Mao's Third Front

We have woken up to the many continuities of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) behavior in recent years. The ‘sharp break’ of 1978 looks ever more like a tactical feint rather than a strategic reassessment or, indeed, an intra-Party revolution. “Reform and Opening Up” is a reassuring story to tell Party outsiders, but it looks today more like a tweaking of praxis, a shift towards what Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping were pushing for way back in the early 1950s, and then again in early 1960s, and then just Deng in the early 1970s, rather than an essential change in the Party’s end goal.

You can hear a lot of history rhyming, forward and backward, in Covell F. Meysken’s most excellent Mao’s Third Front (Cambridge University Press, 2019), a book about economic policy making in the 1960-70s.

There is the CCP’s inheritance of the aims of China’s late-nineteenth century nationalists, who determined that the only way of defending the country’s sovereignty and securing its cohesion was to pursue Wealth & Power, at whatever cost. The steel plants and criss-crossing railways of Sun Yatsen’s waking dreams in the 1910s were then built by Mao Zedong - or rather, his dragooned population - in the 1960s. The same echoes ripple down to today too; the post-78 ‘Dengist’ pivot away from Mao’s litany of country-destroying policies has all been to achieve that same end, a Strong and Wealthy state, filled with industry & infrastructure, bound by secure borders. We note the more recent insertion of “Powerful Country (强国)” as an additional aim in Xi Jinping’s 2018 CCP Constitution, a de-cloaking of the Party’s original intent, not a change. No more tao-ing of the guang for these guys. [Note: here I’m (hilariously) playing with Deng’s famous aphorism, Taoguang Yanghui, 韬光养晦, To bide one’s time and hide one’s capabilities. Again, note this is tactics for victory over one’s enemy, not an encomium for peace.]


But back to the Third Front (3F). It was Mao’s post-Great Leap Forward (GLF) economic vision. The Party still calls it a “huge strategic decision”(一个重大战略决策). But rather than the wild-eyed ambition to outshine the Soviet revisionists that drove his ‘a steel furnace in every backyard’ delusions, this was his paranoia-driven search for national security. Driven by fear of being attacked by both the Soviet Union and the United States, Mao wanted to transplant and nurture a heavy-industrial military complex inland, into the mountains of Sichuan, Guangxi, Shanxi et al. His nightmares were full of Stalin being unprepared for Hitler’s invasion, or indeed, China only 30 years before, when Japan absorbed the industrial Northeast and then pummelled Shanghai, leaving Chiang Kai-shek to fall back to an ill-prepared Chongqing.

Unlike the GLF, the 3F was directed centrally, was focused on building factories and infrastructure and was a national secret. Hundreds of thousands of workers were uprooted from relative urban comfort and sent to toil there. Rather like the GLF, it was mostly a huge waste, just more years of misery for a civilian population made to constantly struggle for their country, though Meyskens has some interesting thoughts on its legacy. Though many of the projects were violently disrupted during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 on, Zhou Enlai and others did their best to keep the 3F capital flowing and projects protected. Meyskens documents how 3F ate 52% of the country’s capital investment budget during 1965-70, falling to 33% during 1975-80. After Mao had done exactly what he accused Khrushchev of (cozying up to the imperialist Americans), Beijing could then pivot away from a defense-driven industrial policy to a more market-driven one, focusing efforts on the coast rather than inland, starting in the early 1970s.

But it’s the rhyming with policy today that really sang out to me from this wonderfully-rich and deeply researched work. (Meyskens is coy about drawing this out explicitly, in what would perhaps be too speculative a move for such a fine study.) Post-GLF, Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping and others were busy trying to push economic resources towards agriculture, in order to feed the people, and towards light industry, to allow urban China a small taste of consumer luxuries such as clothes. But with an eye for the bigger picture, the Chairman butted in, wrested control of the Third Year Plan, and then, in 1964, sidelined the State Council and the State Planning Commission (SPC) via the creation of new 3F management committee, led by his toady, Daqing-oilfield star Yu Qiuli. Any of that sound familiar?


Mao accused Liu and others of being little capitalists, compradors, who held up national development with their caution. Addressing concerns about the enormous costs of the 3F he said, flippantly, that the projects could be funded by his salary and book royalties. Mostly he just keep pushing for work on the Panzhihua steelworks et al. to be done ever-more quickly, with Meyskens quoting interviewees frequently saying they worked ever-harder so that the Chairman could sleep, whatever the resulting waste. (The above photo shows Panzhihua in the middle-of-nowhere (a.k.a. southern Sichuan) before the 3F, below at the end of the 3F, and then below that, beautified today.)


Many of the railroads had to be rebuilt in the 1970s because of shoddy work. Thankfully, even Mao refused to sign off on the idea of damning the Three Gorges, believing it too costly, beyond the technical abilities of his engineers, and too big a target for long-range American bombers.


And here we are today, with an ever stronger, wealthier country, a world-beating manufacturing base, with ample infrastructure integrating coast and inland, and a buoyant military-industrial base pushing out tanks, missiles and navy vessels like there are still two-front enemies to fight. How right the Dengists were; use (and abuse) the market to achieve the Party’s nation-building goals. And now, facing something like a Second Cold War, the new leader has some strategic decisions to make about what that is going to mean for his economic strategy. And thus, perhaps, there is more rhyming to come.