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Finding the Truth about Rural China

In May 1978, at age 40, accompanied by three colleagues who had already been to China, I made my first trip to the PRC. I was a critical and independent member of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union. I knew about Leninist dictatorships from reading reports of democratic exiles from the USSR and Eastern Europe. I knew Mao’s CCP had copied the institutions of Stalin’s Soviet Union. I was confident that Chinese minders were not going to fool me.

There also was no way our team was going to be taken in by a Potemkin village. Before getting to China, our group asked to go to a village that was in a region studied by social scientists before 1949. We indeed ended up in the southeast of what had been the much-studied Dingxian. We were not going to be taken in by fictions about the “bad old days.”

We asked, in addition, not to go to a heroic mountain base region of the Red Army or to suburban villages enriched by a near-by metropole. We would see the real rural China. Indeed, we ended up in a very poor region of the North China Plain.

We read every village study we could find. We asked China’s famous social anthropologist Fei Xiaotong about methodology. He told us we had to learn to see the invisible. That is, he could see in 1956 that Mao’s forced collectivization had produced an economic disaster only because he had been in the village twenty years earlier and could see, after collectivization in Kaixiangong, that all the petty commerce had been destroyed by the collective. People were therefore poorer and more dependent.

We therefore had to learn local history in depth. We would interview the elderly, talk with local historians and go to libraries to locate accounts of the region from earlier times.

In May 1978, the four of us set to work for two months to study village China. We each tried to put in separate sixteen-hour days, sharing our insights and concerns each evening after dinner in order to have a better learning agenda the next day. We would ferret out the truth, digging deeper and deeper. We took no time off from work.

We began by living in three different village homes. We sought out so-called black elements, villagers dubbed enemies of the ruling Leninist party. We visited neighboring villages for comparisons. We went to regional model villages. We went to the market. We created a context for evaluating the stories we were being told in our one village. We, however, did not know the villagers had been warned before our arrival to say nothing negative about the Great Leap famine or Cultural Revolution vigilantism.

We tried to see all parts of life. We ate in people’s homes, got haircuts and chatted with the barber, interviewed school teachers, worked in the fields, went to weddings. We, however, could not see what the barber saw, that the customer who followed me into the barbershop was from the security apparatus.

All of our new knowledge would be put in the context of the best scholarship on rural China which we had already mastered long before going to do on-the-spot research in rural China. We were scholars building on the best scholarship.

We knew that the village was a node in a power structure. Therefore, we interviewed people who knew about the village from the national center, where we spent four hours with China’s most famous villager, Chen Yonggui, down through the province, prefecture, county and commune. We, however, had no way to know that this was the village’s patronage network.

In short, in order to figure out how the CCP political system shaped life opportunities for villagers, we went at the topic from numerous approaches. We collected statistics and did a thorough household survey that revealed a mini-famine following collectivization. By the end of our initial two months, we felt ready to write a book that would tell the truth about the experience of Chinese villagers in a “socialist” state. Surely we had learned something substantial.

In addition, villagers imposed on us some issues we never had thought of. They could measure good and bad times by whether white rice was available or whether there was pork to eat on a significant occasion. Cultural signifiers—how one married or how one mourned the loss of a parent or celebrated New Year with family or could build a home for married children—were vital. We had to understand how villagers evaluated life based on their values and not just impose our standards.

After leaving China, we went to the archives of the Union Research Institute in the British colony of Hong Kong and photocopied their file of clippings on the county (Raoyang) of the village (Wugong) we had been studying. We then learned that our “typical” village had actually been a socialist model since the 1940s. We learned that the village had reconstructed its narrative every time the Party line had changed. A critical reading of the URI files was more revealing than the prior two months in China.

We now knew we did not have enough material for a book. Some ninety-five percent or so of what we thought we had so cleverly unearthed by our shrewd interviewing was little more than the story the village leaders and their patrons at higher levels had put together by 1967 so that the village could be presented to higher levels as a successful embodiment of Mao’s Cultural Revolution line. That’s how one won rewards from the state.

There was no way a one-time visit could seriously illuminate reality. We were fools, even though we learned a few things. We had learned that privileged access to monopolized resources came from satisfying the privileged and the powerful, a reality which alienated hard working neighbors who understood that copying models could not win what mattered, the privileged access to state controlled resources.

But we returned later that year. We now had real questions based on the URI files. Increasingly, villagers who did not want us fooled and who now thought we knew more than we really knew sought us out to tell us their truths. Whatever the value of the books we produced on village China after almost three dozen more visits over the next quarter century, Chinese Village, Socialist State and Revolution, Resistance and Reform in Village China, most of the credit should go to those brave, long-suffering and good villagers. Hopefully, some day they will be able to write their truths freely.