September 2015

Beijing August 1958 – Hot town, summer in the city!

(click on the title to view the document)

From now until Christmas, I want to use the Document of the Month-page to promote one of the most useful sources of information I know on the early years of the PRC. Most historians will already be familiar with the Xinhua News Agency’s Internal Reference a complete 1949–1964 run of which is in the Universities Service Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Less well known, but constituting a superb complement to Internal Reference is《公安建设》, a Central Ministry of Public Security serial about which I wrote a brief Wikipedia entry back in 2010.

Those of you who have heard of it but never actually had a chance to read an issue may well assume that something with a title like Public Security Construction will be all about surveillance, law and order, suppression of counter-revolution, accidents, fire fighters, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But even though the words “公安” may seem at first to have no bearing on your own research topic, I will bet the equivalent of what a billion German Mark would have bought you on 15 November 1923 to show that you are wrong. Let’s say you’re working on the history of opium growing and addiction in China after 1949: then you should check out《关于烟毒情况和重点取缔工作的报告》in issue No. 207 (1957) and other reports like it. Ah, but you’re actually studying grain policy at around the time of rural collectivization, you say? Well then, to quickly develop a sense of the spread of resistance, riots, and similar problems, you should probably speed-read the reports from the countryside in issues from the first half of 1954. You care more about the survival of syncretic sects and secret societies after 1949 than about communist party politics? Then please pay attention to all the times that反动会道门 and the term’s many synonyms crop up in the table of contents of Public Security Construction. You’re a retro scholar stuck in The Sixties, still passionately committed to debating the world revolution and class composition of PRC society? If so, note that the pre-history of the Cultural Revolutionary discourse that engendered Yao Wenyuan’s “On the Social Basis of the Lin Piao Anti-Party Clique” is extensively documented in Public Security Construction, first in references to the “social basis of counter-revolution” (反革命社会基础) and after 1962 in comments on the “class basis of counter-revolution” (反革命阶级基础). You wish to truly understand Maoist campaign-style politics in practice? Then you surely must read cover-to-cover the many issues documenting the镇压反革命运动and the “三反五反” in China’s cities and provinces in 1950–1953. In those issues, there are quite a few relevant remarks by Mao and commentary that you will not find in the 《建国以来毛泽东文稿》. And, last but not least, if harsh data and brutal statistics from the Great Leap Forward are your thing, then on no account must you overlook the hundreds of pages in issues from 1958 devoted to the CCP’s misguided attempt at building a stairway to heaven.

This month’s Public Security Construction document (which appeared in issue #274, on 30 October 1958) was composed by the Beijing municipal Bureau of Public Security in August 1958, barely a week before the CCP Politburo met in Beidaihe to launch some of the Great Leap Forward’s most “harebrained” schemes. It is both entertaining and informative. Its topic is the“大杂院” – socialist Beijing’s large, mixed, and messy urban residential compounds. Content-wise, it should interest students of the subaltern, urban culture and crime, social engineering and control. Keep in mind when reading it that copies of Public Security Construction were marked Top Secret at the time: this is not propaganda meant for general, much less foreign, consumption! If what you do today is oral history and interviews with former Beijing residents who lived through the mad summer of ’58 with its deconstruction of all things ferrous and the culling of sparrows, and you need something to trigger their memories – hand them a printout of《大杂院的今昔》!