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Socialist drive: the first auto works and the contradictions of connectivity in the early people's republic of China.

It was finally ready to go. Three years after its foundation stone was laid, the First Auto Works was now, on 15 October 1956, finished and all set for production. Located about half-an-hour's tram or bus ride from Changchun's city centre, this new manufacturing complex was to be the cradle of China's automobile industry. The plant consisted of a series of red brick buildings over which loomed two cooling towers and a row of chimneys from the thermal power station. To the northeast lay the workers' residences, which housed factory employees and their families; to the southwest, the power installations that supplied the whole facility with the enormous amounts of electricity, steam and coal gas necessary for its operations. The design of the First Auto Works was modeled on the automobile production process. Individual workshops were linked overhead by trestles and underground by tunnels so as to allow materials and components to flow smoothly along the assembly line. (1) A good deal of excitement had surrounded the construction of this plant, and its completion was much celebrated. (2) It was not only--as its name indicates--the first automobile works built under the Chinese Communist government that came to power in 1949, but also a material expression of the industrial modern ideals that drove the leaders of the young socialist state.

The automobile in China has attracted considerable interest in recent years. China is now the largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world, accounting for 22.9 per cent of global production in 2012. (3) It also boasts the world's biggest automobile market. Car ownership is on the rise, keeping pace with the accelerated growth of the Chinese economy. There were over 90 million registered vehicles on the road in 2010; one estimate places the number past 200 million by 2020. (4) For some, the growing appetite for cars points most strikingly to the expansion of China's urban middle class and to the imbricated ideas of individual freedom, conspicuous consumption and social mobility in the post-reform era. (5) Others have focused on the environmental implications of this increase, from traffic congestion to air pollution. (6) In this way, the automobile has come to embody some of the dilemmas of development in contemporary China. The story of the automobile in the People's Republic does, however, stretch back to the nation's founding, and its early chapters are no less significant. In those days, however, China's roads were dominated not so much by passenger cars as they were by commercial trucks--though both, it should be noted, fall under the broader category of 'automobile' (qiche) in the Chinese lexicon.

Through a study of the First Auto Works, this article locates automobile production in 1950s China at the centre of multiple processes that came to define the nature of Chinese Communist rule, from the transformation of the built environment and the pursuit of industrial modernity to the coordination of the planned economy and the division of city and countryside. It argues that although the establishment of the First Auto Works and the emergence of the automobile industry remade urban landscapes in accordance with the industrialising aspirations of China's leaders, the effects of motorised mobility were most keenly felt in rural areas. There, the increased connectivity and accessibility meant heightened vulnerability to the extractive endeavours of the centralising state. This was to come to a head with the famine that ravaged the countryside during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61)--a famine enabled and exacerbated by socialist automobility.

An examination of the automobile industry in the early People's Republic of China thus also promises to disengage some of the familiar associations between the sociotechnical automotive assemblage that scholars have called 'automobility' and 'ideals of freedom, privacy, movement, progress, and autonomy'. (7) Lewis Siegelbaum has made a case for a Soviet automobility marked by various features, including structural limitations on the freedom and autonomy of the driver as subject, which set it apart from North American and Western European car cultures. (8) So too was the socialist automobility of 1950s China distinct. Decidedly statist, it was defined by a regime of automobile plants, commercial trucks, motor parts, roads and freight geared toward the central government's modernising agenda of economic production and industrial transformation. (9)

At the same time, this inquiry into the history of the Chinese automobile seeks to offer fresh insight on the interplay of motorised transportation and the environment. Automobile use is often framed in terms of the despoliation of nature, and rightly so. Tailpipe emissions, automobile production and road construction all carry adverse environmental consequences. On the other hand, some have also observed that automobiles have made green spaces more accessible, allowing for a closer relationship between human beings and the natural world. (10) Here, the focus on the use of trucks in grain requisition during the disastrous Great Leap Forward reveals ways in which automobile systems created channels for the extraction and circulation of natural resources and the fruits of agriculture. The results for rural China were devastating.

The layered analysis in this article begins at the heart of production, with an account of the establishment of the First Auto Works, the significance of this undertaking, and the impact that it had on the built environment of Changchun, the city in which it was located. The next section extends outwards and places the building of the plant and its subsequent operation within a larger network of support industries. It also deals with the setting of production goals and the manner that man and machine were assembled to meet them. The third section zooms in on the main product of the plant's assembly line, the 'Liberation' (Jiefang) truck, and examines the process by which it was brought into being and the functions that it was to serve. A final section follows the truck out of the plant, along the expanding overlay of roads, and into the rural communes. It explores how this vehicle, which was tasked with supporting agricultural activity, became a vector of agrarian extraction in the all too ambitious plans to overhaul the economy.

The road to automobile city

The First Auto Works had its origins in a cold Russian winter. Between December 1949 and February 1950, Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party, which had just won the civil war, visited Moscow to negotiate with Stalin for military support and economic aid. (11) During his stay in the Soviet Union, Mao was taken on excursions to several sites, including the huge truck factory that was the Stalin Auto Works. (12) Very much impressed by this massive automobile enterprise, he was determined that China should have one just like it, and secured the promise of Soviet assistance to build such a plant. Indeed, along with the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, signed on 14 February 1950, was a pledge by the Soviet Union to help the new Chinese socialist state in the construction of fifty heavy industrial projects, one of which was an automobile factory. This aid was to come in the form of loans, equipment and, perhaps most notably, the dispatch of Soviet technical advisors. The first team of advisors, a pair of plant design experts from the Soviet Ministry of Automobile Industry, arrived in China on 2 December, armed with plans for an automobile complex capable of producing 30,000 ZIS-150 trucks annually. (13) This was the design upon which the First Auto Works would be built. (14) Soviet assistance remained pivotal throughout the entire process. 'Given the low level of our industrial technology and our complete inexperience then', Guo Li, the plant's first manager, would later reflect, 'the establishment of an enterprise as modern and technologically sophisticated as the First Auto Works would have been absolutely impossible if not for the Soviet Union's all-round selfless support'. (15)

