In early January, 1967, as the maelstrom China calls its Cultural Revolution swirled through virtually every section of the country, a fascinating term was added to the Chinese Communist lexicon. That term was “economism.” As originally employed by Lenin some fifty years ago, it described, simply enough, the economic activities of nonrevolutionary organizations of workers. But as the Chinese are wont to do with Communist terms, the Cultural Revolution version of economism was sinocized and extended to cover a multitude of nonrevolutionary sins. Or more specifically, a multitude of economic activities at variance with the philosophy and policies of Mao Tse-tung. Now, more than a year and a half later, economism not only is still around but is eating away China’s economic underpinning, hampering Mao in the attempt to re-establish his political hegemony, and, perhaps more important, giving vent to popular frustrations that have been building up for eighteen years.

Labor revolt

Certainly the political and leadership changes resulting from the Cultural Revolution cannot be lightly dismissed. When the dust settles, and when Mao Tse-tung finally decides whom he can and cannot trust, those who troop to the balcony of Tien An Men for mass rallies will include many unfamiliar, and inevitably younger, faces. These men will practice the rituals of the Maoist cult: bowing before the Mao image, singing the hymns that praise Mao’s “omniscience,” and wishing the chairman 10,000 years life and more. They may even attempt to run the nation along the lines drawn by Mao. Yet they, as the leaders of any state, must eventually come to terms with the realities of the Chinese nation. Not the least of these realities is the anti-authoritarian attitude of the populace.

Economism represents the most profound expression of that attitude yet to emerge from behind the now somewhat wobbly Bamboo Curtain. For in the remote village and crowded urban area alike, the peasant and the industrial worker have seized the Cultural Revolution and the breakdown in authority it caused as an opportunity for free expression and action. In doing so, each has demonstrated that he is not, as he is so often characterized, merely a “blue ant” in a colony of untold millions of “blue ants,” all working toward unselfish collective ends. To the contrary, economism is an emphatic expression of self-interest and unbridled individualism. The first use of that term came immediately on the heels of the decision to carry Mao’s then sociopolitical upheaval to the factories and the farms. Throughout most of 1966 the production units in China were offlimits to the Red Guards and other pioneers of the Cultural Revolution cause. Then in December of that year the leadership inexplicably loosed the movement on the workers and peasants. The effect was immediate and mind-boggling in its violence. Bloody clashes between intruding Red Guards and their would-be targets of Maoization erupted across the country; the workers and peasants showed little patience with the arrogant and pompous youth who came to reform them. Peking, obviously caught offbalance by the sudden outbreak of fighting, hastily churned out decrees designed to halt the spreading disorder. It was a puerile attempt to kill an incensed tiger with a popgun. Decrees, exhortations, and the invocation of Mao’s name and his inimitable “thoughts” were, in short, simply ignored.

“Back pay”

The arrival of the Cultural Revolution in the factories and on the farms sparked what productionconscious leaders like Premier Chou En-lai must have feared most: chaos. As the hard-pressed factory managers and village cadres met an intense barrage of criticism — the result of the general assault against officialdom — they parried with the best defense they had: money. It was handed out in generous quantities under the guise of “back pay” or as stipends for those who wished to visit Peking and other parts of the country to “exchange revolutionary experience.” Wages were increased, additional bonuses were handed out. In China’s most important industrial city, Shanghai, it was claimed that during one month the equivalent of $12.7 million was used to grease the workers’ palms. Hundreds of thousands of workers and farmers thus began pouring into the capital, their pockets crammed with unimaginable amounts of hard cash. They descended on Peking’s department stores like swarms of hungry locusts, buying out bicycle, watch, radio, jewelry, and clothing departments. All of this was condemned as economism.

Even those who stayed at their places of work found opportunity to join the economic melee. Peasants decided that in the framework of the annual distribution of income from collective work, they would distribute all funds and share out all grain “in order to prevent hunger.”People who had been sent to the harsh rural areas from the cities, especially youth, began flocking back to their former homes. In doing so they threw China’s carefully regulated labor distribution system out of whack. They no longer contributed to production in their assigned areas of work; they had difficulty finding legitimate employment once back in the cities.

King of the mountain

Mao, outwardly undisturbed by the quakes rocking his castle, pressed ahead with his grand design. New leadership organs called Revolutionary Committees began appearing in scattered areas. The rule, however, remained generally no rule. By midsummer, 1967, the nation seemed to be only a nudge away from civil war. Open denunciations of anarchy filled the official press, yet the Maoist leadership proved powerless to do more than maintain its precarious hold on the nation. Then still another “evil wind” blew across China: factionalism. The myriad pro-Mao groups that had sprung up during earlier upheavals began playing king of the mountain, fighting for key positions in the new leadership units and ignoring pleas for unity.

