The first rule of PRC history might be “Never take the Chinese Communists at their word.” Early observers praised the CCP, but by the 1990s there was broad disillusionment among China scholars who increasingly believed that observable realities contradicted official claims. In the post-disillusionment era, that realization became a methodology; generations of students were trained to look for sources that exposed the truths the Party ostensibly sought to hide. For archival historians this method has produced strange results, because many of the sources used to tell the untold stories of Chinese Communism are the Party's own documents. Even as historians read the state's internal records critically, there is still a tendency to be noticeably uncritical when those documents contain information that seems to vitiate official propaganda. This article explores the unreliable analyses that result when scholars attempt to turn state sources against the state. It further argues that much of the “damning” evidence against the Party actually appeared in official, published sources—but because archival historians often dismiss propaganda as fiction, the scholarship has not traced state claims closely enough to recognize and identify them in classified sources.
In January 1951 a woman appeared at a People's Courthouse in Hebei Province to file suit against Chinese Communist cadres from her village, who she alleged had terrorized her husband, Guo Yuzhong, into committing suicide. According to the widow, her husband had visited a shop that was robbed the same day, and he was detained on that evidence alone. Cadres apparently interrogated Guo multiple times, beating him and subjecting him to long periods outdoors, in freezing temperatures, trying to force a confession. After a cadre threatened to detain Guo's entire family, the accused threw himself into a well and drowned (Zhang J. 1952). When the county court delayed handling her case, Guo's widow sent for her elder son, a disabled People's Liberation Army veteran, who was away working for the railroad. The younger Guo returned home and visited the district-level People's Government to request help. The cadres in that office, and in countless others, simply sent him away (Zhang J. 1952).
Meanwhile, crimes far more serious than Guo's alleged petty theft appeared to be going uninvestigated. That same year, a twenty-nine-year-old cart driver from Shanxi was traveling all over North China, visiting dozens of government units, all in an effort to accuse his boss of murder and fraud. The driver, Zhang Shunyou, claimed he was trying to “answer the People's Government call to enthusiastically report counterrevolutionaries” but that he could not get a single government cadre to listen to him or take his report (Zhang and Li 1952). Zhang and the Guo family were not alone. One resident of Tanglin Village had been persecuted and humiliated for ten years over a charge that was later dismissed as false. In the city of Shendong, a man had been arrested three times on allegations that were never proven. The mother of a poor railway worker in the city of Baotou accused local cadres of trumping up a corruption case against her son, but despite her pleas, no one investigated. In fact, it appears that many Party units regularly ignored citizen complaints, questions, or requests. The Tong County Party Committee had put aside and eventually lost several written complaints and suggestions from the masses under its jurisdiction. A soldier's family in Qingyuan County visited the Provincial Court 118 times to resolve a housing dispute, all to no avail. In 1952, at the Communist Party's North China Bureau alone, officials received between ten and twenty letters per day, many of which contained similar complaints about cadre malfeasance and unresponsiveness (L. Liu 1952).
Even as people encountered a seemingly cruel and/or apathetic state, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was publicizing a very different picture of state-society relations. Over the course of 1952, the North China Bureau and its subordinate units (which included those in the Guo family's Wuqiang County and Zhang Shunyou's village of Zhuangtou) claimed that they had indeed received many letters and visits. But the Bureau insisted, in the People's Daily, that this flood of correspondence revealed “a deep level of trust in the Party, and especially in Chairman Mao.” According to the article, the letter writers all “demonstrated a strong sense that justice is on their side by how confidently they make criticisms and offer suggestions. They all indicate that the people's consciousness is rising; they are coming to know that the masses are truly the masters” (Renmin ribao1953). These conflicting reports highlight a contradiction that historians have come to see as necessarily fundamental to analyses of the PRC: the incongruity between positive propaganda and evidence of a darker reality.
Neil Diamant (2000) has shown that government agents who were negligent, corrupt, and incompetent regularly restricted the ability of the state to exercise its full capacity for control, as is well illustrated in the case of Zhang Shunyou. Jeremy Brown (2007: 129) has added that, “in spite of its initial bumbling,” the state also managed to institute near total control in some instances, terrorizing people, like Guo Yuzhong and his family, in the process. These twin motifs, bumbling cadres/brutal cadres, appear reliably in work on PRC history (including my own), which is a voyeur's delight of misbehaving officials, botched campaigns, corrupt criminal investigations, and gratuitous violence (Ho 2018; DeMare 2015; Brown and Johnson 2015; Dikötter 2013; Smith 2013; Brown and Pickowicz 2007). There is a great deal of archival evidence suggesting that the bumbling-yet-brutal state is an apt characterization, at least of the early 1950s, and especially when compared to other posited models and narratives, which as Diamant (2001: 184) argues, are far too “elegant” to “capture the all-too-common ‘mess’ of Chinese politics” and history.
