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Les Cent Fleurs à l'Usine Review: An Excellent Authoritative History of 1950s China's Industrial Economy


China in the 1950s was a country in the middle of an unprecedented national transformation, as the new Chinese Communist government carried out a sweeping national development of the world's most populous country's industry, aiming to transform a largely agrarian and unindustrialized country into a modern, industrial nation. This state-directed industrialization was based on the import of the Soviet model of industrial development, based on tightly organized centrally planned economic development where everything was subordinate to the Party's central mandates, and which placed all other organizations into an auxiliary role of the party-state. This included the labor union which ostensibly represented the supposed "ruling class of the country," the working class. Françs Gipouloux's book Les Cent fleurs à l'usine: Agitation ouvrière et crise du modèle soviétique en Chine, 1956-1957 is dedicated to the subject of this industrial development, and above all else to the growing crisis of legitimacy experienced by Chinese labor unions as they had to confront their role as simple mouthpieces of the party. Despite the years given it is really a history of the 1950s as a whole, and one which connivingly demonstrates the author's thesis of a break between the party and the unions which represented a real crisis of the Soviet economic model, but which falls short of a systemic and wide-ranging analysis of worker responses to the Hundred Flowers movement.

Chinese industrialization brought large numbers of rural peasants and new laborers into the work force, inexperienced and lacking industrial knowledge.

Chinese industrialization brought large numbers of rural peasants and new laborers into the work force, inexperienced and lacking industrial knowledge.

Chapter 1, "La Politique économique du premier quinquennat et le monde ouvrier, 1953-1957", concerns the Chinese political economy during the First Five Year Plan, noting in particular the debate between a more liberal, NEP style economic development, which certain coastal leaders wished to pursue, and the ultimately adopted Soviet-style plan of development - focus on heavy industry, state-led economic development, and a relative shift of economic priority from the coastal region to the center. This was accompanied by a significant devaluation of consumer goods, housing, and benefits for workers. Gipouloux illustrates this by looking at three different cities in China, Canton, Shanghai, and Harbin, and noting what the impact of the First Five Year Plan was upon them.

Chapter 2, "Profil sociologique de la classe ouvrière" attempts to define who exactly made up the Chinese working class, a difficult task as the term "worker and employee" was rather loose, and combined together multiple categories of individuals from administrators to actual production workers. Using this he is able to construct a quantitative analysis of numbers, showing a growing working class in China - but one with an increasing number of non-productive administrators and management, sapping the overall productivity of Chinese industry. Furthermore it went through severe starts and stops. These workers were overwhelmingly young and many of them completely new to industry, coming from the countryside, and had to adjust to poor conditions in some areas such as the young apprentices, who had low wages and were often denied their career aspirations. Women workers, despite growing numbers, received little in the way of support and social amenities. Resistance to the system took the form of growing absenteeism, refusing work placements, industrial delinquency, declining morale and legitimacy of the socialist way of life - and despite all of this, the political influence of the Chinese working class continued to be all but absent.

A picture of a modern meeting, with Xi Jinping in attendance, of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions which continues to be the sole union in China

A picture of a modern meeting, with Xi Jinping in attendance, of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions which continues to be the sole union in China

Chapter 3, 'LOrganisation syndicale: Structure et attributions" concentrates on laying out how Chinese unions were organized and what power they had, starting out with the history of union development in China and their brief political prominence in the 1920s until their repression, suppression by the Nationalists, and then the creation by the Communists of the sole authorized union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. This was supposed to be an intermediary between the state and the workers, raising class consciousness, and managing some social programs - but without any independent authority or bargaining power vis-à-vis the state and Party. This extremely hierarchical organization enjoyed a steadily increasing number of adherents, but continued to be just as subject to intense state control, to the point that its top level leadership was chosen by the party among figures who had only recently joined the Union.

Chinese emulation campaigns stressed increasing intensity of work and following inspirational examples

Chinese emulation campaigns stressed increasing intensity of work and following inspirational examples

Chapter 4, "Syndicat et Production: Les campagnes d'émulation" traces the constant efforts to improve production through encouraging popular enthusiasm and to convince workers to consume less to enable higher rates of investment, as well as to increase resource shipments to buy goods from the Soviet Union. These programs however, encountered the problem of waste, the problems of irregular resource supply, and limited popular enthusiasm. Production quality fell, the number of accidents increased, while campaigns launched just before about increasing consumption of modern clothing were rapidly succeeded by those encouraging people to dress traditionally and to not wear frivolous outfits. Productivity did not rise via the implementation of new technology, but instead through increased intensity of work.

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Chapter 5, "Syndicat et vie quotidienne: La lettre de Wang Cai" looks at an open letter published in the Canton Daily questioning the reality of improvements of the standard of living, as the nationalization of industry had failed to significantly improve the benefits and amenities accorded to workers - and many suffered declines in absolute terms due to different pricing schemes for piece work. Many workers lived in effective poverty, with housing conditions having undergone a clear decline over the previous several years, as insufficient construction was furnished to keep up with growing demand.

