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“The Chief of the Agriculture Sector” During the Cultural Revolution -- Recollections of Ji Dengkui


“The Chief of the Agriculture Sector” During the Cultural Revolution -- Recollections of Ji Dengkui

By Zhao Shukai, Research Fellow and Director-General of Information Center, DRC

The so-called "agriculture sector" is an umbrella name of the former departments relating to the agricultural and rural issues in the State Council, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Forestry, Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Agricultural Machinery, Federation of Supply and Marketing Cooperatives, and Meteorological Administration. At that time, most of the staff members, especially the bureau-level and division-level leaders were assigned to work in No.9 Courtyard (office location for the Rural Development Research Center of the State Council-translator’s note) from the former agricultural sector, and most of them were former staffs in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

In Ji Dengkui’s old age, he seldom talked about his experience when he was in charge of the agricultural work in the government. During the days when he worked as a researcher in No.9 Courtyard, his colleagues were more interested in the major political events when he served as the Vice Premier. Only few people talked about the agricultural work during the Cultural Revolution. But when discussing some questions about rural policy, people often mentioned his name, because he was the chief of the agriculture sector of the State Council during the period of the Cultural Revolution.

Part One

In April 1969, Ji Dengkui was nominated as a member of the Political Bureau in the Ninth CPC National Congress, and then he was assigned to work in Beijing from Henan as the Deputy Chief of the State Affairs Group of the State Council. At that time, the central government was unable to operate regularly, and most of the former leading officials and ministers in the government had been removed from office. The “State Affairs Group of the State Council” named by Mao Zedong was actually playing the role of the State Council during that special period. The Chief of the Group was Zhou Enlai, one of the Deputy Chiefs was Li Xiannian. Ji Dengkui, being the Deputy Chief of the Group, was in fact acting as the Vice Premier of the State Council. When Ji Dengkui was assigned to work in the central government, he was mainly responsible for mediating the provincial factional disputes, especially violent conflicts among different mass organizations. To Ji Dengkui’s mind Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai perhaps thought he was familiar with provincial-level factional disputes during the Cultural Revolution, and that was why they had asked him to address the mass disputes in some provinces. Ji started with holding down the violent conflicts in Shanxi Province, and succeeded in curbing the chaos. Then he went to Zhejiang Province and some other provinces to resolve the disputes and stabilize the situation. In coordinating and integrating the different factions of the rebel groups to realize cooperation and unification to some extent and in certain form, Ji Dengkui showed strong organizing ability, which won the appreciation of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

The work of the State Council during the Cultural Revolution was not on track, and the economic issues were often neglected and the cadres’ division of labor was obscure and changeable. It seems difficult to tell exactly as to when Ji Dengkui took the post for agricultural work. Viewing from his management of the agricultural work in the central government, he took charge of the agriculture sector in spring 1970. In May of the same year, Ji Dengkui as a leading cadre for agricultural work in central government attended and spoke at the inaugural meeting of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Soon after that he began to prepare the Northern Agriculture Working Conference. Generally speaking, from the establishment of Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in May 1970 to the time when the Central government decided to set up the National Agricultural Committee and revoked the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in December 1978, Ji Dengkui had been mainly responsible for agricultural work. During the Cultural Revolution, Hua Guofeng had been in charge of the agriculture sector for a short time soon after he was transferred to the central government, and Chen Yonggui as the Vice Premier had assisted him in the movement of“Learning from Dazhai in Agriculture".

When I worked in No. 9 Courtyard, my colleague Mr. Jia told me that when he was working in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Ji Dengkui was in charge of agricultural work. In summer 1970, when the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry was established, Mr. Jia worked in the “Policy Research Office" which was known as the "Department of Policy and Laws" in relevant ministries. He said, "In May 1970, I first met Ji Dengkui in the founding conference of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Ji Dengkui made a speech on behalf of the central government. I couldn’t remember what he had actually said, but his young spirit and eloquence gave us a deep impression. I had worked in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry for many years as an ordinary cadre, and had few chances to meet Ji Dengkui, but I often read or heard about Ji Dengkui's written instructions. In 1973, I met Ji Dengkui once again. He came to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to attend a cadres’ conference. At this conference, he made a speech severely criticizing the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and put forward the work requirements. Ji Dengkui criticized the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry seriously, because it was ignorant of the losses caused by the breach of one of the Yellow River dams. During the Cultural Revolution, the minister was a former army officer, so the work of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry was in a mess. Ji Dengkui required that the general office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry must arrange people to be on duty at night, so was every department. In this way, we were often arranged to be on duty in the evening and weekends”. With regard to people’s opinion about Ji Dengkui in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, he said, "In our eyes, people were convinced about Ji Dengkui’s management in agriculture. He was capable, determined and conscientious."

