Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Encounters with Scientific Farming in Socialist China

Sigrid Schmalzer, University of Massachusetts

Recent years have seen a flood of U.S. media reports on the dangers Chinese industry and agriculture pose to American consumers and Chinese people alike. Among many examples, melamine-tainted food has poisoned American pets and Chinese infants, and farmers in Sichuan have been compelled to pollinate each pear blossom by hand, replacing the bees lost to insecticides. Amidst this din, it is hard to recall that just a few decades ago, in the early years of U.S.-Chinese rapprochement, American scientists looked to China for inspiration in the effort to overcome dependence on chemical pesticides and develop agricultural practices less damaging to human health and the natural environment. As a 1975 delegation of U.S. entomologists reported, "Clearly, the Chinese have progressed beyond levels attained in the United States both in widespread enthusiasm for integrated control and, in many respects, in the application of the ecological principles fundamental to its development" (American Insect Control Delegation 1977: 142). Also largely forgotten is the model that developing countries sought in Chinese agriculture: the leader of the Food and Agriculture Organization's 1975 mission to China expressed his intention to "grasp the meaning of the egalitarian and anti-elitist society that the Chinese are trying to build" and came away feeling that "given a vision, hard work, and self-reliance, mankind can still climb out of the cesspool of poverty" (Food and Agriculture Organization 1978: vii-viii). Reading such reports, not to mention the Chinese state's own accounts, creates a picture of Chinese science and society that seems impossible to reconcile with what we have since learned about the failures and persecutions of the Mao era, as poignantly summarized by Ma Bo, an urban youth who participated in agriculture during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976): "We had wreaked unprecedented havoc on the grasslands, working like fucking beasts of burden, only to commit unpardonable crimes against the land... The depletion of resources was staggering; the waste of manpower, mind-boggling; the financial losses, incalculable" (quoted in Pan 2003: 128). Some of the brightness of the earlier picture arose from the artfulness of Chinese state propaganda and from the rose-colored spectacles of foreigners who, for their own historically significant reasons, sought inspiration in China. But the propaganda of the Chinese state was not all lies, and what foreign scientists witnessed when they travelled to China was not a complete charade. For better or worse, Chinese agriculture had undergone a dramatic technological revolution, in China called "scientific farming" (kexue zhongtian). Chinese scientists and rural people had developed a diverse array of techniques for combating insect pests, including many founded on sound ecological principles. Large numbers of Chinese people -- most notably rural youth -- had participated in what was known as the "great revolutionary movement" of scientific experiment. These experiences are hard to remember today: they have been swallowed up by the justly compelling accounts of persecuted intellectuals, and rendered invisible in a new political landscape where science is no longer expected to serve any social revolutionary purpose. Telling the history of scientific farming in socialist China thus requires not only weaving together the different experiences and perspectives of diverse social actors, but also bringing out the temporal layers of narrative, since the meanings associated with science, socialism, agriculture, and China itself have changed dramatically for Chinese and foreign people alike. The proposed title of the project evokes a core tension of the Cold War. The green revolution, as conceived by U.S. policy makers, was intended as an answer to the red, communist revolutions. It was a technological strategy for agricultural development designed not only to feed hungry people, but also to prevent Third World farmers from embracing political revolutionary solutions. Chinese state officials understood this symbolism and lambasted Indian leaders for attempting to use the green revolution to deceive the people and so shore up their allegedly unstable political position. In the meantime, however, China's agricultural scientists and policy makers were deeply engaged in a technological transformation of their own: the new seeds and agrochemicals of the green revolution had come to China, and despite much international attention to China's ecologically friendly pest control strategies, every year saw steeply climbing use of toxic insecticides. What shade of "green" China's agriculture had turned was thus not at all clear. Adding to the complexity, while capitalist green revolutionaries painted their efforts as purely technical -- masking actual, sometimes violent, political struggles -- China adopted the technologies of the green revolution alongside an ever-deeper, ever-redder social and political revolution. And while critics of the green revolution in Latin America, South Asia, and elsewhere have pointed to the "deskilling" of farmers newly dependent on agro-industry, in China proponents of "scientific farming" claimed to be tapping the wells of peasant knowledge and cultivating a new generation of grassroots rural scientific experimenters. Sorting out these geopolitical contradictions at the level of individual, diverse human experience is the central challenge of this project. "Red Revolution, Green Revolution" will trace the paths of colourful historical characters connected through a web of relationships that cross national and class boundaries. At the same time, the project will offer a critical historical analysis with clear significance for pressing political and environmental issues of global consequence.


Works cited

American Insect Control Delegation (1977): Insect Control in the People’s Republic of China: a Trip Report of the American Insect Control Delegation, Submitted to the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China. Washington: National Academy of Sciences.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (1977): Learning from China: a Report on Agriculture and the Chinese People’s Communes. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Pan, Yihong (2002): Tempered in the Revolutionary Furnace: China’s Youth in the Rustication Movement. Lanham: Lexington Books.