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Impressions of the Chinese Economy

ISSUE:  Winter 1975

I shall try here to sum up some of the things I saw and learned about China’s highly moralistic political economy during my three-week visit to the People’s Republic of China in February, 1974. Obviously, my impressions are limited in space and time, and much of the formal information came from officials totally committed to the existing system. But one does learn quite a lot by being there, provided one goes there prepared.


As the train pulls out of Schumchun on the Hong Kong border—a clean train with hard and soft seat coaches, loudspeakers, and tea—the first impression is of the prodigious work that has been done on the land, almost all of it by hand. It is water management on a grandiose scale. It comprises innumerable irrigation and drainage ditches, canals, ponds, reservoirs, retaining walls, dykes, pumping stations, and the like, as well as millions of trees planted since 1949, many of them quite recently. (The tree planting effort extends to the cities. In Nanking alone, I was told, over 24 million trees have been planted in the last two decades or so). Each year during the slack season the rural people’s communes and production brigades organize peasants and rusticated city youths—former Red Guards and Revolutionary Rebels banished from the towns at the end of the Cultural Revolution and more recent recruits—to remake the face of the land with picks and shovels and baskets swinging from shoulder poles. You see them everywhere: digging, scraping, ripping out, leveling, building, collecting farmyard manure, and scooping up mud from ponds and rivers. The aim is to lessen agriculture’s dependence on the elements, win the centuries-long struggle against floods and drought, and assure a reasonably stable supply of grains, vegetables, and industrial crops.

There are relatively few draft animals to be seen, at least south of the Yangtze; just a lot of hands, legs, bicycles, and pushcarts. Some of the carts are hitched onto small, garden-type tractors which provide a simple motorized form of transportation. One sees quite a few of them bringing vegetables into town or just chugging along country lanes. The overall impression is of rhythmic activity that is sustained but not feverish. This impression of ceaseless but relaxed work (verging on underemployment?) is confirmed by visits to factories. Only in the universities, especially those which used to have the best reputation before the Cultural Revolution, does one get a sense of putrefaction. But there is none of it on the land. The farms I saw were well kept. Most of the rural housing is extremely modest, but the land is tended with care. It looks good, none of it is allowed to go to waste, and things are being done all the time to improve it. At present much effort is directed toward enlarging the area of high-yield fields, but land reclamation is not neglected. Here are some examples of land saving: I have not seen any graveyards either in the cities or in the countryside. They surely exist but I simply report that I did not see any. It was explained to me that nowadays people prefer cremation to burial, although I was assured that they had free choice in the matter. I suspect that, as in many other areas of contemporary Chinese life, highly effective social pressure is brought to bear on individuals and families to opt for cremation in order not to take up valuable agricultural land. Given the present state of technology, only 12 per cent of China’s land area is suitable for agricultural production. I am sure that 12 per cent of the land area is actually used for that purpose the year round. It is thought that two, perhaps three, per cent more land can be reclaimed and that there is still room to increase yields per acre and get three harvests where two are obtained today. It would be a mistake to underestimate the remarkable work that has been and is being done on the land.


By 1960, as the Great Leap was collapsing around them, the Chinese took a hard look at both their own recent experience and the Stalinist economic priorities which they had more or less followed from 1953 to 1957. They dethroned heavy industry from top position and put agriculture in its place. Light industry, essentially manufactured consumer goods, came second; and heavy industry (military hardware and nuclear rocketry excepted) third. In their jargon, agriculture became the “foundation” and industry the “leading factor” of economic development. Industry’s first function was to aid agriculture by supplying the peasants with consumer goods incentives and the means of agricultural production.

