Violence without Rebellion: Social Reclassification, Grassroots Policing, and the Great Leap Forward in China

Juan Wang, McGill University

How does a new regime control its hungry and angry people? The Great Leap Forward in China (1958-1960) was characterized by unrealistic goals of industrialization and unprecedented human suffering. Millions of people were worked, starved or beaten to death. Violent acts including murder were common. However, discontent and violence in rural China were not accompanied by rebellion or collective protests. To understand the lack of collective resistance, the existing scholarship has focused on the coercive capacity of the new state or the moral authority of the communist party and its leader. However, the state policing capacities were weak at the time and Mao’s local agents were attacked. Drawing from studies of social movements and group conflict, we suggest that the absence of collective protests was a result of two factors, weakened mobilizing structure and hijacked mobilizing framing. First, political campaigns and social reclassification along class categories weakened traditional networks along kinship ties that had enabled numerous rebellions in imperial China. Grassroots policing, at the same time, dampened neighborly trust. Second, based on their class categories, individual farmers who resisted were named either as anti-revolutionary enemies and needed to be repressed, or the “people” who had backward awareness and deserved redemption. Both state-dominated discourses deviated from the commonality of the human condition. These local practices prevented large scale protests against the state. However, they also seeded community resentment against each other. This study is primarily based on systematic examination of local policing practices collected from People’s Police (1956-1965), a periodical published by the Ministry of Public Security. This study contributes to the scholarship of social movements and group conflict by probing into the process through which social classification and grassroots policing segregated society, weakened threat against the state, and enabled opposing group identities that were subject to appropriation by political elites.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 181. New Perspectives on Revolutionary Processes and Outcomes