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Canton under Communism

January 29, 2010

Ezra F. Vogel. Canton under Communism: Programs and Politics in a Provincal Capital, 1949-1968. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Rachel Scollon (2000)

This is a determinedly evenhanded account of political activity in Guangzhou and Guangdong Province during the first two decades of the PRC. The author’s ambition is to “understand China on its own terms” (p. viv). His detailed account of the implementation of policy during this period seems designed to demonstrate how each of the frequent changes in tack originates in and is a reasonable reaction to prior developments. This approach provides a contrast to a view of PRC political history as a series of mad, unmotivated (or motivated only by petty personal vendetta) reversals of course. Vogel’s general aims are highlighted by an occasional reference to the views of American and Chinese “superpatriots” (p. 268) followed by an explicit attempt to chart a reasoned course between them.

Vogel’s choice of a single province rather than China as the sphere of his investigation is motivated by a desire to limit the breadth of the generalizations he must make, and of Guangdong in particular by its relative accessibility. There was, at the time of publication, no general chronicle of PRC policy making and implementation for China as a whole, and Vogel thus voices some concern in his preface about the extent to which his data can be taken as representative. This may, however, be mostly an effort to forestall the complaints of the variety of critic who, seeking understanding of China as a unitary phenomenon, sees no value in local studies. Judging by the body of the work, Vogel’s interest in Cantonese particularities seems to take them more as revealing variations on a theme than obstacles in the way of perceiving the true course of events in China.

The vast bulk of Vogel’s data seems to be drawn from the Nanfang Ribao, although he also read other publications and interviewed “former Cantonese citizens, including a number of party and government workers who took part in the first two decades of Communist rule” (p. viii). He offers no further information about the number of interviewees or the nature of what they told him but to say that his various sources largely corroborated each other. The reader is left to deduce that unfootnoted statements in the text were probably derived from interviews. Contemporary reviewers lament this lack of methodological explicitness, but feel it to be a non-fatal flaw in an eminently useful book. With regard to the unfortunate impossibility of conducting fieldwork in China itself, Morton Fried takes the curious view that “what might have been added through fieldwork could have been more distracting than rewarding” (The China Quarterly, No. 45, p. 167). If Vogel’s aim was to let his data tell their own story, he succeeded, for his reviewers focus on quite different aspects of the process described in his book. Fried emphasizes the work of provincial party leaders, but sees also “an older China [that] lies immediately beneath the ruffled surface of the present forms” (p. 170). J. A. McIntyre (Pacific Affairs, Vol. 43 No. 2, pp. 279-282) concentrates on Cultural Revolution factionalism, and Chun-tu Hsueh (The American Political Science Review, Vol. 65 No. 3, pp. 856-857) on the tensions between localism and national-level goals. That this book sheds valuable light on all these disparate concerns indicates the most significant factor determining its reception, that it provided a substantial and coherently related body of information on PRC politics that had, up until this point, been unavailable.

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