This ranking of priorities has been retained to this day and, I think, it makes sense. Some 80 per cent of the people live on the land, and both they and the city dwellers—about 800 million Chinese in all—have to be fed, preferably three times a day. Perhaps as many as 16 million mouths are added every year. There is no aid coming in from the outside. The arithmetic of survival is quite simple: feed 800 million people this year—816 million next—out of 12 per cent of the land area. Through multiple cropping, higher yields, and other means the 1973 grain harvest came to more than 250 million metric tons; an additional 4 or 5 million tons of grain were imported from the West. This compares with an output of 185 million tons and no grain imports in 1957. I think the enormous investment of effort and ingenuity in flood control and drought prevention and the progress that has been made in seed selection and the application of both organic and chemical fertilizer give signs of breaking through what economists call the “traditional production ceiling.” Using traditional technology and the minutest care, there is just so much one can squeeze out of a unit of land. One can break through the ceiling by injecting modern inputs in the right combinations. I think the Chinese are in the process of doing this.

The people I saw in the cities and rural areas, the children especially, looked adequately fed and healthy. I saw no signs of undernourishment. Now I know that the régime classifies some people as “people outside the people” and that these are not normally trooped out for visitors to see. I have not been to the labor re-education camps. I report merely on those with whom I rubbed shoulders and with some of whom I spoke. They looked in good health and generally exuded self-confidence. The fine-featured older intellectuals in the universities looked broken and cowed. The masses are drably but adequately clothed, and everyone has a roof over his head. Housing conditions are extremely modest, to say the least. But streets and alleys, urban and rural homes, country lanes, and parks are scrubbed clean. All things considered, personal hygiene appears to be relatively high.

I tend to accept the Chinese claim that since the Cultural Revolution medical care—both prevention and cure—has been made available to large segments of the population, especially in the countryside. I talked to barefoot doctors (in essence a combination of hygiene officials and paramedics) and they impressed me as being motivated. Our medical man in the group found those he spoke with competent in the limited area of responsibilities assigned to them. There exists, of course, the danger of faulty diagnosis and occasional poor treatment. Medical teams are constantly being sent out to the countryside to take care of existing health problems which are beyond the capacity of the commune, brigade, and production team health workers to handle, and to give training and refresher courses to the barefoot doctors. The latter seem to be mostly junior high school graduates. Their medical assignments are part-time. The rest of the time they are factory workers, peasants, kindergarten teachers, and so on. For 50 cents a year the peasants can be fully covered under the co-operative medical service.

A note on clothing. All crowds tend to look somewhat drab in winter, but I must say the Chinese crowds take the cake. There are two basic colors: blue (in two or three shades from light to almost black) and army green. Here and there a patch of brown. There is strictly speaking no shape or style to -the padded pants, Mao jackets, and overcoats worn by men and women alike. Mao caps (the price ranges from about 40 cents for the mass line ones to as much as $4 for the better stuff) are pulled down over the ears, and the same goes for fur hats with long flaps that you tie with a string under your chin. Putting a Mao cap at a rakish angle would improve the landscape, but I suspect it is socially reprehensible. The stores are full of colorful fabrics: cotton, silk, synthetics. Women are seen buying them, but they don’t seem to wear them. From time to time you see a colorful padded jacket on a woman and a silk scarf, and after a while you begin to think it’s probably an overseas Chinese on a visit to the family. It is rumored that the colorful blouse is hidden under the standard Mao jacket; also that it is worn at home. Like taking a taxi, even the slightest deviation from the lower-middle peasant norm of personal apparel is likely to be frowned upon in these post Cultural Revolution days. Still, high ranking cadre uniforms are made of better material. When you have an ugly piece of clothing, you wear it in the most ungainly way possible. But things are apparently getting a little more relaxed.

What is more important is that the people are clothed. They are simply clothed, but not ragged. The children are well wrapped in many layers of warm fabrics. They are the only splashes of gay color on China’s sea of blue and green.


