China: My Search for the Truth

                                                               By Fred L. Pincus


It’s 2013 and China’s current government says that everything that happened in the early 1970s was bad:

–The Cultural Revolution period (1966 – 1976) destroyed China’s economic and political development.

–The educational system was a disaster.

–The late Mao Zedong, the former head of the Chinese Communist Party and former political icon, committed serious mistakes during the Cultural Revolution.

Most American China scholars and journalists agree with these assessments and go one step further by comparing Mao to Hitler and Stalin.

This overwhelming criticism presents a big problem for me since I visited China in 1972 and 1974 and thought that things looked pretty good then. More important, I expressed my views very publically and very often.  I presented many laudatory slide show/lectures about China, wrote numerous articles praising China and taught an undergraduate college course emphasizing China’s accomplishments. Finally, like many other radicals in the early 1970s, I promoted Mao’s version of Marxism, sometimes called Mao Zedong Thought.

My 1974 pamphlet Education in the People’s Republic of China ended with the following bold statement:

“The Chinese were able to improve their educational system only after successfully defeating feudalism and capitalism in 1949.  Next, they had to ‘reeducate the educators’ during the Cultural Revolution by helping them to realize that their skills should be used to benefit the entire population, and not just for individual gain.  American schools will not ‘serve the people’ until the political and economic structure of the society is restructured to ‘serve the people.’  We should fight to reform the schools, but we must organize for the revolution that is necessary to achieve economic and social equality for us all.”

Following this paragraph, a small graphic showed Chinese workers and peasants singing the “Internationale.”   Nothing subtle here.

So, I’m heavily invested in the China of the early 1970s.  At the same time, I’m invested in being a truthful and honest person as an academic, a political observer and a citizen.   I cringe at the thought of a former student reading something about how Mao allegedly killed more people than Hitler and remembering how I praised him in my class.  What about those people who followed my articles in The Guardian Newsweekly and New China magazine? Do they laugh at what I wrote or just shake their heads?

How can I reconcile these contradictions?  I’m not in constant angst.  It’s more like a dull, gnawing feeling of having unfinished business to confront.

I am experiencing what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance; i.e., the discomfort that exists when an individual’s beliefs and/or actions are inconsistent with what appears to be current reality.  For the last 25 years, I employed the head-in-the-sand approach to resolving the dissonance: don’t think about it.  I ignored most of the news coming out of China.

Another way to resolve the discomfort  is to acknowledge that my previous beliefs and actions may have been incorrect or misguided.  Was I ignorant, naive or just plain stupid back in the early 1970s in believing that things were great in China? Did I succumb to the same uncritical


view of China that my parents and other radicals had toward the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s?  Repeating my parents’ mistakes really hurts!

Another resolution is to deny the current position of the Chinese government and Western China scholars about past reality.  Maybe good things really happened in the 1970s that are being denied now.  In spite of some problems in the 1970s, maybe the current Chinese government is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

All sides to the conflicts in post-1949 have tended to “monstrify” the opposition; i.e., bad things happened until our group got into power.  During the early 1970s, Mao’s opponents were often referred to in totally derogatory terminology – revisionists, capitalist roaders, running dogs, etc.  Maybe the same thing is happening now.


My Search for the Truth


Lifting my head out of the sand forces me to deal with these issues.  Although I want to believe that things were really great in the early 1970s, how can I really know what the truth is?  My previous knowledge about China was based on two 3-week trips in 1972 and 1974 as well as extensive reading.  I’ve had only one additional 2-week trip to China in 2003.  I don’t speak or read Chinese and I haven’t been closely following the English language literature about China.

When I want to know something about China,  I first email Frank, the progressive, former China scholar who I worked with on the New China magazine editorial committee back in the 1970s.   “Would you please recommend a book by a progressive China scholar that discusses the early 1970s in the context of what is now known.”  He couldn’t think of anything and asked me to let him know if I found anything.  If he doesn’t know, what the hell am I doing?

I then contacted a UMBC historian who is a mainstream China scholar: “Please recommend a book on the Cultural Revolution period that provides a balanced view of the early 1970s.”  Fortunately, he responded with several suggestions.  I had a place to start.

I began with a 2006 book The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History, edited by three China scholars.  The book was a set of papers that were delivered at a 2003 conference at the University of California, San Diego.  The editors talked about the importance of using more accurate statistics and documents from the Chinese government,  archives of Chinese newspapers, and memoirs of and interviews with people active in the Cultural Revolution.  None of this was available in the 1970s.