There is nevertheless something troubling about the brutal-yet-bumbling model: it also quite elegantly reproduces the Party-state's own narrative about its governance. While the Zhang and Guo cases seem to contradict CCP rhetoric, they were, in fact, central elements in that very rhetoric. All of the stories I have included thus far are from newspapers and other published propaganda. Propagandists pulled these anecdotes from internal, classified documents; even in the state's top-secret records, tales of egregious errors were common. Indeed, one reason scholars find it relatively easy to locate examples of problems and failures is that superiors required subordinates to include discussions of “weaknesses, flaws, and mistakes” in reports. As Diamant (2010: 427) notes, internal CCP documents on Party work begin with “examples of success . . . and then shift into critique mode . . . ” with the transition between the two “clearly marked by the word ‘however’ (danshi 但是).”
Thus, Party rhetoric and state narratives, from the People's Daily to classified memos, are chock full of lazy, negligent, and even murderous communists. If misbehaving state agents were a defining feature of CCP governance, CCP governors were acutely aware of that fact. The Guo Yuzhong and Zhang Shunyou cases read like examples of a state struggling to tame and train its own agents because that is precisely what they were designed to be. The stories were (loosely) based on true events, but the texts describing them were explicitly instructional, lessons from the core curriculum for the “Three Antis” cadre-rectification campaign. Ongoing rectification movements taught cadres to mimic these cases, and other such primers, so that virtually every situation report, survey, directive, and policy discussion produced at any level, regardless of topic, contained a similar message: Officials and superiors saw nearly every project as beset by the errant behavior of their undertrained, undermotivated, corrupt, incompetent, and capricious cadres.
This will not be a controversial claim—the first generation of social scientists observing the nascent PRC regularly noted the problems the new state had with its “middle management” (Barnett and Vogel 1967; Schurmann 1966; Teiwes 1971). Graduate students all learn that the newly victorious CCP was vexed by their mix of retained Guomindang personnel and zealous but inexperienced rural revolutionaries. Party Central launched one internal rectification movement after another in a series of ever more desperate attempts to get their massive bureaucracy to function efficiently and in line with official goals. These rectifications form the terrain of our sources and our scholarship. But we have not been sufficiently attuned to their methodological implications: Given the centrality of cadre error to the CCP's own narratives, it is hardly surprising that when we pluck cases from the official administrative record, those anecdotes show that the would-be authoritarian state was constantly impeded by its bureaucracy; such was the very argument those anecdotes were evidencing when we “recovered” them.
Once articulated, this point is obvious. Yet, there is still a prevailing tendency to see positive descriptions as rhetoric and negative depictions as rare glimpses at the reality underneath that rhetoric, even as Gail Hershatter has argued definitively against this kind of “veneer thesis” (Hershatter 2011; Smith 2014). Neil Diamant and Brian DeMare have both warned historians that reports of problems are often overstated, precisely because, as Kevin O'Brien and Li Lianjiang (2006) have shown, state agents at all levels make great use of the classic bureaucratic strategy: blame subordinates (see also Diamant 2010; DeMare 2019; O'Brien 1996). But, although they hint at deeper problems, those scholars and many others still treat negative claims as more revealing than positive ones. Diamant (2010: 427), for example, affirms that “the ‘problems’ section is generally closer to the truth” and that researchers should pay far more attention to the part of the document that comes after the “however.” I counter, however, that there is no evidence to support that theory. Neither Diamant nor others offer concrete grounds for favoring negative claims, beyond references to “common sense” and circular reassertions of the equally suspicious suggestion that Party sources “prettify the picture” (Seymour and Anderson 1999: xiv). How, we ought to ask, is this view so compelling when we have always known that the picture the CCP painted, especially of its own cadres, was anything but pretty?
The first part of the answer is deceptively simple—we do not know the party's rhetoric as well as we think we do, and so when we see what looks like a brutal-yet-bumbling state, for instance, we do not recognize it as the Party's own understanding of its governance. The second part of the answer, the reason why we do not know CCP discourse as fully as we should, has to do with the history of our field. Much of the tenor and the tone of PRC history was set by the first generation of China scholars to encounter and study Chinese communism and by their understandable but very personal reactions to the failure of the Chinese revolution to achieve its stated aims. As Fabio Lanza has shown, many of the senior scholars who shaped emergent fields in PRC studies were themselves profoundly shaped by disillusionment (Lanza 2017). Perry Link, one of the most influential senior China scholars and a former member of the Maoist-sympathizer group, the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS), now repeatedly warns that the Chinese Communist Party “paints a superidealized picture that is essentially false” (Link 2007: xv).
