[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, #4, Jan. 25, 1974, pp. 18-20.]
CARAVANS of twenty, thirty or more pack-horses inching along a narrow path deep in the mountains with someone in front beating a gong to frighten away wild animals; making a bonfire at night, in a clearing in the woods with men carrying loaded rifles ready against any possible raid by outlaws.... This was how caravans owned by big officials, big landlords and big merchants travelled in pre-liberated Yunnan Province. The chief means of transport in many parts of Yunnan in those days, they usually took days and even months to reach the destination.
Caravan transport was supposedly necessitated by Yunnan’s complicated topographical conditions, 90 per cent of the land being mountainous areas through which the upper reaches of the famous Yangtze, Salween, Mekong and Red Rivers flow. The mountains are so high and the valleys so deep that a mountain-top and the bottom of a valley sometimes are 1,000 to 3,000 metres apart. This geographical feature is aptly described by a folk rhyme: “Up on the mountains you can reach for the clouds, down below, lie the deep valleys. People may be within earshot on both sides of a valley, but it takes a half-day walk for them to meet.”
But today, 24 years after liberation, Yunnan has nearly 40,000 kilometres of highways, stretching from Kunming, the capital city, to 127 counties and cities in the province. Each county town is again connected with the rural communes and production brigades by new roads. Yunnan also has a huge transport, force of home-made lorries using fuel supplied by China’s fast growing oil industry. Bus service goes from the provincial capital to every county town except two which are tucked away in rugged, snow-bound mountains. But the highways have been extended to these two towns, and bus service will soon be opened. Fares are cheap, as little as 0.028 yuan a kilometre, slightly more than the cost of a box of matches.
The terrain is the same as before. Why, therefore, this world of difference between past and present? The answer can be found only by looking into the social and political causes. Yunnan’s highway construction began in 1921. The Kuomintang government levied heavy duties and taxes to “finance” road construction, but most of the money collected went into the pockets of the bureaucrats. By 1949, the year of liberation, there were only 2,783 kilometres of highways in all, the average annual extension being about 100 kilometres. Just what kind of roads were they? Veteran lorry drivers still can recall the Burma Road built with massive “U.S. aid” during World War II and the pontoon bridges supported by empty oil drums spanning the swift currents. Driving vehicles over these “bridges” was quite hazardous. The inferior quality of the roads and poor maintenance led to numerous accidents. On the road to neighbouring Kweichow Province, for instance, one section was popularly known as tiao shih yen (The Crag of Hanging Corpses) because so many people had been killed there. For once, the Kuomintang government took the matter into its hands by renaming it tiao ssu yen (The Crag of Hanging Silk) which was supposed to sound easier on the ear.
But poor communication was a blessing to some members of the local ruling class. Given official posts after having greased Kuomintang palms, they could do whatever they pleased in their secluded “kingdoms” where their word was law. The economy in many places at that time was more or less in a primitive state. Matches, for instance, had not replaced the flinty rock. People there still depended on the outside world for some commodities they could not do without, in which case it was a hen for a needle, or eight kilogrammes of rice for half a kilo of salt! Exploiters like the caravan owners made big money by such transactions.
Building roads was what the people had longed for. Another folk rhyme said: “We run our legs off going uphill and break our backs downhill. When will there be a road to walk on?” In the especially isolated outlying places inhabited by minority peoples, there were tales of “golden birds spanning a river” or “flying horses crossing the mountains.” Having told such a tale in a starry night, a grandfather would say to the children: “... And by then, there will be plenty of salt of course, and you can have as much as you like.” But the impoverished and unorganized working people were unable to build roads.
It was the revolution that finally swept away the biggest stumbling-block—reactionary rule. Having confiscated the bureaucrat-capitalist enterprises (the principal portion of old China’s modern industry), the honest and incorruptible People’s Government now had funds for construction. Large-scale road building in Yunnan got started in 1951. Villagers decorated kinsmen taking part in the work with big, red flowers as if they were going to a battle-front, enjoining them to work hard in building “roads of happiness” and “highways of liberation.” In the tens of thousands, an army of professional road-builders (workers whose wages were paid by the government) was set up by the department of communications under the provincial people’s government. With the help of the peasants along the projected routes, construction got under way.
People working in departments of communications under both the provincial authorities and the administration of the Szumao Region in southern Yunnan had much to tell me. Most impressive was the power of the mass line.
Progress at the start was rather slow due to lack of experience and the backward tools used: hoes to dig up mountains, shoulder-poles and baskets to carry away earth and wooden levers to pry rocks. One comrade recalled how a detachment of 2,000 people advanced only five kilometres in eight months because it had to break up a big tract of mountain slope on every metre of road built. In the circumstances, the foremost question for the leadership was whether they believed that the masses could do the job.
Following the Party’s traditional mass line, the Party organizations which led the work were firmly convinced that it is people, not things, that are the decisive factor and that so long as the initiative and creativity of the masses are brought into full play difficulties can be overcome. Various forms of political work on the construction sites soon produced results. Discussions by the builders on the significance of their job in relation to the motherland and their own villages, canvassing opinions on how to speed up the work, nominating model workers by popular recommendation and giving publicity to their labour enthusiasm and their methods of working more efficiently ... all inspired everyone to do still better. The end product was steady extension of highway mileage and a gradual rise in work efficiency.
Things today are quite different, both in equipment and technology. For the professional road-builders, shoulder-poles and baskets have given way to rubber-tyre carts, the number of bulldozers has increased and blasting in a fixed direction is being employed so that sometimes a hilltop can be levelled by a single detonation. Machinery and other equipment, however, are manned by human beings and lively political work still goes on at construction sites.
A new highway is open to traffic.
