In 1984, the Taiwan-born and US-trained anthropologist Huang Shu-min left his family in Iowa to live in a village on the Chinese island of Xiamen, just outside the city of the same name. By that time Chinese villages had already benefited from a few years of reform, and the changes underway were dramatic. Huang was impressed by the visible improvements in living standards, but also somewhat depressed by the constant presence of official propaganda and the regimented controls over daily life. At one point, he recounts trying to express this conflict to a villager:
“I must say that living conditions here are probably much better than what one might see in India or in Africa. To me, this seems to be directly related to the tightly controlled but highly efficient administrative system that one finds in China. The fundamental contradiction then is between economic development and human liberty. In order to achieve quick development, sometimes citizens of less-developed countries, such as China, may have to forgo some of their individual freedom. The problem I weigh is how to draw the delicate balance between collective interests and individual freedom.
In the Chinese context, it’s hard to imagine a more anodyne statement. These days, the effectiveness of China’s authoritarian state and the correctness of its tradeoff between liberties and development have been taken for granted by a generation. What you expect to happen here is for Huang to receive enthusiastic agreement and a lecture on the virtues of China’s system. So it’s pretty interesting that his interlocutor, the village Communist Party secretary Ye Wende, actually pushes back sharply against the whole framing:
Ye looked at me wearily. “I don’t know anything about India or Africa, nor do I know where you have picked up this great idea about the conflict between economic development and liberty. The only thing I know is based on my personal experience, and it seems to run counter to what you said. The more political controls imposed on the peasants, the less they want to work. On the other hand, when the national government shed itself of most controls in the countryside and gave peasants more free choice, they responded with greater enthusiasm and higher production.
This may not be true for all of China. But in Lin Brigade, at least as far as I can tell, it was only in the 1970s, when people realized the absurdity of political campaigns in the countryside and stopped cutting each other’s throats, and when the national policy became more flexible toward peasants, that we were able to achieve genuine development. If you don’t realize this point, you will never be able to understand current agrarian reform, either at the national level or in this village.”
That exchange is from Huang’s 1989 book, The Spiral Road: Change in a Chinese Village Through the Eyes of a Communist Party Leader. It’s an unusual document, consisting entirely of extended interviews with Ye, who recounts an oral history of his village from the 1950s on. Bits like that offer a reminder of how different the intellectual environment was in China during the 1980s.