In the post-disillusionment era, the apparent contradiction, between what the Party said (the onetime source of scholarly enthusiasm) and what the Party did (the reputed cause of scholarly disenchantment) has essentially structured the field of PRC history.1 It has given rise to that ubiquitous formula, what we might call the post-disillusionment couplet: CCP propaganda said X, but in reality, it was Y. While the contradiction is real, and should inform our methodology, the disillusioned generation developed a zeal for falsifying Party rhetoric, which became the basis for privileging the claims that come “after the ‘however’ ” and ignoring much of the historical record as “window dressing” (Seymour and Anderson 1999: xv).
The post-disillusionment falsification methodology often leads us to dismiss genuinely useful insights from our historical sources even as we inadvertently replicate their rhetoric. The corrective is not, however, to abandon analyses that also happen to accord with those of the Party. Rather, I argue the opposite: we need to take the state's own writing about its governance more seriously. It seems that we have yet to fully map the grain of official PRC-state sources, and thus many of our attempts to read against that grain have produced misreadings. Cutting-edge research in PRC history has begun to create more faithful cartographies of Chinese communism, which locate deep meanings we mistook for superficial rhetoric and expose fabrications we unwittingly naturalized (Hershatter 2011; Schmalzer 2016; Altehenger 2018; Ho 2018).
To map the grain of cadre error, we can begin by noting that the CCP's own discourse also emphasized the discrepancy between what the Party said and what it did. “What we say, we do” (yao shuodao zuodao 要说到做到) featured regularly in propaganda since at least the 1940s, as both a description of ideal cadres and a rebuke/instruction for errant cadres.2 If reports from the people suggested that party agents were not walking the walk, state rhetoricians were among the first to point that out, because examples of hypocrisies, egregious brutalities, and the negligent misdeeds of CCP cadres went seamlessly along the grain of the Party's most important narrative in early PRC period: the mass line (qunzhong luxian 群众路线). Recent scholarship by political scientists has begun to reassert the importance of this fundamental concept (Liu Yu 2006; X. Chen 2012; Kennedy and Shi 2015; Tang 2016). But because the mass line has long been seen as one of the idealized claims that came “before the ‘however,’ ” much of the anglophone historiography simply ignores it and mines descriptions of cadre error as little more than data points in the drive to debunk. If we treat the documents holistically, instead, as exchanges in a series of complex conversations about praxis, we get much better mappings of the conceptual apparatuses that shaped Chinese communism.
In March 1952, Zhang Shunyou apparently stormed into the offices of the Central Committee's North China Bureau. “I've been all over Suiyuan, Chahar, and Shanxi, visiting twenty-seven offices,” he ranted, “It took five months. This not only delayed production, but I also used up my savings, sold my clothes, my blankets, my pipe, and more. When I was out of money, I went behind my parents’ backs and sold our household's grain to cover my travel costs. Altogether, I spent more than 240,000 yuan.” Zhang further reported that he had been mistreated by government personnel, sent on wild goose chases for paperwork, and even arrested by Public Security officers, all because he was trying to participate in the mass campaign against counterrevolutionaries by reporting his employer, Song Yude (Zhang and Li 1952: 3).
Zhang's story had begun in 1951, while he was working as a cart driver for Song, a small-scale grain merchant. According to Zhang, he and his boss were working in Guisui, Inner Mongolia, when the government announced the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries. Soon after, Zhang later reported, Song suddenly announced that he was changing his name and moving his operation to another province. Song allegedly drew up two counterfeit travel passes, and he and Zhang set off. It was around this time, Zhang said, “that I began to suspect Song Yude was not a good fellow, and I thought I should report him.” Zhang shared his concerns with a cadre from his own village as well as with someone at the county-level People's Government. At the end of June 1951, Song Yude was arrested and interrogated by the district-level authorities, but he was released without charge seven days later. In July, Zhang claimed, he discovered that villagers from Song's hometown, near Datong, had accused Song of being a despotic landlord who had killed a villager. Zhang took this information to the Datong People's Government, but cadres there apparently sent Zhang away because he lacked the appropriate letter of introduction. It was then that Zhang Shunyou spent several months traversing three provinces and eventually marching into the offices of the North China Bureau (Zhang and Li 1952: 3).
The Zhang Shunyou case strikes a familiar chord. Tales of ordinary citizens seeking justice from a vast and indifferent bureaucracy abound in fiction, film, and investigative journalism. Zhang's story, and that of the Guo family, are narratively similar to the tale of He Biqiu, or Qiu Ju as she was called in Zhang Yimou's film adaptation of Chen Yuanbin's novella The Wan Family Lawsuit. If such narratives of state unresponsiveness were critical of the state, the CCP embraced that criticism as a key part of intra-Party discussions about its own governance. We probably only know Zhang Shunyou's story because when he thundered into the North China Bureau, Central Committee member Liu Lantao saw links between Zhang's account and ongoing efforts to discipline cadres.3 Zhang and Guo were both featured in a cadre rectification primer, for which Liu wrote the introduction. This material was distributed to units around the country as part of the Three-Antis campaign to curb cadre errors.4
Zhang and Guo were instructive cases because, while there were many facets of cadre error, not paying close attention to letters and visits from ordinary people was seen as one of the most egregious, as it was directly observable by the people themselves. In 1951 Zhou Enlai and the State Administrative Council (Zhengwuyuan) accused subordinates across the country of ignoring the petitions and thus “alienating the masses of the people from the People's Government” (“Zhengwuyuan” 1951).
