San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley

The Political Machine of Wang Shouxin
of Heileungjiang Province, China
During the Period of the Great
Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Wang Shouxin was a woman who gained administrative control of the Bin County Coal State Enterprise in Heileungjiang (Black Dragon River) Province in the far north of China as a result of the political turmoil of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. She used that position to establish a political machine that ruled Bin County for about a decade. The story is told by Liu Binyan in an investigative report which he entitled People or Monsters?

The case of Wang Shouxin (Wang is her family name, her personal name has the pronunciation of Sho-shin) is of interest on several levels. First, it shows how the rhetorical campaigns of the Cultural Revolution disguised very personal struggles for power. Second, it shows how inefficient and irrational the Communist system was in practice and how those inefficiencies and irrationalities could be exploited by bureaucrats for their own personal gain. Third, it shows how ineffective the Communist bureaucracy was in policing its own operations.

Liu Binyan, the journalist who wrote People or Monsters?, is a true believer in communism. He believes it can work if only it were run by warrior-saints. He believes that by criticizing the actual operation of the system he is helping perfect it. Nevertheless he was punished by the authorities for his published criticisms.

Wang Shouxin came from a poor family and there were allusions to her promiscuity in her youth. She had married and had at least three sons. In her mid-forties Wang was a cashier of the small coal operation Bin County Coal. The public enterprise had only a few dozen workers and it was run by a local Communist Party Secretary Bai Kun with Teng Zhixin (tung zhishin) as manager. Liu Binyan notes that as cashier Wang spent most of her time away from her job, gossiping and shopping. The Cultural Revolution changed all that.

Mao Zedong launched the Great Cultural Revolution as a means to regain absolute power over China and the Communist Party. Mao was a genius at guerrilla war tactics but a complete dunce in matters of economic policy. His Great Leap Forward led to famine and the death of thirty million people during the period 1959-1961. It took him a long time to recognize that the Great Leap Forward was a failure, but once he did he turned effective power over to Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xaioping to end the famine and bring about an economic recovery. Mao retired to read the Chinese classics and ponder the future of China. By 1965 China had recovered from the Great Leap Forward, but Mao did not like the direction China was moving in. He chose to take absolute control again. However he was very vulnerable. The new leader could very easy move him to an isolated location and maintain control of his communication with the rest of China. Mao hit upon the brilliant stratagem of launching a mass movement of young people, called the Red Guards. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution created such political chaos that the leaders of the Communist Party could scarcely cope with the turmoil. Eventually the top leader Liu Shaoqui and his wife were taken captive and humiliated and imprisoned. Liu died in prison. Deng Xaioping faired a bit better. He was only demoted and sent to work in a factory in an obscure part of China. One of Deng's sons was thrown from the window of a second story of a building by Red Guards and was paralized from the waist down for life.

Not all of the young people who wanted to were allowed to join the Red Guards. Some that were excluded created their own organizations called rebels. The Red Guards and the Rebels fought to depose the local Communist Party leadership. Soon the Red Guards and different factions of the rebels were fighting each other. Ultimately there were large scale battles involving as many as fifty thousand people in these factional disputes. They fought with military weapons as well as crude, homemade weapons. Soon it was not just young people involved in the rebel organizations. Middle aged people needed to participate as well because their livelihoods were at risk in the political turmoil.

All of the organizations, Red Guards and rebels, were ostensibly fighting to support Mao Zedong's policies. They chose different names and slogans. In Bin County Wang Shouxin organized a Smash the Black-Nest Combat Force. Another rebel group called the Red Rebel Corps was organized by a man name Liu Changchun. The personalities of Wang Shouxin and Liu Changchun did not permit a merger of the two organizations. They decided to have a public debate to settle the question of which rebel group should represent Mao Zedong's Thought in Bin County.

At the public debate Wang and Liu were on the platform with several other local political figures. The first speaker was Wen Feng who was the director of an organization called The United Program to Defend Mao Zedong's Thought. He announced his support for Wang and ended his speech with the exhortation, Support Commissar Yang closely! Commissar Yang then spoke and criticized Liu Changchun's Red Rebel Corps and denounced it as rightist and ordered it disbanded. Thus due to the machinations of Wang before the debate Liu and the Red Rebel Corps was defeated in the debate with Liu not having had a chance to speak. A few days later Liu was taken to jail and charged with being anti-Army. It was a stunning political victory for Wang Shouxin.

