Flood control and social transformation in revolutionary China – “Teaching water to climb mountains”

6  September 2010. A World to Win News Service.  Following are excerpts from an article that appeared in issue 13 (1989) of A World to Win  magazine. It was originally published in the Revolutionary Worker (now called Revolution), voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, 10 June 1985.

Great Struggle Against Crooked Valleys and Rivers, 1974

For hundreds of years, floods and droughts had been the “twin scourges” of China. A major flood or drought hit large parts of the land at a pace of almost once a year, destroying crops or making it impossible to plant and thus leading to terrible famines that took the lives of hundreds of thousands at a time.

With the defeat of the U.S.-backed Koumintang (KMT) reactionaries in October 1949, the revolutionary regime led by Mao and the Communist Party of China faced an immensely difficult situation. U.S. imperialism and its reactionary allies surrounded and blockaded New China in an attempt to smother it to death. The land and the people had been ravaged by the decades of Japanese imperialist invasion and occupation and the rampages of the KMT army, which compounded the devastation from flood, drought and famine.

As a 1974 Peking Review article titled “Harnessing China’s Rivers” recalled, “What did the Koumintang reactionaries leave behind 25 years ago when New China was born? With all the waterways, dykes and embankments long out of repair, the peasants were completely at the mercy of nature. Flood and drought were common occurrences, wreaking havoc alternately or concurrently and taking a heavy toll on millions of people, with tens of millions more rendered homeless. Such being the plight of old China, certain imperialist prophets gleefully awaited the collapse of New China in the grip of these twin disasters which all past governments had failed to cope with.”

For the infant revolutionary

regime, the task of taming the great rivers – the Yangtze, the Yellow, the Huai (flowing in the central coastal plains between the Yangtze and the Yellow), and others – was a crucial aspect of transforming China from a dependent neocolony into an independent socialist country. Without protection from floods and new irrigation systems to fight droughts and open up new farmland, the peasantry – making up the overwhelming majority of the population – would continue to suffer. The worker-peasant alliance would be adversely affected and the ability of China to withstand the attacks of the imperialists and contribute to world revolution would be weakened.

In 1951 and ’52, Mao declared that the Huai River and the Yellow River “must be harnessed”. These calls were made amidst, and were very much a part of, the fierce two-line struggles within the Communist Party itself over China’s direction after liberation.

Under the rub

ric of “harmony” between capitalism and socialism and “consolidating” new democracy, revisionists like Liu Shao-chi fought to lead China down the road of capitalist development (which in China’s context inevitably would have meant neocolonial development). In agriculture, these bourgeois-democrats-turned-capitalist-roaders tried to stifle and sabotage the socialist transformation of the ownership of the means of production and all the relations of production. They argued that mechanisation and development of heavy industry (which in turn depended on foreign technology and “aid”) had to precede collectivisation, and that in the meantime the old social relations should remain intact in the countryside. Exploitation is a “merit”, Liu even declared.

The two lines were sharply posed in the question of taking on the job of controlling China’s rivers.

According to those like Liu, such large-scale and technically difficult projects were impossible to undertake since China had neither the funds nor the technology, Liu condescendingly preached that people in areas affected by flood or drought should rely on “relief”. As one observer noted in the mid-70s when the Huai River projects had been completed and the Yellow River brought largely under control, “had the masses waited for machines to do it, there would still be fam

ines in North China.”

Mao sharply criticised and fought against the revisionist and capitulationist line of Liu and others, and declared that, “We must now realise that there will soon be a nationwide high tide of socialist transformation in the countryside.”

Revolutionary peasants building rice terraces at Dazhai.

Indeed a tremendous upsurge swept through the countryside. The millions of peasants, mobilised in unprecedented forms of cooperation in big water projects, were an integral part of this – leading to the basic establishm

ent of socialist ownership in agriculture (as well as industry) by 1956. The struggle further erupted into the momentous upheaval of the Great leap Forward in 1958; it was out of this furnace that the people’s communes were born. Water conservation projects played a key role once more in this new and major step in socialist transformation.

People’s communes started spontaneously in Honan province out of a project to bring water across the Taihang mountain ranges to irrigate a dry plain area that suffered from drought eight or nine years out of ten. The peasant cooperatives took initiative in merging their labour power on a scale unheard of previously to build the Red Canal, which stretched 1,500 kilometres across the Taihang. When Mao came

to visit this merger of peasant associations, the name “people’s commune” was chosen. “This is a new creation of the masses”, Mao wrote. Others around the country followed the example: by the end of 1958, 26,000 communes had formed (increasing to 72,000 with new formations and subdivisions by 1961).

One of the slogans raised by the peasants during the Great Leap Forward was: “Teach water to climb mountains up to heaven!” The slogan of course referred directly to the carving of waterways across mountain ranges to bring water and life to arid lands. But it also spoke more broadly to the grand struggles of the masses consciously transforming society and nature, and in the process transforming themselves. Under the oppressive order of the old society, who but the most brave and farsighted would have dared dream of teaching “water to climb the mountains up to heaven”?