A significant part of the desire for the leadership posts, it turned out, was plain and simple greed. Men with authority, any Chinese will tell you, arc men of means. It was true in traditional China, in modern China, and in the period of Communist rule. Chinese Communist officials, especially in recent years, had by their power attained greater material comfort. The peasants and workers know this. So does Mao Tse-tung, for that is one of the oft-heard criticisms of the pre-Cultural Revolution leadership. The difference is that Mao and his closest disciples consider such practices capitulation to capitalism, while the populace looks on with envy for the good life.

What initially was denounced as economism — the indiscriminate passing out of state funds, the substantial increases in wages, bonuses, and benefits, the strikes and disorders among workers and peasants — soon developed into an even larger economic morass. As Peking struggled to impose order, to resolve the factional disputes and weave a tighter national fabric, the Cultural Revolution’s goal of remolding the Chinese man by eliminating his selfinterest became an object of open if unspoken derision. Earlier economic demands apparently arose spontaneously or at the instigation of Mao’s opposition. But now an element of organized effort began to appear. Having learned the power of group action, workers banded together to press for higher pay, better working conditions, and more extensive benefits. This, Peking angrily countered, was “guild mentality" and, you guessed it, another form of economism.

One of the factors contributing to the labor discontent was that since 1964 China had adopted a system of worker-peasant labor. In its simplest form, that system uses peasants and the urban unemployed for part-time or seasonal work in industrial enterprises in place of some permanent employees. This has resulted in the displacement of permanent workers, who in turn have been forced to work in the countryside. Those who come to the factories only on a parttime basis are paid lower wages than permanent staff and do not receive the standard fringe benefits. For those forced to the rural areas, the communes have had to assume responsibility for their food, medical, and other needs. This system, in other words, benefited the state and not the individual. It is believed that several million workers were affected by the introduction of the part-time employee. The Cultural Revolution offered the displaced individual a chance to air his gripes and demand retribution. And that, or so the Maoists complain, opened yet another stream of economism.


By the end of last year, the problem of economism had thus grown in definition as well as influence. Stories began to appear in both the official and unofficial press of entrepreneurial activities that would gladden the heart of any red, white, and blue capitalist. In the central China city of Wuhan, one enterprising but unidentified fellow rounded up a supply of small agricultural machines and set out for the rural areas to peddle his goods. He must have been successful, for when he was caught, his activities were loudly condemned by no less a mouthpiece for the Maoists than the Party newspaper People’s Daily.

From Shanghai came word of a special body set up to stop the activities of speculators. One report revealed that the special group had swooped on speculators at railway

stations, wharves, hotels, restaurants, and guesthouses, confiscating large quantities of cigarettes, watches, towels, as well as industrial and other consumer goods.

By early this year reports from wide areas of the country chronicled the mounting economic anarchy. Profiteers were fostering a free market in housing and offering to construct shanties — at, of course, a fat price — on public land. One speculator, as disclosed in a report following his arrest, had accumulated ration coupons for more than 50 tons of rice and 3817 yards of textiles. In coastal areas, young people spent their time catching fish, prawns, and other aquatic products which they could sell at the rapidly growing but illegal markets. Private street factories appeared in many of the large cities, presumably manufacturing simple consumer goods which have always been in short supply and great demand. Enough official complaints and warnings have been aired over such activities as the scalping of Mao badges and other Mao paraphernalia to indicate that the speculators know what they are doing. Reports from Canton revealed that counterfeit jenminpi (China’s currency) had turned up in that south China city.

These developments, though strange against the backdrop of China’s economic stability in the last few years, come as little surprise to those who were able to follow firsthand the political disturbances in Hong Kong last year. When the colony’s police were occupied with Communist demonstrators and bomb terrorists — when, in effect, the controls were relaxed — hundreds of vendors selling as many different commodities suddenly appeared where normally they would have feared to tread. Many of those who staked out street corners in the stuffy, proper, business-suit-and-tie Central District of Hong Kong Island had come from China only a few years before. If they had learned the business aplomb they demonstrated during that short period in the colony, they were exceptional students indeed.

Obviously they had not come into the hot and heavy competitive world of fast-buck Hong Kong unprepared. Somehow — and this applies even to the youngsters whose experience comes entirely from the post-Communist period — they had learned while still on the mainland the lessons of economic self-interest and, more important, of economic survival.