In 1973 the per capita gross national product in China was about $150. In the Soviet Union it was $2,300. What surprised me in China was the quite abundant supply and variety of consumer goods and the large number of big and small retail outlets in the towns. The consumer goods situation in China compares more than favorably with that in the Soviet Union. Food appears to be plentiful and is of relatively good quality. On several occasions I did see sizeable lines outside food stores. Compared with money earnings, the staples are cheap. Grain is rationed, individual allocations varying with the type of work a person does. I was told that state grain reserves were adequate so that even during a poor harvest year, such as 1972, the grain ration was not lowered. There are many small popular restaurants dispensing a variety of pungent dishes. These places are usually jammed. The department stores are crowded and shoppers actually buy the goods on display, including modest ornaments for the home. Textile fabrics are rationed. There are lots of candy and chocolate bars, and all shapes and sizes of cakes and cookies. Shops invariably look run down and could use a coat of paint. I don’t think anything has been done in twenty-four years to maintain or improve the appearance of retail stores. The same is true of non-public buildings in general, and even some public ones.

I was surprised to see on display in a Peking department store an elaborate line of hardware goods, including welding apparatus, paint sprayers, drill presses, sewer pipes, chain wrenches, large wire clippers, wrenches, and so on. The wrenches ranged in price from 6 to 16 yuan (2 yuan — 1 U. S. dollar); the spray gun, quite a sturdy one, was 78 yuan. Tape measures in imitation leather cases cost from 9 to 36 yuan. In the Soviet Union it is hard to get even a hammer. Who buys it all? Repair co-operatives and production teams? I noticed that many manufactured consumer goods have their brand names, instructions, and what-not printed in both Chinese and English. This applies to items available for the ordinary Chinese buyers, including, for example, all but the cheapest brands of cigarettes and matches. There are more luxurious goods and a wider selection of them in the so-called “Friendship Stores” reserved for “foreign friends,” but the difference between what one can get in the ordinary and the special shops is smaller than in the Soviet Union. The prices for the same item are the same in both places. I saw one or two general stores at the suburban communes I visited. They were well stocked and seemed to be doing brisk business. The communes were obviously showcases. In one instance I had the strangest feeling of being led through a Potemkin village, right down to the tractor and the truck that passed by right on time with great flourish, and the cute little children singing for the visitors and clapping away happily. It was rare in China to get this impression of being rather clumsily set up. Of course, in most cases, they showed off their best, what they hoped to achieve rather than what was already the general rule, but they did not make any special effort to hide things that were backward and primitive. Unlike the Russians, the Chinese do not seem to have a complex about the blotches of poverty on the social landscape.

I collected some data on wages and salaries. In modern industry there are typically eight job grades for production workers ranging from the least to the most skilled. I was told that in addition to differences in technical skill, wage differentials are determined according to attitude toward labor, years of experience, and political consciousness. The weights attached to each will, I presume, vary from plant to plant, and between administrative regions. I do suspect, however, that technical skill and seniority count quite a bit. An apprentice in a large modern plant would get somewhere around 30—35 yuan ($15—17.50) per month. The highest paid production worker can earn as much as 124 yuan ($62) a month. The average monthly wage for production workers would be somewhere between 50 and 68 yuan ($25—34). There is equal pay for equal work for men and women, but women tend to predominate in light industry, especially textiles, where the average wage rates appear to be lower than?> in heavy industry. At the Soochow Silk Factory, out of a total work force of 1,600, 85 per cent were women. The average wage of a production worker was 50 yuan ($25) a month. Apprentices were typically getting 30 yuan ($15) a month, and technicians 90 yuan ($45).