On the Chinese side, the Ministry of Heavy Industry had set up an Automobile Preparatory Group at the beginning of March. This group, which started out with just thirty cadres, urban intellectuals, old workers and youth, was tasked to gather and train technical personnel, and to survey the automobile facilities left behind by the preceding Japanese and Nationalist regimes. Their investigations into the pre-1949 automobile industry took the group as far north as Harbin, south as Kunming, east as Shanghai and west as Chongqing. Among the materials they found were plans for an automobile factory prepared by the REO Motor Car Company and blueprints for a Sterling truck, both commissioned by the former Nationalist government. (16) These seemed to serve as reminders of the stalled efforts to launch domestic automobile production in the previous decades. While the automobile had come to China at the turn of the century, the number of cars and trucks on Chinese roads were to remain relatively modest over the next fifty years. Almost all were imports; most of them American. (17) There emerged supporting industries, such as vehicle servicing and repair, and body and chassis manufacturing, but nothing too substantive in terms of producing complete automobiles. (18) In the context of this particular past, the building of the First Auto Works marked quite the milestone. Guo Li would not be alone in declaring it the 'end of China's history of not being able to manufacture automobiles'. (19) A contemporary pen-and-ink sketch (titled 'Counterattack') by a worker at the First Auto Works depicts two portly Western men in top hats representing the United States and Great Britain holding up a sign reading 'In history, China has never been able to make automobiles'. A second frame shows a truck with a license plate that states 'Made in China; annual production: 30,000'. The truck is shown breaking through the sign, knocking the two men off their feet. (20) The beginning of automobile production thus became a frequently referenced point of national pride, and suggested the widening of possibilities that accompanied the rise of the industrial modern Communist state.

The new automobile plant was slated to be situated in Changchun, a city in Northeast China that once served as the capital of the Japanese client state of Manchukuo between 1932 and 1945. This decision on location had taken a fair bit of deliberation. The Automobile Preparatory Group scouted out over ten potential sites across the country, taking note of factors such as ease of transport, availability of energy and raw materials, and topographical conditions. On 28 December 1950, the Planning Bureau of the Central Finance and Economic Commission convened a meeting to discuss this issue of where to establish the automobile complex. Based on the Automobile Preparatory Group's field reports, the list was narrowed down to Beijing, Shenyang, Wuhan and Baotou. The Soviet advisors on the project, however, were to have other ideas. According to their assessment, the automobile facility could only be built in the comparatively more industrial Northeast. Nowhere else, they contended, had access to the necessary amounts of electricity, steel, lumber and motive power. It was perhaps no coincidence that Northeast China, which shared a border with the Soviet Far East, had long been considered a Russian and, later, Soviet sphere of geopolitical interest. Nevertheless, as with many other policy decisions in those early years, the Chinese government went along with Soviet recommendations. On 18 January 1951, the Central Finance and Economic Commission declared that the plant would be located in the Northeast, and, on 19 March, following further local surveys, designated Changchun as the specific site. (21)

Construction began on 15 July 1953. The land on which the automobile factory was to be built was a wide expanse of overgrown field, upon which once stood, during Japanese colonial times, a germ warfare facility that was razed to the ground after the fall of the empire. Over the next three years, huge concentrations of human and material resources converged on this site to bring into being the sprawling industrial complex of the First Auto Works. As one of the keystone projects of the intensive state-led industrialisation initiative that was the First Five Year Plan (1953-57), the building of the First Auto Works drew in more than 600 million Yuan of investments from the central government. (22) The Soviet Union sent close to 6,000 pieces of equipment and parts to fit out the new plant, with most of the pieces custom made by the Stalin Auto Works. 115 Soviet advisers came to help in the installation of these facilities and to provide overall technical and managerial assistance. (23) They were joined by scores of Chinese technicians from all over the country, including 500 who had been trained at the automobile works in Moscow and Gor'kii. (24) At the height of construction, the project boasted as many as 40,000 workers, a large number of whom were People's Liberation Army veterans who had fought in the Korean War. (25) While it took no small effort, these technicians and workers managed to finish the job in the three short years set by the central government. The speed and scope of this accomplishment, framed in terms of an untamed field being turned into a productive plant, were to define early depictions of the First Auto Works in both picture and prose. (26)

But the transformation of landscape extended beyond the actual grounds of the automobile factory. The First Auto Works was to also play a role in altering the built environment of the city of Changchun. To serve the needs of the new plant, the municipal government constructed a major highway and a bridge, laid pipes and power lines, and started an electric tram service between the automobile works and the city centre. It also invested around 86 million Yuan into the establishment of multiple secondary enterprises, such as those producing vehicle tools and auto parts. This brought the city's total industrial output value to 560 million Yuan by 1957, a fifteen-fold increase from 1949. The broadening of Changchun's industrial base, in turn, resulted in marked urban expansion, as more buildings, roads and infrastructure were built to support the automobile and auxiliary industries, and the men and women who came to work in them. The population of Changchun more than doubled between 1949 and 1957, from 336,000 to 779,000. (27) By the end of the 1950s, Changchun had been remade. Once a colonial capital, it now came to be known both at home and abroad as China's 'automobile city'. (28) Chosen ostensibly for its proximity to natural resource endowments and the existing infrastructural arrangements in place to exploit these raw materials, Changchun featured an environment changed by the arrival of the automobile works. Concrete, steel and energy inputs came together to produce this urban hub of mechanised production, even as the new smokestacks and factories offered the city's growing population the distinctive smells and sounds of industrial modernity.

