22 May 2019
Deng Xiaoping (center) urged the entire party to stop debating whether China was still socialist or becoming capitalist and focus on economic development instead during his monumental “southern tour” in 1992. Photo:
Deng Xiaoping (center) urged the entire party to stop debating whether China was still socialist or becoming capitalist and focus on economic development instead during his monumental “southern tour” in 1992. Photo:

The People’s Commune: Modern-day slave camp

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s monumental “southern tour” from Jan. 18 to Feb. 21, 1992.

Official mouthpieces and the academic sector in the mainland would probably commemorate the event in a high-profile manner if it wasn’t for the massive comeback of Mao Zedong’s ultra-left ideology that is now underway in full swing across the nation under President Xi Jinping.

In the spring of 1992, amid a fierce national debate over whether to stay the course in market economy reforms or to return to the Soviet-type planned economy, Deng embarked on a tour of the southern cities of Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhuhai in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the economic reforms he initiated in 1978.

It was during that tour that the paramount leader, whose health at the time was rapidly deteriorating, called on the entire party to stop getting entangled in the meaningless debate over whether China was still socialist or was becoming capitalist, and to focus on economic development in order to lift the country out of poverty.

He also urged the entire nation to stay vigilant against any resurrection of the ultra-left ideology that prevailed during Mao’s era.

During the recent Lunar New Year holiday in China, there was heated discussion on the internet over the historical significance of Deng’s southern tour and his warning of the ultra-left peril.

Some netizens brought up certain old stories to highlight the absurdity and injustice of Mao’s extreme leftist economic policies during the ’50s and ’60s, among which was the mass movement he unleashed in the ’60s to “cut off the remaining tail of capitalism”.

Under the movement, peasants were barred from growing their own crops, not even a slight amount of vegetables for their own daily consumption, and raising their own poultry.

Such practices, Mao said, were toxic capitalist legacy and against the values of the People’s Commune.

Meanwhile, craftsmen and workers in urban areas were also strictly prohibited from selling anything such as small tools or porcelain they made privately because it was also deemed a capitalist practice.

The movement simply exacerbated the already severe shortage of food in rural areas and daily commodities in towns and cities, and as a result, tens of millions of Chinese people were thrown into hunger and extreme poverty.

As the 88-year-old Tian Jiyun (田紀雲), who served as vice-premier in the ’80s, put it, under the People’s Commune system, peasants were basically rendered slaves because they were deprived of all autonomy in terms of production.

To make things worse, millions of peasants in rural areas were living in terror on a daily basis during the movement because commune officials would often raid their houses one by one to search for “illegal” vegetables, chicken and ducks.

Those who were caught red-handed faced severe punishment and were labeled “class enemies” by the commune.

To a certain extent, Tian said, the People’s Commune was like a slave camp and the commune officials were modern-day slavemasters.

Mao died in 1976 and the Gang of Four were arrested almost immediately afterwards.

But the People’s Communes were still in operation in many areas across the nation, and the “Cut Off The Capitalist Tail” movement continued right into the early ’80s in some remote parts of the country.

It wasn’t until the early ’80s that the infamous movement was finally put to an end when General Secretary Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦) and Vice-Premier Wan Li (萬里), the two leading supporters and executors of Deng’s economic reform program, officially lifted the ban on privately owned poultry and crops by peasants.

Over the years many mainland academics have been urging the party leadership to learn the lesson of that infamous movement and bear in mind the man-made catastrophe brought about by Mao’s ultra-left policies.

Unfortunately, President Xi Jinping appears rather nostalgic about Mao’s era.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 2

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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