China: The Shame of the Villages


Published fifteen years ago, Chinese Village, Socialist State, as I wrote at the time, not only contained a more telling account of Chinese rural life than any other I had read; it also produced a new understanding “of the methods by which the Chinese Communists took control of the villages and deceived the world about what was actually happening in them.”1 Now, in Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China, the same authors continue to show how the Chinese Communist Party’s rule has been a disaster for rural people.

A native of Wugong recalled the village, 120 miles south of Beijing, on which these two excellent books are based. Visiting it after growing up in Beijing and moving to Australia, she told the authors: “I could feel the harshness of village lives. They lived and died after struggling with poor land, natural disasters and local toughs. They never had modern education or comforts.” If she had mentioned the harsh rule of the Communist Party as well, that would have summed up the plight of Wugong. Beginning twenty-five years ago, the authors have given a many-sided account of Chinese village life since 1949 that is not available elsewhere. These books are based on painstakingly gathered and detailed observations; they will be read and consulted long after most other works on China are forgotten.

Edward Friedman is a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Paul Pickowicz is a historian at the University of California at San Diego, and Mark Selden is a sociologist at Binghamton University. For all of them, discovering the reality of life under communism in Wugong village was not easy. They were first permitted to investigate the village in 1978—a rare privilege—because at the time all three were known to be sympathetic to the Chinese revolution, a position they have clearly abandoned. The evasions and misrepresentations they encountered from their informants and from their official guides are laid out in both books. While working on their first book, they were given permission to interview an ex-landlord only after four years and four visits to the village. When they eventually unraveled the truth about a local power struggle in 1953, an official said, “Congratulations! You figured it out.” They were asked to omit from what they wrote the evidence they collected of torture, official corruption, falsified statistics, and cannibalism during the famine of the early Sixties. After eighteen visits of several months over ten years, during which officials constructed “a historical legend” of a successful village life, the authors concluded in their first volume:

Beyond attack, beyond question, was the systemic and structured dynamic of the socialist state that intimidated and impoverished millions of patriotic and loyal villagers.

In their new book they write:

To keep us focused on revolutionary achievements, we were kept not only from all black elements [a Maoist term for enemies of the party] but also from [others] who might mention high requisitions, production lies, irrational planting, and nepotism.

The authors observed how anxious and cautious the local officials were in their dealings with them. They were from a capitalist country, and bourgeois intellectuals might lack good will toward the Party. But since the visitors were interested in improved Sino-American relations they could be treated like successors to Edgar Snow—the American journalist who was regularly deceived by the Chinese even though he was regarded for years as one of the great experts on China. The villagers were ordered, the authors write, to report all conversations with them to the local leaders. “Villagers were warned to say nothing about the Leap famine [between 1959 and 1961] or Cultural Revolution violence…. Public security officers fanned out to see that nothing untoward took place.”

What is unusual about Revolution, Resistance, and Reform is that it demonstrates what dogged investigation and experience can accomplish even in a state as closed as China. As the authors showed in their first volume, when the Party took control in Wugong in the Forties, even before the Communist victory in 1949, its agents were local toughs. Traditionally prized local customs were soon deemed signs of “feudalism” to be extinguished. Among them were funerals, weddings, local markets, and festivals. The Party thus destroyed “much that gave meaning to Chinese lives. These private bonds were social glue. To mourn and to celebrate is to be human. To share joy, grief, and pain is humanising.”

As for production, “By 1960 and 1961, China produced less grain, cotton, oil-bearing crops, and hogs than in 1951, far less per capita given the rapid population growth of the 1950s.” In 1959 Mao purged Marshal Peng Dehuai as a “right opportunist” for reporting that in Hunan, his home province, people were starving. In my review of Chinese Village, Socialist State I wrote, “Had the CIA and the KGB installed their agents within the Chinese politburo to wreck agriculture they could hardly have done better than Mao.” The authors said of those years that “the sound of politics had the ring of death. The countryside fell silent.”

