Mao’s Secret Factories in Cold War China

August 4, 2020
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Covell F. Meyskens, Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China (Cambridge University Press, 2020)


When the imperialist powers of Europe and Japan finally withdrew from their Afro-Asian colonies in the 20th century, they left multiple legacies. One was a particular kind of transportation, communication, and industrial infrastructure. Despite self-congratulatory claims to the supposedly self-chosen “civilizing mission” in the 19th and early 20th century, imperialist rule never aimed at altruistically building up modern nation-states in Africa or Asia. Its basic objective was to further the interests — political, economic, military, and reputational — of the imperial center, whether this was London, Paris, Brussels, Rome, or Tokyo. The modern infrastructure put in place in the colonies simply served this overarching aim. Mines were dug, telegraph lines strung up, railroad track laid, freight rates set, harbors constructed, and legal systems imposed — all for the primary purpose of helping the military and economic needs and interests of the imperialist powers. In the process, local economies were shaped and deformed, and local competitors either co-opted or crushed but rarely allowed to flourish on their own. India from the late 18th century to the rebellion in 1857 serves as a perfect example of how imperialist rule subverted and crushed local economic and political interests.

As post-colonial states emerged from imperial rule — frequently in a hasty and chaotic manner — they inherited infrastructures ill-suited for the task of building a cohesive society, economy, and even nation-state. Communication and transport systems were often disjointed in terms of geography and technical standards, and more often than not continued to serve economic links with former imperial centers. In many cases, the colonial legacy posed major national security problems to post-colonial states as it left them open to external influence, and possibly even military intervention, along inherited colonial infrastructures. Furthermore, post-colonial states lacked not only meaningful internal infrastructure networks but also access to independent international networks to communicate or trade with each other.



The lopsided nature of China’s national infrastructure was not much different when the Chinese communists won the civil war in the late 1940s. To be precise, this domestic conflict was not an anti-imperialist liberation war, since much of China had never been formally colonized, and the vast majority of foreign and imperialist concessions had been relinquished during World War II and with the Japanese surrender in 1945. Still, China’s long political and economic fragmentation between its two revolutions in 1911 and 1949 had hindered the development of a national railroad system. In 1949, there was only one railroad line linking the north to the south (with an actual gap in Wuhan, due to the lack of a bridge across the Yangtze River, which was closed only by 1957). While Imperial Japan had developed the railroad system in its colony in Manchuria for military and economic reasons before 1945, the rest of the eastern half of China was linked by a relatively thin network of railroads that comprised different technical standards and even included some island systems not connected to the national system. Few lines reached cities in the western half of China. Also, partially as a result of imperial and overseas investment patterns, much of the country’s industry was located near the eastern seaboard or at the lower reaches of major rivers (i.e., where ships could ferry in and out armies, people, and goods). Ultimately, much of China’s infrastructure served foreign interests, and was not designed to serve the national interests or even national security of the People’s Republic of China.

Soviet economic aid in the 1950s helped to develop Chinese railroads, particularly in the north where they were linked to the Soviet system. But the transport, communication, and industrial infrastructure in the country’s interior remained almost as if 1949 had not happened. By 1960, when the Sino-Soviet alliance started to crumble, tens of millions of people in provinces like Qinghai, Ningxia, and Gansu still lived without electricity, work (other than rural employment), and easy access to long-distance communication and transportation. People in these places went without clean drinking water or other basic amenities, which city people — and country folk in the richer agricultural parts of eastern China — increasingly enjoyed. Mao Zedong’s hare-brained Great Leap Forward that lasted from 1958 to 1960 interrupted the positive economic development trends of the early 1950s. Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, two of China’s highest-ranked leaders, spent the first half of the 1960s stabilizing China’s economy.

