Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

David Crook

The Masses Make History

An account of the struggle against Teng Hsiao-ping’s revisionist line in combatting natural disasters


First Published: Class Struggle, No. 6, Winter 1976-77.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Quakes are times to test social systems. The Chinese people’s war against the recent earthquakes reveals much about the nature of Chinese society. At the same time, the Chinese–or, more accurately, the Marxist–approach to this war raises unexpected questions for those of us from other societies. Here I would like to set forth my own efforts to answer some of these questions, drawing largely on events at the Peking Foreign Languages Institute, where I teach.

1. How does the anti-earthquake war reveal “the superiority of the socialist system,” of “newly-emerging socialist things,” of the new type of socialist person?
2. How could the masses “take class struggle as the key link” in fighting this war?
3. How could they “take the struggle against Teng Hsiao-ping’s counterrevolutionary revisionist line as the motive force” in combating quakes? How could the anti-quake struggle “restrict bourgeois right”?
4. In what way was the Chinese people’s optimistic, energetic, self-reliant and collective conduct in fighting earthquakes a “victory for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought”?

Such questions are new to seismology.

In the block of apartments where we live on the Institute grounds, there is an elderly teacher of Arabic, a member of the Hui minority nationality (Muslims). In his home province of Yunnan, he had been through three major earthquakes before Liberation, but at that time, he never heard the word which has recently been on everyone’s lips: kangzhen, meaning “resist the quake.” In his village, the houses were made of wood, and one quake threw all the buildings on the main street askew. All that the people could afford to do then was to prop them up with logs. Those houses stayed crooked for 30 years, until after Liberation. The old teacher– normally retiring and a man of few words–was moved by the collective spirit, self-reliance, optimism and energy with which the people threw themselves into resisting the quake. And he wrote an article about the difference between the old and new societies and broadcast it over the Institute radio network.

The battle against the quakes shows how the new social system has drawn people closer together and away from individualism and exclusive concern for one’s own family.


I remember the Japanese air-raids on Chengtu in 1941. As the planes approached, the people streamed out of the city into the surrounding fields–grandmothers tottering on bound feet, mothers and fathers carrying babies in baskets swinging from shoulder-carrying poles. Some slipped on the narrow raised paths and fell into the wet rice fields. But rarely were they offered a helping hand. One helped one’s own family. That was old China.

Today, family love is as strong as ever–but it is different. The father of one of our students works in Tangshan, epicenter of the recent quakes, where death and destruction were widespread. Some of the boy’s comrades urged him to go to Tangshan to find out what had happened to his father. But he was a member of a rescue and relief team at the Institute and said: “If my father is dead, I’m sure he died at his post. I should stay at mine and carry on his revolutionary work. If he’s injured, I’m confident that the people’s government and the Liberation Army will look after him. If he’s neither killed nor injured, then he’ll be at his post. If I were to leave mine, he’d consider me a deserter.”

Such collectivist ideology does not easily displace the old individualism. It comes only through experience and struggle.

A middle-aged commune member in the Tangshan area had been a well-to-do peasant before Liberation and, afterwards, was one of the last in his village to join the farming cooperative, believing he could do better for himself by going it alone. But he did well for himself in the co-op and still better in the commune, being a skilled farmer and earning good pay. Even then he was dissatisfied, feeling he deserved still more and that, for a person like himself, individual farming was not so bad. During the quakes, his house collapsed and his family possessions were lost. He had been in two earthquakes before Liberation, one under the Kuomintang (KMT), and one during the Japanese occupation in 1945.

The KMT had forced him to contribute to a “relief fund,” but the money lined the pockets of corrupt officials. So instead of receiving relief, he suffered further hardship, and half his family died. The Japanese did not even pretend to provide relief. After the 1945 quake, plague swept through the area, and the stink of corpses filled the air. Those members of his family who were left went begging. After these recent quakes, street cleaning vehicles were sent from Peking and Tientsin to spray disinfectant; helicopters dropped food and water. The people’s government, the PLA, the county administration, the commune all came to the aid of his and other stricken families.

He pondered the difference between the old and new societies for days. Then at a commune-wide meeting, he criticised his old individualism. “The earthquake was a physical shock,” he said, “and the battle against it was an ideological revolution.” For him and many others, it drove home the lesson of “the superiority of socialism” over going it alone.

This superiority was pointed up by “newly-emerging socialist things” – products of the Cultural Revolution – which proved their worth in the battle against the quakes. These include Big Socialist Courtyards and Red Buildings.

The block of apartments we live in houses 46 families of teachers and other staff members. It used to be called simply South Building. About a year ago, it was re-named “Red South Building.” This was not just a change of name; it was part of a nationwide movement to strengthen social organization in the cities. It drew neighbors closer together in public health work, care of the old and sick, organization of the children’s leisure time during school holidays, public order and security. As the head of one Red Building committee put it, the overall aim was “to strengthen the dictatorship of the proletariat” – not by issuing orders, but by unifying thinking and conduct on the basis of studying Mao Tsetung Thought.