Steering industrial production

To the leaders of the early People's Republic, economic development was a pressing concern. It held the key, many of them believed, to national strength, and was thought to provide the material preconditions for socialist transformation. (29) The developmental model that the Chinese government adopted was based largely on the Soviet experience, and was characterized by the privileging of heavy industry and a predilection for planning. The First Five Year Plan, which got underway in 1953 but was only officially announced in 1955, represented a nationwide effort to bring about rapid industrialisation through targeted production increases and the mobilisation of the workforce behind the meeting of these quotas. One of the major issues that state planners soon came to face was the circulation of commodities, components and raw materials throughout this planned economy. The coordination of such flows was left, after all, not so much to the mechanism of the invisible hand of the market as it was to the calculations of technocrats at the centre. Aside from the creation of new ministries to administer the various industries, there was also a strong push to develop the transportation sector so as to better integrate production, consumption and distribution across the country. (30) In the First Five Year Plan, 18.7 per cent of state capital investment went towards improving transport and communications. (31) Although the railroad bore the bulk of total freight traffic, the 1950s witnessed an expansion of China's highways, which too was used primarily for the transportation of goods. (32) At 79.1 million tons, truck freight accounted for 21.3 per cent of total tonnage transported in 1956. (33) It was to reach 421.1 million (34 per cent) by 1960. (34) The credibility of that tonnage figure, like much of the numerical data from the years of the Great Leap Forward, can and should be questioned. Still, with the building of roads and the steady output of automobile plants, trucks came to be increasingly involved in the movement of the planned economy.

As the first domestic automobile manufacturer, the First Auto Works was an important cog in the wheel of the Chinese transportation sector. Designed with a capacity to produce 30,000 medium trucks a year, this plant was expected to provide fleets of vehicles to support the socialist state's economic activities. There was a measure of anticipation over the commencement of production, and the First Auto Works purportedly received many letters from individuals expressing hopes that the trucks would be out and ready for use as soon as possible. (35) Responding in part to such demands, the plant's deputy manager, Meng Shaonong, predicted that the early production of vehicles would be possible if the factory would accelerate the progress of infrastructural projects, stagger adjustment and installation efforts, and shorten the time spent on fine-tuning production. (36) The first 'Liberation' truck rolled off the assembly line on 13 July 1956, a few months ahead of initial schedule. By National Day on 1 October, the First Auto Works would produce more than 300 of these trucks, even as its workers gradually grew accustomed to the continuous production method the plant employed. (37) The volume of vehicles produced increased exponentially over the next year, and in 1958, at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, the plant manager, Rao Bin, spoke enthusiastically about the possibility of doubling maximum production. In what would be retrospectively consistent with the highly inflated expectations of that disastrous campaign, he claimed that given recent successes at producing 100 instead of 50 vehicles per shift, the plant should be able to manufacture 60,000 or 70,000 trucks a year. (38) While it would not cross the 30,000 mark until 1965, when it turned out 34,115 trucks, the First Auto Works nevertheless remained the nation's main producer of transport vehicles and, as such, a key player in the planned economy. (39)

But insofar as its importance came from providing the means by which the socialist economy moved, so too were the First Auto Works and its operations products of this very circulation of goods. This was already evident at the construction phase. In addition to the equipment imported directly from the Soviet Union, raw materials and parts from all around the country were placed on trains and trucks, and delivered to the automobile plant. Made in factories in Changchun and other industrial centres such as Shanghai, Tianjin, Qingdao, Shenyang, Harbin and Mudanjiang, the more than 3,500 components that went into each vehicle were themselves produced through the cooperation of multiple industries, including those of rubber, ball bearings, asbestos, paper, cotton, glass and electricity. (40) With its wide range of suppliers, the First Auto Works was at the centre of a complex network of resource flows, which its primary product, the 'Liberation' truck, was to help facilitate. This system was, however, not without its problems. In one critique, deputy plant manager, Ma Chengzhai, pointed out that the way that distribution was done, with amounts set by central authorities quarter-by-quarter as opposed to having fixed quantities, proved to be highly inefficient. (41) His recommendation to better predetermine incoming volumes was, however, to go unheeded. (42) At the same time, there were certain resources that could not yet be supplied domestically. The most notable of these was steel. In the early years, the First Auto Works was importing up to 81 percent of its steel from the Soviet Union, and one preoccupation of state planners in the 1950s was reducing this reliance and attaining self-sufficiency. (43) There were almost certainly considerable environmental consequences in securing the raw materials necessary for automobile production, as Tom McCarthy reminds us with the case of backwards integration at Henry Ford's Rouge complex in his study of American car culture and its impact on the natural world. (44) The planners at the First Auto Works seemed, however, generally unconcerned with matters such as conservation and waste. Instead, they placed a premium on speed and scale, and regarded the occasional shortage as a failure of political will or ineffective management.