Part Two

In the rural development history of New China, the establishment of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and the conference of the Northern Agricultural Working Conference held in 1970 served as a milestone in the course of agricultural development, in which Ji Dengkui played an important role.

The Cultural Revolution launched in 1966 had a serious impact on the government operation and economic work, making the agriculture sector become half-paralyzed. What’s more, the agricultural production all over China had also been seriously affected, with the decline or stagnation of the agricultural production in consecutive three years, resulting in an increased food shortage. The Chinese society at that time bore some new features. Viewing from political side, the Ninth CPC National Congress held in April 1969 marked an important turning point of the Cultural Revolution. In the Twelfth Plenum of the Eighth CPC Central Committee, Liu Shaoji was expelled from the Party, but he had already passed away in Henan Province. The Ninth CPC National Congress created a new pattern of China's top politics. Generally speaking, it is believed the main goal of the Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Zedong had been achieved. Both industrial and agricultural production was facing serious difficulty after three years’of Cultural Revolution. “Revolution” was important, but more important was to feed people. In this case, Zhou Enlai, as the Premier of the central government, took measures to promote production and construction. The key step in agriculture was the establishment of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and the CPC decided to convene the Northern Agricultural Working Conference. After the establishment of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in May 1970, it began to prepare for the Northern Agricultural Working Conference in June. The key concern of the conference was how to solve the eating problem in northern China, and how to change the situation of transporting grain from southern provisions to northern areas. According to Zhou Enlai's arrangement, Ji Dengkui, as a leading member in charge of agriculture of the State Council, was fully responsible for the preparation of the Northern Agricultural Working Conference. At the beginning of August 1970, Ji Dengkui led a team to Dazhai village, and visited Xiyang County for three days. Based on this experience, Ji Dengkui presided over the drafting of the “Report on the Northern Agricultural Working Conference (Draft)” for the Central Government.

The Northern Agricultural Working Conference was opened on August 20, 1970. This conference had a large scale with 1259 representatives including leading members from 14 provinces in the north, respectively from the people’s commune or brigade level, or the provincial level as well as participants from the Liberation Army’s Production and Construction Corps from southern provinces. The meeting lasted for more than a month. It was divided into three sections. Firstly, the participants visited and studied in Dazhai County, where Chen Yonggui introduced his experience. On August 28, the People’s Daily officially announced the establishment of the first Dazhai Country in China. From then on, “constructing Dazhai-typed Country” had become a programmatic slogan for rural work. On September 1, the conference site moved to Beijing. Since September 14, the conference entered the third section, mainly discussing the political measures on how to realize the National Agricultural Development Program. On December 11, the CPC Central Committee formally approved the Report of the State Council delivered at the Northern Agricultural Working Conference. This was the most important document of the CPC Central Committee on agriculture and rural work, from the Cultural Revolution to the beginning of the reform.