During the earthquake emergency, our Red South Building, under the leadership of the Institute Communist Party Branch and anti-quake committees, directed the setting up of light shelters outside the evacuated brick buildings. It looked after the very old and the very young, attended to rubbish disposal, mobilized the children to kill flies and mosquitoes. It set up daily classes, focusing on selfless and heroic deeds of people in the stricken areas and on scientific education about earthquakes. These activities drew neighbors closer to each other than ever before. The unity brought about by Red Buildings and Big Socialist Courtyards was for common aims and against common foes–the earthquakes and class enemies hoping to take advantage of temporary disorder or panic. The new organizations, therefore, took precautions against theft and rumor-mongering.

In an Institute summary of the first month of anti-earthquake struggle it was stated: “In class society, every struggle against nature is linked to class struggle. Ever since liberation, the class enemy has always tried to make use of natural disasters in his efforts to undermine the new social order and restore the old.” This is where Teng Hsiao-ping comes in.

In the years of hardship from 1959-61, which saw the most serious floods and droughts in a century, Teng tagged along with Liu Shao-chi in calling for the extension of private plots in agriculture, free markets, running enterprises solely on the basis of profit and loss, and assigning agricultural output quotas to households instead of to communes, brigades and work teams. This meant in the long run scrapping socialist economic planning. It was an example of Teng’s anti-Marxist philosophy of pragmatism, which he himself has summed up in the words: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white. So long as it catches mice it’s a good cat.” Now the policies Teng upheld during the hard years are pointed to as the classic example of “class enemies using natural disasters in their efforts to restore capitalism.”


Faced with the natural disaster of the recent earthquakes were the Chinese people to be beguiled by Teng’s black cat, white cat pragmatism and throw socialism overboard in an effort to survive? Or were they to resist the quake in a socialist way, by collective spirit, mutual aid, revolutionary optimism and mass heroism? It was in the clash between these two lines that “the struggle against Teng Hsiao-ping’s counter-revolutionary revisionist line” was “taken as the motive force.”

During his year back in high office (1975), Teng spread many ideas which people made a point of refuting in action against the earthquakes. One of Teng’s ideas was: “One’s faith in the masses can only be relative.”

When the Institute leadership issued the order to evacuate all regular buildings and build temporary shelters outside them, the question arose: were the shelters to be built and used by individuals and families or by the collective? The committee of one of the Institute Red Buildings unanimously agreed that to be effective the shelters must be collectively built and occupied, and that the bulk of the building material–reed mats, plastic bedspreads and tablecloths, bamboo poles, rope and wire etc.– should be provided by the residents. They should adopt Chairman Mao’s principle of “relying on our own efforts,” not on government relief.

But, objected some committee members: “If we say the stuff is to be pooled to build collective shelters, some people may hold back. First just let’s say, ’Bring out all your stuff, and the collective will help put up the buildings.’ Then once it’s all been brought out, we can mobilize the people to build collective, not individual, shelters.” But the majority said: “That shows lack of faith in the masses. It’s Teng Hsiao-ping’s line. We must reject it.” After further discussion the whole committee agreed to issue a call for materials to build collective shelters. Result: within half an hour enough privately owned building material was piled up beside what the Institute had provided, to build serviceable collective shelters for all.

Another idea of Teng’s which the people refuted was “Uncle Lei Feng[1] is no more.”

A woman carrying a child in her arms had got on a crowded bus and a soldier, it was said, had failed to offer her his seat. So the mother said to her child: “Uncle Lei Feng is no more.” Teng blew this story up in a speech. Now a Chinese teacher of English said indignantly: “Teng Hsiao-ping seized on one case of wrong behavior by a PLA man to attack the whole PLA. But during the battle against the quakes, thousands of PLA men have displayed great heroism.” They did. Immediately after the first quake in Tangshan, when road and rail transport was temporarily dislocated, army units made forced marches to carry out rescue and relief work. They gave away their food and water rations and did heavy work on empty stomachs until supplies came in. Digging survivors out of the debris, for fear of injuring people with their picks and shovels, they often used their bare hands until they bled.

Immediately after the first shocks there was an acute shortage of drivers and vehicles. One PLA man was badly injured in the legs, another in the arms. Neither could drive alone, but they paired up to get a vehicle through on an urgent mission. Another driver, half buried by fallen masonry, dug his way out, bound up his broken back with a towel, crawled to his jeep, drove a high-ranking officer to the airfield to get the first radio report of the quake to Peking, then fainted at the wheel. The wireless operator who sent out the message was manning the only transmitter then functioning in Tangshan. He had three times entered a falling building to rescue his transmitting equipment and was severely injured, but he stuck to his job by sheer will power until more sets came in. Such stories of PLA heroism are numerous.


Another revisionist idea of Teng’s was: “Restriction of bourgeois right requires a material base.”