The recent construction of a section of the highway across snow-capped mountains was a very tough engineering project. The workers had to dig tunnels in sub-zero weather whereas inside the tunnels temperatures would rise to 40° C. because of the heat generated by the various machines. In spite of such handicaps, the project was completed ahead of time. So it is still people, not the high explosives, that are the decisive factor.
The next question is: How to encourage the masses’ initiative and creativity? By inspiring them with the lofty political ideals of the proletariat and encouraging them to achieve greater, faster, better and more economical results in building socialism, do away with backwardness in the border regions of the motherland and help minority peoples in the remote areas.... And also by criticizing and repudiating the revisionist line which is diametrically opposed to these ideals. At one time when there was interference from the revisionist line, some people distorted the socialist principle of “from each according to his ability and to each according to his work” and used material incentives to “promote” production. As a result, political work was neglected, and undue emphasis was placed on more pay for more work. The aftermath was soon felt: speed was over-stressed at the expense of quality, fewer people were willing to take on difficult and dangerous jobs and the spirit of team-work was considerably weakened.
Another important aspect of the mass line in road building was to mobilize the masses to build roads on their own along with road construction by professionals. This is known as “walking on two legs.” After all, government funds are limited, as are the abilities of the professional road-builders.
Chairman Mao has said: “Does this mean that the government alone must take care of everyone and everything? Of course not. In many cases, they can be left to the care of the public organizations or of the masses directly—both are quite capable of devising many good ways of handling things.” More than half the new highways in Yunnan were built by the masses themselves. The most common method adopted here was “letting local inhabitants do the job with government help.” This means the people living along the projected routes build the roads while the government provides a little subsidy and the necessary technical guidance.
Early last year 10,000 Chingtung County peasants in the Szumao Region were mobilized to build a road in the 3,600-metre-high Wuliang Mountain area. A 189-kilometre highway was built in 100 days. For this project, not only the peasants who worked directly on it but the masses in all trades were mobilized to use their initiative. One comrade said: “It really was a wonderful sight. Myriads of torches, which from afar looked like clusters of stars in the sky, lighted up the mountain at night. The whole county showed its concern for the road-builders as barbers, seamstresses, post office and bank clerks, doctors and nurses all came to offer their services. Singers and dancers also arrived at the site to perform. Tractor-drivers readjusted their machines to serve as makeshift bulldozers to lend a hand.”
The masses figured out many good ways of doing things. The most difficult part of the job was getting through on a high peak called the “Wall of Drifting Clouds.” Seeing bats flying out of a precipice, some peasants knew there must be a cave somewhere in the vicinity. They risked their lives to negotiate the cliff and finally found a natural cave. They blasted away the “Wall of Drifting Clouds” and saved a lot of time by not having to drill a tunnel for the blasting.
As in road building, highway upkeep also relies on the masses. There is a professional force for the purpose, but when the situation calls for it, peasants living in the surrounding area turn up to help out. Safe driving is also ensured by the masses—the drivers with a high sense of responsibility. Most of Yunnan’s highways wind up and down the mountains with numerous sharp turns and hairpin bends. Looking down from the car, one often sees deep valleys shrouded in clouds and mists. But traffic accidents are few. While I was in Yunnan, the Provincial Trade Unions Council called on all drivers and other transport workers to emulate Comrade Kan Teng-chu who, since he started driving a Chinese-made lorry in 1956, had not had a single mishap in 17 years, not even a scratch on the mudguards!
In his political report to the Tenth Party Congress, Comrade Chou En-lai said: “Marx pointed out that ‘the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself.’ One basic experience from our socialist construction over more than two decades is to rely on the masses.” The highway network in Yunnan is another graphic illustration of this thesis.
If this high-way network can be likened to the blood vessels in the human body, then I had come to the terminal of a capillary—a group of mountain hamlets which had always been isolated from the rest of the region. These hamlets now make up the Panpu Production Brigade. Talking about the changes brought by the newly built highways, the secretary of the Party branch pointed to a walking-tractor and the heavy cables lying in the courtyard of the brigade’s office (a power station was under construction nearby) and said: “If we didn’t have the highways, we couldn’t possibly get all those things up here.”
A guest in a peasant household, I was offered some tea by an old lady. It came in a glass she had just bought. Her grandchild was in the room, fiddling with his Shanghai-made toy motor bike; the grandfather showed me the family photo in a frame on the wall and told me that his eldest grandson was in the army and had been to Peking.... All this seemed like nothing special, but it would have been inconceivable in the past. Before liberation, the roads were so rough, or to be precise, there wasn’t really any road at all and the old lady had not been to Szumao Town only 20 kilometres away for two decades. At that time, the provincial capital Kunming seemed so far away it was like a place in a legend. And they had never heard of Peking or Shanghai. Gourds were used for drinking and at meals; as for motor bike toys, they were not even mentioned in the fairy tales.
The Party branch secretary took me to the marketing and supply co-operative which was well-stocked with everyday consumer goods. More expensive items were the transistor radios and sewing machines. A coloured poster issued by a Shanghai export and import corporation which buys animal hides and furs hung on the wall. Wild animals are plentiful in this area and skins are in abundance. But in the old days, prices were very low. And hare skins, for example, weren’t even used. Today one such skin is sold for an amount of money that purchases some 200 needles, the same they would cost in any big city.
Progress in building up highways, railways, civil aviation and post and telecommunications has vastly broadened the horizons of the people. In Panpu, newspapers and journals published in Peking are easy to get, not to mention radio broadcasts. Educated by the Party, people here are interested in both state affairs and the popular struggles in other parts of the world. The Party branch secretary said: “We farm for our socialist motherland. When our country is stronger, she will be able to support the revolutionary cause of the world’s people still better.” This is the sentiment of the Panpu people who 24 years ago were separated from the rest of the world.
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