The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were, quite literally, a time of self-discovery in China. From the 1949 liberation onward, China’s Communist leaders had striven to secure unchallengeable power to transform the society beneath them, but they had not shown the same steady interest in familiarizing themselves with the problems and needs of the populace whose lives they intended to transform. As a result, ambitious and delicate “social experiments” were routinely performed with very little knowledge of the conditions, or even the specific afflictions, of the hundreds of millions of patients in question.

As one might expect, this approach to “planning” exacted a high human toll: Chinese officials now say, for example, that over 10 million people died of hunger in the wake of the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958—59, and nonofficial estimates by Western scholars run much higher. From the standpoint of the socialist technocrats, perhaps no less shameful was the fact that this kind of “scientific socialism” left the Chinese state apparatus backward and weak. In 1978, frightened by how little they had inherited from their Maoist legators and worried by an increasingly menacing international situation, the group that rose to power with Deng Xiaoping sought to bring events more fully under its command through a campaign of “truth from facts.” Like previous Communist Chinese campaigns, this one involved a massive settling of old scores. What set it apart from the two decades of campaigns before it was its nominal goal: learning about the condition of the Chinese people.

Statisticians and academic experts, long considered suspect “bourgeois elements,” were rehabilitated and set to work mapping out the nation’s social and economic problems; a general documentation of past policy failures was systematically assembled; and a tactical “opening” to the West was effected, through which technicians and know-how might be made to pass. In these early years of the post-Mao “readjustment,” it did not serve the purposes of China’s new directorate to keep its findings completely out of the public domain; nor would this have been fully possible. Thus, as the new leaders educated themselves about their nation, they also let escape to the West substantially more information about everyday life in modern China than had previously been available. A new body of scholarly literature has taken life from these revelations.

The most eagerly awaited of the new books on life in People’s China is without doubt Steven W. Mosher’s Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese.1 Even before the book appeared, Mosher had become a cause célèbre: an issue in U.S.-China relations, and a focal point for arguments about academic freedom and scholarly responsibilities. The Mosher case is highly involved and still only partly a matter of public record; only the briefest exposition of its outlines (upon which Mosher and his detractors often disagree) can be given here.

In 1979, at the height of “truth from facts” fervor and just after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China, Mosher was awarded a highly coveted Committee on Scholarly Communications (CSC) fellowship to live in and study his then-wife’s native village in Guangdong province. Mosher had been a star student in anthropology at Stanford University, and by all accounts was a tireless and highly resourceful investigator of Chinese life during his year-long research visit. The Chinese government lodged no complaints against Mosher at any point during his stay, but when he began writing up, and publishing, his findings, a far-reaching and relentless campaign to discredit and punish him seems to have been launched. In meetings with Western scholars, Chinese diplomats and scholars would almost invariably bring up the “Mosher incident” and fix upon it, denouncing the man and lecturing their guests on his alleged transgressions. Mosher was—unofficially—accused of bribing local cadres, profiting from graft, smuggling gold and art work out of the country, living with prostitutes in his study village, and other violations of scholarly mores and Chinese law.

At the crescendo of this campaign, Chinese officials directly threatened an executive director of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), one of CSC’s sponsors, that American scholars’ access to China would be “reexamined” if the Mosher case were not “resolved.” The impact of such threats is unclear: Mosher and Stanford give substantially different accounts of subsequent events. After the start of the anti-Mosher campaign, however, two of Mosher’s advisers resigned from his doctoral committee—a highly unusual circumstance in academia—and the Stanford anthropology department began an investigation of Mosher’s ethical conduct. After several months of deliberation, the department voted unanimously to expel Mosher. No student in the department had ever been punished so severely.

With much yet to be released, including the faculty report upon which Mosher’s expulsion was presumably based, it is too early to comment conclusively on the incident. It seems that Stanford’s anthropology faculty believes Mosher was duplicitous in his dealings with them. On the other hand, what seems equally clear at this point is that neither the SSRC, the quasi-governmental sponsor of so much research in the social sciences, nor Stanford University made any great effort to protect or support a young scholar who had come under attack from a government which explicitly rejects the principles both of free speech and of academic freedom. (Since relations with the United States are a topic of great sensitivity in Peking, it seems reasonable to assume that the campaign against Mosher could only have been approved at a fairly high level.) In China, men who “know too much” can be purged without much ado; it would be a disturbing reflection on the American educational system if Chinese cadres were to learn that they could count on scholars in this country to do their punishing and disgracing for them.



Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese is Mosher’s testimony of what he saw during his fateful year in China. There is much in this volume which the men in Peking would surely rather not see in print. Mosher writes that the peasants in Sandhead Brigade (village), his temporary home, have come to terms with socialism by circumventing its rules as best they can, much as peasants before them responded to capricious or inexplicable edicts from their emperors. Peasants saved their strength (and their nightsoil) in their obligatory hours in the communal fields, hurrying home to do real work on their private plots. In a system where cadres could award benefits and privileges without even a passing nod to merit, corruption was endemic, and many peasants seemed to have honed the buying of favors down to a science. Local cadres, faced with the options of accomplishing the impossible or incurring wrath from on high, had grown adept at doctoring reports and numbers to please their higher-ups; Mosher mentions one brigade which actually hired educated peasants from nearby communes to take local tests so they could “prove” they had totally eliminated illiteracy.

Not all rules, however, could be dodged or twisted to advantage. While the Chinese government bureaucracy that Mosher saw was often lost in torpor, it was periodically energized by marching orders from Peking that required it to reach into peasants’ lives and shake them to their foundations. During these periods there was no hope of escaping the directives of the state, even though these might have disastrous consequences. Mosher was in China at the start of a population-control campaign. The Deng group had decided that its modernization program was being threatened by “excessive” childbearing in the provinces (the role of the government in depressing the production of food or restricting the expansion of consumer industries was not a subject for public discussion). Even as agricultural policy was changing to make peasants more dependent on the labor of their family, a second set of orders was suggesting that parents limit their families to a single child (the so-called “one-child norm”).

Mosher describes what these orders meant in practice for the women of Sandhead. All who had already borne their “quota” of babies were brought into commune headquarters for a meeting with top commune cadres and party members:

From Sandhead Brigade there were eighteen women, all from five to nine-months pregnant, and many red-eyed from lack of sleep and crying. They sat listlessly on short plank benches in a semicircle about the front of the room, where He Kaifeng [a top cadre and party member] explained the purpose of the meeting in no uncertain terms. “You are here because you have yet to ‘think clear’ about birth control, and you will remain here until you do.” . . . Looking coldly around the room, he said slowly and deliberately, “None of you has any choice in this matter. . . .” Then, visually calculating how far along the women in the room were, he went on to add, “The two of you who are eight or nine months pregnant will have a Caesarean; the rest of you will have a shot which will cause you to abort.”

Later, Mosher visited the commune health center where these “voluntary” abortions were being performed:

[One woman], already looking beyond a present in which she had been given an injection of what she called “poison,” . . . seemed under the circumstances to be bearing up amazingly well. The woman in the far bed was clearly in much worse shape. Her swollen and blood-flecked eyes . . . took no notice of my presence. . . . I thought at first that she was under medication for pain, but the woman’s work cadre informed me that, aside from the “poison shot,” she had received no medicine. . . . Nevertheless, the cadre hastened to add, the woman was not in any pain.

There was more. Mosher reports of a woman who was given the “poison shot” after she had begun labor, and tells the heart-rending story of a would-be mother who had been successful in concealing her pregnancy from the authorities almost until the end:

“They are so strict now,” she continued, tears welling up. “I just want to have this one more baby, and then I’ll be glad to have a tubal ligation. In the village there is no way to survive if you don’t have a son.” . . . She was sobbing heavily by this time. . . . “I will agree to anything they want if they only let me have my baby.”

Scenes like these, replicated by the hundreds of thousands, appear to be the human essence of the current Chinese “family-planning” campaign. Although this campaign may seem especially horrifying to foreigners, Mosher argues that it is neither more arbitrary nor more cruel than dozens of other campaigns that have been forced forward in China since the liberation. Indeed, Mosher’s conversations with adults who lived through the Cultural Revolution suggest that part of the price of growing up in modern China is coming to expect, and preparing to endure, recurrent periods of state-inflicted suffering.

Few Westerners have seen what Mosher was able to see, and fewer still have had the courage to make their observations public. On these grounds alone Broken Earth is assured a place as an important book. Nevertheless, it is not without shortcomings. Mosher is clearly convinced that life in China today is worse than before the liberation; in his final chapter, however, he attempts to convince us of this through the nostalgic reminiscences of the old folks in Sandhead village. Of all people, an anthropologist should be aware that respondents’ casual recollections are a highly imperfect means of documenting the past. If life in fact was better under Chiang Kai-shek, the warlords, and the Japanese expeditionary army than it is today, there should be a more persuasive and comprehensive way of showing it.