* * *

Now, in their second book, the story continues from about 1960 up to 2000, centering again on Wugong. It had been declared a “model village,” one of the special places—the most famous was Dazhai, eventually exposed as a Chinese Potemkin village—which were “vanguards in the strategy of political theater and resource allocation that emphasized political mobilization and self-reliance.” Self-reliance was a particularly suspect word in China, especially when model villages like Wugong received secret aid from the government. Wugong, like every other village, endured numerous campaigns in which the villagers were expected to take part—Four Cleanups, Four Goods, the Cultural Revolution, Learn from Dazhai, Criticize Confucius and Lin Biao. The aims of the campaigns were often conflicting but in every case they made extreme demands on villagers not only to cooperate and work all the harder but to enthusiastically praise whatever they were being ordered to do. Failure to cooperate, they knew, could result in detention, torture, death, and the suffering of entire families.

Almost always the villagers knew what was going on and they composed short jingles to show their discreet defiance and, perhaps, to remain sane. During the famine between 1959 and 1961 one jingle ran: “Flatter shamelessly—eat delicacies…. Don’t flatter—starve to death for sure.” City residents who visited or were forced to work in Wugong were shocked by the poverty of the village and the surrounding country:

There was little fine grain, no rice at all for the palates of southerners. The filth and backwardness were numbing. There was no electricity, no running water, and few paved roads. Town streets were full of animal droppings. Pigs roamed freely.

And yet the Party secretary, Boss Geng, had maneuvered skillfully to get Wugong its status as a model village; he traveled to Beijing where he was received by Zhou Enlai and other top leaders, and he lobbied for a mainline railway to run near the village. But establishing such relationships with top politicians was a treacherous business in a country where at Mao’s whim a close comrade in the Politburo could abruptly be purged.

This meant fancy political footwork for the village chief. Boss Geng, as we have come to know him, had to ensure that in official records, endlessly written and rewritten, he could be seen always to have been on the right side and against the wrong one. In 1967, however, even he underwent a stupid but deadly interrogation by red guards. In 1952 Boss Geng had been sent to Stalin’s Russia to learn from fake model cooperatives, which then became models for Wugong, which in its turn became a bogus model for others. “When did you go to the Soviet Union?” his interrogator wanted to know. “In 1952.” “What did you do there?” “I went there to learn about collectivization and mechanization!” “They’re revisionists! Don’t you know that?” “Not when I was there. Comrade Stalin was the leader then.” “But now they’re revisionist.”

Later Boss Geng was asked by a red guard about the provincial Party secretary, Lin Tie, already purged, who had done much for the village. The red guard said: “He is a member of a black gang.” Boss Geng: “I didn’t know that then.” “Did you see him personally?” “Yes.” “Couldn’t you tell from his appearance that he was a member of the black gang?” “My eyesight isn’t so good.” This sounds wily, but Boss Geng was in deadly peril, although he was eventually freed to continue his wheeling and dealing to protect his own position as well as the village.

Executions, usually to fill a quota, were common in those days, and were carried out in public. In 1970, if the condemned “black” victim refused to confess, the authors write, “the larynx was severed or injections into the throat were administered, making it impossible to proclaim innocence or defiance.” After an execution the victim’s family was charged 47 cents for each bullet used. “Embarrassed local people,” questioned by the authors, “dismissed that practice as something picked up from the immoral Soviet Union.” During these years even the already poor medical care, for which there was a charge most villagers could not afford, became worse along with schooling. Teachers in the local school were nearly illiterate but this tended to make them politically correct. Years of this kind of education all over China, the authors write, led to a “lost generation” of peasants who, after Mao’s death in 1976, displayed qualities of ingenuity and originality that genuine education could have developed.