The scourge of the rivers

Several examples illustrate the remarkable advances made by the Chinese people after liberation to control the forces of nature, in particular the “scourge” of the rivers. In 1952, the Chinese people completed a large-scale flood-diversion programme on Chingkiang River, a harmful tributary on the middle reaches of the Yangtze. The project involved repairing and reinforcing existing dykes, building new dykes of over 200 kilometres in length, putting up numerous sluice gates, and setting up a safety area to accommodate 170,000 people in case of evacuation during an especially big flood. Three hundred thousand soldiers and civilians were mobilised, and the whole project was completed in seventy-five days.

This contrast starkly with the “achievements” during the years of reactionary KMT rule. In order to build a small drainage gate on the Yangtze near the city of Wuhan, the KMT begged for funds from five different countries and then took three years to complete the work.

The Huai River basin used to be one of those areas hit by almost yearly flood and/or drought. The diversion of the Yellow River in 1938 by the KMT caused devastation of even greater dimensions. The change in the course of the Yellow River brought down silt that filled the estuary of the Huai River, buried farmland and heightened the beds of many lakes. All this affected the entire Huai River system, making it even more susceptible to floods and droughts.

Mao’s 1951 call – “the Huai River must be harnessed″ – sparked millions of peasants to begin tackling various water-control projects along the Huai. This vast mobilisation shattered the revisionist whining about how it was impossible for the “backward” peasants without machines to take on such immense projects. In fact, except for key state-financed projects, modern machinery – such as bulldozers, excavators, earth removers and heavy-duty trucks – was rarely available, especially in the earlier years.

The rise of revisionists to power in the Soviet Union in 1956, and the subsequent Sino-Soviet split and pull-out of Soviet technicians, funds and equipment from China, posed further difficulties. The “river-tamers” had to rely on simple tools and equipment – hammers chisels, picks, wheel-barrows, home-made machines and explosives. And, most important of all, there was the powerful initiative of the masses, unleashed by the revolutionary line of Mao.

By the early 1970s, one report noted “conspicuous changes” in the worksites of the Huai River projects compared to the initial stages: “China-made dredgers are working alongside other machines. The degree of mechanisation has increased and the contingents of technicians have grown enormously. What merits particular attention is that large numbers of peasant-technicians with rich practical experience have come to the fore.”

The passage gives a glimpse of the actual development of productive forces during the years of Mao’s leadership (contrary to the lies and distortions of imperialists and revisionists alike), and, most importantly, the big changes in relations of production, especially through the Cultural Revolution –the differences between mental and manual labour, between town and countryside and between industry and agriculture were beginning to be broken down.

The changes in one county in the Huai River basin epitomised the night-and-day difference in conditions between the neocolonial past and socialist China. In one township of 11,000 households, floods in 1931 brought death from hunger to 2,600 peasants and forced 6,700 families to flee to other areas. The same area experienced torrential rains in the summer of 1974 – over twelve inches of rain fell in two days and the water level of the Huai rose over six feet; Yet the dykes and the drainage pumps kept damage to a minimum – peasant homes were not washed away, and paddy fields remained green.

Since the revisionists took power in 1976 and restored capitalism, many of the advances made during socialist China – especially during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – have been overturned. The people’s communes, for example, have been mostly broken up, with land divided again among individual households, and exploitative relations and class polarisation making their return. While there may be some increases in production in certain areas and for a certain period, the larger picture raises the ominous spectre of possibly disastrous consequences of capitalist restoration in the countryside.

Some observers have noted, for example, that there has been an increase in the frequency of floods and severity of damages caused by them and have linked these developments at least in part to the breaking up of socialised agriculture. Because the peasants are increasingly driven to raise productivity on their private plots and contract businesses, there is mounting reluctance to participate in public works projects – water conservancy works, soil conservation, forestation programs – since they require pooling of labour and resources, and sacrifices on the part of individual units for the bigger whole.

Images of pre-1949 floods, droughts and famines are beginning to cast their shadow.

As the article “Harnessing China’s Rivers” in Peking Review pointed out: “In the dark old days class oppression went hand in hand with drought and flood; the reactionary political rule and the ideological fetters imposed on the people not only deprived them of the necessary objective conditions for combating floods but also made it impossible for them to see their own subjective strength in overcoming them. After each natural disaster, the reactionary rulers, while using the pretext of building water-control projects to fleece the people, spread the doctrines of Confucius and Mencius and forced the people to build temples and offer sacrifices to appease the gods. The storm of socialist revolution since liberation has shattered the political and economic fetters binding the labouring people and swept away the ideological trammels that hampered their initiative and creativity.”

To deal with cyclones and other disasters, “natural” and “unnatural”, requires making revolution.

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