Perhaps the most important unresolved dichotomy in the West today is not the male-female divide but the urban-rural divide. The #MeToo Movement is making advances towards better gender equality - a direct result of the election of US President Donald Trump - but city and country remain locked in a most ungratifying combat.
In the US this is known as the “red state-blue state” socio-political war, which essentially pits liberal metropolitan areas against allegedly-backwards conservative rural areas; in the UK it’s sovereignty-demanding Leavers versus allegedly more intelligent anti-Brexiteers; in France it is the Yellow Vest movement engaging in civil disobedience on the Champs-Elysées due to the dismissive neglect and icy snobbery of those who can afford to live in the major centre-villes.
This is all explains why I feel that studying China’s Cultural Revolution (CR) is more important than ever: no modern nation has made such sincere and drastic efforts to correct this rural-urban imbalance, an imbalance which exists in all nations and which is as fundamental to human existence as female/male or yin/yang.
However, especially for developing countries, in places like India, Africa and Latin America, where rural farming is still often done in a manner similar to pre-21st century China, the incredible rural gains - economically, politically and culturally - which were the explicit goal of the CR are not just important but staggeringly inspirational. This article will quickly prove why that is not hyperbole, because the facts of these “incredible rural gains” will get a rare unveiling instead of another heaping of obfuscating capitalist-imperialist propaganda.
Unfortunately, most Westerners are as uninterested in China’s CR as they are in their own rural areas. I am certain this is true, because as a journalist I am 100% aware of my field’s failures in reporting on, from, or about rural areas. What’s worse, Western journalism has exacerbated their urban-rural divide by reporting from a starting point that rural areas are not morally equal to urban areas. This is a major shift from previous times: for example, during the US Revolution the farmer-citizen was Thomas Jefferson’s ideal man, and their Electoral College was created in part to ensure rural voices are not drowned out by city-slickers.
Let me give a personal anecdote which exemplifies modern journalism’s endemic failure on modern China and the Cultural Revolution:
Just prior to writing this series I was at a social function where I was introduced to an Anglophone journalist from a top international news organization (which I will not name). He had spent 10+ years based in China, spoke Chinese, and he was told I was publishing a book on China (more on this later). I told him the book is more about “Chinese socialism” than “China” per se, and he was very surprised that my goals were to rebut the vilification of Mao, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, etc. This journalist pounced firstly on my defense of the CR, and said that their media had him interview many people in China about the horrors of the CR - he couldn’t imagine that I would want to defend it? I didn’t start defending it to him - I simply asked: “The people you interviewed – what class were they from?” He evaded the question in order to stress the CR’s horrors and failures, so I repeated, “From what class?” The reason I did this was because – contrary to Western belief – class still matters, and the view of the CR changes drastically in China depending on one’s class. At this point the person looked to our mutual acquaintance in mock horror and said, “What have you gotten me into with this guy?!” LOL….
Clearly, the lens of “class” never even came into this Western mainstream journalist’s mind, and just bringing up the concept created shock and disbelief. This journalist is not atypical of his class.
Furthermore, I am certain he (or she) did not go into China’s rural areas and dig out the truth of the CR because… I myself never go outside of Paris to do journalism for PressTV. The reality is that city journalists just don’t have the monetary resources, the time and often the inclination, and their editors do not care / can’t get more funding.
We have new research and new journalism on the Cultural Revolution so… please buy our books!
That’s why The Unknown Cultural Revolution: Life and Change in a Chinese Village by Dongping Han is such an important book. Han was kind enough to write the forward to my new book, and I have written this series to popularize and discuss his far, far more important book on Chinese socialism.
My book, incidentally, has just been published by Badak Merah Publishing house, which publishes the indispensable, inspirational and unrepentantly leftist journalism of Andre Vltchek, Jeff J. Brown, and others. It is titled, I’ll Ruin Everything you Are: Ending Western Propaganda in Red China, and is now available on Amazon in English, and very soon in Mandarin Chinese as well. I hope you can buy a copy for yourself and your 300 closest friends.
My book is not bad, but I think that Han’s book is incredibly necessary, and for an obvious reason: that mainstream journalist did not venture into rural areas to discover the opinions of rural Chinese on the CR, whereas Han did.