Apart from material resources, the functioning of the First Auto Works also required considerable amounts of human labour and technical expertise. When the plant first opened, there were around 18,000 workers on site. Most of them were relatively young, and had just moved to Changchun to work at the new automobile facility. (45) The majority of them came from Shanghai, and brought their families along with them, further contributing to the growth of Changchun's urban population. (46) Dispersed among the First Auto Works' thirteen workshops, these men and women, including those in supervisory roles, were to learn most of what they needed to know on the job, cutting their teeth on the factory floor. Some of them underwent more formal training. The plant operated a night school for its employees, with a reported enrollment of around a thousand. (47) The skills that the workers acquired were not only put to use in the plant's day-to-day operations, but also transmitted beyond the automobile city. In 1958, the First Auto Works dispatched more than 560 administrators and 1,000 technicians to lend assistance to new automobile factories that were being set up in other parts of China. Workers were also sent to rural areas to provide training in engine maintenance and repair. (48) In this manner, this facility, which would later be touted as the 'cradle of the automobile industry', participated in the growth and maturation of the wider transport sector. (49)

Indeed, while it started with the First Auto Works, the automobile manufacturing industry was to quickly expand beyond Changchun. This development can be traced to the onset of the Great Leap Forward in 1958. At that time, all enterprises across the nation were placed under a lower administrative level in an attempt to achieve greater decentralisation. With that, various provinces and cities took the initiative to use local auto parts and vehicle repair facilities to model and assemble automobiles in what one scholar would call the first 'upsurge of great mass fervor' in the history of the Chinese automobile industry. (50) In 1956, there was only one automobile manufacturing plant, the First Auto Works; by 1960, there were sixteen. The automobile works in Beijing, Nanjing, Shenyang, Shanghai and Jinan were all products of this period. (51) The Beijing Auto Works, for instance, had its humble beginnings as a factory that manufactured automobile accessories. (52) Such radical transformations were taken to be achievements gained through striving with a 'great leap' mentality. In one assessment, the result was the dispersion and waste of capital, an uncoordinated spatial arrangement of plants, and an unbalanced structure of the production, all of which were problems that would dog the industry down the road. (53) Either way, as the decade drew to a close, the automobile industry, led by the First Auto Works, seemed to be moving in line with the goals of the Great Leap Forward, driven as it was to produce more and more vehicles in service of the state. (54)

A four-ton truck named 'Liberation'

As the firstborn of the First Auto Works, the 'Liberation' truck was its pride and joy. Also known by its model number, CA-10, this vehicle was a copy of the Soviet ZIS-150, an old but reliable roader that was used widely in the Soviet Union of the 1950s. (55) This medium truck was equipped with a ninety-horsepower, six-cylinder gasoline engine and could do a maximum speed of 65 km/hour. When it was carrying its full capacity of four tons, its optimal speed would be somewhere between 30 and 35 km/hour. With its short body and high chassis, it was said to be particularly well suited for the highways of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and other mountainous regions. If it were fitted with all-terrain tires, which it often was, it had no problems traversing regular dirt roads. This was a vehicle with a great deal of versatility, be it transporting loads in factories, farms or along the highways and roads in between. (56) Believed to have been named by Mao Zedong himself, the 'Liberation' truck rapidly became a familiar sight all across China. (57) It was, however, not the only vehicle that the First Auto Works would produce, neither would it remain the most celebrated. CA-10 would often be overshadowed by the plant's passenger cars, 'Eastern Wind' (Dongfeng) and 'Red Flag' (Hongqi), both of which were first manufactured in 1958. (58) The luxurious 'Red Flag', in particular, was noteworthy because it ferried around the country's top leaders. Still, in terms of numbers, car production was near negligible in those days, and it was the truck that perhaps best captured the industrial spirit of that era.

On 14 July 1956, a day after its successful factory test, the 'Liberation' truck went out into the streets of Changchun. The procession consisted of twelve trucks, the first batch produced by the First Auto Works. Piloting these vehicles were drivers from the plant who had been selected for this honour by their peers. As the trucks left the factory, the workers who had assembled them broke into loud cheers and thunderous applause. These dark-green four tonners, which had been decked out in rich red cloth, were greeted by crowds of onlookers, who set off firecrackers, sounded gongs and drums and threw confetti, as they marveled at the sight. One of the bystanders was the head of an agricultural cooperative from a nearby village, and he expressed hopes of purchasing a CA-10 for his work unit in the near future. Given its speed and carrying capacity, this would, he believed, completely revolutionise the work of his comrades. (59) These trucks were to soon travel beyond Changchun. On 19 August thirty-eight 'Liberation' trucks were loaded onto a train and transported to Beijing, where they were to be part of the upcoming National Day parade. (60) In the year following its release, the CA-10 had made its way across China, 'from the shores of the South China Sea to the oil fields of the Northwest, from the industrial centre that was the Northeast to the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and the verdant mountains and forests of the Southwest'. (61) According to the distribution representative at the First Auto Works, the plant had sent around 5,950 of these vehicles to more than sixty provinces and cities just over the span of that first year. (62) The military too was interested in acquiring CA-10s, and individual units would set aside funds so as to purchase these trucks for their transportation needs. (63) The 'Liberation' truck quickly became a ubiquitous presence in the workplace and everyday life in socialist China.

In addition to producing more CA-10s to meet the growing nationwide demand, workers at the First Auto Works were also actively engaged in modifying the vehicle for an array of purposes. They sought, first of all, to improve on the truck's basic design. Drawing on the feedback they solicited from drivers, maintenance personnel and loaders, the truck designers reworked its structure. One significant change in this regard was lightening the body of the vehicle from 4,000 to 3,760 kg, which then purportedly allowed for an increase in maximum carrying load from four to five tons. (64) Special components were also installed onto existing trucks, and this transformed these cargo carriers into other kinds of heavy duty vehicles, such as mobile sprinklers, fire engines and boring trucks. (65) Designers were to furthermore invest time and energy into producing new lines of vehicles. Notable among the many was the CA-80 tractor, which had been designed for use in farming, transportation and irrigation. Of all the products that the First Auto Works would manufacture for the agricultural sector during the Great Leap Forward, this was to be the one with the greatest output. (66) While agricultural support had long been a priority for the leaders of the automobile industry, who saw in the automobile the mechanisation and, hence, modernisation of agrarian sector, this was to become more pronounced over the course of that campaign. (67) In a cruel twist of fate, the 'Liberation' truck and other vehicles put out by the First Auto Works were to be rather unexpected accomplices in the tragedy that was to follow.

