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Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Blast From the Past

As well as featuring the most important China-related news on its homepage, the China Daily's website also has an 'Odd News' section. One of today's offerings in this category is a story, originally covered by the site halfway through August, involving three migrant workers in the central-eastern province of Henan. On the day the story broke, Sino-Gist focused on discussing the trouble caused by a Pentagon report on China's military and cyber technology capabilities, and so this 'Odd News' item slipped through the net. However, it is a worth a closer look.

According to the China Daily, the employer (a labour contractor by the name of Mr Zhao) of three migrant workers in Zhengzhou (Henan's capital) had failed to pay these employees their wages- 100 Chinese Yuan per day- for nine days. In response, the angry employees took it upon themselves to tie Zhao up with wire and parade him around a public street.

During the Mao era and the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution (GPCR) between 1966 and 1976, such an approach would have been a perfectly valid and just expression of proletarian frustration. Indeed, there is much in this story to remind the reader of the public humiliations and denunciations of tens of thousands of officials and supposedly 'counter-revolutionaries' that occurred while the Red Guards were in the ascendency in China (between 1966 and 1969). However, Chinese society post-Mao has moved away from many of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and the forced parading of authority figures is no longer seen as a valid way in which the 'masses' can take affairs into their own hands.

This incident in Zhengzhou is clearly an isolated or extremely rare case, but it is nonetheless surprising that the disgruntled workers went as far as they did. To make the conscious decision to escalate the dispute to physical intimidation is not a step taken lightly. It would be interesting to know the ages of those involved, but it seems unlikely that a relatively young worker would even have contemplated this course of action. What is interesting to note is that (as the China Daily points out) the migrant workers came into criticism from the public, and because of such opinion were obliged to apologise to Mr Zhao. While China is having trouble forgetting some of the legacies of the Cultural Revolution, it is quite obvious that the public mentality is firmly behind conventional systems of authority rather than the idea that people can step outside of these systems wherever and whenever they choose. The logical question to ask is: what has changed since 1966 to make this the case? The answer is probably very little. If anything, the case in Henan illustrates the immense pressure that was brought to bear on individuals to conform to the Maoist rejection of authority during the Cultural Revolution. In addition, it attests to the power of the 'cult' of Mao and the ideological fervour of the movement that people were prepared to cast aside their own standards of right and wrong and have them replaced by those of the Maoist leadership. To ignore these elements is to lose any credible way to explain the GPCR's worst excesses.

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