Regional Government and Political Integration in Southwest China, 1949-1954: A Review

Dorothy J. Solinger: Regional Government and Political Integration in Southwest China, 1949-1954: A Case Study. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Review by Li Wankun, University of Leeds

In traditional Chinese histories, the Southwest has often been considered as the most independent area in China, labeled as “the land of barbarians”(manhuang zhidi / 蛮荒之地). Accordingly, the concept and boundaries of “the Southwest” (xinan/ 西南) has fluctuated greatly over time. Anchoring the region is the province known today as Yunnan, which shares a long border with Burma (Myanmar). Histories of the Ming dynasty tend to connote rather mysterious elements to Yunnan, describing it as the area with a vile miasma of forest and minority tribes that ride on the elephants later made famous by Marc Elvin’s book.

Following the military occupation of the region by the Ming dynasty, the central government implemented the Bureaucratization of Native Chieftain system (gaitu guiliu / 改土归流). As the title of the policy implied, the gaitu guiliu aimed to strengthen the control over the region by replacing local hereditary headmen (tusi /土司) with officers from the court. The policy also mandated the opening of the Imperial Examination (keju zhidu/ 科举制度) to the empire’s new subjects, stretching from Qinghai to Guizhou, etc.

In today’s mainland academic discourse, such benefits are very explicitly tied to “shaoshuminzu zhengce” or “minority policies” in which the nation-state has existed in its present benevolent form, essentially back to the 16th century. From then on, the Southwest began a long process of contested integration with the mainland, a process recently written productively about by such scholars as Thomas Mullaney (Stanford University) and Gray Tuttle (Columbia). In many ways, Southwest China remains still the most independent area even today, whether or not one considers the Tibetan Autonomus Region part of the construction of the Southwest, the area is rich with diverse “national minorities,” which reward further study.

The Southwest, has been consolidated, fragmented away, and reconsolidated again with the Chinese polity multiple times over the centuries. Therefore, it would be expected that any study of the “return” of the Southwest to governance from the Chinese metropole (be it Nanjing or Beijing, dynastic, Republican, or communist) would bring controversy and represent serious institutional challenges. Dorothy Solinger approached this task in the late 1970s, and was the first person to use newspapers to research the integration of Southwest China, from the view of the Great Administrative Regions, which existed from 1949 to 1954.

Solinger explains the process in detail, using the label of integration, which happened, she argues, in two phases. Along with the transition from the Military Administrative Committee (junzheng weiyuanhui) to the Administrative Committee (Xing Zheng Wei Yuan Hui) and its abolition in 1954, Southwest China lost much of its special administrative character during its integration into the nation as a whole. To her credit, the author stays rather disciplined in the writing, not getting lost in the intricacies of Guangxi’s labyrinthine factional politics just prior to the CCP victory. Instead, she looks at how inner localities, connected to each other through toward trade, national minorities and roving counter-revolutionaries, were eventually pulled together and disciplined into the nation.

Solinger conceives the book into two parts, elaborating regionalism and integration in the Southwest after 1949 phases, which she labels Integration I and Integration II. While readers more accustomed to archivally-based treatments of the Chinese civil war by authors like Odd Arne Westad may find such a technique to be bordering on simplistic, we should recall that as a preliminary framework written in 1977, this conceptualization was surely innovative for its time. Solinger tracks back to pre-1949 China, finding that in every field, from geography or commercial to political affairs, there was no region, which existed at the supraprovincial level of “Southwest.” At the same time, the respective roles of political middlemen and new administrative structures were designed to bind the Southwest region with the national CCP and PLA. With solving different problems in the three interlinked areas of trade, minority nationalities and counter-revolutionaries, the internal subsystem integration was established by localities.

In my study, I found that the grain trade growth between Southwest and other areas was growing after 1952. According to the State-planned Purchase and Marketing (tonggou tongxiao/ 统购统销), Sichuan took charge of supplying grains to the major cities of southern China. During the First Five Year Plan, Sichuan procured 10 billion kilograms of grains, and 8.1 billion kilograms were transported to other regions,[1] like Hubei and Shanghai.

The main materials used in writing this book were Southwest China newspapers and journal, such as New China Daily (XinHua RiBao) and New China Monthly (Xin Hua Yue Bao). Given that most archives for the period after 1949 dealing with sensitive minority and national boundary issues are yet unopened for public even today, the author’s choice to use newspapers to study regionalism remains sound. As propagandists, newspaper editors, as Solinger said, would have seen no purpose in falsifying their publications, although the information was certainly published after filtering. Lacking access to local archives, Solinger is thus screened from the most part of regional resentments or failing cases during the integration process.

In one of my research that used the local archives from Chongqing, which city in the east of Sichuan Province, I found that the integration in the counties’ level was quite weak even in the process of collecting agriculture text which was the most important part of fiscal revenue before 1952. This also proved the argument of Solinger’s that the integration of Southwest was be strengthen after 1952 for the more functional type of integration under the Administrative Committee.

However, when Solinger analyzed the abolishment of the Administrative Committee, she ignored the funding of the State Planning Commission (Guo Jia Ji Hua Wei Yuan Hui) of the Central People’s Government, which was responsible for the strategy formulation and concurrently established with the Administrative Committee in 1952. Since 1953 was the first year of the First-Five Year Plan, the Planning Commission was established as a parallel organ with the Government Administration Council (Zhengwuyuan) for economic policy-making. Actually, the Planning Commission occupied a part power of the Administrative Committee, which steered the ship of government to plan and supervise the economic development before 1952. It made the Administrative Committee was much more like an executive branch not supervision. Therefore, the Administrative Committee was more functional after 1952.

About the process of integration, Solinger mentioned the military conflicts in the Southwest, particularly the wiping out of bandits and KMT remnant armies, but she focused on at the beginning of liberation when the CCP took over the Southwest. Actually, the process of integration was not smoothly since the Land Reform Movement to the Collectivization Movement in late 1950s. Especially during the collectivization movement, the cases about revolting to join cooperatives were increasing no matter from Chinese or minorities, and even violent conflicts happened in Qinghai and Tibet. As the remarkable work of Modern Tibet history, in the A History of Modern Tibet, Vol.2, The Calm Before the Storm, 1951-1955, Melvyn Goldstein unveils the conflict between the Southwestern Bureau and the Northwestern Bureau, which shows the arguments and different attitude about the Southwest China from inside. In the Vol.3, Goldstein shows us a much more bumpy road of integration after 1954, which was defined by Solinger as the year of achieving the integration in Southwest.

Solinger’s research into regional integration from the view of the Great Administrative Regions is exceptionally helpful. She examined the transition of the Military Administrative Committee to the Administrative Committee finding the year of 1952 to have been landmark for CCP government organization. In this point, she develops Franz Schurmann’s research about the study of the government organization of PRC, the latter concludes the organization model of Communist China with ideology predictively. Solinger not only introduces the changes of organizations, but also use from the view of the development of the government function to see the integration of Southwest China.

[1] The Annals of Sichuan Province compiled by Sichuan Local Chronicles Compilation Committee, published by Sichuan Science & Technology Press, Chengdu, 1996, Page 4.


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