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.” 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 …

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