Chapter 6, "L'agitation ouvrière," approaches the Hundred Flowers itself in the working class milieus, as various worker strikes broke out, including dock workers in Canton, the protest by the Shanghai municipal bath workers about being sent to the countryside, and the agitator Qian Guojian who sought to create a mutual aid society and was promptly arrested. Universal among these was that the Chinese union proved to be ineffective at defending the worker and its influence was significantly reduced.

Chapter 7, "La Crise du travail syndical (Mai-Juin 1957) shows that state control over unions only became further entrenched and that worker democracy in the workplace was rejected, and that factor and industrial leadership continued to sideline the union. There was a further growth of tensions between leadership cadre and the workers, and a groundswell of worker discontent that the union could not respond to: in between these two irreconcilable pressures, the union found itself crushed.

Chapter 8, "La Répression anti-droitière" demonstrates that workers were very distant and unattached to the Hundred Flowers campaign, with little worker inspiration for attacking absent bourgeois and rightists. However, they were equally disheartened at the meager results for themselves of Chinese socialism, expressed clearly by Gao Uan, archive bureau head in FSNC, who argued that the current system in China oppressed the workers just like a capitalist system would, and pressed for a greater degree of union autonomy to defend worker interests. Putting him and other "rightists" in their place simply further reinforced the submission of the union.

The conclusion stresses that workers too, took part in the Hundred Flowers movement in China, and that the First Five Year Plan had encountered a severe setback in part due to the opposition and problems encountered faced with the Chinese working class and forcing it into the plan. The union was completely powerless in this affair, and its attempts at reasserting its authority only led to purges and repression. Workers, drawn by the lure of the promise of national independence and industrial development, were nevertheless disappointed by the empty promises of socialism when it came to the dream of a better life and material conditions.


Gipouloux's central argument is that the Soviet economic model in China led to the Chinese labor unions experiencing the contradiction of at once being supposedly the rallying force of the ruling class of the country - the workers - and yet at the same time being entirely subject to the party's dictates, absolutely powerless. It is hard to argue with this, as Gipouloux manages to effectively show the different discourses present, as the "Economists" school of thought argued for increased union autonomy from the rest of the state apparatus, and how this was shut down and came to naught.

These contradictions are expressed beyond the structural analysis of the Chinese economic apparatus, in his excellent coverage of the economic development of Chinese industry, focusing on employment, living standards, working conditions, and production priorities. Gipouloux shows that the state ran roughshod over the interests of the Chinese workers, subordinating them ruthlessly to its objective of economic development, declaring that it was in the interest of the working class to subordinate their interests to long-term national development interests. In a country which was led in the name of the working class, this same working class had to face mostly stagnant or declining living standards, from wages to housing, with a significant class of workers at the bottom of the scale who faced outright poverty. These weaknesses of the system are invaluable for seeing the hidden problems of the socialist way of economic development.

But what of the Hundred Flowers itself? Here, the book shows less of the extensive research and examples that it had prior: There are just a comparatively few number of examples given about worker resistance and contention during the Hundred Flowers itself, although some of these can be very interesting, such as the Shanghai municipal bath workers who had been sent to the countryside attempting to return to Shanghai to find work their, and their hard-headed bargaining with municipal authorities - which the Chinese labor union notably failed to fulfill any real mediator role in. Gipouloux's case studies show struggles and conflicts of interest at work between workers and administration, but the workers themselves rarely have their own voice and opinions. Not always of course - Qian Guojian, a mechanical fabrication worker is one individual who is shown in the pages of the book, attempting to create a mutual aid organization and whose supreme crime was to attempt to diffuse his message on a broader scale, holding meetings and distributing messages with phrases such as socialism being the "restoration of a slave society" and "the life of the people is worse than that of animals." He was of course, arrested. But almost no other workers have their own opinions and thoughts published in the book, beyond (generally quite interesting, if due to the way which Chinese is structured, somewhat clunky in French or English) worker sayings.

Les Cent fleurs à l'usine is an excellent broad level look at the development of the Chinese economy in the 1950s, showing the hidden weaknesses behind the facade of massive growth - of the growing number of superfluous, parasite employees hidden away in the administration to artificially inflate the number of employees, the growing waste in the production processes, the increasing frustration of workers with the contradiction of being ostensibly the rulers of the country and their actual subordination, the grave irrationalities of supplies and raw materials which led to severe production problems and stress, the growing divide between workers and administrators, and above all else the crisis of legitimacy of the Chinese labor union. For understanding the Chinese labor movement and the profound disappointment it experienced during the era of high socialism in China, and its relationship to the Hundred Flowers campaign, it is irreplaceable, and its systemic structural analysis is superbly executed. Its main failing is that for a book about the Hundred Flowers movement, its actual utilization of worker voices and individual examples is narrow and limited: the book is an excellent systemic history, but lacks the individuality which would make it fully complete.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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