These are basic wages. There are no bonuses for industrial workers. Bonus payments went out with the Cultural Revolution. But there is a social wage in cash and kind, which is significant. It includes comprehensive medical coverage (medical services are free and available), accident and disability benefits, retirement pensions, nurseries, kindergartens, day care centers, maternity benefits, and so on. Small children (eighteen months and up) are often left in nurseries throughout the week and join their parents only on week-ends. An alternative arrangement is to leave the children with grandmother. The factory frequently provides housing for its employees. As a rule, unmarried workers live in dormitories. At the Nanking Petrochemical Plant the cost of bedding down in one such facility in a room 18 square meters in size and containing five occupants was 15 fen (7.5 cents) per month. I was not shown through the dormitories. At the Shanghai Machine Tools Plant, dormitory accommodation is free of charge. I was told that the cost of three meals a day in the factory canteen comes to about 13 yuan ($6.50) a month. Even without recourse to institutionalized food, I was told that a person can feed himself adequately for about 15 yuan ($7.50) per month. Let me add that the price of a lunch or dinner in the best hotels for foreigners was 10 yuan ($5). This was a luxurious affair, of course. It included soup, several dishes, dessert, and beer. Tipping is the nearest thing to a counter-revolutionary crime. The price of one catty (1.1 1b) of rice is 15 fen (7.5 cents); a catty of meat costs around 80 fen (40 cents), and a catty of vegetables about 3 fen (1.5 cents). Rice, meat (mostly pork), and vegetables are available in the stores. Prices of food to the consumer are subsidized. Married workers often live in factory-built and?> owned apartment buildings, especially when the factory is located on the outskirts of the city. The same applies to retired workers. The rent for a retired couple at the Shanghai Machine Tools Plant was 2.80 yuan ($1.40) per month for 16 square meters of housing space. This space was shared with a son who was a worker at the plant, his wife, and their small child. Men workers retire at 65; women at 55. They receive pensions amounting to 70 per cent of their wage and continue to benefit from free medical care. Most of the retirees engage in some social activity in the neighborhood, especially former model workers: they see to it that the children don’t waste their time, and hold get-togethers during which they tell the children stories of bitterness drawn from their personal experience in the pre-revolutionary past and contrast these with the sweetness of the present. I have read about it in the Peking Review, and was told about it in the same words by a retired model worker.

Monthly salaries of university professors (associate professors included) range from 200 to 300 yuan ($100—150). Lecturers get between 70 and 130 yuan ($35—65) a month. Housing is frequently provided by the university for both teachers and students. In most families both husband and wife work. There is no income tax. It is my understanding that there have been some adjustments in the salaries of university personnel in the last ten years. I was told that the lowest paid teachers got increases. I was not told but suspect that as part of the Cultural-Revolution leveling the salaries of the higher-paid personnel (especially of the older, foreign-trained, bourgeois-tainted professors) had been substantially trimmed. At the middle school in Soochow the bottom salary for teachers was said to be 50 yuan ($25) per month, the highest 140 yuan ($70), and the average 60 yuan ($30) “or more.”

I saw two model rural people’s communes. Both were suburban: one near Shanghai, the other about thirty miles outside Peking. The Shanghai commune specializes in supplying the city with vegetables. I suspect it is to the China International Travel Service what Mecca is to the Moslems. It is a well-run, prosperous place. The other commune I saw specializes in wheat and dairy cattle. It, too, was probably among the best in China. The Shanghai commune has 20,000 members (4,300 households), 9 production brigades, and 78 production teams. About 2,000 acres of land are farmed. Besides 208 varieties of vegetables, pig raising is important. There are 12 trucks and 120 small and big tractors. Many of the small tractors are used to pull carts. The commune has 20 flood prevention stations, 28 pumping stations equipped with hundreds of pumps, and 2 underground irrigation projects. Average annual income per household is 950 yuan ($475). Income levels vary from brigade to brigade. The peasants own their homes. They have private vegetable plots as well as some chickens and ducks “which they consume on holidays or treat friends with.” The commune has ten primary and middle schools and all school-age children are enrolled. Production teams have set up their own kindergartens. There is a commune clinic with 35 beds in charge of a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. Each production brigade has its barefoot doctors, each production team its sanitary workers.

