“Ding Dong, The Gang is Gone!”
One of my favorite childhood movies was “The Wizard of Oz.”
The story line includes an evil and powerful witch, The Wicked Witch of the West, who terrorizes good people far and wide, and has a scary battalion of flying apes as strongmen to enforce her nastiness.
As the story unfolds, when the Wicked Witch is dispatched, and good triumphs over evil, there is great celebration and merriment in the streets. Everyone spontaneously breaks out in song “Ding dong, the Witch is dead! Which old witch ? The Wicked Witch! Ding dong, the Wicked Witch is dead! ”
The atmosphere in Guangzhou during the Fall, 1976 Canton Trade Fair reminded me of this part of the film. There were celebrations, announcements via loudspeakers, and wall posters with caricatures of the Gang of Four and their evil deeds.
Most if not all business conversations were interspersed with references to things which would have been impossible under the reign of the Gang of Four, but were possible now ; or negative practices enforced by the Gang of Four which had been reversed since their downfall. It was like a terrible fever had broken.
As usual, we foreigners were once again trying to figure out just what was going on in China.
Even for us outsiders, there was an obvious, palpable sense of relief and catharsis among our Chinese counterparts. China was opaque by design in those days, but this much was clearly evident.
There was also an element of blaming which crept into statistical comparisons with pre- and post-Gang of Four with regard to production levels, output figures, etc.
In one textile factory visit in the Fall of 1976, the “responsible person’s” briefing cited The Gang of Four as being the main factor behind lagging production figures, explaining that overemphasis on production had drawn intense political criticism under their ideological reign.
The factory chief described the Gang’s position as being that “As long as your political line is correct, it doesn’t matter if the harvest doesn’t yield a single grain.” One of the most feared labels of that era was being tarred as “Only expert, but not red.”
At first glance it was tempting to dismiss this as a convenient case of finding a scapegoat for almost every ill and shortcoming, but it became clear that we were witnessing a fairly profound turning point which would eventually set the stage for the Open Door period.
As a point of interest, the same briefing mentioned that the factory, which employed 3,300 people – mostly women – had an 8-tier wage scale. Grade one, for fresh recruits, offered monthly salaries of RMB 30 to 40 per month. Grade eight, for veteran workers, offered RMB 110 per month. “Invisible income” averaged 150% of these wage levels, and included housing, health, education etc. Staff housing was provided at subsidized levels, meaning that the average employee family paid in the range of RMB 3.00 in monthly rent. Wages were low, but the employer took care of most major living expenses, and was also directly involved in most major life decisions of its employees (marriage, childbirth, changing jobs, etc.).
Discussions at a local university painted an equally if not more dramatic picture of the impact on education of the Gang’s extreme political line.
Something big appeared to be happening.
Reflecting back on this era is of course a reminder of the many ways in which China has changed profoundly in a relatively short period of time.
I often wonder to what degree younger Chinese people can possibly appreciate the scope and extent of all this change.