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Calamity and Reform in China

March 19, 2010

Dali L. Yang. Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society, and Institutional Change Since the Great Leap Famine. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995.

Matthew Johnson (2003)

The ‘Great Leap Famine’ (1959-1961), with a death toll of as many as 30 million human beings, was the worst famine in recorded human history. As in many famines, those who starved were overwhelmingly rural food producers with little or no access to political power. The enormity of this event has made it a difficult object of study, both because the suffering that it unleashed resulted in social chaos, and because its archives remain closely guarded for the threat that they represent to the continued legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. In Calamity and Reform in China, Dali Yang makes use of recently declassified documents to chart a ‘political geography’ of rural China’s institutions and history, from the collectivization leading up to the Leap to the quiet revolution of economic reform following its collapse. It is Yang’s contention that the lack of detailed knowledge of this geography – and the decollectivized ‘household responsibility system’ (zeren tian) that took root there as a means of coping with the post-Leap crisis – have obscured the role of institutional histories during the Great Leap Famine in shaping post-Mao economic reforms from 1978 to the present day.

Historically, the Leap and its lengthy aftermath are treated as three distinct periods when viewed from this institutional perspective. The first includes the rural collectivization drive leading up to the Leap (1953-1957), the founding of the massive people’s communes in 1958, and the famine that followed. Starvation begat political disillusionment, and “it appears that the average Chinese unmistakably linked the famine with the Great Leap Forward and its associated policies.” Starvation and disillusionment begat a breakdown of social order, and China’s leaders were ultimately forced to confront numerous choices between idealism and pragmatism as they groped toward reform. During the subsequent period of tenuous liberalization and political struggle – what might be called the ‘Mao-era’ period of post-Leap reform – Yang details the struggle between state and rural society over the terms of economic distribution. Despite the ideological reservations of Mao and others, localized resistance was able to win a decollectivized “[production] team-based rural institutional set-up” (98) overseeing distribution and accounting, and reduce the amount of resources extracted from the rural sector to serve urban needs.

During the ‘post-Mao’ reform period this quasi-liberalization, largely unofficial, created the foundation for official state actors to themselves seek more liberal paths to reform. This raises the issue that is at Calamity and Reform in China’s conceptual core: namely, to what degree these post-Mao reforms were ‘path-dependent’ upon the pattern of an “interactive relationship between state and society that lies in the Great Leap Famine” (1). The analytical terms presented here are those of ‘cognitive bias’ and ‘institutional change’; the data are drawn from recently-available statistics concerning the effects of the Leap on China’s provinces. By correlating China’s political geography of provincial organization and leadership with outcomes measured in terms of consumption, mortality, and production, Yang convincingly shows that institutional liberalization did occur ‘differentially’ (i.e. only in certain places) following the Great Leap Famine, and that this created “incentives for decollectivization, which became a reality when the Chinese leadership jockeyed for power following Mao’s death” (252). By linking disillusionment to famine, and demonstrating that liberalization occurred most quickly in those provinces whose mortality rates were the highest, Yang is able to establish a strong correlation between the ‘cognitive bias’ of political fallout and a consciously reformist path for change.

This conclusion, in turn offers several paths of interpretation. On is that the Great Leap Famine, even more than the mainly urban-centered Cultural Revolution, was responsible for destroying the credibility of Maoism’s claim to offer a historically progressive vision of social change. Insofar as many of the markers of analysis are rooted in political economic theory, this conclusion may even minimize a sense of the degree to which the Leap completely paralyzed future hope among many of those who experienced it. While one reviewer, commending Calamity and Reform in China, noted that “the success of rural reform depended on the initiative of [hundreds of] millions of ordinary peasants who had not the slightest intention of making reforms but did so anyway” (Journal of Asian Studies, 54,2:494-5), one is still left with the question of whether the experience of change – economic and otherwise – within human societies is best captured by an ostensibly ‘institutional’ history of reform. In more concrete terms, this might mean that while peasants lack many of the trappings of economic and political power, neither are they merely subjects of that power’s reach. Thus, numerous types of belief, organization, and participation/resistance are just as important to social analysis as they are to society.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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