This political victory for Wang might have been fleeting if it had not been for her subsequent rise to managerial control of the Bin County Coal Enterprise.

As noted previously, as a cashier of Bin County Coal Wang Shouxin was not a diligent employee. All that changed once she became manager. In effect, Bin County Coal became her property. She came to work early and left late. She worked hard to improve productivity and would not countenance slack performance by other employees.

Wang Shouxin was alert for financial opportunities. Bin County Coal handled coal from two sources and the pricing of the coal depended upon its source. Most of the coal came from the state mine operations and the price of this coal was fixed by the central authorities. Some coal came from small pits and Bin County Coal could charge a higher price to compensate for transportation and handling. Wang Shouxin as head of Bin County Coal could decide which buyers got the cheaper coal from the state mines and which had to pay for the higher priced coal from the small pits. Even without the price differential Wang Shouxin had considerable power in deciding which buyers in a shortage-ridden socialist economy got coal and which did not. She did use that power to deny coal to her enemies.

The differential price for state mine and small-pit coal gave Wang Shouxin more than just a means of rewarding her friends and punishing her moderate enemies (real enemies did not get any coal at all). By selling some of the state mine coal as small-pit coal she was able to pocket the difference. The difference went into a special account that Wang Shouxin could use for her own purposes. It was what is called in the West a slush fund.

Wang Shouxin used the slush fund to create a web of connections which is called in Mandarin guanxi (gwan shi). She would do favors for and give presents to people with power and not ask for an immediate return. She expected the recipients to help her in the future when she needed. She even did favors for people without power and earned their undying gratitude which she could call upon. In this she operated much like the political machines of American cities in the early twentieth century. Like those political machines Wang Shouxin functioned as a welfare agency for people in need.

Wang Shouxin lobbied the political authorities in the provincial capital of Harbin for such things as a larger authorization of coal. The more coal she could handle through Bin County Coal the more she could gain for her slush fund. She was a persuasive arguer and she developed one unique ploy to gain what she wanted. If all else failed Wang Shouxin would find some excuse to show a scar on her abdomen. This required unfastening her slacks and pulling them down a bit. Bureaucrats who had not been willing previously to grant Wang Shouxin her requests suddenly were willing to deal when they were worried about someone seeing Wang Shouxin in their offices with her slacks half down.

Wang Shouxin used the abdomen scar ploy even in committee meetings. When the conversation turned to how hard Wang Shouxin was working despite her past injuries there were some in the meeting who knew what was coming next and they put a hand to their heads and looked down at the floor in embarassment.

After Wang Shouxin had her slush fund and built her connections she found it necessary to start producing the luxury food items that she needed for gifts. She then acquired control over land from some of the county communes to use to raise pigs and other items that were not easily available in the shortage-ridden economy.

At one stage on the Great Cultural Revolution Mao Zedong called for young people from the cities to be sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants. One favor that Wang found was much appreciated by influential government leaders was to create bogus organizations that their children could be assigned to instead of actually going to the countryside and working with the peasants.

At its peak Wang's political machine had the enormous power based upon her political position with respect to the Maoist rebel clique, her friendship with political leaders in the hierarchy and the support from a significant segment of the general population from whom she had done favors. Wang put members of her family into positions of power.

Wang Shouxin lost power after the death of Mao Zedong and the arrest of the radicals under Mao's wife. Wang's machine continued to function for a time after the arrest of the Gang of Four but with the rise of Deng Xiaoping to power Wang's political machine lost its political protection. One of the key figures in Wang's downfall was her political rival Liu Changchun who prepared wall posters denouncing the corruption of Wang's machine.

Wang Shouxin went to prison for embezzlement and members of her family were put under investigation for corruption. When her case became notorious as a result of Liu Binyan's book People or Monsters Wang Shouxin was brought out of prison and retried. She was sentenced to public execution. To keep her from crying out at the time of her execution her guards held her while one of them used his thumbs to dislocate her jaw. As she knelt on her knees in the snow, bullet was fired into her brain from behind.

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