Mobilizing collective life

The Great Leap Forward marked a momentous shift in the direction that China's leaders would take its economy. (68) As much as the First Five Year Plan may have been successful in terms of widening the country's base of heavy industry, it also resulted in imbalances across sectors that led to a questioning of the Soviet model of development. In particular, agricultural output was severely lagging behind industrial production, a condition which itself seemed symptomatic of a growing divide between city and countryside. The earlier expectation that heavy industry, light industry and agriculture would develop simultaneously in a dynamic fashion proved to be a miscalculation. In order to rectify this situation, the central government turned its attention to rural China, and planned for an accelerated development of its agricultural and industrial potential. (69) To this end, the state introduced mandatory collectivisation, organizing peasants into communes of up to 50,000 people. This, it was believed, would be the basic unit of the communist society that such efforts at development would help usher in. (70) By mobilising the force of human labour concentrated in these communes, the proponents of the Great Leap Forward hoped to overcome the constraints of capital, of technology and of nature itself. (71) There were two main indices by which the progress of this campaign was gauged. The first was steel production, though the backyard furnaces set up for such purposes in communes across the country would yield largely worthless pig iron; the second, agricultural output in terms of grain. The transportation system, which had been expanding in preceding years, served to facilitate the outward flow of much of these resources.

Back at the First Auto Works, the workshops were busy assembling vehicles and auto parts for the collective farms. At the beginning of 1958, the plant started testing fifty-horsepower coal gas engines, designed to supply motive power to agricultural machinery such as those used in irrigation and threshing. A thousand of these were scheduled to be distributed to rural communes before the spring plowing season. (72) The factory also began selecting and preparing workers to be sent down to the countryside to help in the installation of equipment and to train locals in the operation and maintenance of these machines. (73) Eight hundred technicians were dispatched on 20 April. Armed with more than 900 coal gas engines, they were tasked with setting these to work on various production processes, from irrigation, draining and electricity generation to husking, threshing and hay cutting. A second goal was for them to train as many as 16,000 new coal gas engine experts, who would then form the 'backbone' of the next phase of agricultural mechanisation. (74) While quite a number of the measures taken to increase grain production, such as planting seedlings far too close together or plowing too deeply into the ground, were to harm rather than help output, the introduction of more motorised vehicles and farming implements, coupled with good weather, appeared to have, at least in the initial stages, led to rather robust yields. (75) The problems that would arise later came in part from the unsustainability of intensified agriculture, in part from hostile climate conditions, but, perhaps most importantly, from the management and distribution of the produced grain.

With the increased output of grain and other goods came a need, state planners averred, for better transport. The communes responded accordingly. In 1959 alone, there were purportedly over 50,000 professional and 70,000 non-professional transport groups established across more than 20,000 communes. These groups, many of whom operated vehicles such as the 'Liberation' truck, were to carry grain and other products from farms to factories, mines and urban centres, coordinating with other road, rail and shipping services to complete these trips. At the same time, they were responsible for hauling chemical fertilizers and daily necessities back to the communes. (76) This system of circulation and exchange seemed, on paper, to represent a planned economy that functioned like a well-oiled machine. What it was, instead, was an assemblage of excesses and extraction. Grain production figures had been set too high. This was further exacerbated by waves of false reporting by local cadres for whom the fulfillment or exceeding of quotas meant a tried and tested commitment to the communist cause. Food supply in the communes rapidly dwindled. Although the central government had received reports of local famines by late 1958 and took steps to address the growing problem, the corrective measures it was to introduce turned out to be short lived. Regarding voiced concerns about the problems caused by the Great Leap Forward as a personal challenge to his leadership and authority, Mao denounced the dissenters, strengthened his revolutionary resolve and placed the Chinese economy back on the radical road. (77) Trucks would continue to pull into farming areas, load up with grain and then take off for state granaries, urban centres and industrial sites, leaving behind starving peasants who too often could do nothing but look on.

In the absence of state intervention, famine swept across rural regions. The situation was made worse by denying the existence of a problem. In the midst of the crisis, China continued its exports of grain to the Soviet Bloc. It exported 2.66 million tons of grain in 1958; the volume would increase to 4.15 million in 1959. (78) Considerable amounts of land for grain growing were also reallocated to the cultivation of other crops. (79) The core idea of a 'great leap', in which one would jump over otherwise insurmountable difficulties through faith and effort, was, in hindsight, sheer folly, but it seized the imaginations of many, even, or perhaps especially, those beyond the countryside. In the spirit of those times, the First Auto Works drew up a plan, on 30 September 1959, to increase output fivefold under the rubric of '250 vehicles in one shift'. (80) For the most part, it seemed as if the people of Changchun, like their counterparts in many other cities, knew little about the severity of the crisis that was devastating agrarian China. (81) The incidences of mass starvation did, however, eventually become too frequent to ignore, and the state finally stepped in. By late 1961, it began to import grain, abolished the communal dining halls, and lifted the ban on private cultivation. (82) But the damage had already been done. The estimates of the death toll range from about 28 to over 45 million, making this by far the worst famine in modern history. (83)