The Peking commune is a huge operation. You get to it by crossing the boundary of the zone around Peking reserved for foreigners. The bus stops; the guide pops out and gives some clearance papers to a military sentry. The commune has 80,000 people (17,000 households) and about 40,000 acres of land, 27,000 acres of which are cultivated. There are 10 production brigades and 124 production teams. Grain is the key activity, followed by animal husbandry, fish farming, and forestry. 90 per cent of the land is under irrigation. There are 900 mechanically driven wells. The commune has 210 large and over 200 small tractors, but much field work is still done by hand. There are more than 60,000 pigs and 3,200 milch cows. The annual output of milk is about 11.5 million kilograms. There are 14 small commune-run industrial workshops. These, include a machine repair station, which besides fixing up tractors produces a few rice transplanters, threshers, and cylinders for tractors. I saw a rice transplanter being made from scratch and scrap, all of it except the motor. The commune takes care of itself: its food, clothing, housing, medical care, and education. It also supplies the state with a planned quota of wheat and other produce every year. There are 63 primary schools and 12 middle schools under commune management with a total enrollment of 19,000 students. Only three of the middle schools are of the senior-middle type. I visited one of them and saw several classes (including one in the Spanish language) in action. There is a hospital at the commune level and a clinic at the level of each production brigade. Each production team has health workers operating out of a health center. There are two or three barefoot doctors per production team. Each commune members pays 1 yuan (50 cents) a year for comprehensive medical coverage under the commune’s co-operative medical service. In a household of ten persons (including six children) which I visited, the annual income was said to be 2,400 yuan ($1,200). I was told that of this amount, roughly 2,000 yuan came from work for the commune, and 400 yuan from private sideline occupations and the family plot. I am sure that in non-model communes the proportion of private plot income to total income is much more significant, especially with regard to cash revenue. Officials and others are very touchy and jumpy whenever the private plot and private activity subject is raised, and you cannot really get much out of them over and above what is published in the official manuals. The annual income per head in the commune was given as 130 yuan ($65), and annual income per active worker was said to be 400 to 500 yuan ($200—250).

The system of payment is based on workpoints related to each production team’s net income. The production team is the income distribution unit and, in fact, the basic cell of the commune’s productive activity. In an interview with provincial level officials in charge of agriculture I got the impression that the subdivision may go even farther. Mention was made of groups under the production teams. As far as I could make out, it was these groups rather than the teams which were ultimately responsible for fulfilling the output quota and perhaps even for dividing up the revenue. This, I was assured, was not like the old Liu Shao-ch’i system, in which quotas were assigned to individual households, and even then “only in a few places.” I think the devolution of basic decision-making authority to groups smaller than the production team is a significant development. Typically a production team would have some 30 households. A smaller group can be quite small indeed: two or three households perhaps. I do not know how widespread this system is. I also got the impression that the workpoint system—roughly payment according to a graded contribution to production—is the rule. The Tachai-type model of payment according to political consciousness through “democratic consultation” once a year is, I gather, shunned in many places.

I jotted down some store prices in a number of cities. Price differentials for the same goods in different locations are not very great. Depending on the commodity, prices are set centrally or by local (mainly provincial) authorities. It would appear, however, that local price-setting discretion is limited by centrally-determined ceilings. Alarm clocks range from 16 to 18 yuan ($8—9); ball point pens from 0.14 to 2.60 yuan (7 cents to $1.30) and up for the fancier models; wrist watches (without wristband) from about 85 yuan ($42.50) for the local product to 861 yuan ($430.50) for an Omega and 918 yuan ($459) for a Rolex. 918 yuan represents 11/2 year’s salary for an average wage earner in industry, and 2 years’ earnings of a worker in the best people’s commune. Who buys this stuff, I wonder? In the store I visited (not a “Friendship” one) there were dozens of these expensive foreign jobs on display. A Chinese-made watch with a reflecting dial costs about 110 yuan ($55)—or a month’s salary of an average worker in industry. Ladies’ jackets: 38—47 yuan ($19—23.50). A man’s overcoat, not stylish: 35.80 yuan ($17. 90). Ladies’ full-length winter overcoat (not smart): 153 yuan ($76.50). Ladies’ blue denim padded overcoat (warm and cozy): 80.50 yuan ($40.25). Man’s padded jacket: about 15 yuan ($7.50); lined with something that looks like fur: 30.70 yuan ($15.35). A pair of light Mao-style trousers: 7.60 yuan ($3.80). Women’s shoes with plastic soles: 3 to 4 yuan ($1.50—2), no leather. Ked-type shoes: 5 to 5.50 yuan ($2.50—2.75).