Han, who is now a professor in the United States, grew up in Jimo County, China. It’s a place with over 1,000 villages, 30 townships and 1.1 million people today, located along the eastern seaboard and in Shangdong Province. In yet more proof that it’s a small world, my cousin married a woman from rural Shangdong Province. The county seat, Jimo, has a population of just 61,237… which should indicate that this is a highly rural area. It is also historically a poor area: Jimo ranked the 16th-poorest in (the former) 17-county Yantai Prefecture.
Han’s work is an academic, technocratic, specialized study of the CR, but it is also investigative, long-form journalism: Thanks to his background, open mind and obviously sincere aims, Han was able to interview more than 200 farmers, CR rebel leaders, students, parents and local leaders in Jimo County. He ate, worked, and even slept in the homes of those he interviewed – pretty in-depth stuff, and so in-depth that he can’t fudge the data to fit his preconceived notions. For quantitative research he pored over decades of local records, which became available shortly after the year 2000 in China.
Han’s book gives us a comprehensive view of Jimo County before, during and after the CR – both anecdotal and statistical – and one which we should not expect any journalist to better anytime soon. Also, as Han notes, there is no reason we cannot extrapolate Jimo’s experience to the rest of rural China – Jimo County was not atypical. Han has given us the West a foundational text for modern understanding of the CR.
Han was objective like a journalist as well, because he did not go into his CR analysis with a bias, unlike mainstream journalists and Western academics. His starting point was: What was the effect and view of the CR from the rural perspective?
I can’t read Chinese, but I can say this regarding English language CR studies: That is a revolutionary perspective. Normally we only have the urban perspective, the perspective of college professors, the perspective of those judged guilty by the CR – we never, ever hear the perspective of anyone who might have possibly benefitted from the CR.
I encourage readers to not just read this series – which condenses Han’s book, discusses the key points and occasionally offers a different perspective on his data and global socialism trends and history – but to buy and read Han’s book. It is not long, it is not written in boring academic-ese, and has many interesting anecdotes which only a Chinese farmer living during the CR could relate. Truly: Where else can you read in English what a Chinese farmer honestly has to say about the CR?!
The reality is that because of China’s success since the Great Recession - in contrast with the West’s economic failure - everybody is starting to realize that our perceptions of China’s society, government and economy are misguided, because the West is failing as China is thriving. They must be doing something (many things) right, no? The idea that China’s success is due to being a “Western sweatshop” is no longer tenable and was always a way for the capitalist-imperialist West to try and co-opt credit for Chinese success.
The only way to right our misguided perceptions of China in 2019 is to listen to Chinese people themselves. That is what Han did, and that is what this series does. I hope it will prove useful to you.
Dazzling & quick data which will blow the minds of those in Developing Countries and rewrite the Cultural Revolution
The thesis of Han’s book is far more interesting than, “The CR was really not so bad….” This is his thesis:
The CR’s educational reform, which became approved following changes to political culture, produced an explosion in rural economic development and rural human capital, and thus China’s economic boom actually came before Deng’s reforms in 1978.
This contradicts the narrative that it was only after the introduction of (drastically regulated, and still-socialist) market-based reforms that China’s economy began to produce major wealth. Han’s book directly challenges what you always hear by pushing the start of China’s economic explosion back a decade earlier, i.e. with the very start of the CR.
I’m going to give you my opinion after reading Han’s academic & investigative evidence: He is 100% correct, and it is totally undeniable.
You can argue all you want about the CR’s effect on intellectuals, disgraced party cadres, urban residents, pro-capitalist artists, witch doctors, Buddhist monks, etc., but the hard data of the CR’s success for the majority of China as revealed by Han’s work is stunningly, stunningly convincing.
There is only one perception shift which is required to allow one to accept this obvious conclusion – prioritize the rural perspective ahead of these urban, elite, minority perspectives.
That’s never done in the West, despite the fact that it is the only truly democratic viewpoint to have when discussing China: after all, China’s rural population was 82% of the overall population in 1964. Therefore, if the CR targeted and benefitted rural areas – which it undoubtedly did – then there is no doubt that the CR was a fundamentally democratic sociopolitical event.