Virtually all of the nine articles were extremely negative about the Mao and the Cultural Revolution.  A model village, Xiaojinzhuang, was fraudulent.  Agricultural output was overstated, self-reliance was aided by substantial resources from the government in Beijing and the level of cultural activities was exaggerated.  This village, which was supposed to be emulated by other villages in the 1970s, excelled in public relations rather than economic output.

In other articles, a model worker, Li Qinglin, rose like a helicopter and fell like a stone in a short period of time, never having deserved model status in the first place.  Many Communist Party leaders were self-serving; well-intentioned patriotic people were killed en mass; the economy was destroyed.  National policies were implemented differently from one place to another.  Everything was heavily documented and it was really depressing.  How could I have been so stupid 30 years ago?

I then emailed Tom, another progressive China scholar and New China veteran and asked for reading recommendations.  He sent me a 1995 article titled “An Iron Maiden in the Village of Lies.”  Dazhai was the most famous model village between 1964 – 1978 when Mao called on China to “Learn from Dazhai.”  Guo Fenglian, who was interviewed in the article, was the head of the village’s “iron maiden brigade,” a group of patriotic, hardworking women peasants.

According to author Teresa Poole, the economic miracle that was supposed to have happened because of Dazhai’s self reliance was actually due to fraudulent statistics or to outside help from the central government.  While Poole is totally critical of Dazhai’s model status, Guo, who was elevated to village chief in 1991, seems to have mixed feelings.  When asked about the best time of her life, Guo refers to the time she was head of the Iron Maiden Brigade in the 1970s:

“At that time our minds were really pure.  We just worked hard day and night, and felt really energetic.  We hoped that Dazhai could change.”

When asked whether she felt used by the Maoists, she responded: “Used is not the proper word.  Time always goes by and everything changes.  I don’t feel regret, though I feel there are lessons in life that should be learned.”  I’m not the only one with cognitive dissonance.

Tom also recommend the writings of Mobo Gao.  Amazon listed several of his books including The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (2008).  Gao lived in a Chinese village during the Cultural Revolution, left to attend college in a large Chinese city when he was 21 and then went to England.  He now teaches in Australia and returns frequently to his home village.  I ordered the book and began to read the day it arrived.

Turns out, Gao is sympathetic to Mao.  The late 60s were pretty nasty and chaotic years, according to him.  Things began to normalize in the 1970-76 period and the economy grew significantly, both in rural and urban areas.  The commune system (large cooperative farms) had more positive than negative experiences, he argued, and urban industry moved forward.  Peasants and workers began to participate in decision making.

In terms of historiography, Gao argues that many of the memoirs that have become an important source of data for China scholars have been written by intellectuals and bureaucrats who were, in fact, treated badly during the cultural revolution.  However, he cautions, the majority of workers and peasants, who don’t write memoirs, didn’t have the same negative experiences.

He also critiques several of the well-known biographies of Mao for using inaccurate evidence and outright lies.  People who died because of unsound policies were not murdered, according to Gao.  Mao should be criticized for certain unsound policies but he should not be compared with Hitler who did, in fact, intentionally murder millions of people.

I was excited after finishing the book since Gao’s general orientation agreed with my own.  In spite of real problems that existed in the early 1970s, the significant economic progress made during this period has been downplayed or denied.  Since Gao is much more knowledgeable than I am, I could cite him in my next discussion about China.

Another thought arose in my mind: Is this what search for truth means–finding a Chna scholar that agrees wih you?  Do I just dismiss other China scholars that disagree?  This doesn’t sound like the intellectual honesty that I pride myself on.

            I decided to read another one of Gao’s books, Gao Village (1999), the story of his home village.  I immediately ran into problems due to my lack knowledge about the Chinese language.  In Chinese, the first name is generally the family name, followed by the given name.  For Mao Zedong, for example, Mao is the family name and Zedong is the given name.

In Gao Village, virtually everyone had the family name Gao although they were separated into different clans for marriage and legal purposes.  It is hard enough for me to differentiate between well-known people like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Lin Biao.  It was impossible to differentiate between Gao Changqin, Gao Changshan and Gao Tianqiang.  Like I said, I’m no China scholar.  Also, I shouldn’t be reading something that I know I’ll agree with.

Having no other recommended books, I turned to the tried and true UMBC library on-line catalogue.  I typed in “Cultural Revolution China” and hit the enter key.  Several dozen books appeared.  After winnowing through them, I located several books that were listed as “on the shelf.”  The next day, I drove to campus and with great anticipation, went to the designated shelf only to find that the books were missing.  Shit!