But as Mao said, “Where there is oppression, there is resistance,” and even in the darkest days when no one could keep a pig or a chicken, tend a bit of garden, or make some traditional handicraft—a desire for money was condemned as a “feudal” trait—villagers, desperate for money, might raise a “cooperative” hog or make, and sell, little handwarmers for the army. “The political line did not persuade. If the state said money was dirty, then villagers would hide it…. Weddings, funerals, and new homes cost money. So did New Year feasts, gifts.” Zhou Enlai cautiously supported such “sidelines.”

During the late Sixties, Zhou encouraged the drilling of thousands of wells to increase irrigation. While there had been 1,685 wells in and around Wugong in 1970, by 1975 there were 5,860 wells. Bores that had once gone no deeper than fifty meters now reached down five hundred. The new supply of water increased agricultural production but depleted the aquifers, resulting in the current crisis of a lowered water table throughout north China. This is vividly documented by Elizabeth Economy in her book The River Runs Black.2

* * *

The death of Mao Zedong on September 9, 1976, caused genuine grief in Wugong, a display of emotion that calls into question the central thesis of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story. As Jonathan Spence pointed out in these pages, “By focusing so tightly on Mao’s vileness—to the exclusion of other factors—the authors undermine much of the power their story might have had.”3 The factor that Ms. Chang and Mr. Halliday omit—although it is plain enough in Ms. Chang’s Wild Swans—is that hundreds of millions of Chinese adored the chairman and, as the courageous journalist Dai Qing recalled about herself, they would have died for him. They were in awe of him, but that is not the same as fear of a monster. As the authors of Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China write:

Years later [in Wugong] all remembered what they were doing on hearing the news. Men sobbed, women wailed. The old cried loudest…. To most villagers, Mao was the revolution, the one whose strategies won power and saved villagers from invaders, landlords, usurers, and broken families, from all the plagues of old, from civil war, uprooting, and famine. Villagers never blamed Mao for their troubles.

And then, as is so often the case in China, everything changed almost overnight. Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, the rest of the Gang of Four, and a few high-ranking military officers were arrested and eventually imprisoned after a trial. Although in Wugong itself, in contrast with the other villages of the county, Boss Geng continued to oppose anything resembling private enterprise, the villagers were able to make deals on the side, hoping to earn money. Small factories sprang up, making rugs and distilling spirits; their workers earned far more than they ever had in the fields. In the surrounding county, with Beijing’s blessing, a foreign trade office was established selling peanuts, sesame seeds, rugs, and willow baskets to the US, Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia. By 1978 some villagers entered college and the local school improved with state funding. Boss Geng was as active as ever, scheming and bribing to have the main north–south express railway add a stop within the county. Wugong began again to revise its history, and the people who kept scrapbooks of clippings were told to remove newspaper articles that had condemned both Deng Xiopeng and President Liu Shaoqi, the highest-ranking victim of the Cultural Revolution, as “capitalist roaders.” The old traditions revived: the village markets that were held every five days began selling furniture, lounge chairs, ice cream, rat poison, goats, and pigs. Thousands of people came to every market day, and by 1980, 50,000 came to buy what they needed for the New Year holiday. About one hundred households in the county became very rich by cultivating plots of “contracted land” they had put together by buying the small parcels awarded to peasants. In Wugong, “officials now praised reform and criticized Soviet-style collective farming…. Yesterday’s touters of revolution insisted that villagers had always lacked enthusiasm for collective work.”

After Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, well over a thousand people in the county who had formerly been condemned as “black hands” were rehabilitated, paid small amounts of compensation, and given their jobs back. Of the ninety-three people who had committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, and were charged with a political crime for doing so, seventy-seven were cleared of any offense. The mainly young people who had persecuted them were hardly punished.

* * *

The authors have much to say about how the national policy of one child per family was imposed by village officials in Wugong. By 1979, 1,500 couples pledged to have only one child. But as elsewhere in China, families with no sons panicked. Who would look after them in their old age if a married daughter now looked after her in-laws? Local leaders, fearing punishment, had women who became pregnant for the second time detained and forcibly aborted. Dozens of women fled the village to give birth elsewhere. One husband whose wife died during a forced abortion cut the throat of a Party secretary. Eventually the state tacitly allowed families who had produced no son on the first try to have two children.