   My 'Liberation' truck,
   Run, run, quickly run,
   Put on a pair of wings and take off,
   Down the newly paved commune road!
   Liberation' truck, my battle steed,
   Run, run, quickly run,
   You once transported rations to the front line,
   You once delivered ammunition to the front line.
   Today, the agricultural front line is in need,
   Let us do battle at that outpost,
   My battle steed, run with speed,
   Quickly deliver chemical fertilizers to the communes!
   The motor merrily hums,
   My heart merrily beats,
   A southern wind blows and stirs a wave of green,
   Luxuriant farm fields stretching out as far as the eye can see!
   Gallop across the newly built stone bridge,
   Gallop across the fruit tree filled mountainside,
   Send to the communes a blaze of autumn color,
   Send to the comrades a bountiful harvest of smiles! (84)

This poem, titled '"Liberation" Truck, Quickly Run', was published in the People's Liberation Army Daily in the fall of 1960, right in the midst of the Great Leap Forward. In this socialist realist piece was an idealised vision of motorised mobility. The speaker, addressing his four-wheeled companion, bid it make haste, to cross a landscape of newly constructed infrastructure to lend support to the rural commune, the agricultural front line'. Valued here was the vehicle's ability to move, its ability to go places, further enabled by an expanding system of roads and bridges. It reflected the hope of a rural China made verdant and productive by nourishing inputs brought in from beyond. Ironically, it was this speed and connectivity that may have made the communes more vulnerable to the revolutionary state's extractive efforts. For roads go both ways, and the trucks that traversed them took from the countryside more than they were to give.

The rise of the First Auto Works and the Chinese automobile industry is very much a story of the early People's Republic. The pursuit of motorised mobility was, after all, an essential part of the new socialist state's overarching plan to attain industrial modernity through economic development. By successfully manufacturing its own automobiles, an accomplishment that owed much to the help of the Soviet Union, China demonstrated that it had made significant technological, organisational and industrial progress in just a matter of years. In so doing, it seemed to validate the socialist developmental model as a viable alternative to capitalist production. Simultaneously, the expansion of the industrial economy relied on improvements in the transportation sector. The proliferation of automobiles, manufactured first by the First Auto Works and later also by other factories, contributed greatly to this area, even as roads and highways were extended, changing the landscape across the country. When the state shifted its focus to rural China during the Great Leap Forward, vehicles such as the Liberation' truck were employed in the requisitioning of grain that was to decimate peasant populations. In this tragic turn of events, the transportation assemblage that had been put together to better integrate city and countryside into one socialist economy ended up driving an even larger wedge between the two.

Judith Shapiro has characterized the widespread anthropogenic environmental devastation of the Maoist years as something particular to the period. She argues that the socialist state's reconceptualisation of nature as adversary, coupled with its drive for rapid development and willingness to use all means necessary to achieve this set goal, resulted in a series of aggressive policies that exacted a huge toll on the natural world. (85) At first glance, the history of the automobile in the early People's Republic might appear to fit neatly into this account of revolutionary recklessness. But insofar as motorised mobility, increased connectivity and the expansion of transport infrastructure are regarded as fundamental features of an industrial modern society, the Communist Chinese automobile and the unintended consequences that accompanied it belong to an even larger narrative. The establishment of the First Auto Works and the beginning of automobile production in the 1950s were, after all, the realisation of earlier automotive aspirations held by the Communists' Nationalist predecessors and other Chinese leaders in the first half of the twentieth century. (86) The environmental repercussions of socialist automobility, be this the radical transformation of urban and rural landscapes or the unexpected exacerbation of manmade famine, can thus linked to broader developmentalist ideals that originated farther back in the Chinese past. (87) In a similar light, the recent rise in automobile use and the corresponding deterioration of air quality across the country too might be seen as but another chapter in this ongoing story--by no means unique to China's experience--about visions of development and the ecological costs of industrial modernity. 10.7227/TJTH.35.2.2


I would like to thank Gordon Pirie and the anonymous reviewers whose comments and criticisms helped sharpen this article's argument.


(1) 'Jintian de Diyi qiche zhizao chang', Renmin ribao, 15 July 1956.

(2) 'Diyi qiche zhizao chang jiancheng', Renmin ribao, 15 July 1956.

(3) Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d'Automobiles (OICA), 'Production Statistics',

(4) China Auto Web, 'How Many Cars are There in China?', 5 September 2010, http://, and, Update: How Many Cars are There in China?', 2 March 2011,

(5) See, for example, Jun Zhang, Driving toward Modernity: An Ethnography of Automobiles in Contemporary South China', unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 2009.

(6) Elizabeth C. Economy, The Great Leap Backwards: The Costs of China's Environmental Crisis', Foreign Affairs 86:5 (2007), 38-59.

(7) Steffen Bohm et al., 'Introduction: Impossibilities of Automobility', Sociological Review 54:s1 (2006), 3. On automobility, see Mike Featherstone, 'Automobilities: An Introduction', Theory, Culture & Society 21:4/5 (2004), 1-24.

(8) Lewis H. Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008), pp. 7-8.

(9) Insofar as Chinese socialist automobility might be regarded as a modernising state project, parallels can be drawn with the infrastructural landscape of the autobahn in the German Third Reich. See Thomas Zeller, Driving Germany: The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1930-70, trans. Thomas Dunlap (New York, Berghahn Books, 2007).

(10) See, for example, Christopher W. Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2012).

(11) For more details of this important visit, see Dieter Heinzig, The Soviet Union and Communist China, 1945-50 (Armonk, N.Y, M.E. Sharpe, 2004), pp. 263-384.

(12) For a brief account of this Soviet factory upon which the First Auto Works was modeled, see Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades, pp. 19-29.

(13) ZIS stands for Zavod im. Stalina, the Stalin Auto Works. The ZIS-150, one of its main products, was among the leading truck models in the 1950s Soviet Union. Siegelbaum, Cars for Comrades, p. 219.