There are other difficulties with Mosher’s approach. At more than one point it appears that Mosher, who is fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin, is not above stretching a translation to fit whatever point he is trying to make. And he has a peculiar habit of winking through the typewriter at his readers, as if there were things he wished he could tell us, but cannot. There may indeed be reasons for Mosher to keep many of his best stories to himself, if only to protect the villagers in Sand-head. Yet his coyness does not serve the cause of clear exposition, nor does it bolster his assertion that an anthropologist on location in a Chinese village can tell us vastly more about Chinese life than a reporter locked up in a hotel in Peking. Fox Butterfield (China: Alive in the Bitter Sea), Richard Bernstein (From the Center of the Earth: The Search for the Truth About China), and Jay and Linda Mathews (One Billion: A China Chronicle) have all recently written reports based on their experience in China; paradoxically, though these journalists had much less access to “real life” within China than did Mosher, they seem generally more informative about it, and at times even appear to do a better job of conveying its flavor.



As it happens, recent revelations in the Chinese press and scholarly journals have made it possible to paint fascinating pictures of life in modern China without ever setting foot in the country, as two recent works demonstrate. The first is The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China, by Vaclav Smil.2 Smil, a Czech émigré now teaching in Canada, has laid to rest forever the vision of China as a low-tech ecological paradise. His masterful study, relying almost exclusively on Chinese-language materials, demonstrates that China’s path to development has been followed at the cost of serious environmental disruption. Past policies, he suggests, have caused considerably more pollution than one would expect in a poor country that is on its way to industrializing.

Smil is not an environmentalist hysteric: he seems to have no philosophical problems with harnessing nature to serve man’s needs. His ecological objections are to inefficient, impractical, or self-defeating policies, and if his account is correct, these have been the rule rather than the exception in China since the liberation.

For much of the past generation, for example, China has pursued the line of “taking grain as the key link” in the rural economy. In practice, this has meant converting forest, hillside, and pasture-land into rice paddies and wheat fields, irrespective of the consequences for the local environment, or even for the production of food. According to Chinese scholars, the single-minded preoccupation with grain did not lead to an expansion of arable acreage. Available farmland appears to have declined since the liberation: what overplanting has added to production, resultant erosion and desertification have more than taken away. Despite highly vaunted reforestation programs, China’s afforested area has apparently shrunk by more than a third since the early 1950’s; with mountains and hillsides correspondingly less capable of retaining water, cycles of drought and flooding have become an increasing plague upon the Chinese farmer.

Smil notes that about a fifth of China’s farmland was stricken each year by floods in the early 1950s; today the fraction is said to be closer to a third. In the centuries before the Revolution, southerly Yunnan province experienced serious flooding about once a decade; today the cycle of disaster recurs every three years. In the arid north, the fragile environment appears to have been even more seriously destabilized. The agricultural outskirts of Peking, which were hit by an average of three sandstorm days a year in the early 1950’s, were seeing twenty-six sandstorm days a year by the late 1970’s. In Inner Mongolia, overgrazing and overfarming led to a steady decline of agricultural production in the 1970’s. And by 1978, Smil notes, Chinese agricultural experts were writing that “production levels and living standards of the masses in quite a number of places are still lower than during the early post-liberation period or during the War of Resistance against Japan” (emphasis added). It is only when one considers the magnitude of the disruptions attendant on that all-out war that the meaning of these words can be fully appreciated.

Agricultural problems seem often to have been compounded rather than relieved through the state’s use of water resources. The Chinese government seems to have a penchant for giant irrigation and flood-control projects; unfortunately, many of these, like the enormous Sanmenxia reservoir on the Yellow River, turn into useless basins of silt through poor planning and mismanagement, squandering water in the nation’s thirsty regions in the process. Smil argues that prudent water management at the local level could meet the needs of China’s fields, factories, and families, but the government seems to prefer to solve water problems through constructing new projects, and pays little attention to maintaining, let alone upgrading, the projects it has already completed.