I’d like to immediately give just a few of Han’s data-based examples, because they are so overwhelming that I think anyone who reads them will sit up with interest:
1965 primary schools in Jimo County: 8 schools, 3,600 students. In 1976: 269 primary schools, 52,000 students. Increases of 3,400% and 1,400% respectively.
1965 high schools in Jimo County: 2 high schools, 400 students. In 1976: 84 high schools, 13,200 students. Increases of 4,200% and 3,300% respectively.
1965 government & village teachers for middle & high school in Jimo County: 315 total staff. In 1976: 4,230 total staff. Increase of 1,300%.
As Han reminded me during a discussion, by 1976 almost all school-age students (including high school-age) were enrolled in the rural school system free of charge, something which has not even been achieved in the US today.
Clearly, this is hugely at odds with the well-known belief that the CR was a time of Chinese academic regression! That propaganda only works if one focuses solely on university-level (elite-level) education and only for a short period of time, but such a view simply does not fit the data when examining rural areas.
Just as clearly: for developing countries, this type of an explosion in rural education is urgently needed and even more-urgently desired by their inhabitants.
So that was the impact of the CR on rural mass education - and it’s staggering - what about rural industry?
Early 1960s in Jimo County: 10 rural industrial enterprises, employing 253 people. By 1976: 2,557 enterprises (2.5 per village), employing 54,771 people. Increases of 26,000% and 22,000% respectively.
In both education and industrial activity Han relates a stunning explosion during the CR decade; it’s no exaggeration to say that the CR finally brought the industrial revolution to China’s rural areas!
1965 total horsepower for farm machines in Jimo County: 8,272 HP. In 1975: 116,856 HP. Increase of 1,412%.
With all that new horsepower at their disposal, did farming productivity improve? Of course:
1964 grain output for Jimo County: 136,630 tons with a unit yield of 69.5 kilos. In 1975: 369,000 tons with a unit yield of 191 kilos. Increases of 270% and 275%, respectively.
1965 area and output of cash crops for Jimo County (peanuts, hemps, vegetables & tobacco): 9,660 tons with a unit yield of 79 kilos. In 1975: 33,350 tons with a unit yield of 129 kilos. Increases of 345% and 63% respectively.
1965 annual per capita grain and income possession and income in Jimo County: 230 kilos and 37 yuan. In 1975: 421 kilos and 80 yuan. Increases of 183% and 216% respectively.
What on earth did I just read?!
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.
This is the Unknown Cultural Revolution in China; this was not achieved by capitalism. (I add “in China” to differentiate it from Iran’s CR, which was the world’s only other state-sponsored CR.)
• Can we have some of that, please?!
• How did they do it?
• Can we replicate it?
For under-developed nations the idea that such increases could actually be made in only 10 years must sound like a gift from heaven.
What we can dispense with is the idea that it was luck: 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, as the GLF was famously handicapped by weather disasters.
“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,” as Han notes.
The rural-urban divide exists because the rural viewpoint is historically repressed – Mao knew this, the CR aimed to fix itSuch stunning data allows Han to make a hugely exciting, revolutionary declaration on the CR, and one which directly contradicts both the Western propaganda view as well as the official Chinese view today:
“The radical egalitarianism of the Cultural Revolution decade (1966-1976), official history maintains, led to economic disaster. The official assessment is widely endorsed by Chinese intellectuals and echoed by Western academics.”
But there was obviously no disaster…? Why China maintains this official stance will be explained later in this series, but only after we ask: “How could such an amazing socio-economic success occur?”
Han’s thesis is: “…this study contends that that the political convulsions of the Cultural Revolution democratized village political culture and spurred the growth of rural education, leading to substantial and rapid economic development.”
Simple: empower the average person and they will reach their full potential, improving all of society – that’s the absolute essence of socialism.
Just as excitingly, Han proves (yet again) that collectively-organized economies can be not just more stable than market-based economies, but even more dynamic. And let’s not forget the increased social cohesion they also provide….
