The new Communist official in the little county of eastern Kwangtung thought one troublesome village needed a demonstration of party authority. He confiscated the profitable village fish ponds and bamboo graves and deposed the village elder who had been production chief.
Now it was the peasants' turn to teach someone a lesson. Before relinquishing rights to the ponds, they netted all the fish and ate them. They mostly refused to obey the new production leader, not a member of the dominant village family like his predecessor, and at the next annual village election they gave the old chief the most votes an open act of defiance.
After 29 years of power, China's Communist Party looks from the outside to be as powerful and authoritarian as any government on earth. But interviews with refugees reaching here and with foreign scholars and a few candid articles appearing in the Chinese press indicate that in the villages where decisions directly affect people's lives, the party still does not reign supreme.
In part imprisoned by the official party rhetoric about the will of the masses and government by persuasion, local officials have reluctantly compromised even on issues their superiors in Peking have said were vital. Now, as Peking is again pushing rapid changes in policy, the drag of 800 million people taking their own good time has produced considerable friction.
In the Kwangtung village, according to a refugee who emigrated here. the peasants eventually got their fish ponds, bamboo graves and old production chief back. The new party official was dismissed by superiors annoyed at all the fuss, and a former party chief, victim of an earlier purge, came back to try to restore the tattered net of informal agreements and comfortable shortcuts that make a Chinese peasant's hard life more acceptable and his feelings about the party more benign.
If living in China can be compared to anything in an American's experience, it perhaps resembles life in the U.S. military. As any GI knows, blatant resistance to official policy, like keeping pets in the barracks or sleeping on guard duty, may continue simply because no one in the chain of command wants to interrupt his own comfortable routine to make an issue of it.
An emigrant who once worked in an office in Tienstin recalled what happened when his political discussion group, a required part of official Chinese life, met during the 1976 campaign to criticize Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping. The pragmatic, energetic Teng, although temporarily in political limbo, was popular with the dicussion group members. When the group leader asked for comments on Teng, "none of us said a word. He tried a couple more times, then gave up," the emigrant said. "I'm sure he made up something for his report to his supervisors. He had to protect himself, and anyway I think he probably agreed with us."
"Party policy changed so often that officials have found it best to ignore icy is retracted."
"In recent years, I pay my party membership dues but keep what I have to say in my heart," one man wrote anonimously to the People's Daily, China's main newspaper.
Now party leaders in Peking are applauding those who dragged their feet when the disgraced, dogmatist "gang of four" led by Mao Tse-tung's wife Chiang Ching, was in power. But they seem amazed that local officials supervising peasants and workers are not quicker in executing the post-Mao policy changes of the new Peking leadership's local cadres.
"They busy themselves in routine work all day long," complained one broadcast from Hunan, Chairman Hua Kuo-feng's political base. Peking wants local leaders to discipline swiftly any who might have followed "gang" policy and tighten some lax accounting procedures that have probably provided peasants a little extra income.
"Some comrades fear the unfolding this struggle will damage the activism of the basic level cadres and affect current work," the broadcast said. In other words, no one wants to rock the boat.
John P. Burns, a Hong Kong university tutor, has studied peasant demands made on the party in little-publicized ways, such as village elections or passive resistance. One refugee told him of the reaction of three villages to an announcement that a road would be built through some of their farmland. "They refused to send labor to build the road and withheld cooking oil and other stuff needed by cadres at the bridgade level," Burns said.
The bridage party leaders did nothing about it for a year, then they worked out a compromise. The other seven villages, or production teams as they are now called in China, making up that bridge sent labor crews to open up new farmland to compensate the three villages for what they would lose because of the road. Everything settled back to normal.
In the present campaign to punish those allied with the Gang of Four, or responsible for any of the economic discruption of the past few years, the pressure to compromise has become unmistakable.
At the beginning of the campaign, offical party bulletins said in no uncertain terms that all wrongdoers had to be punished. Now, an offical boardcast from Hupei Privince praises one commune for distinguishing between "those which have carried out ordinary sabotage and those who have done serious sabotage," and in cases of corruption, embezzlement and speculation between fortuitous and habitual criminals."
As the campaign drage on the Chinese have revealed that in some part of the country resistance to the new, more pragmatic administration of Chairman Hua and Vice Premier Teng continued long after the October 1976 purge of the Gang of Four.
A broadcast from Shensi Province said one top provincial leader who was a Gang ally called his entourage together shortly after the October purge and said: "The Provincial party committee won't bother you young comrades. Don't worry, we have an aim in mind." He held strategy sessions in January and operated freely until at least May, according to the broadcast.
Judging by the complaints in the official broadcasts, such independent minded people are still in power in their localities. This illustrates both the often surprising audacity of Chinese working at lower levels and the often deft party policy toward dealing with them. Chinese leaders like Mao argued that the Soviets created more enemies than friends for the party with their heavy-handed purges. The disastrous results of the Cultural Revolution purges of the late 1960s apparently convinced Hua and Mao's other successors that it was better to move cautiously, and avoid exacerbating old bloody political feuds.
But Peking still want its orders obeyed, and disloyal people reeducated or removed. So they resort to a method that in an American context might be called jawboning: They use sharply worded appeals in the public press.
"Some people of the few units which have done a poor job of conducting the movement are factious," said one recent broadcast from the particularly troublesome province of Anhwei. "They are engaging in feuds and are fighting for high positive. They are competing with each other for power and victory. Some people feel gloomy, fear the wolf in front and the tiger behind. They are soft-headed and dare not act and leave ground for retreat. They dare not boldly mobilized the masses. Thus the movement there is in a lukewarm state. As long as the Chinese are confident that the authorities will fear being too harsh, or take the slightest excuse to look the other way, they have some freedom of movement One Westerner in Peking overheard a militia officer challenge a youth putting up a wall-poster that criticized his factory's management. "Do you have proper authorization?" The militiaman asked. "Yes," the youth said quickly and his challenger immediately relaxed. "Well, then that's all right," he said, and went his way.