In July 1951, for example, the Beijing Municipal Government admitted that they had some problems with foot-dragging and backlogs in their handling of the people's letters. In July 1952, Beijing's Xuanwu District Government confessed that nearly everyone in their unit “had failed to take letters from the masses seriously enough on an ideological level” because cadres thought “handling letters from the masses was small stuff, that it was simply helping individual members of the masses solve problems, and that it didn't have much of an effect.” As an example of the kinds of problems this attitude created, the report cited a local woman who had accused her husband of abusing her and of tax evasion: “Cadres simply transferred the letter to the tax bureau and didn't press it. During the Five Antis, [she] wrote again, this time to the mayor, saying that the government had not handled this for her” (Xuanwu qu renmin zhengfu 1952).
The Xuanwu report acknowledged they had been “bureaucratist in our work” but added, “we organized a ‘Study of the Zhang Shunyou Affair’ campaign, and since then, we have remedied the cadres’ mistaken mindset of not taking seriously letters from the masses. They have recognized its importance” (Xuanwu qu renmin zhengfu 1952). If the report writer's optimism was genuine, however, it may have been misplaced. Zhang Shunyou's case had suggested that some cadres were not interested in suppressing counterrevolutionaries, and after a national education campaign in Zhang's name, mishandling letters continued to hinder that same work. In 1955, the Beijing Public Security Bureau claimed that since 1951 they had received 12,316 letters “accusing counterrevolutionaries or criminal elements.” Of those leads, the police reported, they were able to verify charges and make arrests in approximately 300 cases. The other 12,000 letters were still under consideration, having piled up for weeks before they were opened and longer still before they were registered and assigned to investigators. In the capital's Changping district, police had apparently ignored letters for so long that there were two instances in 1954 when staff did a “crash job” of handling more than 400 letters at one time, and even so, by the beginning of 1955, there were still 100 letters sitting in their offices, waiting for basic processing (“Zhonggong Beijing shiwei” 1956).
These cases certainly suggest that many cadres were bumbling and/or indifferent (sometimes brutally) to the concerns of the masses, and it might be tempting to see them as evidence of a counternarrative. But depictions of brutal and bumbling cadres were not rare lapses in the CCP's rhetoric; they were the rhetoric. And that rhetoric came straight from Party Central and the national-level ministries. Minister of Public Security Luo Ruiqing personally criticized the Beijing Public Security Bureau for the “sloppy summaries and ambiguous ideas” in their letters-and-visits reports (“Zhonggong Beijing shiwei” 1956). He and other ministry superiors argued that incompetence and negligence among their subordinates impeded their ability to solve cases and suggested that some cadres even purposefully mishandled letters. In 1958, for example, the ministry claimed that cadres had been intentionally intercepting mail meant for Party Central, sometimes in an effort to “block information and suppress the masses’ reports about problems with grain and deaths,” and other times because personnel were looking to steal the money and gifts the masses often sent, especially to Chairman Mao (“Gedi jiancha feifa jiankou xinjian de qingkuang” 1961). The Beijing Municipal Committee alleged that even noncorrupt cadres intentionally ignored letters because “cadres think that letters and visits are inconsequential, like chicken feathers and garlic skin” (鸡毛蒜皮 jimao suanpi) (“Shiwei guanyu” 1950). Superiors claimed it was difficult to convince cadres that, as Liu Lantao (1952) noted, “The most minute of the People's matters are the foundation of the People's major matters.”
Superiors also contended that malignant apathy hampered higher-level units from handling their own letters and visits. As the Beijing Municipal Government complained, “One of the problems is that many district governments and other offices don't take letters and visits seriously enough. They drag things out, ignore letters, have bad attitudes, etc. And this is leading more and more members of the masses to take their concerns directly to the mayor or the deputy-mayor” (Beijing shi renmin zhengfu 1951). This allegation was reproduced in centrally disseminated propaganda about Party governance: Zhang and the Guo family only took their concerns to higher authorities because lower and mid-level units failed to handle their cases.