Thirdly, Han shows that the CR was a glorious affirmation and victory for the 2nd of the socialism’s twin pillars (the first being redistribution of wealth, the second being redistribution of socio-political power). After all, a collective & redistributive economy simply cannot function properly without democratic empowerment of the overall culture and the political culture in favor of the average person / worker.
Ignore the Cultural Revolution… in order to keep pushing 1%-er neoliberal policies and failed ‘trickle-down’ economics
The CR’s political changes actually produced enormous economic development - why aren’t Western capitalists jumping at this?
The simple answer to that is: While any form of democracy is based on a well-educated citizenry - so the best decisions can be chosen in order to ensure the collective good - capitalism most certainly is not.
But Han gives us a global answer specific to the CR: “The official assessment is largely the work of officials and scholars who, because of their social positions, were subject to attack during the Cultural Revolution. Almost all published accounts are written from the perspective of urban elites. This book presents a rural perspective, one rarely found in the current literature on the Cultural revolution.”
So we return to the start of this article: the urban-based elite are the ones who write the journalism, who get interviewed by journalists, who write the textbooks, who draft the education policies without local input, who draft economic policies without rural input, who own the commodities exchanges which exploit rural toil… and Han’s book challenges them by using the rural viewpoint as both the start point and the end point when analyzing the CR. Why not? We are talking about 82% of the country, after all.
Given the depth of his investigations, resources, local knowledge and analysis, it’s impossible to argue with Han’s conclusion: “This investigation of the history of Jimo County has challenged this official account. The take-off of the rural economy in Jimo began not with market reforms, I have shown, but rather during the Cultural Revolution decade. Agricultural production more than doubled and a network of rural factories were established which fundamentally transformed the county’s rural economy in less than 10 years. Jimo’s story is not unique. … Once it has been established that the economic take-off began during the collective era, the claims of market reformers have to be put in perspective.”
The few figures I gave you fully back up Han’s claims about Jimo County; it is up to the reader to provide a theory as to why Jimo’s history would be unique or an aberration in China.
Bottom line: increased horsepower is great, but the best capital is human capital. The CR created immense human capital, where there was previously very little, and this best explains the foundation of China’s dominance in 2019.
Cultural Revolutions are scary to the minority holding power, but not for the average citizen
As I wrote, a new perspective is needed in order to properly explain modern Red China’s success, and therefore we must investigate a new perspective on the Cultural Revolution. Han’s book and this series aim to provide that.
For the West there is only one path: stop trying to appropriate credit for China’s success, and start listening to Chinese people. This is what Han provides.
For the Chinese, who officially disavow the CR - even if it is not disavowed in rural areas, the solution is more complicated than that but amounts to the same thing: disregard the official party line - the thinking of the establishment - on the CR and start looking at it honestly. Indeed, openly criticizing the Party line was perhaps the single-most important message of the Mao-backed CR!
LOL, the closed-minded will not believe me, but that’s why I have penned this series.
What’s certain is that the CR era – being such a vibrant episode of human political activity – has much to teach everybody, even the Chinese themselves.
I do not and will not disavow the CR, nor will I condemn the Chinese Communist Party for officially doing so today because I know that - much to the happiness of anti-revolutionaries everywhere – revolutionary spirit waxes and wanes. All revolutions show this - the Revolution of Islam in the 7th century, the Soviet Revolution, etc. – because Revolutions are human phenomena, and therefore it could not be otherwise.
If the CR is not thought well of in China today, it will come back into fashion eventually for this simple fact: it was such a huge success that it doesn’t take only an ardent leftist to appreciate. It only appears that way, especially in the West, because of the massive propaganda which has been designed to prevent the appearance of a CR in the capitalist-imperialist West.
I’ll make a spanning-the-decades prediction: if Chinese dominance falters, we’ll see a Cultural Revolution #2 - because the CR worked! (Because it is truly socialist democratic, of course….)
The Cultural Revolution undoubtedly represented a decade-long waxing of leftist revolutionary spirit – what were the real results for the average Chinese person, i.e. a Chinese rural inhabitant? Han’s book and this series discusses the CR’s invaluable contribution in the fight for socio-economic equality which the various forms of socialism incarnate.
This is the first 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 necessary 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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.