I then remembered what I used to do in pre-computer days: look though other books on the same shelf.  I picked up one book after another, looking at the table of contents. Library browsing is a lost art among undergraduates and young scholars who rely only on what pops up with a computer search.  After a few attempts,  I found a gem: Radicalism and Education Reform in 20th-Century China (1997) containing about 200 pages dealing with the Cultural Revolution period.  I couldn’t tell whether the author, Suzanne Pepper, was pro- or anti- Mao, but I decided plunge in.

As I began to read, I remembered why I was so drawn to Chinese education during this period.  My writings about American higher education focused on the same issues that the Chinese were facing: more and better education for workers (and peasants in the Chinese case); eliminating separate schools for the privileged and less privileged;  working for the common good rather than individual gain; fostering the belief that highly educated people were no better than less educated people.  The Chinese government seemed to be actively promoting these goals, or at least trying to promote them, while Americans were wishy washy at best.

According to Pepper, many professional educators resisted Mao’s radical reform views of education.  The educators, for example, preferred separate “key schools” for the brightest students, often the sons and daughters of high ranking politicians, managers and professionals.  The majority of workers and peasants would receive a shorter, less rigorous education These key schools would be feeders for higher education where admission would be based on grades and test scores.  This meritocratic system, based on the Soviet Union’s model of education, would reproduce educational inequality by insuring that the most privileged would get the most education.  This is inevitably the consequence of a meritocratic structure of education.

Mao’s view, on the other hand, emphasized the same type of K-12 education for all and a kind of affirmative action in college admission that helps workers and peasants.  This dovetailed with my critique of how American community colleges were intended for poor and working class students of color, most of whom would never transfer to four year institutions.

What I didn’t understand in the 1970s is how unevenly these affirmative action principles were implemented in China.  Top officials often tended to allow the children of their family members, friends and political supporters to attend college.  Students with poor literacy were sometimes admitted so they couldn’t keep up with college-level work.  Speaking out about these and other problems sometimes branded people as counter-revolutionaries.  Of course some educators who never liked this concept of affirmative action tried to sabotage it.

The urban-rural divide in education was a historic problem in China.  During the Cultural Revolution, according to Pepper, elementary school enrollment soared in rural areas for the first time in Chinese history but secondary education was still much less common than in urban areas.  Also, the rural elementary schools were less intellectually rigorous and not as well funded as urban schools.  Rural teachers were also more poorly trained compared with urban teachers.

Many college graduates and their teachers were sent to rural areas for both political and economic reasons.  Politically, Mao hoped that the college educated population would see how the majority of Chinese lived while working along side of them.  Economically, some of the graduates would provide skilled labor as rural teachers, engineers, agricultural consultants, etc.

On the other hand, life was hard for many of the “sent-down” youth and they continually thought about how they could return to urban areas.  Some of the peasants resented the urban youth.  Many college youth had technical skills that were not used when they were doing manual agricultural labor.

In these and other ways, Chinese education made bold advances during the Cultural Revolution but also had serious problems.  My previous writing on China highlighted the advances but didn’t acknowledge the major problems that existed.  My recent reading had been filling in some of the gaps.

When Mao died in 1976, China had several political and educational options.  On the one hand, they could keep the principals of the cultural revolution and try to determine how better to implement them.  On the other hand, they could repudiate the cultural revolution and move down  a different path.

Virtually all observers agree that the current Chinese leadership has repudiated the Cultural Revolution.  Meritocratic education, where grades and test scores are the determinig factor, is the rule.  Collective agriculture and state-run industry is being privatized.  The slogans “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice” and “It’s good to be rich” have replaced “Serve the people.”  Only the political power of the Chinese Communist Party has remained untouched

The main debate is over what to call the new system.  The Chinese leadership talks about “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”  Most western observers would call it “state capitalism.”  Whatever the label, economic inequality is increasing as the country modernizes.  It seems that China now has the worst of both capitalism and socialism.

During the 1970s, people who disagreed with Mao were called “capitalist roaders,” i.e., people who wanted China to return to capitalism.  At the time, I interpreted this political rhetoric as meaning that Mao’s opponents favored the bureaucratic form of socialism that existed in the Soviet Union.  In retrospect, I think the term “capitalist road” can be taken more literally to describe China’s present direction.

I’m disappointed that the post-Mao leaders didn’t maintain the principles of the cultural revolution and try to make them work better.  This would have been exciting since it would have created a new social/economic system that had never existed before.  My views about the early 1970s were not as complex and thorough as they should have been, but neither were they totally inaccurate as I had feared. My quest for the truth will continue.

I’m certain about one thing: If China’s present course continues, history will judge it as yet another oppressive social system.

Copyright Fred L. Pincus


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