Propaganda and the Party-state's intrabureaucratic communication were all idealized, to be sure. But what was idealized was not solely, or even primarily, the claim that the CCP governed in the interest of the masses. Even the most polished propaganda agreed wholeheartedly that the Party was sometimes failing the people. What this rhetoric idealized was the apportionment of blame, which served higher officials well. As Jeffrey Kinkley (2000: 349–59) noted, the Party-state responded enthusiastically to the story about the petitioner Qiu Ju, because while Qiu encountered some mid-level government personnel who were bumbling and officious, once their superiors intervened, the Party served the people. The notion that all would be set right if the “higher-ups” (上级 shangji) only knew the true situation, runs through fiction, film, and journalism as well as through historical sources.5
O'Brien and Li have emphasized the strategic uses of accusations against cadres, noting that Chinese citizens can (potentially) level harsh criticisms about extremely sensitive topics as long as they maintain that at the level of theory and policy the Party serves the people, and violations are the fault of errant individuals (O'Brien 1996; O'Brien and Li 2006). This has not been lost on PRC historians, who have also tended to be more critical of accusations about cadre error when those accusations were made as part of cadre rectification, especially in an explicitly instructional textbook. The fact is, however, that for the CCP it was always about cadre rectification, even in documentation that was ostensibly about something else, because cadre error was always cast as the main impediment to the correct functioning of the mass line.
How to Read the Mass Line
Encapsulated in the shorthand phrase, “from the masses; back to the masses” (cong qunzhong zhong lai, dao qunzhong zhong qu 从群众中来, 到群众中去), the mass line stipulated that all correct ideas originated with the ordinary people. The role of the Party was to weed out the incorrect ideas and process the correct but “unsystematic” ideas into theoretically sound ideology and policy, while using education and propaganda to ensure that the masses recognized their own original ideas in the results. Early observers argued that the Party did endeavor to implement the mass line in the service of the people. In 1944, tasked with observing and appraising the CCP for the US government, John Service (1974: 217) argued that the Party had “a closeness to and an ability to appeal to the common people in terms which they understand.” He wrote that “the widespread popular support” the CCP enjoyed must “be considered a practical indication that the policies and method of the Chinese Communists have a democratic character.” In his formative study of revolutionary China, historian Mark Selden (1971) similarly argued that the mass line was “the essence” and the foundation of Party success, the means by which the CCP won mass loyalty and mobilized popular participation in state projects.
In an equally formative work, historian Chen Yung-fa (1986: 3–4) argued that Selden's claims about the mass line had overemphasized the egalitarian elements of CCP governance and suggested that Selden had been somewhat gullible about the “image projected by the Party's external publications.” New York Times China correspondent Richard Bernstein (2010) likewise contended that John Service was “naively dazzled by the Communists.” Service and many of his likeminded colleagues later recanted, after many of them were fired from the State Department and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Diplomat John Davies (Williams 1989) later conceded that they had been wrong to use the term “democratic” in describing the Party's methods. In a revision, Selden (1995) also allowed that he may have overstated the democratic elements of CCP governance.
Even in his early research, however, Selden made clear that Chinese Communist conceptions of popular participation and leadership accountability were different from liberal formulations of “democracy.” The mass line, as elucidated by Liu Shaoqi and then Mao, was a Leninist model for state-society relations that was in many respects a purposeful alternative to Western-style liberal democracy. As Stuart Schram ( 1989: 97–98) explained in the 1960s, the mass line was developed to resolve the Leninist dilemma of how to preserve centralized power (so as to maintain the total control needed for the implementation of policies that will be fiercely opposed by “capitalists” and others), while still allowing sufficient popular participation to serve the people and maintain popular support. Efforts to implement this leadership style, Selden (1995: 243) noted, could not but reflect the difficulties inherent in combining top-down centralism with popular participation. Mao never tried to conceal what liberal observers might consider the undemocratic elements of his vision: “You are dictatorial,” he imagined his detractors alleging. “You are right,” he replied, “that is just what we are” (Mao 1949). Recent work on the mass line has continued to focus on how it fostered what Wenfang Tang (2016) has called “populist authoritarianism” by allowing limited forms of popular participation while maximizing the capacity for centralized control (see also X. Chen 2012; Y. Liu 2006; Kennedy and Shi 2015). As Patricia Thornton (2011) has shown, its functions, and the challenge it posed to liberal democratic modes of governance, made the mass line key to CCP success. Thus, any suggestion that the democratic claims of the mass line were more rhetorical than genuine probably indicates a conflation of Mao's Leninist conceptions of political representation with the liberal forms of democracy it critiqued. The mass line could not be a faux-democratic “whitewashing” for authoritarianism because it was always explicitly democratic and authoritarian.
That said, Mao and other Party leaders agreed with their critics that the reality in the PRC often failed to correspond to their ideal vision of mass-line governance. For the CCP, however, the issue was not Party policy or the leadership's will to implement it, but rather, as Mao regularly lectured, corruption, bureaucratism and other cadre errors (Chen Z. 2013). According to the Party's own historians, the five concrete practices that “fundamentally guaranteed the efficacy and implementation of the mass line” were all instructions to cadres: first, conduct grassroots surveys and investigations; second, go “squat in a spot” (dundian 蹲点), meaning go live and work among the people, staying in one location for an extended period of time; third, pay attention to letters and visits from the masses; fourth, participate in physical labor; and fifth, undergo regular rectification (Z. Chen 2013: 50).