As in the rest of China—and this is a growing problem today—the reforms allowing officials and entrepreneurs to accumulate money and privileges brought resentment. “Wealth was flaunted, outraging those left behind…. County authorities built a new set of superior apartments for themselves, to the displeasure of many.” People complained of being overburdened by taxes and refused to fill in the potholes in roads, hoping that officials in their luxurious cars would break an axle. The authors write of bankruptcies, unemployment, brownouts, violence, and theft. The authors themselves were mugged four times. “The regime seemed like hypocrisy personified,” they write. As for Party officials, people saw them as “parasitic, an anachronism, not helping people…, mainly just taking care of their own.”

In the midst of all this, as both idealism and Party loyalty were vanishing, the older, pre-revolutionary culture revived, including martial arts, local opera, fireworks, elaborate marriages and funerals, together with interest in the region’s ancient history. Half the Roman Catholics in China lived in Hebei, Wugong’s province. A huge church was erected a short walk from the village; two hundred worshipers attended. The soon-to-be-illegal religious cult Falun Gong found adherents. In 1989, during Tiananmen, tens of thousands in the province supported the demonstrators; Wugong’s officials denounced them.


The authors of Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China show how, in the Maoist years, “the rural poor, the powerless, protestors, and pariahs, offered pungent opinions on the privileges of the powerful.” They show, too, that today, in the years of the much-publicized Chinese miracle, “despite new opportunities opened by reform, other doors closed, and escape from rural poverty remained a challenge.” By putting “a human face on conflicts that punctuated rural life,” they have succeeded, as have few Westerners or even Chinese, in describing the daily experience of villagers in a “centralized authoritarian China.”

Their book is complemented by From Comrade to Citizen, in which Merle Goldman, one of the leading experts on dissident Chinese intellectuals for almost forty years, discusses the struggles of peasants and workers to gain elementary rights during the last twenty years. Professor Goldman has a detailed knowledge of dissident intellectuals, demonstrated in such books as Literary Dissent in Communist China (1967), China’s Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent (1981), and Sowing the Seeds of Democracy in China (1994). But highly informed—and ultimately tragic—as her book is, Professor Goldman, retired from Boston University but still active at Harvard’s Fairbank Center, does not bring us very close to the dissidents who are struggling for liberty and democracy. While she tells us what they say and believe, we can only imagine why, after years in jail, they so often returned to the struggle against the regime. Professor Goldman knows some of the principal dissidents, whom she met in China or in the US. She quotes from their writings and interviews them about their ideas, but we seldom get a strong sense of a particular person. One of her main characters, for example, is the American-trained Liu Xiaobo, a professor of literature who has been in and out of detention since 1989. Mr. Liu is capable of great intensity about his beliefs. I recall him moving from group to group in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989, crouched over, his arms extended, beseeching the students to understand the wider implications of their uprising for the future of China. Professor Goldman gives us little sense of his personality and motives.

By contrast, Friedman and his co-authors bring us into the daily life of the village, as when they describe how Huijuan, daughter of Wugong’s Boss Geng, “chanced upon two young east-village women pouring human excrement into a manure pit.” Huijuan

saw an opportunity to prove herself a red successor covered with shit and thereby politically cleaner than a parasitic bourgeois. She moved toward the women, who were joking while working. Shit, Huijuan then noticed, had splattered on their hands and eyelids. She faltered. Her heart was not in dirty farm work.

