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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Seeing like a village : local leadership, survival, and the great leap famine in China Mscichowski, Jakub


This thesis examines grassroots leadership during China’s Great Leap Forward, which Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched in 1958 to industrialize and transform the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into a communist state. Owing to the CCP’s competitive political culture, the campaign incentivized the exaggeration of harvests and the violent punishment of anyone who dared criticize the state’s new policies. Food shortages led to famine, and by 1962 over 30 million people had died from unnatural causes. Ignoring its own role in perpetuating an ideology that valued orthodox thinking over the truth, the state blamed the famine largely on the excesses of unscrupulous or fundamentalist cadres. Because research on atrocities is often concerned with the identities of perpetrators, many scholars have also rightly emphasized the role played by these grassroots leaders. Nevertheless, investigations carried out by the state indicate that many leaders also prioritized the well-being of their communities over the interests of the state. I argue that the grassroots leaders who put their constituents first were acting in accordance with an intangible body of localized expectations, practices, and beliefs called the local logic of survival. This logic was always embedded in the rhythms of daily life, accommodating of new situations or crises, and tied to the physical and historical space in which it operated. Because it existed within rural people’s assumptions and values and was never necessary to document in full, this thesis positions the experiences of a rural intellectual named Geng Xiufeng from Hebei as a case study. When the Great Leap Forward upended life in the countryside, leaders who shared Geng’s worldview and experiences worked hard to ensure their communities’ survival. They tolerated people eating raw crops from the field, distributed larger rations than were permitted, used what had worked in the past to shape village policy, and valued the knowledge and expertise of seasoned farmers. Their actions illuminate longstanding continuities in the history of China’s countryside and contribute to a more nuanced understanding of a contentious moment in the country’s past.

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