It was said that the historical role of the Northern Agricultural Working Conference held in 1970 got both pros and cons. From my experience, in the process of rural research and policy-making, people often referred to this conference. From the current point of view, this conference gave birth to both positive and negative results. The positive results were: in view of the comprehensive rural instability, severe damaging of the production facilities and the significant decrease of the agricultural production since the Cultural Revolution began, the conference put forward a series of policies and measures, which had effectively promoted the restoration and development of production. Generally speaking, the positive results of the conference mainly included: emphasizing that the institutional arrangement of the people's commune should be followed, and the three-level system of ownership of the means of production in the people’s commune with ownership by the production team as the basic accounting unit should not be changed; underlying that the ownership issues should be dealt with in a prudent manner , the commune members were allowed to manage a few private plots and go in for household sideline production, and farmers’ private plots should not be taken away without any reasons; stressing the distribution principle of to each according to his labor and egalitarianism, equalitarianism and indiscriminate transfer of resources should be curbed; forbidding to use the labor of production team, means of production and other supplies without pay; and it was not allowed to increase the commune members’ burdens. The meeting also proposed that in order to develop production, the people's commune and production brigade can set up "five small" industries (small coal mines, small steel mills, small chemical fertilizer plants, small cement plants and small machinery works) which laid the foundation for the development of commune and brigade enterprises. The negative results of the conference included: popularizing the "Left" deviation-led experience of "building Dazhai-typed county" across the country; stressing that in learning from Dazhai people should “always put Mao Zedong thought on top priority; implementing the working method of “criticizing capitalism, and striving to develop socialism. In particular, it was proposed at the meeting to curb “five types of rural cadres” to control power, and emphasized how to eliminate the obstacles to learn from Dazhai. The “five types of rural cadres” were: the bad persons who had infiltrated into the rural primary Party organizations; degenerated persons; people keen on following the capitalist road; “nice guys”; and “democrats” whose thought still clung to the democratic revolution. Obviously, the conference led the movement of learning from Dazhai astray through emphasizing to take class struggle as the key link. After the conference, rural areas across China carried out the spirit of the conference, resulting in two direct results: firstly, rural areas attached great importance to agricultural production, carrying out a large-scale capital construction of farmland, and the commune- and brigade-run enterprises began to develop rapidly; secondly, the campaign of learning from Dazhai in agriculture highlighted the class struggle as the key link, and further encouraged the development of "Left" deviation trend of thought.

Ji Dengkui prepared in person the Northern Agricultural Working Conference, so the policy results of the conference clearly had a direct stamp of him. However, viewing from the policy-making process, we shouldn’t put the spirit of the conference simply equal to the views of the conference organizer’s, nor simply regard the spirit of the document equivalent with the document drafter’s. From analyzing the specific process of the conference, especially the process of drafting the documents, we found that with regard to policy formulation, Ji Dengkui didn’t totally accept Dazhai’s experience that Chen Yonggui had introduced, especially he resisted some of the “Left” practice pursued by Chen Yonggui. For instance, the three-level system of ownership of the means of production in the people’s commune with ownership by the production team as the basic accounting unit was changed in Dazhai. Chen Yonggui replaced the production team with production brigade as the basic accounting unit before time was ripe for taking such an action. Chen Yonggui cancelled the reservation of private plots and household sideline production and implemented an egalitarian distribution system. Ji’s boycott of the “Left” practice was also reflected in the documents, and Ji’s Endeavour had turned some of the negative factors into positive ones at the conference. However, the conference documents still pointed out that learning from Dazhai should highlight "taking class struggle as the key link", and stressed the point of "criticizing capitalism and striving to develop socialism". These views were basically consistent with the speeches made by Ji Dengkui in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Ji proposed to change the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry into a“Political Department of Agriculture and Forestry”, in order to highlight Mao Zedong Thought and put politics in the first place. That had become one of the issues why he was sharply criticized in the Third Plenum of the Eleventh CPC Central Committee in 1978. The Northern Agricultural Working Conference stressed that people should exclude the interference by “five kinds of people” in learning from Dazhai, which should be regarded as an issue of class struggle. The "five kinds of people" movement was mainly launched by Chen Yonggui, but it got Ji Dengkui's affirmation. It seemed that policy-making was like a political game among various forces or high-level officials vying for power.

Viewing from the results of the Northern Agricultural Working Conference, the agriculture sector mainly confirmed the work done by Ji Dengkui. Some veteran cadres in the agriculture sector said that the agricultural policy at that time had to follow a “Left” deviation trend of thought. Ji Dengkui had no choice but to implement a "Left" deviation-led policy, however, his policy approach was pragmatic and didn’t become extreme“Leftist".

Part Three

In the later period of the Cultural Revolution, the CPC Central Committee held two important rural working conferences on learning from Dazhai in agriculture. The first one was held from September 15 to October 19 in 1975, lasting 35 days, and the meeting was held respectively in Xiyang County, Shanxi Province and Beijing. The second one was held in Beijing from December 10 to 27 in 1976. The first conference set the goal that the movement of learning from Dazhai in agriculture was to popularize Dazhai-typed county, and put forward the task that by 1980 one-third of the counties in China should be built into Dazhai-typed counties. The second conference reiterated the goal proposed in the first conference to construct Dazhai-typed counties, and set the demand that various provinces should meet the requirements in terms of grain, cotton and oil production stipulated in the outline of agricultural development, and basically realize agricultural mechanization.

