CCTV Tower Beijing

Wan Li: Resolute Reformer and Legislator

Retail Price: £15/US$25
ISBN: 978-1-910760-16-1

Pages: 276
140mm (W) x 216mm (H) Soft Cover

Wan Li, one of China’s revolutionary greats hailing from Shandong, operated at the highest level of party and government, including secretary of the CPC central committee secretariat, chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC) standing committee, vice premier of the state council for agriculture, minister of railways and Beijing mayor.

But arguably Wan Li’s finest hour – and what he will forever be remembered for – is the ground-breaking agricultural reforms he pushed through against entrenched leftist opposition in the impoverished rural areas of Anhui province, first as provincial party chief there in the late 1970s and subsequently in Beijing as secretary of the central committee secretariat and vice premier of the state council for agriculture in the early 1980s.

The reforms proved so successful that they were later extended countrywide and legally enshrined in the constitution – one of Wan Li’s many accomplishments was as a Beijing-based legislator consolidating hard-won reforms into PRC law to ensure that they endured while holding key positions in the central committee and NPC.

Like many of his renowned and respected peers he served with distinction in the revolutionary war period and the war against Japan, and was later purged as a ‘counter-revolutionary rightist’ during the Cultural Revolution for his pragmatic policies.

Wan Li’s rural reforms proved so effective that country folk affectionately recited a rhyming couplet that would be a fitting epitaph for him: ‘if you want to eat (rice), look for Wan Li’ (yao chi mi, zhao wan li). This reflected his core concern at the time: “…Aren’t we ashamed to shout about serving the people when farmers don’t have enough food to eat even 30 years after the founding of the PRC? How does that prove the superiority of socialism? With an empty stomach?”

It was this intense belief that solving people’s food and clothing needs had to come before political indoctrination that spurred Wan Li on to make first Anhui, and later the country as a whole, self-sufficient in food production.

When reading about the exploits of men of Wan Li’s calibre, what really strikes one is their courage and tenacity in the face of dogmatic leftist attacks on their policies and on their person.

Even China’s official obituary of Wan Li, when he died just short of his 100th birthday in July 2015, described his ‘extraordinary political courage’ when pioneering rural reforms in Anhui. His views on rural reform at the time were so radical that he was constantly at risk of being purged again as a capitalist and counter-revolutionary:

“Views on Anhui’s practice differ. Some say we are ‘rightists’ applying ‘capitalism’ while others agree with us but don’t dare to air their agreement in public. We will continue to do what we need to do, no matter what others say. People will surely draw their own conclusions. So will history!”

“…I felt that the people’s communes actually enslaved farmers, deprived them of their autonomous production rights and of their right to dispose of their possessions, and tremendously depressed farmers’ enthusiasm. I sensed that problem but could not point it out then because the system of people’s communes was protected by the constitution.”

One of the key reasons Wan Li was able to persevere and succeed with such radical actions and policies was the high level of trust and support he received from Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun.

As minister of railways in 1975, his claim to fame was getting rid of factionalism among railway workers and leaders at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, getting the trains to run on time, and reviving railway construction to ensure that this vital artery of the country’s industry was fit for purpose to support national economic growth. At that time, long before China developed a comprehensive modern road and air transport network, the railways were ‘king’ and problems with the railways translated directly into problems achieving the national economic plan.

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