How do they put together this huge enterprise of 800,000,000 people spread over an area larger than the United States? There is no market mechanism and the elaborate structure of central planning bequeathed by the fraternal Soviets has been all but dismantled: first in 1957, then during the Great Leap Forward, and again during the Cultural Revolution. To keep things in perspective one should recall that the vast works had been co-ordinated for thousands of years: sometimes better, much of the time poorly. The present orchestration is among the better ones, but it is always on trial, and occasionally—as during the Leap and the Cultural Revolution—it shows strain.

A curious, not to say disturbing, thing to economists is the fact that China’s economy is doing very well without economics and without economists, at least economists as we understand the species in the West. On reflection the phenomenon is less startling. In the Middle Ages some quite sophisticated European economies were run by a mixture of moral philosophy, business acumen, and common sense. What little economics there is to be found in St. Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics is hortatory and normative. Medieval economics was an aid to the confessor in matters of the ethics of making a living. Later, during the centuries of the Mercantilist era, economics was the handmaid of politicians, an offspring of the art and the emerging science of politics. It was in these times that Europe knew its greatest ideological and political expansion and renown. I have a hunch that in most countries today those who conduct the day-to-day commerce of nations—the businessmen, bankers, and others—know only the most rudimentary elements of the science of economics, and as likely as not they have these the wrong way. There must surely be some economists in China—men equipped with the knowledge of the processes of planning and management on a national scale. They are probably trained “on the job”: in the Academy of Sciences and the Planning Commission. They are certainly not produced by the universities which, since the Cultural Revolution, have been turned into denominational trade schools. I believe no American economist has met such people professionally.

The first co-ordinating mechanism in China today is a commonly shared moral philosophy known as Maoism. Shared is not the same as believed. I have often been asked since my return: “Do the Chinese really mean what they say? Do they truly believe it?” I don’t think it matters very much whether they do or not. They act as if they did; most of them do. They are practicing Maoists, whatever the depth of their individual conviction. When this happens, when a set of basic behavioral assumptions is popularly shared and acted upon, an automatic social adjustment mechanism begins to operate. It is not unreasonable to see in the moral philosophy of Mao—much of it reduced to simple maxims—an important, perhaps the co-ordinating mechanism of China’s economy. Take a lot of individuals, assume self-seeking and the freedom to pursue it through competition, and you end up with the market. Take a lot of people organized in tight little groups, assume a collective ethic of serving the masses and spurning self, and you have China’s chessboard economy. In a temple community all it takes is for the word to be passed around for the cells to spring into concerted action. “Dig tunnels deep and store grain!” Everyone digs tunnels deep and stores grain. At any rate a lot of tunnels get dug by a lot of people, and grain reserves appear to be ample. “Criticize Confucius and Lin Piao!” A headline in the February 23, 1974, issue of the Hsinhua News Bulletin reads: “Inner Mongolian Herdsmen Criticize Confucius’ Reactionary Doctrines.” I read on: “. . . Many poor and lower-middle herdsmen asked: “What did Lin Piao mean by “rational”? Which class theory was he advocating”?” The equivalent would be: “Kentucky Hillbillies Criticize Aristotle’s Reactionary Doctrines.” The thing, of course, is that Inner Mongolian Herdsmen actually do get together to criticize Confucian philosophy or are brought together for that explicit purpose by a deft sleight of the invisible hand. But the practice of a commonly shared ethical rule is not the whole explanation of the programmed response to signals. On April 17, 1974, travelers out of Canton reported seeing posters with names of about thirty people who had been executed because, unlike the Inner Mongolian Herdsmen, they refused to criticize Confucius and Lin Piao.

