I confess to a certain fascination with what happens when a society goes off the rails – goes “Woke”, as we say these days. Hence a mild obsession with reading first-hand accounts from people who lived through China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. That brought me to Ma Bo’s tale.
“Blood Red Sunset: A Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution”, by Ma Bo, published in Chinese in 1988; translated into English in 1995, ISBN 0-670-84181-1, 371 pages.
The subtitle is slightly misleading. The memoir mostly skips the first part of the Cultural Revolution, which was launched by Mao in 1966 and swiftly degenerated into teenage urban gangs wreaking havoc and fighting each other. Ma Bo starts his tale in 1968 when Mao ended the anarchy by launching the “Up to the mountains, down to the countryside” movement in which the young Red Guards were dispersed from the cities to remote locations to “learn” from the peasants.
Ma Bo and three of his comrades decided to take advantage of this change to go from Beijing to the romance of Inner Mongolia, incidentally getting them out of the way of their opponents in the Red Red Red faction. Reminiscent of the 3 Musketeers & D’Artagnan, the four of them swore utter loyalty to each other. Travelling without official sanction, they managed by various frauds & subterfuges to get themselves assigned to Mongolia’s Inigan Sum pasture region. “Nothing could have prepared us for the desolation that greeted us.”
They were joined in 1969 by thousands of other former Red Guards from Chinese cities who were sent to that area as part of the military-led Inner Mongolian Production Corps, charged with turning the steppe into productive farmland. The reader can’t help seeing the irony; 800 years earlier, the Mongols had invaded China and taken over the Empire; now it was the Mongolians turn to face an invasion of Han Chinese.
Conditions in Inner Mongolia were harsh, especially the winters, and the labor was intense. The young workers were under-fed, inadequately clothed, and poorly housed. The Production Corps was a typical bureaucracy. For example, there were strict rules against sexual activity, but various officers took advantage of the female students. Equally, some of the young women used their bodies to worm their way into privileged positions. In the autumn of 1972, young untrained volunteers were sent to fight a forest fire in a neighboring area. Due to mismanagement, 69 of the volunteers died in the fire. No officer was ever held responsible for their deaths – but the peon who organized the digging of 70 graves instead of 69 was severely chastised.
Ma Bo was unusually strong and reckless. He got into various fights, including in 1970 with a well-connected demobilized soldier. That was a big mistake. He was accused of being a counter-revolutionary. His three sworn companions betrayed him and, under pressure, revealed he had once said that Mao’s wife had too much influence over Mao.
Ma Bo’s description of what happened next seems to have been torn from the pages of Orwell’s “1984”. Ma Bo was obviously an insignificant character, yet senior Party officials spent tens of hours repeatedly interrogating him. He was subjected to a mass denunciation meeting – forced into the painful “airplane” position (bent at the waist, head twisted up to face the audience, arms pointed up at his side) while hundreds of his colleagues screamed slogans at him. He could have been shot for his sins, but instead was forced into the hardest & most demanding supervised labor. Presumably the Party’s plan was to make a public example of a few in order to frighten the rest into obedience.
Over the next several years, Ma Bo tried hard to prove his loyalty to the Party while laboring intensely. Eventually, after Mao died in 1976 and Mao’s wife was denounced as part of the new political enemy (the “Gang of Four”), his case was finally reviewed and he was exonerated. Then in the post-Mao era, the authorities decided that the effort to turn steppe into farmland was harming the environment, and shut down the whole operation.
Ma Bo looked out over the land: “Over and done with. For eight years we had labored for this. … All that back-breaking labor … The depletion of resources was staggering; the waste of manpower, mind-boggling; the financial losses, incalculable.”
Anyone interested in such tales of hard lives during a society’s transition might also look at “Building for Oil: Daqing and the formation of the Chinese Socialist State”, by Hou Lj, 2018, 208 pages. Covering roughly the same time period, Hou Li tells of her experiences during China’s massive effort to develop the giant Daqing (“Great Celebration”) oilfield in northern China, in conditions about as harsh as Inner Mongolia. Again, this was a highly politicized effort that substituted the available labor of young bodies for the machinery China at that time could not afford. When an occasional student would try to escape over the border to the Soviet Union, the Soviets would return the unfortunate individual to the Chinese authorities who would shoot him.
Yet the effort at Daqing paid off, unlike in Inner Mongolia. The oil from Daqing earned China the foreign exchange to begin industrialization, fueled the country’s development, and even provided the asphalt to pave the roads.
Some efforts are successful, some are not, and it can be difficult at the beginning to predict the outcome. But all such efforts take a heavy toll on the human beings given the tasks. Perhaps the positive message from such stories is the resilience of the human spirit; people can survive almost anything.
Stepping back, arguably the issue facing any society above a hunter-gatherer level of self-sufficiency is what to do with excess labor? The Medieval answer was the monastery. Mao’s answer was “Up to the mountains, down to the countryside.” Current Western society’s answer is an unnecessarily extended education/indoctrination system feeding graduates into unproductive Big Bureaucracy & Big Law. At least Mao’s approach, harsh as it was, had the potential for perhaps sometimes generating value.
For the import-dependent USA, when foreigners decide that it is no longer in their interests to trade real goods for yet more Bidenbucks, it will be necessary to divert the population back into productive endeavors. That new life will be hard on most of us, but the end result may be positive on several levels.