The connections between cadre error and the mass line are clear in Liu Lantao's Collected Documents on Opposing Bureaucratism, a rectification textbook used nationwide during the Three-Antis campaign, which included the model cases of Zhang Shunyou and Guo Yuzhong. Those and other cases were also published in the People's Daily and numerous local and regional newspapers. When retold for public consumption, these stories were all parables about the Party losing its grassroots connection to the masses, and they suggested the fault lay with the mid-level cadres who failed to correctly implement the mass line (Zhang and Li 1952: 3). The centrality of cadre error and rectification to the Party's understanding of the mass line meant that almost without exception, discussions of work with the masses were always also discussions of cadre rectification, even if rectification was not mentioned specifically. All Party-state documents that discuss the people's opinions, the people's behavior, the people's problems, and the like were always also discussions between superiors and subordinates about how well cadres acquired, handled, and responded to that information, meaning rectification, the mass line, and the success or failure of Party-state work were all inseparable for the CCP. This is an obvious point, but it has a crucial methodological implication: bumbling and brutal cadres, wherever we find them, must always be treated as discursive elements in CCP rhetoric about cadre rectification, a rhetoric that formed the central component in the Party's defense of its commitment to mass-line work.
The brutal-yet-bumbling state was a key part of the CCP's own rhetoric, but I am not arguing that we dismiss it. On the contrary, all of the critics mentioned heretofore are surely correct about the problems of early PRC governance. But CCP leaders had correctly identified those same challenges years earlier. If we pay equally critical attention to both negative and positive archival claims, it becomes clear that cadre error was the narrative, instead of a counternarrative, and that mass-line rhetoric, as one of the many sets of claims that usually appear “before the ‘however,’ ” was idealized, but not necessarily in the ways we expect. CCP hyperbole looks different when we assess it within its original discursive framework. Many of the documents that enumerate the mass line in the most detail are documents describing cadre errors, produced and circulated for rectification movements. In that context, mass-line claims do not have to be read as exaggerated statements about actual practice; they could be read as rebukes and inspirational messages to cadres. In a world where Guo Yuzhong and other members of the Party's base were committing suicide because of cadre “excesses,” exhorting cadres to “remember the people are the foundation of our power” may or may not have been effective, but it was far more than a platitude.
Furthermore, brutalities such as the ones Guo suffered were cast as cadre error, but not all brutality violated the mass line, according to the CCP. The highly publicized case of Zhang Shunyou suggests that even without cadre excesses, mass-line governance, in its ideal form, was dark. Although Zhang encountered manifold difficulties in order to accuse Song Yude as a counterrevolutionary, the accusers’ expenses were eventually reimbursed, according to Liu Lantao's orders, and the errant cadres who had ignored Zhang's case were disciplined. More importantly, Zhang eventually got his desired result: Song Yude was executed as a counterrevolutionary on November 26, 1952 (Y. Liu 2014: 187). CCP propaganda regularly claimed that executions and incarcerations were consistent with the mass line because “the masses demand we suppress counterrevolutionaries,” and their internal discussions, together with Zhang Shunyou's own claims, suggest this assertion was sometimes true. Song's execution certainly highlights what Selden (1995: 243) called “the dark side of mobilizational politics,” but it also troubles any assumption that the “dictatorship of the masses” was not at least partially supported by some members of those masses. By all accounts, Zhang Shunyou participated in governance. And without his dogged pursuit, Song Yude might have escaped the government's notice. Song's execution does not belie mass-line rhetoric; when read correctly, the case of Zhang Shunyou exemplifies the Party's ideal operation of the mass line in both its democratic and authoritarian aspects.
That idealized model of the mass line is precisely why the story of Zhang Shunyou still appears on Party study websites, as do ideal models of unsuccessful mass-line governance, such as the case of Guo Yuzhong.6 Brutal/bumbling cadres were not secrets the Party tried to paper over with propaganda. To paraphrase David Sedaris, one cannot claim to have “discovered” a “darker reality” when multiple high-profile websites are already sketching a comparable scene.7 Of course, we can seek evidence to damn the state within the state's own records—such is standard historian's practice. But the role of disillusionment in the genealogy of our field has impeded our ability to do so critically.
