China’s role as a massive global consumer of energy is so well-known that the fact that it is also a major energy producer is often overlooked. Like other geographically large countries–Russia, the US, Canada–China’s territory is expansive and diverse enough to include a lot of different mineral deposits. It has the world’s fourth-largest reserves of coal and also the 13th-largest oil reserves. In the 1970s and 1980s, China was even a net exporter of oil–the result of dramatic success in exploring for and producing oil under the extreme conditions of Maoist socialism.
Most of China’s oil production did, and still does, come from one major source: the Daqing oilfield in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Its discovery was a formative event for the young People’s Republic, and Mao Zedong quickly seized upon Daqing as a model of the kind of socialist industry he wanted: ascetic, egalitarian, and dispersed (Daqing’s workers lived in packed-earth houses scattered across the oil field, and mostly had to grow their own food). The tale is very well told in Building For Oil: Daqing and the Formation of the Chinese Socialist State, a 2018 book by Hou Li (侯丽), a professor of urban planning at Tongji University.
China was a poor and badly governed country when it discovered oil at Daqing, and natural resources have often been very mixed blessings for poor and badly governed countries. There are numerous examples of how sudden resource wealth has led to massive corruption, poor government policy decisions, and a failure to successfully develop other parts of the economy–the so-called “resource curse.” Rich, well-governed countries, on the other hand, have generally not been knocked off their stride by sudden oil wealth. (A useful survey of the issue is Confronting the Curse: the Economics and Geopolitics of Natural Resource Governance by Cullen Hendrix and Marcus Noland.) Different countries’ institutions are affected in different ways by the shock from a resource boom, and the China that discovered Daqing was very different indeed, caught up in Mao’s radical political and economic experiments.
Timing matters. When large-scale oil production from Daqing began in 1963, China was recovering from the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s mad dash for industrialization that caused a nationwide famine. The disaster had discredited Mao’s aggressive approach, and economic policy was back in the hands of more rational policymakers like the cautious economic specialist Chen Yun and the conventional Soviet-style planner Li Fuchun, as well as respected political leaders like Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. They were beginning to draft a new five-year plan aimed at redressing some of the distortions in the economy. The initial draft of the Third Five-Year Plan reversed the Leap’s focus on heavy industry above all in favor of agriculture and light industry–things people could “eat, wear or use” (吃, 穿, 用).
The success of Daqing, however, provided evidence that a Maoist approach to heavy industry development could indeed work. In November 1963, oil minister Yu Qiuli, who had personally supervised the work on Daqing, delivered a report to the National People’s Congress in which he declared that the oil sector was the only one that had met, and exceeded, the targets set during the Great Leap Forward. This was the first time that much of the rest of the leadership had heard of Daqing, which had been a secret project, and Mao in particular was impressed. Indeed, the oil produced by Daqing would prove to be the single greatest industrial accomplishment of the Mao era, its growth eventually far exceeding the temporary surge in steel output during the Leap.
The oil produced by Daqing helped save China from major energy shortages during the 1960s. It also restored Mao’s confidence in his idiosyncratic approach to economic development, based on mass mobilization rather than orthodox planning, political enthusiasm rather than material incentives, and heavy industry and defense over agriculture and consumer goods. And everyone in the leadership, not just Mao, was impressed. Gu Mu, the experienced economic official who in the 1980s would play a key role in China’s opening-up to foreign investment, was then a member of the National Economic Commission and visited Daqing in 1960, 1962 and 1963. He later wrote in his memoirs:
The success of the Daqing oilfield provided a huge boost to China’s oil supplies after its good relations with the Soviet Union came to an end. It put an end to a longstanding geological myth about China’s oil reserves, and opened up a new door for China’s oil industry both in theory and practice. But more significantly, it demonstrated that the Chinese nation could survive and develop on its own rather than living on alms from others.
The discovery of oil, then, probably helped push China back toward industrialization campaigns at a juncture when otherwise it would have moved toward a more balanced and consumer-oriented strategy. Through 1964, Mao often expressed his discontent with the proposed direction of the Third Five-Year Plan. He repeatedly mentioned Daqing to other officials and praised oil minister Yu Qiuli, eventually promoting him over other economic planners.
But the example of Daqing alone was not enough to change the consensus among the leadership. Mao’s attempts to redirect economic policy did not meet with real success until after August 1964, when the Gulf of Tonkin incident precipitated greater US military involvement in Vietnam. Mao and other leaders feared that war was imminent, and the economy therefore needed to be immediately reoriented toward preparing for a potential invasion. That meant lots more projects like Daqing: military-style mobilization of labor to rapidly develop heavy industry in isolated areas that could be easily defended. The fact that Daqing had undeniably worked made this new campaign–a long-secret effort known as the Third Front–seem like a plausible strategy.
As with other examples of the supposed “resource curse,” the discovery of oil in Maoist China clearly had a big impact, but it is difficult to ascribe all the changes that followed to the effect of resources. Still, even today there is evidence of resource-curse-like phenomena within China on a regional basis, where areas heavily endowed with natural resources tend to have more state-dominated and less successful economies (see Manchuria rediscovers the resource curse). So one might hypothesize that the way the resource curse functions under socialism is by reinforcing socialist biases toward isolation and heavy industry.
Yet the rest of the story is more ambiguous. By 1972, the constant fear of invasion that had kept China focused on defense-industry projects had eased, thanks to Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing and the normalization of relations with Japan. At this juncture, Hou argues in her book, the oil industry did not push China back toward traditional socialism, but actually facilitated an engagement with the outside world and the introduction of new technology:
Accompanying the changing political and international climate were intense debates about ideology and strategy in the socialist state. Although Daqing Oil Field was constantly promoted as a model of self-reliance, the rising petroleum leaders understood the importance of advanced technology for sustainable growth and the limitations of an indigenous and labor-intensive model. They thus boldly introduced dramatic changes when drafting state plans.
China’s rising oil exports provided the hard currency with which it could purchase foreign technology, and Yu Qiuli proposed importing large amounts of foreign equipment to build downstream industries like chemicals, fertilizer and synthetic fibers. This push eventually developed into what was called the Great Leap Outward, a 1976 plan to boost economic development with large amounts of imported foreign technology. This plan was over-ambitious and proved short-lived, but the impulse to re-engage with the outside world that it represented persisted, and was refocused into the broader opening-up agenda pursued by Deng Xiaoping, Gu Mu and others after 1978.
One of the great virtues of Building For Oil is the way that it pairs a nuanced account of these high-level twists and turns of Chinese policy with a lively narrative of one woman’s life at Daqing. We get a powerful sense of how this political and economic drama felt to those living through it. It’s one of the best Chinese history books I’ve read in a while.