So there is also fear. In a village where everyone goes to church on Sunday and where not going to church on Sunday entails social opprobrium, up to and including burning at the stake, the atheist goes to church on Sunday like everyone else. The fear is well founded. There is plenty of historical precedent for it.

Fear is directly related to the probability of detection. In China the cell is thoroughly organized. Whatever may be happening at the top—and there is much dissension and factionalism up there—at the level of the city block, the street, the neighborhood, the rural production team, and the workshop the organization is total. It is not just that there are so many people around that individual and family privacy becomes practically meaningless. It is also because the masses at the basic level are tightly herded. The cell committee knows everything that goes on, perhaps even before the act of commission. There is the feeling of being transparent. In such an environment group pressure, the threat of criticism, struggle, self-criticism, and transformation can do wonders in warding off deviant thought and behavior. The euphemism is that the masses will help anyone who strays from the correct road. The prospect of such help is in itself enough to keep a man permanently on the right path. One reads about honesty and the relative lack of crime in China. Very few cases reach the courts. Most are dealt with by the citizenry through the above mentioned help. Foreigners report amazing feats of honesty. A member of our group was short changed in Canton by a few fen. In Peking the money due was paid to him. He had not even noticed the initial shortage. In some hotels, not all, doors are not locked. But I noticed that bicycles come with inbuilt padlocks, and store windows in Shanghai and some other places are shuttered at night. Citizens’ security groups patrol the streets at night. Suppose you do steal a bicycle or a pair of gloves or a handkerchief. What would you do with it? You can’t sell it, and if you try to use it everybody on the block will know about it, and you’ll be helped. Labor is allocated to various places and employments by administrative order. There is no freedom of employment, no possibility of permanently changing your place of residence or work without official assignment. This helps keep down the crime rate in the cities. Everybody who is now in, say, Shanghai, is there by official order or permission. There is no spontaneous migration from the countryside, no drifters, no unemployed people. Everybody has a job and a place to sleep. Everybody is registered and known. (I understand some young people who had been sent to the countryside from the big cities have illegally drifted back. Lacking jobs, ration cards, and funds, they resort to crime. I cannot verify these reports. I think the likelihood of detection would be very great.) Tough basic cell organization linked to fear, linked to a commonly shared moral outlook is the basic co-ordinating agent of China’s society.

There is lastly common sense. In the Chinese economy there is much genuine consultation; not as much as the cadres want people to believe, but much more than in other so-called socialist countries. I am inclined to accept that production plans are discussed not only at various levels of the hierarchy, but that a good deal of give-and-take debate goes on between the different levels. Since the Cultural Revolution the cadres have been careful to project a democratic and egalitarian image of themselves. The working masses are unpredictable. There is always some faction lurking somewhere, ready to pounce on the power holders in the name of mass proletarian democracy and antielitism. In addition to consultation, common sense in China means that the plans are not taut as a matter of principle. One gets the impression that considerable leeway is allowed to exist. During the Great Leap Forward the impossible was asked for and could not be delivered. Some leaders have absorbed the lesson, others have not. But today, at least, one has the feeling that the impossible is not being asked.

Every year there are some 16 million more people in China. They have to be fed, clothed, housed, and kept in good health. So far the Chinese economic system has done that. This by itself is a remarkable achievement. But the Chinese Communists are not interested only in feeding, clothing, housing, and ministering to the health of the people. They want to change the very substance of the human condition, collectivize the ego, suppress the self, and eradicate ranks, privileges, and material distinctions. The word “mass” is the most flattering in the Chinese political lexicon today. One has the sense in China of being in the midst of a profound social experiment that is carried out on a monumental scale. Whether the experiment will survive the author of the new morality is a contested question. Whatever the outcome, a turbulent force has been unleashed. The very least one can do is to try to understand it.


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