It is at this point where Covell F. Meyskens’ Mao’s Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China comes in. His recently published book is based on a decade of research in China’s provincial and municipal archives (progressively made difficult by Xi Jinping’s rule), around 120 personal interviews, research in multiple gazetteers, document findings in flea markets and other random places (“garbology”), and a growing Chinese-language memoir and secondary literature. Given the dearth of English-language publications on the topic, Mao’s Third Front breaks new ground in general, and provides many insights into the politics, economics, and social life of the two-decade development of China’s interior provinces (1964 to the mid-1980s) in particular. Unlike much of the Western literature on the topic, Meyskens stresses that the economic investments in China’s hinterland — in Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, and Hunan — were ultimately not a complete waste. Still, they were originally made for national security reasons — out of fear of war with the capitalist-imperialist United States in the south and the socialist-imperialist Soviet Union in the north. The economic development of the interior had only been a secondary goal at best. Apart from the generally positive local impact in terms of railroad access, energy and industrial development, and the creation of clean water plants, Meyskens estimates that half of the projects actually were economically viable. The other half included either military projects (which are obsolete by now) or were simply failed ventures.

The Third Front campaign was launched in the first half of 1964. Mao had returned to daily policymaking just two years before, and the United States was increasing its involvement in Vietnam. Concerned with the high concentration of industry and infrastructure in the hard-to-defend littoral provinces, Mao pushed for the strategic relocation of industries — many of them crucial to national security — into the deep valleys in the hinterland and even into the interior of mountains. This “Big Third Front” was accompanied by provincial “Small Third Fronts,” during which some strategic industries were moved from cities to the surrounding countryside, a topic which Meyskens briefly mentions but decided — rightfully, given the vast new ground he covers — to exclude from his overall analysis. Mao’s concerns in launching the Third Front seem to have stemmed from a combination of his personal displeasure with Liu and Deng’s economic recovery policies and his genuine, though ideologically motivated, fears of a major war with the United States or Soviet Union. In either scenario, Chinese forces would have to retreat to the interior, similar to the Guomindang in 1938 in the face of the Japanese advance, and the Soviet Union in 1941 in the face of the German offensive. The chairman hence wanted to be prepared for that event, unlike Chiang Kai-shek and Joseph Stalin who had failed to do so at their own peril, as Mao concluded.

The first decade of the Third Front (1964 to mid-1970s) initially witnessed the hasty scouting of possible sites for industrial development in China’s interior. Shortly thereafter, it saw the establishment of strategic infrastructure (railroads and roads) in often hostile mountain terrain and over long distances. The lack of labor at most of the sites — some were even totally unpopulated — required the transfer of specialists and workers from cities. Party and state used a whole array of methods — from revolutionary enticement to administrative orders — to make skilled labor leave the relative comforts of Chinese city life to go to places that lacked adequate housing, working conditions, or entertainment for many years. Most specialists and workers were young and male, which led to frustrations among those who went into the wilderness for many years at the beginning of their professional lives and of marriage age. Unskilled labor was brought in from adjacent rural areas, usually during the agricultural slack season, and was destined to perform backbreaking labor given the near-complete lack of construction machinery. Yet, work and life on these giant construction sites was a socio-economic and cultural improvement mainly for rural laborers, but not really for the arrivals from the city.

Even if the chaos of the radical phase of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1969 had little direct impact on most Third Front construction sites, the Great Leap Forward-style politicization of decision-making from the top to the bottom still occurred. Mao repeatedly pushed for tighter deadlines, expressing his concerns that he would not be able to sleep peacefully otherwise — a saying that quickly filtered down as a slogan to the actual construction sites in China’s interior. Competing for scarce resources, high-ranking cadres allowed themselves to make extravagant claims of superfast construction (and in some cases even encouraged surveying, planning, and construction to go along in parallel), so much so that Mao and Zhou Enlai recurrently had to rein in extremism and wasteful projects. Yet, as Meyskens stresses, they themselves were ultimately responsible for creating the general political context of a supposedly imminent external threat that demanded quick action at all levels. Hence, it is surprising that so many projects in remote places — railroads, steel mills, hydro-electrical dams, and military aircraft factories — were not only completed but turned out to be functional. Yet, those who labored there did so at enormous personal costs in terms of their happiness, family life, career, and even personal safety.

