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  • Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China by Covell F. Meyskens
  • Taomo Zhou
Covell F. Meyskens. Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 281 pp. $28.99 (cloth).

Most historians of the twentieth century world are familiar with Magnitogorsk, the Soviet steel complex on the freezing steppe of the Urals featured in Stephen Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain.1 But its Chinese counterpart is relatively little known and understudied. In Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China, Covell F. Meyskens skillfully fills this gap by presenting an impressively researched history of Maoist industrial projects hidden in China’s remote interior. The book succeeds in combining accounts of elite-level decision-making with bottom-up stories about the 16 million workers and their family members who migrated to inland China between 1964 and 1972.

What is the “Third Front”? In Mao’s tripartite division of China’s geography, the First Front referred to the coastal areas; the Third Front included landlocked regions such as Guizhou, Sichuan, Gansu, and Ningxia provinces; the Second Front covered the regions in between (5). Launched by Mao in the aftermath of the great famine of 1958–1961 at home and contentious relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union abroad, the Third Front campaign served multiple purposes: to industrialize the interior, to defend national security, to resurrect Mao’s self-reliant development strategy, and to continuously create Maoist subjects who internalized the socialist ethos of collective good, hard work, and frugal living (23–24). Chapter 1 of this book delineates how the Gulf of Tonkin incident of 1964 allowed Mao to overcome resistance within the top Chinese leadership and forge ahead with China’s construction of “a strategic industrial rear to defend itself against its Cold War enemies” (41). Meyskens urges readers not to see Mao’s perception of imminent danger triggered by American military involvement in Indochina as “irrational,” because “oversized responses to security threats were a global norm” in the Cold War context (210). Meyskens further proposes that, “on a semiotic level, the Cold War never happened in Mao’s China because the Chinese Communist Party never viewed the conflict between capitalism and socialism as cold from the late 1940s into the 1970s” (21). However, as the rest of the book brilliantly shows, although “cold war” (lengzhan 冷战) had never been part of the everyday vocabulary of the Third Front participants, their career trajectories, their family lives, and the changing ways in which they found meaning in life and self-worth in work were all part and parcel of the human story of the Cold War and should not be studied in isolation from the expanding field of global Cold War history.

Chapter 2 traces the processes through which factories, individual workers, and their families reckoned with the life-changing call to relocate to the interior. What motivated one to become a “Third Fronter,” to travel far from home and spend the most productive time of one’s life in mountainous areas? Meyskens reminds us that the answer was much more complex than the simple lack of choices under an authoritarian regime. In contrast to two other mass-migration projects in Mao’s China—the punitive labor camps and the sent-down youth movement, the Third Front was well funded and was allocated “good people and good horses”—the politically reliable workers who passed background checks and the most advanced equipment available (80). Many Third Front participants [End Page E-14] made the conscious decision to prioritize revolutionary work over material comforts and family stability. Many saw themselves as honorable constructors rather than as reluctant conscripts and derived a strong sense of accomplishment from promoting the development of inland China through their strenuous labor (31–32). Zooming into the everyday life on the ground on Third Front construction sites, chapters 3 and 4 depict how these self-sacrificing socialist subjects endured long working hours, slept in mud huts or canvas tents, drank from “mountain streams,” ate cold buns (mantou 馒头) together with fish and shrimp scoured from the rivers, and used their muscle power to make up...


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