Inattention to water pollution has also left its mark on the People’s Republic By 1978, China’s inland fish catch was only half as great as in 1954. The same water that kills the fish must be consumed by the people. Over 90 percent of the waste water from the cities, Chinese authorities report, is totally untreated. This might lead to problems when a main city sewage grate is located forty meters upstream from a main intake duct for drinking water, as it is in Shanghai. Due in part to the diversion of river water to inefficient irrigation projects in the country, the ratio of sewage water to fresh water in Shanghai’s Huangpu River during the summer months has been dropping in recent years: by the 1970’s, the mix at the drinking taps was six parts fresh water, one part sewage; during the drought of 1979 it fell briefly to one-to-one. If the Huangpu looks to be a public-health hazard, the Ba River of Peking may not be far behind: it caught fire and blazed out of control in late 1979.

Air pollution has also proved to be a serious problem in modern China, and not only from the standpoint of aesthetics. China’s industries, motor vehicles, and homes appear to be flagrantly inefficient users of fuel. The magnitude of the waste is suggested by Smil’s estimate that reaching Western (i.e., U.S.) levels of energy efficiency in industry alone would save China the equivalent of 60 million tons of coal a year. The World Bank is now suggesting that China burns twice as much fuel per unit of economic output as the United States, and nearly half again as much as India.

A poor nation can ill afford such reckless use of scarce resources. Chinese officials have stated that 500 million of China’s 800 million rural residents suffer from “serious” shortage of fuels for three to five months a year. Deprived of the wherewithal to warm their homes and their food by the profligacy of industry, they must get by as best they can: stripping trees, cutting up turf, and otherwise undermining the productive base of the soil which must sustain them.

Environmental degradation is hardly unique to China. But it may be more difficult to reverse the process in China than in other less-developed countries. In China’s planned economy, prices are not intended to reflect market scarcities. There may be little financial incentive, or pressure, for factories to consume less energy, or for communes to use water more carefully. In China’s monolithic political system, moreover, it is difficult—and risky—for groups which suffer from pollution to stand in opposition to policies officially embraced. If China is to escape from the net of environmental troubles it has cast over itself since the liberation, Smil concludes, it will only be through a radical and sustained redirection of priorities from the very top.



The extent to which China’s leadership has trapped itself in problems of its own making is also a theme running through Nicholas R. Lardy’s Agriculture in China’s Modern Economic Development.3 This superb study, based on a painstaking analysis of Chinese reports on agriculture and industry, is easily the best book on China’s food economy in fifteen years. A short volume, it provides not only a history of Chinese agriculture since the onset of “planning,” but the best explanation to date of the mechanics of the system that must feed a billion people, and of the effects a generation of revolutionary management has had on its ability to function.

The agricultural system the Chinese Communist party inherited, writes Lardy, is reputed to have been primitive and subsistence-oriented; in fact, though it did have many failings, these were not among them. Though battered by almost twenty years of war and civil disorder, China’s farm economy was specialized and complex, with over half of all farm produce finding its way to eventual users through a dynamic network of markets. The revolutionaries who came to power after 1949 attributed the social ills of the old rural China in no small part to the markets themselves, and to the competitive forces which propelled them. After overturning rural society through land reform, they resolved to improve the rural economy by freeing it, to the maximum extent feasible, of marketing infrastructure and independently determined prices.

These reforms had unanticipated consequences. By forcing agriculture to be less commercialized, Chinese authorities necessarily backed farmers into unnatural patterns of subsistence production. “Self-sufficiency” turned out to mean that farmers could not produce what they were best at, and thus led to rising costs of production and declining efficiency in a nation which desperately wanted more food. As Lardy writes, “Self-sufficiency was a chimerical goal except to the extent that it could be achieved by reductions in consumption and income.”

Distrust of markets, for its part, unavoidably resulted in a diminished capacity to cope with the disasters which regularly befell the Chinese countryside By 1978, for example, interprovincial transfers of grain had fallen to one-tenth of a percent of national output—a considerably lower fraction than had been achieved in the 17th century. As a practical matter, such a meager volume of trade could not provide for relief operations for even one stricken province: needy and desperate regions had in effect been cut off from those who might help them in times of hardship.

Although slogans like “agriculture first” implied that the development of the countryside ranked high in the hierarchy of official concerns, Lardy argues that economic policies proved otherwise. Much as the government reversed itself on other matters, it held steady in keeping farm prices low and the prices of farmers’ necessities unnaturally high, moreover, the government budget consistently denied the farm sector an economically rational share of national investment funds. Since the mid-1950’s, Lardy claims, agriculture has been soaked to build industry, but the industrial structure that has been erected through these regressive transfers is highly inefficient, in effect dependent for its future growth upon continued uneconomic transfer of resources from countryside to city. The process has seriously distorted the entire Chinese economy. “China is probably the only country in modern times,” he concludes, “to combine, over twenty years, a doubling of real per-capita income and a constant or even slightly declining average food consumption.”