The secret nature of the hidden and camouflaged industrial and infrastructure sites also deprived their creators — hundreds of thousands of ordinary Chinese people — of any public recognition for their achievements. Whenever a factory had opened in the 1950s, designers and workers were feted by party bigwigs arriving from Beijing, or celebrated in articles in national media outlets — but not so with the Third Front projects. Railroads opened and factories went into production with small local celebrations at best. Since Third Front projects were official secrets, they were not even mentioned in public until after the late 1970s for reasons of national security. As Meyskens discovered from his interviews, veterans of Third Front projects recounted a wide range of experiences. Some emphasized real satisfaction with their achievements even four decades later, or expressed a sense of personal and professional growth in very difficult circumstances. Others were disillusioned or even bitter about lost years of their lives spent building useless projects and squandering the best period of their careers in a hostile environment.

In the end, one big question lingers. Did the strategic relocation of industries into the hinterland between 1964 and the mid-1980s really increase China’s national security? The expected war with the United States over Vietnam never materialized. By 1965, both sides signaled to each other that they wanted to keep the conflict localized to Indochina, and by 1971, they even began pursuing a rapprochement. The strategic Chengdu-Kunming railroad went into service in 1970 just as Chinese support for North Vietnam was winding down.

Tensions with the Soviet Union continued to increase over the course of the 1960s, but a major war did not break out either. However, by the late summer of 1969, Chinese leaders were convinced that a major Soviet military intervention was imminent. But the war psychosis from which they suffered was mainly the result of shrewd Soviet psychological warfare and of their own Cultural Revolution-induced global isolation. Ultimately, the roots for the war scare in 1969 were the same as those that inspired the Third Front — Mao’s ideologically warped worldviews and his domestic needs. At best, it seems, the Third Front united Chinese people and kept them mobilized in support of an authoritarian regime. National security hence was less about national survival in a global war and more about personal political survival of those in power, mostly of Mao.

Mao’s Third Front is a marvelous study of politics, economics, and society during China’s Cultural Revolution. Meyskens’ keen eye for anecdotes and his willingness to include social history makes this dense and deeply researched study into a fast-paced read. The book adds a very important case study to the literature of state-guided industrialization projects in the communist world during the 20th century — such as the propaganda project Magnitogorsk in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, post-war steel cities in East Europe, Soviet development aid to China in the 1950s, and finally the Soyuz gas pipeline built jointly by the Soviet Union and its East European satellite allies in the 1970s. Yet, Mao’s Third Front was a large network of clandestine sites stretching thousands of kilometers through China’s interior that brought development benefits to many adjacent counties and communities. Unsurprisingly, local people remember the projects more fondly than skilled laborers and specialists who were ordered to leave the cities and work there.

Meyskens’ choice of subtitle is a little bit puzzling as it overstates his case. The Third Front did not “militarize” Cold War China. The Chinese communists emerged highly militarized from the civil war in 1949. The conflict over economic development in Mao’s China had always been one between war communism (developed in 1927 in China’s countryside) and systematic planning (inherited from Stalin’s Soviet Union). During the Korean War and the Great Leap Forward, war communism won the debate. And this was again the case during the Cultural Revolution, as Meyskens shows so convincingly. Zhou tried to launch an alternative development model — the “Four Modernizations” — in various configurations in 1954, 1964, and 1975, but only Deng managed to do so in the late 1970s (see my chapter on the topic here). And the modernization campaign ultimately signified the end of the Third Front as an overall development strategy.

What does Mao’s Third Front teach us about national security and strategic industries in our time? Of course, in the age of aerial surveillance and satellite-guided weapons systems, hiding factories in deep valleys and mountains is not as valuable as it once was. Yet, the book makes a surprisingly strong case for decentralization, redundancy, and resilience for the sake of national security. In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the long-term outsourcing of strategically important — particularly non-military — production capabilities has led to an unequal global economy in which China seems to have most of the advantage in terms of manufacturing. Particularly in the realm of medical supplies (e.g., facemasks, test kits, and advanced medication) global redundancies and strategic decentralization should be restored. Otherwise, another global pandemic could possibly lead to real national security crises in times of future global disorder and uncertainty.



Lorenz M. Lüthi is associate professor at McGill University and a leading historian of the Cold War. His first book, The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World, won the 2008 Furniss Award and the 2010 Marshall Shulman Book Prize. His second book, Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe, was published in March 2020 and presents a re-evaluation of the Cold War from multiple regional perspectives.

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