The two conferences on learning from Dazhai in agriculture both focused on "taking class struggle as key link". The second conference was held after the "Gang of Four" were ousted from the Party. It showed that Hua Guofeng followed the principle of Mao Zedong when he was assigned to be in charge of rural work, and he emphasized that learning from Dazhai should be a programmatic work of rural work, and learning from Dazhai should guide the national agricultural work. The basic content of Hua's speech at the meeting was not about agricultural production, but how to expose and criticize the "Gang of Four", and how to carry on the work of criticizing Deng Xiaoping’s mistakes. But viewing from the actual effects of the conference, compared with the first meeting on learning from Dazhai when Mao Zedong was still alive, the situation had become totally different. In local provinces, the campaign on learning from Dazhai in agriculture had met stubborn resistance, and more and more people had become suspicious of Dazhai’s experience. Ji Dengkui presided over the preparatory work of two agricultural meetings on learning from Dazhai, but he did not participate in the formal meetings, and people said he was busy with other matters.

According to the recollections of Yu Guangyuan, Ji Dengkui had personally listened to his views, when he presided over the document drafting of the second agricultural conference on learning from Dazhai. Prior to the conference, the speech drafter sent Hua Guofeng’s draft speech to Yu Guangyuan. Yu Guangyuan called on the drafter of the document, and put forward different views written in two pages. Yu Guangyuan thought that although the draft speech criticized the "Gang of Four", and emphasized to promote production, it regarded the “theory of the unique importance of productive forces" as a wrong view, but Ji opposed to criticize such a theory. A few days later, Yu Guangyuan was notified to attend a meeting in Huairen Hall in Zhongnanhai. Yu Guangyuan recalled, "Vice Premiers Li Xiannian, Ji Dengkui, and Chen Yonggui were already there in the meeting room when I arrived. It seemed they had already had discussion about some issues.” “Ji Dengkui said, we received a lot of suggestions about learning from Dazhai in agriculture, but you were the only one holding different views about the theory of the unique importance of productive forces.” “I replied that there was nothing wrong with the theory and I also gave reasons to support my point.” “After my explanation, Ji Dengkui just mentioned that criticizing the theory of the unique importance of productive forces was clearly written in the report of the Ninth CPC National Congress, which had been reviewed and approved by Chairman Mao. The conference on learning from Dazhai was a meeting held by CPC Central Committee, so we must abide by the documents of the Party’s Congress. I said I'd keep my opinion. I didn’t know how the speech was redrafted. But later a colleague studying the Party’s history told me that Hua Guofeng didn’t regard the ‘theory of the unique importance of productive forces’ as an erroneous view at that conference. I didn’t know whether Ji Dengkui finally considered my opinion to make a modification of the speech." About the impression of Ji Dengkui, Yu Guangyuan also recalled, “In 1975, I worked in the political research center of the State Council, and had contact with Ji Dengkui on some occasions. One day Deng Xiaoping listened to the work outline report on the Academy of Sciences made by Hu Yaobang and Li Chang, and Ji Dengkui also took part in the drafting of the report. I was there as a participant on behalf of the political research center. Ji Dengkui made some good advices at the meeting. I felt he was a smart and capable man and he also was interested in studying theory, and familiar with Mao Zedong's works. " (Yu Guangyuan: What I Know about Ji Dengkui, History of the World, February 5, 2003). Viewing from Yu Guangyuan's recollections and his comment on Ji Dengkui, Ji was good at listening to different opinions when he was in charge of agricultural work. Yu Guangyuan gave a relatively high evaluation on Ji Dengkui’s personal ability, which was consistent with the comment given by staff members working in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Guo Shutian is more than 80 years old. During the Cultural Revolution, he worked in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and then in the mid-1980s, he was the Director-General of the Department of Policies and Laws in the Ministry of Agriculture. When Ji Dengkui was in charge of agricultural work, Guo Shutian took part in the drafting work of several agricultural documents. In August 2013, we met in a meeting, and talked about Ji Dengkui. He told me that before the reform and opening up, Ji Dengkui had been in charge of agricultural work for a long term. During that time, the overall policy approach was under the impact of a “Left” deviation thought and Ji Dengkui had to follow and implement a “Left”rural policy. However, Ji Dengkui was pragmatic in his work, and didn’t go too far along the “Left” political line. This was quite different from Chen Yonggui, as Cheng was extremely “Left”in carrying out the agricultural policy and introducing Dazhai’s experience.