In theory this is valid. But Teng used it in practice not merely to oppose limitation of inequality and privilege but even to extend it. His justification for this was the cynical belief that people would put forward their utmost effort only in response to material incentives. He had no faith in appeals to social conscience, to Mao’s spirit of serving the people.

“I worked at the slaughterhouse in Tangshan (quite close to the epicentre) before coming to the Institute,” said a student of English “and I went back there to see if I could help after the quake struck. It was essential to maintain food supplies for the homeless people in the stricken area; so it was suggested that we step up the number of animals slaughtered from the usual 500 a day to 700. Some people said we had a hard enough time slaughtering 500 under normal conditions. How could we manage 700 with the buildings damaged and unsafe? But the great majority of the workers supported 700 a day and the party secretary led the way by working in the innermost part of the plant, from which it would be hard to escape if there were another quake. The first day we slaughtered 700, the second day 900, the third day 1,000 and the fourth day 1,200. So we were able to supply all the incoming refugees and casualties from Tangshan, Tientsin and other affected areas. We worked harder than ever and put in longer hours. But we didn’t do it for extra pay. We didn’t need Teng Hsiao-ping’s material incentives.”

Such refutation of “Teng Hsiao-ping’s counter-revolutionary revisionist line” is inseparable from support for “Chairman Mao’s proletarian revolutionary line.” Study of both lines went on throughout the emergency period every day in front of the Red South Building, as elsewhere. The pre-dawn quake of July 28 was by far the strongest I have experienced–and I have been in three or four during the last dozen years. But the people of our block of apartments filed down the stairs of the four-story building in quiet and orderly fashion, with no pushing or panic. The calm was a product, I believe, of previous study of Mao Tsetung’s statement that “thoroughgoing materialists are fearless.” And it was combined with the confidence, which grew as the days passed, that the Communist Party and people’s government, the People’s Liberation Army and the people’s own organizations were capable of coping with the emergency.

The confidence was sustained by systematic study of the heroic and selfless deeds of people in the stricken areas. These were studied and discussed day in and day out, in newspaper-reading and TV-viewing groups and at large meetings addressed by people who had visited Tangshan. Reports included not only exemplary conduct but a few instances of the opposite.

“Whoever does not learn from teachers by negative example,” says Mao Tsetung, “is not a dialectical materialist.”


There was one case at the Institute. A protective canopy over the entrance to an air-raid shelter was removed and used in building an anti-quake shelter, with the result that the air-raid shelter was flooded. This appropriation of public property was not the act of one selfish individual. It was done by a few members of a group of people building a collective shelter. But it put the interests of the few above those of the many and was criticized, as was any selfish act of survivalism at the expense of the masses and the state.

Study was not only ideological and political. It was scientific as well. Chinese reactionaries have often used superstition about natural calamities as a weapon against social progress which deprives them of privilege. Now a former high official of the counter-revolutionary secret society Yi Guan Dao, discredited soon after liberation, went around among old folk trying to re-establish himself and his organization. The quakes, he hinted, were due to the anger of the elements at the new regime.

But even former members of the organization scoffed. They had been attending study sessions on different types of earthquakes, their cause and effect, how to predict and take precautions against them. The children of our Red South Building not only studied elementary seismology, but went around passing on their new knowledge to the adults. They were particularly proud of a miniature warning device, which they rigged up with the help of a teacher in the German department–a delicately balanced lemonade bottle standing on its head inside a little fence of copper wire connected to two torch batteries. The bottles would topple over against the wire during a tremor and set an alarm bell ringing.


“Under certain conditions,” says Mao Tsetung, “bad things can be turned into good things and good things into bad ones.” The loss of life and property in the Tangshan earthquake was enormous, perhaps unprecedented. But some good things arose from the ruins, among them the tempering and testing of the Chinese people, the PLA and the Chinese Communist Party. A meeting of all the students and staff of the Institute was held to hear a work summary of the first month of struggle against the quakes. There it was announced that 19 of the 21 members of one department Party branch had, in the opinion of the department masses, done their duty as communists. Nothing was said of the other two branch members. Tens of thousands of party members in different places were subjected to similar scrutiny, and the party will be all the stronger for it.

The same applies to government and people’s organizations. The PLA came through with flying colors. So did the mass of workers and peasants. Tientsin’s Number One Steel Plant was severely damaged by the quakes at the end of July; on the morning of August 12 they turned out their first heat of “anti-quake steel.” In Peking, 11 severely damaged flour mills topped their pre-quake daily output by 36% within a month. In Tangshan itself, the Kailuan coal mine went into production again 10 days after the first quake. The people’s communes in the worst hit area pledged “Three Nos”: “No change in our determination to go all out in socialist revolution; no change in our determination to make ours a Tachai-type county; no reduction in our supplies to the state.”

During the bitter experience of the earthquakes, the Chinese people responded to Chairman Mao’s injunction: “Be prepared against war and natural disasters. Everything for the people.” They demonstrated that, armed with Mao’s Thought, “man can conquer nature!”


[1] Lei Feng was a model revolutionary hero. Chairman Mao called on all Chinese people to learn from his example.