Academic integrity sometimes requires revising theoretical perspectives as a situation changes and new evidence comes to light. Mobo Gao, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide, finds himself in that position. In 1998 he wrote Gao Village, an anthropological study of life in a very poor Chinese village during the latter half of the 20th century. He was thoroughly qualified to do so, because he was born and raised there in abject poverty. He frankly recounts how qualifying for a university education from such a background, in addition to intellectual gifts, required a combination of luck, guanxi and a bit of cheating.
Western scholars and Chinese intellectuals concur that communism has retarded China’s economic progress and that the political campaigns of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were a disaster for the Chinese people. Gao was there, and he disagrees. Indeed, he has built his academic reputation through a reasoned, evidence-based refutation of the consensus. He acknowledges that China’s elite see communism that way, but he emphasizes that they are a minority. Eighty percent of Chinese in those days lived as “peasants” in the villages, and for them communism, and especially the Cultural Revolution, brought great benefits. Gao documented those claims in Gao Village, a very detailed history of his hometown and the story of his life there.
Gao’s difficulty today is that Gao Village’s story ended in 1997. That work documents how education, rural health and culture had by 1997 all deteriorated since the Deng government opened up the economy. Gao acknowledged in Gao Village that the peasants were disrespected under communism and relentlessly exploited for the benefit of the urban minority, and he acknowledged that the abolition of agricultural taxes since Deng’s reforms was a great boon. But on balance he clearly felt that Deng’s economic reforms were a step backward for the peasants compared with their life under Mao’s purer form of communism. Gao’s evidence-based defence of that contrarian position has apparently been a major pillar of his academic reputation.
Return to Gao Village is a sequel to that 1999 work bringing Gao’s observations up to date. The normal organization for such a sequel would be to mimic the first volume, treating the same topics in the same way to highlight the comparisons, but that won’t work in this case. Today, only 20 years later, conditions are pretty much incomparable. In terms of health, diet, shelter, clothing, life chances, Gao village has changed more in the last 25 years than in all its previous 200-year history. The reason, as Gao clearly shows, is migrant-working. For the first time villagers have the chance to leave the village and earn real money in factories in Shenzhen and Xiamen, and almost everyone takes it. Except at Spring Festival, the village houses only the children and their grandparents. Today,
… the rural people… are actually content. For most of them, this is the best time they can ever remember.
So instead of explaining in detail how diet is better, housing is better, education is better and so on, Gao describes village life today using profiles of some exemplary villagers. He has selected the wealthiest, the poorest, a few entrepreneurs successful to various degrees and a rubbish collector. Gao the anthropologist interviewed them at length about their life today and their hopes for the future. The clear message is that he wrote Gao Village at just the wrong time and in that work and subsequent scholarly publications drew the wrong conclusions. Gao Village Revisited invalidates most of his earlier perceptions about the effects of opening up China’s economy. After the uncertain start reported in Gao Village the new policies have been a boon.
Gao Village Revisited, like its predecessor, is a fascinating look at village life in China not provided elsewhere in English.