Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Poaching State Politics in Socialist China: Uxin Ju's Grassland Campaign, 1958-1966

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Poaching State Politics in Socialist China: Uxin Ju's Grassland Campaign, 1958-1966

Article excerpt

Uxin Ju is no ordinary place, having once enjoyed national recognition in Mao Zedong's China. A Mongol-dominated pastoral community in western Inner Mongolia, Uxin Ju was praised in 1965 by China's state-run newspaper, the Renmin Ribao (People's Daily), for its active engagement in the campaign to transform its sandy grassland. After China's best-known model community at the time, Dazhai, a farming village in northern China, Uxin Ju was named the "Pastoral Dazhai" and promoted as a model for grassland improvement and socialist construction in China's pastoral areas.

During Mao's era, 1949-1976, China used the building of models as a means of political control, much as the Soviet Union used its fake model villages. Not only were these model communities typically sites of political manipulation, but their alleged achievements were often falsified (Friedman 1978). Although Uxin Ju experienced a similar level of political control, the Mongols' experience seems unique. During my fieldwork on post-Mao land use in 1998, I frequently heard positive reminiscences of the 1958-1966 grassland campaign, even comments indicating its important contribution to current land management. Why did local people give the Maoist campaign such an unusual vote of approval, when the Mao era has typically been considered a dark age? (1) What happened on the grassland? With these questions in mind, I interviewed about sixty Mongols during the summers of 1999 and 2001, including both young Mongols from various economic strata for whom the grassland campaign was a historical event and older Mongols who had participated in the 1958-1966 campaign. I also collected a large number of documents and archival materials on Uxin Ju's campaign, including local propaganda materials, newspaper and magazine articles, government notices and reports, and transcribed speeches. These interviews and documents form the basis for this article.

Much work has been done on the politics of Mao-era models (Chan 1985; Friedman and others 1991; Shapiro 2001, 98-137; Bulag 2002), but less on the experience of the individuals or groups anointed as models during that time. This article attempts to uncover the local experience of Uxin Ju's grassland campaign and its implications for human-environmental studies. My focus is on the ability of local people to utilize state policies to meet local needs, transforming socialist ideologies into local rationales. In the study of everyday practice, Michel de Certeau saw book reading as poaching, in that the reader creates, from the written words, another time and another place (Certeau [1974] 1984). Extending this notion to environmental politics, I argue that the Mongols in Uxin Ju "poached" state politics to their own advantages and appropriated the grassland campaign in the making of the local landscape. This poaching extends James Scott's (1985, 1990) notion of ideological resistance and emphasizes creative use of dominant political and social processes. In exploring local agency manifested through such poaching, I join other geographers in confirming the important role of the subaltern in the making of human-environmental history (Zimmerer 1991; Peluso 1992; Grossman 1998; Neumann 1998; Bebbington 2000).

The following section lays out the theoretical framework for this study, outlining the limitations of Scott's widely used concept of ideological resistance and pointing to Certeau's theory of everyday practice as a more flexible framework for understanding the power of agency. The next section introduces state politics and official representations of Uxin Ju's 1958-1966 grassland campaign. Although the official media presented the campaign as one of socialist revolution on the grassland, the local reality was different, and the subsequent sections explore these local realities. Initially the Mongols resisted the campaign, but eventually they largely conformed to it. Yet behind this conformity they creatively "poached" state politics and turned state directives into their own rationales and logic. …

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