In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight series, I sat down with Jeff Javed, one of four of LRCCS Postdoctoral Fellows for 2017 – 2019. In the interview, Dr. Javed talks about his research on Chinese land reform, and how the communist party exploited moral norms to incite rural communities to violence against certain people.
This interview was conducted and edited by Eric Couillard.
Couillard: Where do you call home? And how complicated of a question is that for you?
Dr. Javed: Actually it’s a very easy question – Kinnelon, New Jersey. About 40 minutes outside New York City.
Couillard: When did you start getting involved with Chinese Studies?
Dr. Javed: College. I didn’t have much exposure in high school – at that time I was more interested in Europe. My senior year of high school, I picked up a copy of the Dao De Jing on a whim; I went to a Catholic all-boys’ school, and all my exposure to religion was Catholicism. So when I read the Dao De Jing I was so moved by it that I wanted to read it in the original language. That’s why I chose to learn Chinese in undergrad.
I enjoyed it far more than I expected, so much so that I went to study in Harbin the summer of my freshman year. Later on, I got around to studying guwen (古文 – Classical Chinese) and reading the Dao De Jing in its original form.
Couillard: Now you’re working a lot with Maoism. So – from Daoism to Maoism. How did that happen?
Dr. Javed: Yeah, it was a strange transition. I had also developed a passion for sociology as an undergrad, so in my senior year I attempted to unite my interest in China with my interest in the social sciences by writing a senior thesis on environmental legislation and protest in China. That led me to do a PhD in political science with a focus on Chinese politics. I didn’t explore my interest in the Maoist period until grad school.
Couillard: And what are you working on now?
Dr. Javed: I’m working on a book project based on my dissertation, which analyzes how the Chinese Communist Party mass mobilized violence in the aftermath of the ’49 revolution, specifically in what was known as the land reform campaign.
I explore how this mobilization was carried out, who it was directed against, and to what end the party used this violence. Most scholarship on this period focuses on the economics of land redistribution or how the Party’s land policy evolved over time. But I think the main goal of land reform was political, not economic, and central to this was the consolidation of political authority through mobilizing participatory violence against the landed elite.
Couillard: Were the people being targeted mostly “evil landlords,” or were other kinds of people being included in that?
Dr. Javed: It’s interesting that you used the word “evil,” because the thrust of my argument is that the Communists exploited moral norms to incite rural communities to violence. Part of this process was to redefine certain members of the community as “evil” or “cruel” landlords. But to address the question of who was targeted – it varied by region. Depending on the economic and social structure of a region, victims could include warlords, petty criminals, traditional landlords, or just ordinary farmers. The point is that many people didn’t fit into the class rubric the Party adopted from the Soviets, so they had to improvise and tailor the movement to the regional political economy in which they were operating.
The unifying theme is that all these people were labeled as moral transgressors – as having been dishonest, cruel, or downright unpleasant people.
Couillard: What did struggling against someone look like?
Dr. Javed: It was really quite dreadful. The hallmark of all this violence was that it was public, usually held in a large clearing or on a stage. There, some members of the community would denounce or ‘speak bitterness’ against a ‘struggle target’ by telling dramatic stories about their alleged misdeeds. After listening to these ‘testimonies,’ the presiding cadre would ask the crowd what should be done with this person, and the audience could share their ideas. But sometimes the people speaking bitterness, or the audience, would spontaneously attack, torture, or kill the person. This is because denouncers were often coached by the Party to tell their stories in an emotionally powerful way that framed clearly who was the evildoer and who was the victim.
Couillard: Was that to justify the violence against them?
Dr. Javed: Yes, and to elicit the local community’s moral outrage against ‘struggle targets’ and sympathy for their alleged victims. It’s notable that the people “speaking bitterness” against struggle targets were called the “aggrieved,” even though they were the ones inflicting violence against others.
So the government was intentionally creating the conditions for violence, and sometimes, not surprisingly, it spiraled out of control.
Couillard: And the government was all right with that?
Dr. Javed: They were totally all right with that. Granted, they were afraid of violence engulfing an entire community – there needed to be some limit. But the Party wanted to present themselves as the facilitators, not the actual perpetrators, of this violence. Documents from this period reveal the Party’s insistence on cadres not carrying out the violence themselves, but instead, mobilizing the people to carry out the violence.
Couillard: And this was to get buy-in for the revolution and its legitimacy?
Dr. Javed: Very much so, and that’s what I’m trying to show with this research. Not only how this was carried out and varied locally, but the degree to which this mobilization was being done to establish the legitimacy of the Party. Making people complicit in bloodshed as a way of bonding them to the new regime.
Couillard: What sort of an impact do you want your research to have? Do you hope that learning how people legitimize violence will help curb that type of violence?
Dr. Javed: Oh yeah, definitely. I know other people have thought about this, and how to do the reverse – mass nonviolent mobilization. I would be thrilled if my research could add to our understanding of how violence could be pre-empted. After all, this kind of mobilization was not limited to 1950s China. In fact, you see similar processes in the Inquisition in early-modern Europe and the Salem witch hunts, the Stalinist terror of the late 1930s, and even 1950s McCarthyism.
In all these cases we see politicians appealing to popular morality in an attempt to mobilize the public to support, and often participate in, the repression of particular members of society for their alleged deviance. Understanding this process speaks to my personal motivating interest in this project—understanding why humans are capable of extreme cruelty, and the conditions under which that comes out.