Post-Disillusionment Epistemology in a Post-Truth Moment
One of the first scholars to defect from the early PRC-sympathizing, pro-Mao line was Pierre Ryckmans, who in 1971 wrote, under the pseudonym of Simon Leys, The Chairman's New Clothes. In what a biographer later called the “red-hot rant of a book,” Leys advanced a scathing criticism of the CCP and was reviled for it by his as-yet Maoist colleagues and much of the international left. Ryckmans/Leys was a pioneer in the use of the post-disillusionment couplet (CCP propaganda said X, but in reality it was Y). For example, he described the Cultural Revolution as a “power struggle waged at the top between a handful of men and behind the smoke screen of a fictitious mass movement” (Leys  1981: 13). In the mid-1970s, Geremie Barmé, once a devoted student of Ryckmans in Australia, denounced him as a “reactionary.” Barmé (2018) later admitted that, even as he wrote that accusation, from a university in Shenyang, he had “mounting misgivings” about the Chinese Communists, as “every day in the People's Republic offered grim new revelations.” He soon repented for his “youthful petulance,” returned to Australia, and completed a PhD under Ryckman's direction.
Others of Barmé’s generation experienced analogous transformations. Political scientist Edward Friedman (2018) wrote that he and other “Maoist sympathizers” in the Committee for Concerned Asian Scholars (of which Mark Selden was also a founding member) had initially seen “the PRC through the lens of their own ideals.” But, Friedman explained, observing domestic Chinese realities as well as the international relations between communist regimes in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia “disillusioned many CCAS members and led to the swift end of the committee.” In an essay titled “My Disillusionment,” Perry Link (also CCAS) wrote self-critically about his initial “high hopes” for the CCP: “How wrong I was to take Mao Zedong's ‘socialism’ at face value.” Elaborating, he recalled his first trip to China in 1973: “I had learned in graduate school that there were no flies in China after the ‘Four Pests’ campaign of 1958 . . . When I saw a fly on a white stone table in Suzhou, I photographed it.” After a series of increasingly significant discoveries, Link's final lesson in disillusionment came in February 1989 when he and his friend Fang Lizhi had a run-in with the Chinese police. Link was shocked when he read an official Xinhua News Agency report about the encounter, which “told, in detail, a fabricated story that departed in major ways from what my own eyes had seen” (Link 2011).
Of the disillusioned, Barmé, Friedman, and Link are among the most vocal and dogmatic critics of the Mao-era CCP, whereas Selden and others seem to have retained at least a measure of their earlier sympathy. Another CCAS founder, Richard Pfeffer, was rumored to have been denied tenure for his admittedly Marxist views (Lanza 2017: 170). But scholars like Pfeffer were in the minority. Many more of their colleagues, who went on to become leading scholars in the fields of Chinese studies, have written or spoken about the way they amended their opinions of Maoism (and Marxism) when they observed realities in China that failed to correspond to the propaganda they had not only believed but also proselytized. As they became increasingly disillusioned by their discovery that “the Communist Party of China would [and did] flat-out lie,” uncovering the facts that would reveal those lies became a central focus of their scholarship (Link 2011).
Of course, as this article also demonstrates, the reality of the early-PRC did indeed reveal that the Party often failed to live up to its own ideals. And critics were probably right that early observers had been somewhat “dazzled” by the Communists’ idealistic rhetoric. My point is not that post-disillusionment methodology leads scholars to be overly critical of CCP claims; rather the problem occurs when the fascination with falsification leads historians to be more suspicious of positive claims about Maoism's successes and not sufficiently skeptical of negative claims that reflect poorly on the enterprise, even when both claims come from the Party-state's own archival record. All too often we are so excited by the prospect of finding a “counternarrative” that we rip cadre-error vignettes from the larger narratives within which we find them, so that they float, decontextualized, in our descriptions of the early PRC. In that context they appear as against-the-grain readings of state discourse, when, on the contrary, they were actually key features of that grain.
I have argued elsewhere that it is not quite possible to read ostensibly Maoist texts “against the grain” in a traditional sense (Smith 2013: 79–118). But in any case, effective against-the-grain readings demand a deep knowledge of the grain. Thus, I suggest we first continue to map the grain of CCP discourse, which was certainly idealized but not necessarily or “essentially” false. And while readings against that grain will no doubt prove revelatory, there is still plenty we can learn about PRC governance, and the experiences of the governors and the governed, by listening to what the Party-state had to say about precisely those things, by paying a bit more attention to what came “before the ‘however’ ” and precisely how it related to what came after.
Truth and Skepticism
In a recent conversation at Harvard University, senior China scholar (and former CCAS member) Joseph Esherick (2018) reiterated his longtime defense of an empiricist mode, warning that it is dangerous, for scholarship and politics, to apply theories that suggest the instability of facts, citing in particular the dire consequences of “post-truth” politics in the Trump-era United States. While Esherick and others have valid concerns about the dangers of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” the rise of such concepts cannot be pinned on scholars who have simply demanded better proof of the truth systems we are asked to accept as superior. The conspiracy theories and other features of the alleged “post-truth” mindset all rely on what Michael Lynch (2017) has called “selective uses of skepticism” to support particular political views.