(14) Meng Shaonong, Zhongguo yao jian yizuo qiche chang', in Quanguo zhengxie wenshi xuexi weiyuanhui (ed.), Yiqi chuangjian fazhan li (hereafter YCFL) (Beijing, Zhongguo wenshi chubanshe, 2007), pp. 3, 5. Meng Shaonong was one of the first deputy plant managers at the First Auto Works, serving in this position from 1952 to 1965.

(15) Guo Li, Zhong Su youyi de jiejing',inYCFL, p. 71.

(16) Meng Shaonong, Zhongguo yao jian yizuo qiche chang', pp. 4-5. Both REO and Sterling were American automobile makers.

(17) On the American role in early Chinese motorisation, see Thomas J. Campanella, The Civilising Road': American Influence on the Development of Highways and Motoring in China, 1900-49', Journal of Transport History 26:3 (2005), 87-98.

(18) Eric Harwit, China's Automobile Industry: Policies, Problems, and Prospects (Armonk, N.Y., M.E. Sharpe, 1995), pp. 15-16.

(19) Guo Li, Zhong Su youyi de jiejing',inYCFL, p. 71.

(20) Yu Huixian and Zhang Defa, Huiji', in Jilin sheng qunzhong yishu guan (ed.), Zhigong fengci hua xuanji (Changchun, Jilin renmin chubanshe, 1957), p. 14.

(21) Wu Shiduo, Wo suo liaojie de Yiqi xuanzhi gongzuo',inYCFL, pp. 41 -3. Wu Shiduo was one of the members of the Automobile Preparatory Group. He later went on to serve as the deputy director of the Automobile Research Institute at the First Auto Works.

(22) Jiang Zemin, 'Yiqi jianshe jianliie lichen de huigu',in YCFL, p. 10. Jiang Zemin (not to be confused with the Chinese President of the same name who too had worked at the First Auto Works in his younger days) had previously headed the Automobile Preparatory Group.

(23) Zhongguo qiche zhizao ye de chusheng--wei Changchun qiche zhizao chang jiancheng er zuo', Renmin ribao, 7 October 1956.

(24) Rao Bin, Yiqi san nian jianchang de chenggong jingyan',inYCFL, p. 76. Rao Bin was the plant manager of the First Auto Works from 1952 to 1959.

(25) Chung-Yuk Mok, China's Motor Cities: Industrialization and Urban Development under State Socialism', unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University, 1994, p. 112; Jiefang jun huabao she, Jiefang jun canjia jianshe qiche chang (Beijing, Jiefang jun huabao she, 1956).

(26) For one depiction of this transformation of landscape, see Zhao Lanyou, Huanshang women de xin zuopin', in Jilin sheng qunzhong yishu guan (ed.), Zhigong fengci hua xuanji, p. 18.

(27) Dangdai Changchun chengshi jianshe bianjibu, Dangdai Changchun chengshi jianshe (Beijing, Dangdai Changchun chengshi jianshe bianjibu, 1988), pp. 9, 21-3, 34-5.

(28) For a detailed account of socialist urban transformation in Changchun during this period, see Mok, China's Motor Cities', pp. 82-152.

(29) Maurice J. Meisner, Mao's China and After: A History of the People's Republic, 3rd ed. (New York, Free Press, 1999), pp. 104-6.

(30) For a systematic study of the transportation sector in the People's Republic, see Yuan-li Wu, The Spatial Economy of Communist China: A Study on Industrial Location and Transportation (New York, Frederick A. Praeger, 1967).

(31) Jan S. Prybyla, Transportation in Communist China', Land Economics 42:3 (1966), 269.

(32) Ibid. , 272, 274. According to official figures, there were 400,000 km of motor road by 1958.

(33) Zhonghua renmin gonghe guo guojia tongji ju guanyu 1956 niandu guomin jingji jihua zhixing jieguo de gongbao', Renmin ribao, 12 August 1957.

(34) Wu, The Spatial Economy of Communist China, p. 181.

(35) Yiding zai jinnian zhizao chu qiche lai', Renmin ribao, 3 January 1956.

(36) Zhengqu tizao shengchan qiche', Renmin ribao, 28 January 1956.

(37) Diyi qiche chang zhichu sanbai duo liang qiche', Renmin ribao, 2 October 1956.

(38) You sanwan liang qiche dao qiwan liang qiche Diyi qiche', Renmin ribao, 16 May 1958.

(39) Diyi qiche zhizao chang shizhi bianzuanshi, Diyi qiche zhizao chang changzhi, 1950-86, vol. 1 (hereafter YQCZ1) (Changchun, Jilin kexue jishu chubanshe, 1991), p. 6.

(40) 'Zai shehui zhuyi de daolu shang qianjin', Renmin ribao, 7 June 1955; Zhang Fengshi, 'Lishi de zhuangju',in YCFL, pp. 47-8. Zhang Fengshi was the head of the Automobile Bureau of the First Machine Industry Ministry, and, in this capacity, had overseen the First Auto Works project.

(41) Rang qiche chang you guding de cailiao laiyuan', Renmin ribao, 8 July 1956. Ma Chengzhai served as one of the deputy plant managers from 1953 to 1958.

(42) Zaici yaoqiu guding cailiao huoyuan', Renmin ribao, 9 March 1957.

(43) YQCZ1, pp. 6-7.

(44) Tom McCarthy, Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 55-76.

(45) Chen Jixin, Huoyue zai qiche cheng de qingnian ren', YCFL, p. 203.

(46) Mok, China's Motor Cities', p. 137.

