The authors of this book, Wilfred Burchett, an Australian, and Rewi Alley, a New Zealander, are no strangers to China. Burchett spent 19 years in S.E. Asia and China, and Rewi Alley first went to China in 1927. He stayed to witness, and to participate in the momentous events that encompassed war, civil war and finally the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, which gave Mao and his colleagues the necessary moral authority to rule. Their central interest as Burchett writes, ‘has been to measure the changes that have occurred in recent years in China and to set them in perspective against what we knew of old China’. We tried to understand also how ordinary Chinese citizens conceive that much-bandied-about term: ‘quality of life’. Both, of course, are ‘sympathizers’, and present a ‘positive’ view of the changes that have taken place at the grass-roots level.
Today, with the death of Mao, that colossus who dominated the Chinese scene for close on half a century, with the power struggles against the ‘gang of four’ that includes Mao’s wife, Chiang Ching, it is good to go back to what one might call the essential China. This book makes concrete the legacy that Mao would probably have liked to leave behind, namely the vital reconstruction of the countryside and of the people. There is no doubt that despite leadership and ‘two-line’ struggles, policies undertaken and implemented in the first decade have laid the base for the continuing modernization of China. From the early years of land reform through progressive stages to the communes, the countryside and the millions who live there and are China’s real strength have undergone profound change. Together with structural re-organization has come the spread of education and ideas which have transformed the social base. Gone in the main is the traditional bondage of the landless and the crushing yoke of poverty. Gone too is the meaningless traditional system of marriage with its feasts, expensive dowries, the enslavement of the wife and the endless breeding of the ‘five sons and two daughters’. Today women work at all sorts of enterprises in villages, towns and cities. Education links problems of production, of employment and of life with academic training. It returns the educated to their villages. Welfare and health services have fanned out to cover the majority of the Chinese multitude. All this taken together seems to have given the people a sense of confidence and made them willing to change styles of life and thought that had been sanctioned by the preceding centuries. But, as the book makes clear, this is only the mere beginning of a vast and complex task.
Through the pages of this book emerge the central constituents of the vision and planning that initiated such changes, which takes into account the total needs of society and state including, for instance, problems of ecology, of defence and security. Burchett may sometimes overstress an aspect or an approach such as the assertion that changes came about spontaneously because the people wanted them. The restructuring of the countryside was not always so smooth, so effortless, or so bloodless. However the dominating idea is clear: transformation of the poor millions is essential if China is to become a powerful modern socialist country by 2001—which was Mao’s goal as well as that of Chou En-lai. And this transformation cannot, as Mao has argued so often, be imposed from above, or be instituted by coercive means if only because it is impractical or impossible to rule so many millions by dictat. If there is a moral to this story of the Maoist transformation of China it is that all change must seek the agreement of the majority of the people; it should be built on what the authors call ‘traditional morality’ and ‘group values’ (which Mao recognized for he was of the people); that a poor country must rely on hard work, on self-reliance, on citizens who are ‘producers’ rather than ‘consumers’ (a very Gandhian approach): and finally that such transformation demands a leadership that leads not by rhetoric or fine speeches but by example and precept (again, a very Gandhian approach).
But there is also a warning. It is contained in the account of the development of the Ta Chai brigade versus the alternative of the Tao Yuan brigade, which is; in a country where backwardness and feudal attitudes do not permit the people to effectively exercise power, the leadership assumes awesome responsibilities and duties. If it goes wrong it can, at best, merely delay social and economic growth. At worst, it may open the floodgates of repression and bloody revolution. If this account is to be taken at face value, Mao tried to and perhaps did avoid such mistakes. He did more—he attempted to so reorganize and restructure China that future inevitable power struggles at the leadership level would not find it easy to undo the established base. Whether Mao did or did not succeed remains to be confirmed by future history. All we can conclude is that he tried.
Mira Sinha is in the Department of Chinese Studies, University of Delhi, Delhi.