In a sense, that is precisely what post-disillusionment methodology promotes: “selective skepticism.” Thus, what I am advocating is not “epistemic democracy,” but rather the restoration of some epistemic humility and a demand that we subject all truth claims to the same level of empirical and epistemological scrutiny. Those who advocate empiricism tend to understate the extent to which the current forms of scientific (and social scientific) empiricism are political theories of knowledge. Those theories were repeatedly challenged in the twentieth century but emerged victorious, in part because they were wielded in the service of the political claim, infamously intoned by Margaret Thatcher, that there are no viable alternatives to the liberal capitalist status quo (Rafael 1994). Esherick is no Thatcherite, and his fellow self-identified empiricist Geremie Barmé (2017) has insisted that we recognize both “the neo-liberal West” and the People's Republic of China as reliant on their own versions of a “post-truth bubble.” But the epistemology of disillusionment did gain traction in tandem with Reaganomic/Thatcherite “no-alternative” politics, and—whether intentionally or not—scholars who write in the post-disillusionment mode abet the related assertions of liberal superiority. Given that political connection, it is significant that many of the most trenchant claims about the nature of CCP governance might not be fully supported by the sources. Unsubstantiated assumptions about what is reliable and what is unreliable, and how we know the difference, are rendering the field of PRC history both theory-poor and empirically unsound.
At its most extreme, the falsification drive allows dangerously reactionary claims about the evils of socialism. The apotheosis of post-disillusionment methodology can be found in Frank Dikötter's trilogy on the Mao years. Dikötter (2013) sifts out only the most horrific—and often least common—sets of examples from the vast archive of the PRC past to advance claims such as the following, rendered in a post-disillusionment couplet: “The Chinese Communist Party refers to its victory in 1949 as a ‘liberation’ . . . but . . . It is first and foremost a history of calculated terror and systematic violence” (xi). Scholars who work with the same archives find Dikötter's work objectionable and tend to dismiss it. As one of this issue's anonymous reviewers rightly pointed out, “PRC historians, it seems, have agreed to ignore Frank,” but as the reviewer also noted, in excluding Dikötter, we might make our internecine contradictions seem starker than they are. There is, to be sure, a world of difference between Dikötter's misuse of evidence and Neil Diamant's and Brian DeMare's careful and thoughtful, if skeptical, scholarship. But the latter might inadvertently help to enable the former by suggesting that evidence reflecting poorly on the state is inherently more trustworthy than its opposite.
If we treat positive and negative evidence symmetrically, seemingly contradictory reports become conversations that informed and shaped one another, and we can rephrase the post-disillusionment couplet: CCP sources said X as they debated and contended with Y. Take some of Jonathan Mirsky's reminiscences, for example. The China scholar and East Asia editor of the Times (London) went on a 1972 CCAS trip to the PRC. Mirsky (2012: 24–28) recalls visiting the home of a “Chinese worker family,” which had “brightly painted” rooms and all the amenities, plus “a radio, television,” and “several shiny bicycles,” unlocked, of course, because bike theft was unheard of in Communist China. The next day, however, Mirsky chanced to see a different home—“shabby, poorly painted,” with “no television,” and “only one well-used bicycle, which was locked.” When the inhabitant of the second house told Mirsky that the first one had been a “show flat,” and that in fact “there were plenty of thieves,” Mirsky went from “Mao-fan to counterrevolutionary in 48 hours.” Of course, Mirsky's informant was telling the truth; the PRC never managed to eradicate petty crime (Smith 2013: 181–98). Yet theft did decrease radically from pre-1949 levels, and in the early 1950s many people did have nicer living quarters than they had ever had before. Also, as Perry Link (2011) noted, the CCP has long encouraged Chinese people to be especially self-conscious of the way China might be perceived by foreigners, as foreigners and foreign governments have long disparaged China for its material conditions, even using such insults to question Chinese fitness for self-rule. Thus, it seems likely that in the earliest moments of the Cold War thaw, foreigners would be taken to the nicest apartments. None of these truths falsify the others. One does not need to dispute the inherent stability of facts to argue, as Ernest Hemingway ( 1995: 23) did, that sometimes “there's no one thing that's true. It's all true.”
Lanza (2017: 107–8) has questioned the direct causal link these scholars draw between their realization that Chinese Communism had a dark side and their turn away from Maoism.
As early as 1946, the Party praised the “say it, do it spirit” (shuodao zuodao jingshen 说到做到精神) of local cadres (Renmin ribao1946).
Liu Lantao was an alternate member of the Seventh Central Committee and a full member of the Eighth.
For more on the campaign, see Gao 2004: 158–63.
They are also archived by Marxists.org,www.marxists.org/chinese/reference-books/chineserevolution/195303/index.htm.
The original quote concerns rules Sedaris (2001: 154) had for potential partners, one of which was that they “could not say they had ‘discovered’ any shop or restaurant currently listed in the phone book.”