In human terms, Lardy writes, socialist reconstruction of the countryside appears to have been a mixed blessing even for the poor and the hungry. While land reform and the redistributionist policies of the early 1950’s incontestably improved the diet of many disadvantaged groups, this appears to have been a once-only gain. “Tentatively,” Lardy reports, “it would appear that two decades of collectivized agriculture failed to raise, and may even have reduced, the level of consumption of the poorest quintile [fifth] of China’s population.” For the nation as a whole, there seems to have been a deterioration in both quantity and quality of foods between the late 1950’s and the late 1970’s. As one observer has noted, “grain first” worked out in practice to mean “grain only”; percapita grain availability failed to rise, and consumption of the more highly valued foods—vegetable oil, sugar, vegetables, fruit, fish—all went into decline.

If food availability did not grow over these years, inequality in distribution did. According to Chinese sources, per-capita grain availability fell in the countryside by 6 percent between 1957 and 1978; yet it rose by over 10 percent in the cities. Vegetable oil—indispensable to Chinese cooking—dropped by 9 percent over those same years in the cities, but by 43 percent in the rural regions. China’s cities have become enclaves of nutritional privilege; their protected status is insured by laws that prohibit country people from traveling to town except under specific and highly restricted circumstances.



Since 1978, China’s planners have relaxed some of the rules against rural markets, and have moved to bring agricultural prices more in line with production costs. Agricultural production has responded vigorously to these reforms, but Lardy warns that there may be sharp limits to how much further this regime can “liberalize” its agricultural policies. Since urban food prices are heavily subsidized, raising prices for farmers “would require even larger subsidies for the Ministry of Food that would come at the expense of other government expenditures. That constraint inhibits setting rational farm-level prices and increasing the commercialization of Chinese farming.”

But the pressures to return to previous policies do not emanate solely from the budget. Regardless of the sentiments Westerners may choose to ascribe to it, the entire spectrum of leaders high in modern China appears to have a fundamental distrust of policies that remove choices from its immediate grasp. Punitive, even catastrophic, farm policies of the past cannot be written off as aberrations on the learning curve. Lardy writes:

Policy appears to reflect a consensual process, not the dictates of one man or small group . . . The fundamental shortcomings of agricultural development policy stem not from the Cultural Revolution, when the so-called leftists were in ascendancy. They stem rather from the introduction of compulsory procurements of farm products in the fall of 1953 and the collectivization of agriculture in 1955—56. . . . In some periods party intervention was moderate . . . but the use of price incentives rather than direct control always has had consequences that have proven unacceptable to China’s ruling coalition, whatever its composition. That coalition proclaims frequently its affinity for the peasantry but, except for brief interludes, has adopted policies that promote urban and industrial development, even at the expense of the vast majority.



If the new literature on China answers many questions about the well-being of the Chinese people under three decades of radical social experimentation, it should also raise a number of questions here in the United States. In a society like ours, where information carries certain moral obligations, revelations of the distress of broad segments of the Chinese population—much of it caused by policies deliberately undertaken by a continuum of governmental leaders—raises the issue of what the proper American attitude toward the Chinese state should be. At present, for example, the United States is spending over $10 million, through United Nations conduits, to fund “population activities” in China—presumably efforts not too different from the ones that Steven Mosher witnessed in 1979. China is lobbying for a substantial increase in development assistance from the World Bank so that it might, among other things, undertake new water-works projects and strengthen its “agricultural-management infrastructure”; the United States is reportedly considering underwriting the request. Last, but certainly not least, the Reagan administration appears to have entangled itself in a commitment to shut off the sale of defensive weapons to Taiwan, and may be on the verge of an even more significant strategic decision, which would include the provision of military and nuclear technology to the Mainland.

The new literature on China should leave little doubt in our own minds about the credibility of our nation’s commitment to human rights if we should press forward in this relationship. There is, after all, an old Occidental adage that you can judge people by the friends they choose.



1 Free Press, 317 pp., $17.95.

2 M. E. Sharpe, 247 pp, $25.00.

3 Cambridge University Press, 285 pp, $37.50.

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