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Wednesday, August 1, 1984

Book Review: Broken Earth: the Rural Chinese by Steven W. Mosher


Steven Mosher was one of the first few Americans to be admitted to China after January 1, 1979, when diplomatic relations were resumed between her and the United States. As a “cultural anthropologist” and specialist on China associated with Stanford University, he planned to study how the people of China lived. He had mastered conversational Cantonese and was hoping to have the chance to live among the people.

Foreigners have always encountered almost insurmountable barriers to mingling with, and getting to know, the Chinese people. In the first place, as Mosher notes, Chinese is “one of the world’s most difficult languages.” Also, westerners, being so conspicuous, can easily be quar antined behind a “cordon sanitaire” of tour guides, interpreters and travel restrictions. These barriers have increased since the Communists came to power on mainland China, for the people themselves, after suffering oppression for many years under arbitrary and unpredictable government programs, are hesitant to associate with outsiders lest they come to the attention of the authorities.

Long before Mosher went to China, he had set aside “the myth of monolithic Chinese communism.” Nevertheless, for many months, “one Party claim still seemed to me to hold true,” Mosher wrote, “namely that the establishment of the ‘New China’ had benefited the Chinese peasant. I did not know it at the time, but I was still a captive of the paramount myth of the Chinese revolution.” And some of the persons who contacted him early in his stay reinforced his convictions, purposely misleading him by portraying China’s situation as rosy. Only gradually did he come to realize that there were no grounds for his belief in the postrevolution-ary improvement of the peasants’ condition. Only as he came to recognize that the peasants had been better off before World War II than at any time since, that their conditions had deteriorated sharply under the Communist regime, could he begin to ask questions that led him to the truth.

Complicated government regulations and red tape made difficult Mosher’s task in getting located. Yet he was fortunate in receiving permission to spend his year outside the urban centers where he could live, talk and socialize with Chinese peasants, getting to know many of them quite well.

As Mosher’s visit lengthened he found many of his village neighbors to be sociable and friendly, willing to talk and to help him with his research. They were usually loyal to old Chinese traditions, family and community, as well as hardworking and industrious when tilling their small private plots. Although most were outwardly submissive toward local government representatives, the cadres, and cowed by the ever-present threat of government persecution, they were unenthusiastic workers on commune projects and often quite ingenious in sabotaging public projects of which they disapproved.

The violence and atrocities inflicted in the name of the Communist regime’s various crash campaigns left their marks on many victims. During the “Cultural Revolution,” Mao had called on the Chinese youth “not only to demolish all the old ideology and culture . . . but also to create and cultivate among the masses an entirely new, proletarian ideology and culture.” No one suspected of being an employer, a landowner, an intellectual or of possessing “cultural contra band,” i.e., “anything that could be connected with the past or with the West” was safe from persecution. At any time he might be forced “to stand with bowed head and humble demeanor before a hostile crowd of people . . . who denounce him for his supposed crimes and demand a full confession.” Anyone who spoke out in defense of the accused could also expect to be denounced.

Few victims could long resist such abuse; many committed suicide; millions died or were killed. Those persecuted in this way were among China’s most exceptional persons, the most intelligent, industrious and energetic. The few who survived were usually broken emotionally. Their ambition gone, they were anxious only to avoid anything that would make them stand out from the crowd.

Mosher’s description of life in China reads like Orwell’s 1984-rigid work schedules, rationing and food shortages, close supervision by local government cadres of many facets of daily life even in the villages and hamlets, strict birth control, compulsory abortions and occasional infanticide to control population growth, and even the rewriting of history. In the words of one of Mosher’s Chinese aquaint-ances: “Everyone knows that the Cultural Revolution was wrong, that the Great Leap Forward was wrong. For half of our history since the liberation—fifteen years out of thirty—we have followed an incorrect line. This is a fact. The Party wants us to forget the past, so I have to rewrite all of these old reports. But how can we possibly forget? We should learn from these mistakes, not just pretend that they never happened.”

In 1979-1980, when Mosher was in China, the government under Deng Xiaoping was just starting to try to bring about changes. It was introducing a new program to “modernize” (1) industry, (2) science and technology, (3) agriculture and (4) the military. The people were permitted, for a time, to mount on the Xidam Democratic Wall posters and messages dealing with current social problems. The intellectuals, though better off than at any time since the 1950s, remained wary, however, for they knew how capricious their government could be. Some small private enterprises were being permitted and more specialization and individual responsibility were being fostered among farmers. However, the bloated bureaucracy remained, and still remains, as well as a great deal of oppression.

As Mosher realized, China is certainly not a monolithic society. Conditions and ideas vary from community to community. There is undoubtedly resentment and some latent opposition to government policies, especially against the compulsory family planning and enforced abortions, which fly in the face of Chinese tradition. However, most of the Chinese have little time or energy under present conditions to devote to ideas. Moreover, the outlet for criticism of the government, the Xidam Democratic Wall, has been closed down and there is no effective way for dissident persons to communicate with one another. Government operates the communications media and censorship still prevails.

On the one hand, the government seeks to encourage technology but on the other it discourages open debate and discussion. Deng Xiaoping does not realize that advanced technology comes hand in hand with a system of government that respects individual freedom and protects private property. A government that attempts to control its people from the top leaves little opportunity for innovators to invent, communicate and experiment.

The officials in the Chinese regime should take a leaf from the writings of the late Ludwig von Mises who explained that the thinkers, philosophers and economists are no less important in the development of technology and the higher standard of living technology makes possible than are the technicians and inventors themselves:

The great change that within a few decades made England the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation was prepared for by a small group of philosophers and economists . . . . these authors expounded the doctrine of free trade and laissez faire. They paved the way for a policy that no longer obstructed the businessman’s effort to improve and to expand his operations (“Capital Supply and American Prosperity,” 1952).

Steven Mosher has written a revealing book about life in communist China and how the people cope with an overbearing government. His is a very sympathetic portrayal of the country people, who are doing the best they can under difficult conditions. In describing how the people live, however, he reveals a great deal about China’s totalitarian regime. Apparently this was the reason that Mosher was denounced by the Chinese government as a “foreign spy” and forced to leave the country. Stanford University also severed its association with him. Mosher is now writing another book about China—one that should tell us still more about life “behind the bamboo curtain.”


  • Contributing editor Bettina Bien Greaves was a longtime FEE staff member, resident scholar, and trustee. She attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar for many years and is a translator, editor, and bibliographer of his works.