People especially carders working at the grassroots level with the experience of the Cultural Revolution generally felt that Chen Yonggui had once worked as the Vice Premier in charge of agricultural sector. But things are not that simple. People’s impression was that from January 1975 to September 1980, Chen Yonggui had served as the Vice Premier for more than five years, but in fact, he enjoyed a say in the central government only for three years, that is, until the Third Plenum of the Eleventh CPC Central Committee. Even during these three-year’s time, he did not really lead the agricultural work, and what he could do was just preaching the “experience of Dazhai” on various occasions. In other words, during these three years, Chen Yonggui was mainly a symbol of Dazhai’s experience, rather than a leader participating in the daily operation and decision-making in the central government.

As a leader in the central government, Chen Yonggui’s symbolic or virtual figure in terms of decision-making involved many reasons, both personal and systematic ones. Chen Yonggui became the Vice Premier from a farmer. It should be admitted that as a village cadre, he had made some achievements in water conservancy projects, the renovation of Dazhai’s terrace fields, and the increase of grain production. But after he became the Vice Premier, he should put aside his village experience and learn how to attend to state affairs including the management of agricultural work in light of the normal laws and regulations. Chen Yonggui had little knowledge in this regard and he lacked the ability of basic management. As a result, he was not able to coordinate the work among agriculture, forestry, water conservancy, supply and marketing cooperatives and relevant departments. It was said that Chen Yonggui was basically an illiterate, and he could only read and write about four hundred words. With such a culture background, he even couldn’t read or understand the central documents, let alone making instructions by himself. Some people who knew about him said that if Hua Guofeng and Li Xiannian had given approval to the documents by drawing a circle on each of them, Chen would just follow suit, because he trusted them. It was totally workable in dealing with general countersigned documents, because he did not have to give the initial opinion or actual comment, by simply echoing other leaders’ opinion can be feasible. But when he was put in the place to be in charge of agricultural work, he was no longer a general reviewer but the first to make written instructions on related documents and that was quite beyond Chen Yonggui’s ability and he could not fulfill his job as the Vice Premier. According to Yu Guangyuan, Chen Yonggui only knew about his village affairs, but he asked people to learn from Dazhai not only in agriculture but also in politics. He had been praised too high and was carried away by flattery. He was a distorted model of agricultural labor."(The Major Turning Point in 1978, the Central Compilation and Translation Press, 2nd Edition, Page 16, January 2008). Guo Shutian told me that during the time when Chen Yonggui served as the Vice Premier and was in charge of agriculture, he didn’t attend to any actual management as Ji Dengkui was mainly responsible for the agricultural work at that time. The experience and ability of Chen Yonggui were not qualified to manage the agricultural work. He couldn’t read the reports relating to agriculture, and even if he could understand what the documents talked about, he did not know how to deal with the real issues. Chen Yonggui said in a meeting that he couldn’t manage the agricultural affairs, and he only knew how to introduce Dazhai’s experience.

Ji Dengkui said that Mao Zedong had hit upon the idea to select two vice premiers from among the workers and farmers. The two chosen to become vice premiers were respectively Chen Yonggui from Dazhai village, and Wu Guixian, a worker from a textile mill in northwestern China. Later a shop assistant named Li Suwen was promoted to be the Vice Chairman of the National People's Congress. At that time, Ji Dengkui was in charge of the Organization Department of the CPC Central Committee and served as the preparing principal of the Forth National People's Congress. He directly instructed the Organization Department to choose relevant candidates. When we became colleagues, I asked Ji Dengkui why Mao Zedong had chosen these incompetent people to become state leaders and what role could they play. Ji Dengkui did not give any answer to my question and talked about some other issues.

Note: The article was published in China Development Observation, No. 7, 2015