What Kept China from Total Collapse during the Cultural Revolution

Jaime FlorCruz, CNN's Beijing bureau chief, wrote a piece yesterday titled "China 60 years on: From Mao to today." When talking about the Cultural Revolution, he said, "For ten years, China was condemned to political turmoil and economic malaise. Perhaps the only factor that kept the country from total collapse was the people's incomparable resilience and their ability to 'chi ku' (eat bitterness, or bear hardship)."

What he said wasn't really wrong, but he missed the main factor. During the disastrous ten years from 1966 to 1976, peasants had kept farming and providing food for the nation. Because of this, despite the chaos and paralysis of the state apparatus, urban food shortages were not nearly as severe as in the "three-year famine" period (1959-61). I remember food rationing in my childhood during the Cultural Revolution, and how each family was forced to take a portion of "coarse grain" such as corn to supplement rice the "fine grain." I also remember meat rationing and my craving for pork dishes, but we did not starve. Not even close. Thanks to the hard-working peasants -- those are the people that have shouldered China's crises time and again.

The comparison between the two periods bookending the 1960s is especially worth noting for Sichuan, my home province nicknamed "the country of heaven," which suffered the most during the 1959-61 famine. The famine killed about 30 million people nationwide, and one third of the "abnormal deaths" were in Sichuan. At the time, Sichuan's governor was Li Jingquan, a close friend of Deng Xiaoping (who was also from Sichuan). After the rural famine began, Li blocked information from the central government. Meanwhile, he inflated Sichuan's grain production statistics to please Mao and cover up the disaster. What he did was much the same as Madoff’s representations of double-digit returns on bogus investment funds, the difference being the scale of damage, and the motivation: not money but power. Consequentially, unaware of Sichuan's real situation, Beijing ordered Li to transport large amounts of grain to major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, while Sichuan's starvation deaths escalated. Even after the nation-wide famine finally came to an end in late 1961, Sichuan continued to have starvation deaths in 1962. Li's famous words were, "China is so big, which dynasty didn't have people starve to death?"

Ironically, the only time Li Jingquan was punished for his crime was during the Cultural Revolution. He was "struggled" by the Red Guards numerous times. His family suffered even more: his wife committed suicide, and a son was beaten to death. But Li himself returned to power after that movement and died of old age, with a glorious obituary on the lid of his coffin.

So, at least for people in Sichuan, one other reason we had avoided starvation during the Cultural Revolution might be because Li Jingquan was pulled off the horse by the lawless Red Guards. Just a glimpse into how complex and contradictory history often is.