruption among rural cadres. The outrages of village tuhuangdi (local emperors) who stole collective grain, slept with other people’s wives and suppressed those who dared to challenge them angered Lan and his comrades and fired their determination to sustain the Cultural Revolution. Today, official historical accounts emphasize the disruptive impact of chuanlian on the national transportation system.”
I include that last sentence because it shows how far to the socialist right China’s official line is today when compared with the CR decade, which is the subject of the 7th part in this series. Many Iranians similarly chafe at the subsidized trips for Basiji members, but they, too, miss the many revolutionary benefits for poor members.
The essential economic dialectic of the Cultural Revolution must be revived in 2019
“The Cultural Revolution educational reforms provided the rural areas with a large number of educated youth. While in school they learned what was useful for the rural areas, and when they returned to their home village upon graduation they could make good use of what they had learned. … Without the large number of educated youth arrived from the cities, agricultural experiments and mechanization in rural areas would have been unimaginable. … Unlike their illiterate predecessors, the newly educated young farmers had the conceptual tools to modernize production.”
This is the human capital on which China’s post-1980 economic boom surely must be based on, and that is the essential achievement of the Cultural Revolution. By applying socialism’s elevation of the average person, instead of capitalism’s elevation of the exceptional, China has become a superpower.
Han demonstrates – conclusively, impressively and crucially – that, “The building of rural industry in Jimo County, however, began as a result of the Cultural revolution and was already well under way before the onset of Deng’s rural reforms.”This is why Han’s book is so crucial, and especially for developing countries with high rural populations.
China’s socialist/collective mentality increased education and Socialist Democratic changes, whereas the Western-pushed Liberal Democratic changes have never produced the same kind of spectacular results in neo-imperialised countries.
Finally, the “forced repatriation” of educated rural people and some urbanites clearly provided the most vital catalyst for China’s rural renewal, and thus national renewal; it was the indispensable “blood transfusion”, in Han’s words. This policy will never be pushed by the individualist West, but it should be of great interest to more sensible countries.
China’s Cultural Revolution era was so economically and democratically successful that the West simply must ignore it or distort it. It stands in total contrast to the Western-dominated, neo-imperialist neoliberal model, a model which has proven to only increase inequalities and discontents in their nations.
China’s rural areas did not need Western banker investment or instruction to tap into their human potential – does your nation?
This is the 6th article in an 8-part series which examines Dongping Han’s book The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village in order to drastically redefine a decade which has proven to be not just the basis of China’s current success, but also a beacon of hope for developing countries worldwide. Here is the list of articles slated to be published, and I hope you will find them useful in your leftist struggle!
Part 1 – A much-needed revolution in discussing China’s Cultural Revolution: an 8-part series
Part 2 – The story of a martyr FOR, and not BY, China’s Cultural Revolution
Part 3 – Why was a Cultural Revolution needed in already-Red China?
Part 4 – How the Little Red Book created a cult ‘of socialism’ and not ‘of Mao’
Part 5 – Red Guards ain’t all red: Who fought whom in China’s Cultural Revolution?
Part 6 – How the socioeconomic gains of China’s Cultural Revolution fuelled their 1980s boom
Part 7 – Ending a Cultural Revolution can only be counter-revolutionary
Part 8 – What the West can learn: Yellow Vests are demanding a Cultural Revolution
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for Press TV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.