But despite the lack of intimate detail, Professor Goldman’s new book offers invaluable analysis of Chinese history during the last two decades. She shows how the increasingly organized struggle for democracy and rights under Chinese and international law has broadened out from the dissident urban intellectuals—who are still a tiny, constantly persecuted group—and has come to include mass demonstrations of peasants and workers. She emphasizes how a great change has taken place in the Confucian tradition, still influential during the Maoist years, by which intellectuals might cautiously remonstrate with the government while they still yearned to stay close to it and to be public servants. During the Tiananmen events, when I asked several famous intellectuals why most of them shied away from joining the movement, they replied that they feared being charged with sedition.

Starting in the Seventies, however, a few dissidents, “disestablished intellectuals” in Professor Goldman’s words, began condemning government practices and calling for fundamental rights such as democracy, a free press, and, eventually, a reversal of the judgment on Tiananmen. She notes that it was their experiences as critics of the Cultural Revolution that gave activists like Qin Yongmin and Wei Jingsheng, both of whom posted their writings on Beijing’s Democracy Wall in 1978–1979, the drive and the skills in public action that enabled them to take on the Communist Party itself. She writes that “veterans of both the Cultural Revolution and June 4”—i.e., the Tiananmen crackdown—“have been able to exert pressure and assert their political and economic rights, however briefly, despite the risks of harsh penalties.”

I am not convinced, as Professor Goldman is, that the links between these intellectuals and other social groups are of great importance, except for a few so-called workers—for example engineers—who anywhere else would be called intellectuals. She herself observes that in their demands and mass protests seeking better economic conditions, workers and peasants do not challenge the political primacy of the Communist Party. As a result—perhaps because of their huge numbers—they rarely are condemned to prison, although the lawyers who represent them—another new development in China—can lose their liberty.4

* * *

Professor Goldman’s account has many heroes. She starts with the views of the demonstrators of 1978 and 1979, “the first group to assert their rights in the post-Mao era,” and goes on to discuss the millions who demonstrated throughout China in the spring of 1989. (She described the Tiananmen movement well in her previous book, but does not emphasize here that it included at least four hundred other cities.) She concentrates on the Nineties, the time of the founding of the Chinese Democratic Party—whose members were soon arrested—as well as of the emergence of political dissidence on the Internet (which the authorities now control with technology from Yahoo, and cooperation from Microsoft and Google), and the peasant and workers’ demonstrations of the last ten years. Among the many brave dissidents she describes, some are former political prisoners from the late Fifties; their acts of courage, the persecution they have endured, and their willingness to reconsider their ideas all seem to me as striking as the rapid economic development that seems to be the principal fact that most people know about China since 1985.

She is right, in my view, to single out Dr. Jiang Yanyong as “the most prominent example of an individual speaking out on controversial issues in the post-Mao era.” In 2003 Dr. Jiang, then in his early seventies, and retired from an army hospital, sent letters to foreign journalists that forced the government to admit to the world that there was a SARS epidemic in China. The following year, at great risk, he commented directly in letters to China’s top leaders on the regime’s most sensitive and unmentionable issue, the crushing of the Tiananmen uprising. The students, Dr. Jiang said, had the support of a huge majority of people in Beijing and the country. But, he wrote,

a small number of leaders who supported corruption resorted to means unprecedented in the world and in China. They acted in a frenzied fashion, using tanks, machine guns, and other weapons to suppress the totally unarmed students and citizens, killing hundreds of innocent students in Beijing, and injuring and crippling thousands others.5

Dr. Jiang added that he supported the attempt by Professor Ding Zilin, whose son died on the night of June 3–4, 1989—she is mentioned at length in Professor Goldman’s book—to find out why he had been killed. Professor Goldman writes that Dr. Jiang was detained for seven weeks and released “thanks to internal and external pressures, including petitions on the Internet, but he remained under surveillance.”

Far less well known is Qin Yongmin, a steel worker “who had been in and out of jail since 1970,” first for criticizing the Cultural Revolution in his diary. Like many of the older dissidents, Professor Goldman explains, his faith in blind political obedience was shattered during those years; but he also developed the skills of a political activist. During the Democracy Wall movement in 1979 he was again sent to prison; after his release he was condemned to twelve years in prison for editing a newsletter, Citizens Rights Observer, which he sent abroad, and for helping to organize the China Democracy Party, all of whose principal members remain behind bars.