(47) Diyi qiche zhizao chang shizhi bianzuanshi, Diyi qiche zhizao chang changzhi, 1950-86, vol. 2 (Changchun, Jilin kexue jishu chubanshe, 1991), pp. 273-84; Prybyla, Transportation in Communist China', 274.

(48) Changchun Motor Vehicle Plant Expands Production', reproduced from New China News Agency Release, January 26, 1959, in Survey of China Mainland Press, no. 1945, 30 January 1959, p. 22.

(49) Li Lanqing, 'Yiqi--zuguo qiche gongye de yaolan',in YCFL, p. 54.

(50) Li Hong, Zhongguo qiche gongye jingji fenxi (Beijing, Zhongguo renmin daxue chubanshe, 1993), p. 77.

(51) Ibid.

(52) Women ziji de qiche shi zenyang zhizao chulai de', Renmin ribao, 25 July 1958.

(53) Li, Zhongguo qiche gongye jingji fenxi, p. 78.

(54) Automobile Workers Throughout China Produce Over 2,000 Trucks in August', translated from New China News Agency dispatch, 2 September 1959, in Survey of China Mainland Press, no. 2095, 14 September 1959, pp. 9-10.

(55) Women zhengzai nuli zhangwo qiche', Renmin ribao, 9 April 1956.

(56) "Jiefang pai" qiche', Renmin ribao, 15 July 1956.

(57) "Jiefang" pai qiche de youlai',inYCFL, pp. 196-8.

(58) Woguo qiche zhizao shi you jiekai xinye', Renmin ribao, 13 May 1958; "Hongqi" pai gaoji jiaoche dansheng le', Renmin ribao, 21 September 1958.

(59) "Jiefang" pai qiche kaijin Changchun shi', Renmin ribao, 17 July 1956.

(60) Shoupi Jiefang pai qiche yunlai Beijing', Renmin ribao, 20 August 1956.

(61) Jiefang pai qiche chi bian quanguo', Renmin ribao, 26 September 1957.

(62) Ibid.

(63) Jishao chengduo, huicheng Jianghe', Jiefang jun bao, 15 December 1956.

(64) Dajia lai chu zhuyi xian jice rang Jiefang pai qiche geng wanshan', Renmin ribao, 8 February 1960; Changwai hangjia', Renmin ribao, 21 March 1960; Diyi qiche chang yunyong chang neiwai gexin chengguo xiugai chanpin sheji', Renmin ribao, 14 June 1960.

(65) Diyi qiche chang zhizao bianxing qiche', Renmin ribao, 10 September 1956.

(66) Xin de fengge', Renmin ribao, 15 April 1958.

(67) Zai jianshe zhong de Diyi qiche zhizao chang', Renmin ribao, 22 June 1954.

(68) The scholarship on the Great Leap Forward has been growing considerably over the last decade. For a recent book that has perhaps contributed most to our rethinking of this tumultuous period, see Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-62, trans. Stacy Mosher and Guo Jian; (eds) Edward Friedman, Guo Jian and Stacy Mosher; intro. Edward Friedman and Roderick MacFarquhar (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

(69) Meisner, Mao's China and After, pp. 204-8.

(70) Kimberley Ens Manning and Felix Wemheuer, 'Introduction', in Kimberley Ens Manning and Felix Wemheuer (eds), Eating Bitterness: New Perspectives on China's Great Leap Forward and Famine (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2011), pp. 5-6.

(71) Judith Shapiro, Mao's War Against: Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 67-70.

(72) Tupian', Renmin ribao, 25 January 1958.

(73) Diyi qiche chang wei nongye shengchan dongle jixie', Renmin ribao, 10 February 1958.

(74) Diyi qiche chang da guimo zhiyuan nongcun', Renmin ribao, 22 April 1958.

(75) Shapiro, Mao's War Against Nature, p. 76.

(76) Communes Develop Rural Transport in China', reproduced from New China News Agency Release, 30 December 1959, in Survey of China Mainland Press, 6 January 1960, p. 8.

(77) Manning and Wemheur, Introduction', pp. 7-8.

(78) Gao Hua, Food Augmentation Methods and Food Substitutes During the Great Famine', trans. Robert Mackie, in Manning and Wemheur, Eating Bitterness, p. 178.

(79) Kenneth R. Walker, Food Grain Procurement and Consumption in China (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 143-4.

(80) YQCZ1, p. 36.

(81) Jeremy Brown shows that this was not the case with Tianjin, and that the residents there were quite aware of the size and scale of the famine. Jeremy Brown, City and Countryside in Mao's China: Negotiating the Divide (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 58-65.

(82) Manning and Wemheur, Introduction', pp. 8-9.

(83) Edward Friedman and Roderick MacFarquhar, Introduction', in Yang, Tombstone, p.x.

(84) Qiao Shi, Jiefang pai qiche, kuaipao', Jiefang jun bao, 16 August 1960.

(85) Shapiro, Mao's War Against Nature.

(86) See, for example, Campanella, "The Civilising Road"'.

(87) Micah Muscolino has made this case of marked continuities in modernist measures to reengineer the Chinese environment across the 1949 divide. Micah Muscolino, Global Dimensions of Modern China's Environmental History', World History Connected 6:1 (2009),

Victor Seow

Cornell University


Victor Seow is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century China with research interests in issues of energy, science and technology, the environment, industry, labor and state power. His book project, Carbon Technocracy: East Asian Energy Regimes and the Industrial Modern, 1900-07', examines the history of the fossil fuel industry in northeast China. Through this, the project explores the techniques and technologies by which states and their subsidiaries sought to master the energy resources that were becoming increasingly inseparable from the wider experience of the industrial modern age. Victor teaches modern Chinese history at Cornell University. E-mail:
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