Nothing says this more emphatically than the fact that early this year — more than a year after the first appeal to “oppose economism" was published — the Maoist leadership was forced once again to reprimand those who continue their bourgeois ways. It was necessary to issue a ten-point decree against “counter-revolutionary economism and speculative, profiteering activities.” This order, which revealed how far economism had spread, declared that unlicensed traders and vendors and unlicensed individual handicraftsmen must be suppressed. People’s Communes, their various units and members, were ordered to stop engaging in private commerce. The use of free markets by state enterprises, business establishments, schools, and public organizations was forbidden. The distribution of liquid funds, public reserves, and welfare funds of collectively owned units also was condemned, and those who had already distributed the cash holdings were ordered to “voluntarily return the money.” Moreover, the leadership was forced to admit that wage structures, welfare benefits, cash incentives, working conditions, and even canteen food were matters worthy of review — but at a later date. It also confessed that the part-time, rotating worker-peasant system of labor was due for re-evaluation — again at a later date. In the meantime, the old systems would have to remain in effect. Wage increases, additional bonuses, new welfare benefits, and other such improvements in the workers’ living standards were to stop until the leadership could examine the problem and formulate new policies.

“The way we want”

The question this dilatory approach raises is whether the workers and peasants can be so easily placated. The Maoists in Peking have consistently argued that the “evil winds” of economism have been fanned by the “handful of Party power-holders taking the capitalist road.” Yet there can be few in China who accept that explanation, for it is clear to all that whatever “power-holders taking the capitalist road” existed in the past, they have long since been eliminated. They also know that the instigators of economism, at least at this point, are the people themselves. Their demands, they feel, are justified. And, although Peking may have bought time by promising reforms, how much time is a nagging uncertainty.

In some areas the workers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the leadership’s promise. They have left their production posts and are now engaging in commodity speculation or simply whiling away their hours playing poker or MahJongg, either at home or in the numerous gambling parlors that have cropped up. When challenged about leaving their assigned jobs, the workers reply with clever excuses. “We are not yet clear,” a typical response runs, “whether we are producing for the proletarian headquarters [Mao’s side] or the bourgeois headquarters. We will not, therefore, take part in production.” Others, when accused of playing poker and chess late into the night and thus being too tired to work the following day, defend themselves by saying: “We are rebelling against the old factory regulations and shall do things the way we want.” The Maoists, of course, are not deceived by such arguments. Yet the workers, being China’s and Chairman Mao’s much-exalted proletariat, are not so easily dealt with. It is, the workers can rightly claim, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The situation in some rural areas is not much different. Peasants are engaging in what they call “small freedoms.” They neglect the collective fields, choosing instead to gather rocks to build houses, or cut timber for firewood which can be sold for cash, or work their private plots. There have been reports, too, of collective fields being divided up and shared out to individual families, of commune animals being placed in private hands. How widespread these activities are is impossible to say. However, one strong indication that this form of economism is rather extensive is that the national press has felt compelled to denounce it on more than one occasion.

While it is thus possible to catch these glimpses of economic upheaval in China, it is not possible to see the whole, unblurred picture. That there have been serious economic dislocations is only too evident. But whether they have set back China’s development one year or two, five or ten, is best left to the crystal-ballgazers. What is known for fact is that no country can undergo such a turbulent and extended period of unrest, can deliberately destroy an intricate and efficient, if politically unsanitary, mechanism of economic management and control without serious losses.

Costly experiment

It is impossible at this point to measure the full economic impact of transportation breakdowns (especially on the railways), the industrial cutbacks due to raw material shortages; the effects of work stoppages, of damage to equipment during clashes between rival worker groups. There are also losses resulting from pilfering, the free-for-all distribution of funds and commodities, the waste of materials from inefficient plant operations, and the lower quality of workmanship. Then there are the intangibles. What was the value of the loss in managerial know-how and technical expertise following the purge of factory foremen and managers? It is doubtful whether even the Chinese leadership has been able to assess the full impact of these developments. But one suspects the cost must have been enormous.

Thus in pure economic terms, it is evident that the Cultural Revolution has proved a costly experiment. Yet it is in a political sense that the economic loss and the influence of economism seem destined to have the greatest effect, at least over the long run. The popular view in the West that, given time, China will mellow and become a less antagonistic member of the comity of nations has been buttressed by developments over the past two and a half years. The wide-scale appearance of what Peking has chosen to call economism represents a frank expression of what truly motivates the average Chinese. Despite his expressed determination to do so, Mao Tse-tung has clearly failed to rid the Chinese worker and peasant of self-interest. And that, eventually, appears likely to spell the bankruptcy of his design for a Maoist China chugging ahead on political steam alone. To the Chinese people, that conclusion represents nothing startling. For as one of their ancient sages once put it: “The swan does not need a daily washing to stay white; the crow does not need a daily inking to stay black.” Changing man’s basic nature is like trying to make the swan black and the crow white. Even Mao Tse-tung does not have that power. — Arthur C. Miller