Everyday Politics in Maoist China

Title: 1193 | Everyday Politics in Maoist China
Area: China and Inner Asia
Stream: History
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Gavin Healy, Columbia University, United States (organizer, presenter, chair)
Yanjie Huang, Columbia University, United States (presenter, co-chair)
Mengran Xu, University of Toronto, Canada (presenter)
Wilson Miu, University of California-Santa Cruz, United States (presenter)
Yue Du, Cornell University, United States (discussant)


In Maoist China, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the political found expression in everyday life in a variety of ways. From the language used in public and private discourse, to relations between family members, work routines, and economic activity at the village and household level, Maoist ideology touched nearly every facet of daily life. While much of the scholarship on this period has focused on elite political discourse and its impact on state subjects, the papers in this panel look beyond a strict dichotomy of state and society to examine the ways that politics both shaped, and were shaped by, the “everyday.” Mengran Xu (Toronto) analyzes state efforts to popularize the collection and use of methane as a means of fostering self-reliance in energy in Sichuan and Anhui. Yanjie Huang (Columbia) examines letters exchanged between “sent-down” youth and their family members in Shanghai to elucidate the strategies used at the household level to mobilize economic sacrifice to cope with family separation. Wilson Miu (UC-Santa Cruz) addresses the tensions between the political and the familial in South China as the state sought to regulate cross-border marriages. Gavin Healy (Columbia) discusses attempts by Party branch officials on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen railway to help attendants serving Hong Kong passengers steel themselves against the material temptations of the colony. Mara Yue Du (Cornell) will serve as discussant for the panel.

Panel Abstracts:
Beware the "Hong Kong Wind": Socialist Worker Education on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Railway
Hong Kong was an object of desire for many people in southern China during the Mao era, even as it was an object of suspicion among Party officials at various levels. It was a source of foreign currency, consumer goods, and popular culture, and with these things came ideological challenges that needed to be addressed. These ideological challenges loomed large in socialist education campaigns targeting hospitality and transportation workers in Guangdong. While official narratives often depicted visitors from the capitalist West as embodying bourgeois decadence, “Hong Kong compatriots” came in greater numbers, shared a common language with the workers who waited on them, and served as far more accessible models of the possibilities of life just across the border. This paper examines ideological education campaigns among passenger attendants on the Guangzhou-Shenzhen railway in the 1960s and 1970s. As they evaluated life in Guangdong versus life in Hong Kong, workers on the railway were guided in the process of “seeking truth through facts” through a combination of discussions with veteran workers, the reading of model-worker narratives, and direct observation and analysis of the passengers they transported from the Hong Kong border to Guangzhou. My paper argues that ideological campaigns in this context involved attempts to both negotiate a conception of socialist worker identity and draw a boundary line between the new China and the old.

Unsustainable Sacrifice: Shanghai Household Economy in the Shadow of the Sent-Down Movement, 1968-1978
From 1968 to 1978, over a million Shanghainese youths were sent down to work in the countryside and state military farms under the revolutionary state’s ideological and quasi-military mobilization. Ostensibly intended to purge the youths of bourgeois values innate to the urban household economy, the sent-down policy effectively shifted the fiscal burden of the state to the families in the context of the fiscal austerity after the Great Leap Forward slump. Unhappy with Liu Shaoqi’s “revisionist” approach to the slump, Mao enforced through the Cultural Revolution a strategy of ideological mobilization and economic sacrifice on urban households. Through Maoist ideas embedded in the popular mind, the sent-down policy forced people to seek practical family strategies. While the fiscal austerity measures did bring about economic recovery, the economic and emotional burdens on the youths and their families transformed the urban household economy and undermined the ideological foundations of the Communist state. By the mid- and late 1970s, the movement not only lost much of its momentum but also initiated a sweeping disenchantment with the Communist Revolution as it became disembedded from everyday life. Drawing on family letters, archives, and other sources, this paper shows how the multivalent interaction between state ideology, bureaucracy and Shanghai families during the sent-down movement caused an economic and ideological transformation in the 1970s.

The Methane Revolution: The Socialist Restructuring of Everyday Energy Consumption in Rural China (1950-1970s)
With a focus on the Communist Party’s endeavor to confront rural energy shortages, this paper investigates the popularization of biogas as a Maoist enactment of “self-reliance” in the context of Cold War geopolitics. By switching to biogas, peasants would be able to liberate themselves from increasingly desperate searches for firewood, save large amounts of crop straws to feed livestock, obtain organic fertilizer from the residues of biogas digesters, hygienically manage human and animal excrement and at the same time mitigate worsening conditions of deforestation. At first glimpse, biogas installation reached its peak after the 1980s, rendering the socialist era a failed episode marked by the suppression of science and technological backwardness. Yet, the reform era “success” masks an industry that merely survived on government subsidies. By examining the 1970s biogas movement in Sichuan, I argue that the socialist popularization of biogas revealed not only a vibrant network of Maoist production and circulation of scientific knowledge, but also a sustainable form of energy consumption that was deeply embedded in and could not be separated from a collective way of socioeconomic life. From the construction of biogas digesters to the extraction of residue fertilizer, every step of the process required intensive labor and financial inputs that were often beyond the capacity of one household, thereby demanding constant support from and negotiation with the local collective. In this sense, this paper approaches biogas popularization as a complex historical process through which the Maoist ideology was materially manifested in peasants’ everyday life.

Subversive Weddings: Cross-Border Marriage Between Socialist Guangdong and Capitalist Hong Kong, 1950s-1970s
In the early 1950s, tensions and border regulations at the China-Hong Kong border limited trade and migration, yet cross-border movements of goods, marriage, and family ties remained. As colonial Hong Kong provided foreign investments to China, it also brought in resources and information that challenged the socialist vision of an equitable society. Furthermore, although Chinese residents in Hong Kong shared ethnic ties with their counterparts in China, contacts with Hong Kong were treated with suspicious fear of ideological infiltration in Guangdong. Marriage, one of the most intimate interactions across the border before the revolution, subverted the new socialist order by creating not only an economic imparity in mate choice preference in South China, but also an actual choice of marital migration as suggested by some women's grievances regarding poverty. In response, state publications warned women against the lure of gifts and high bride price offered by Hong Kong men, and to remain vigilant of their intentions and political loyalty, especially during the “Hong Kong Wind” campaign. This paper examines cross-border marriage and its discussion during the socialist era as sites of contention between private desire and the socialist state, and as strategies of self-preservation during economic crises. It argues that cross-border marriages exhibited lingering regional connections that defied politics and ideological campaigns, and also showcased the tenacity of preexisting marriage prerequisites against the state's regulations of intimacy and marriage

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