- City Versus Countryside in Mao’s China: Negotiating the Divide by Jeremy Brown
China’s vast and still growing urban-rural gap is impossible to ignore. This unfortunate phenomenon, currently evident in the seemingly never-ending stream of migrant workers traveling to cities, as well as in frequent discussions of the “peasant problem” (农民问题 nongmin wenti), has become an enduring feature of modern China. The urban-rural gap has outlived many of those who sought to bring parity to city and countryside, including Mao Zedong, whose peasant revolution promised to remake China into an egalitarian society. That the divide between city and countryside still exists despite Mao’s rhetoric of equality would seem to suggest that his policies must be considered failures. But, as this excellent and highly readable book by Jeremy Brown successfully argues, the true story of the urban-rural divide is far more complicated than a simple narrative of the failure of Maoist politics. In an analysis masterfully sourced from archival records, personnel reports, unpublished diaries, and oral histories, Brown accesses the process of negotiation between city and countryside at the grassroots level to demonstrate how the urban-rural divide is in fact the ironic but necessary outcome of Mao’s revolution.
Brown’s text has a tight focus on Tianjin and its surrounding countryside. This was a wise choice. While it is currently in the ever-growing shadow of the Beijing metropolis, Tianjin, the most important treaty port in North China, remains a unique, important, and understudied city. But this is not a history of Tianjin—any reader expecting such a text will be ultimately disappointed despite the wealth of information Brown provides about the city. Instead, Tianjin and its surroundings are used as a case study to reveal what Maoist revolution meant for urban and rural citizens. As such, Brown’s narrative begins in early 1949, when thousands of party cadres first entered the city. These rural cadres, however, found themselves struggling to adapt to city life, for example, having to learn how to flush indoor toilets. They were ultimately pushed aside by Tianjin’s former underground party members and retained Guomindang bureaucrats: as Liu Shaoqi made clear, the cities would lead the countryside. But these urban cadres faced their own problem: the lure of corruption. In a move foreshadowing Xi Jinping’s ongoing crackdown on graft, Mao ordered the execution of two Tianjin prefectural leaders accused of corruption. Yet despite the belief that urban spaces offered dangerous temptations, cities were fixed as the leaders of the countryside.
Brown emphasizes two early policies in the creation of the urban-rural divide. The first is the hukou (户口 household residence) system. Originally designed to root out counterrevolution, the system quickly evolved to fix the identities of all Chinese [End Page 102] citizens as either urban or rural. Importantly, only urban residents were assured a grain ration. The second is the tonggou tong-xiao (统购统销 unified purchase and sale) system, which was designed to procure low-priced grain and eliminate the private market for essential foodstuffs. These two policies greatly privileged urbanites, but Brown’s sources reveal how savvy peasants used family connections to enter the city, although not all succeeded in finding stable employment.
The failures of the Great Leap Forward brought ever more peasants into Tianjin. The party’s push to create a socialist utopia pulled many peasants into the city as workers; the resulting lack of farmers only made the Great Leap famine worse. In a rare look at urban life during the Leap, Brown shows that Tianjin leaders were aware of the famine but failed to act until the famine reached their city. These leaders, furthermore, had to deal with the many peasants then crowding the city. The resulting downsizing (精简 jingjian) campaign was the party’s quiet attempt to rectify this problem. One of the few scholars to address this rare admission of party failure, Brown argues that the fates of citizens pushed back into the countryside largely depended on their family and professional...