Despite many dissenting petitions, magazines articles, and occasional speeches, the rage of peasants and workers, and the skillful use of the Internet, Professor Goldman says that

virtually everyone in China remained unprotected by institutions or laws. In fact, the fourth generation of Communist Party leaders—a technocratic elite under the leadership of party general secretary [and president] Hu Jintao and prime minister Wen Jiabao, who took over the leadership from Jiang Zemin in 2002–2003—reinvigorated the repression of dissident intellectuals…. They suppressed the very people who tried to draw attention to China’s growing inequalities and sought to restrict the public space for political discourse…. While Hu Jintao’s government expressed concern for the peasants, it suppressed the expressions of concern and criticisms of the peasants’ impoverishment that it had not officially approved.

Although Merle Goldman is more optimistic, even hopeful, about the future of liberty in China than I am, her long and distinguished study of resistance in Communist China demands respect for her views. Taiwan, she suggests, may show the way. Once a Leninist party-state, it became a democracy in the late 1980s. There, too, dissident intellectuals, journalists, and students linked up with other groups to demand political reform. But, in contrast to China, there was also a disenfranchised ethnic majority, the ethnic Taiwanese, whom Chiang Kai-shek’s son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, realized must be given substantial political power. This took forty years. Professor Goldman concludes that “contrary to the warnings of China’s party leaders, the Taiwan experience demonstrates that the transition to democracy need not lead to instability and chaos.” It may take China, which is so much larger and has a powerful Leninist party-state structure, more than forty years, Professor Goldman says, to become democratic.

Here is where I part company from Professor Goldman. After more than forty years of the Communist state on the mainland, and despite the courage, inventiveness, and remarkable ability of her heroes, men like Qin Yongmin, for example, to return to the struggle for citizen’s rights, the party-state remains both adaptable and ferocious. The regime is also capable of inspiring fatuous remarks like Prime Minister Tony Blair’s in September that in China, which he had just visited, “there is an unstoppable momentum toward greater political freedom.” (At least on his recent visit to Beijing, George Bush openly called for democracy.) China is a country, after all, where most peasants, eloquently introduced to us in the two excellent books by Professors Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, have no glimmer of hope for genuine citizenship, which would mean the assurance of participation in public life, even if now and then they rise up and demand their rights, as they do. The divide between urban and rural incomes, one of the largest such disparities in the world, has been publicly recognized by Chinese leaders as a principal cause of the rising social unrest that threatens the stability of the one-party state.6 Nonetheless, what we learn again from Merle Goldman, as she has been informing us since 1967, is that the Party’s opponents, despite their endless persecution, are indefatigable.

  1. Edward Friedman, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden, Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale University Press, 1991); see my review in The New York Review, March 25, 1993.
  2. Cornell University Press, 2004; see the review by Robert Skildelsky in The New York Review, December 1, 2005.
  3. Knopf, 2005; see Jonathan Spence, "Portrait of a Monster," The New York Review, November 3, 2005.
  4. Professor Goldman cites Ian Johnson's Wild Grass (Pantheon, 2004), in which he describes one such lawyer, in addition to two other would-be "citizens"; Johnson describes such people with great sensitivity.
  5. Quoted in my Op-Ed in the International Herald Tribune, March 12, 2004.
  6. See the excellent article on this by Joseph Kahn in The New York Times, March 5, 2006. For a broad survey of this inequality, see Rodger Baker, "China: Riding the Rural Tiger," in Stratfor Geopolitical Intelligence Report, March 8, 2006. See also Philip Bowring, "China Keeps Them Down On the Farm," International Herald Tribune, March 10, 2006. For rural poverty, see Howard W. French, "Letter from China: A Countryside Jaunt to the Reality of China," International Herald Tribune, March 9, 2006.