New China Builds

Published in 1976, the final year of Mao’s reign, this book was designed to showcase the architectural gems of ‘new’ and improved communist China (as opposed to the old, bad China ruled by the corrupt Chang Kai-Shek). As such it has high production values and was designed to impress foreigners about the wonders accomplished through communist collective endeavour since 1949 when Mao had assumed power.

Thematically the book is divided into sections dealing with industry, transportation, residential complexes, showcase public buildings, rural communes and water conservancy projects. As such, it is veritable catalogue of the Maoist built environment, all constructed through decades of unprecedented suffering, terror and death.

The Great Leap Forward from 1958-1961 is estimated to have resulted in approximately 45 million deaths through famine and starvation (according to historian Frank Dikotter’s recent book Mao’s Great Famine). Coming ten years after Mao took power in 1949, the Great Leap Forward was designed to demonstrate to the world that China had been completely transformed under his rule. Amongst other aspects of this insane plan, China embarked on a vast range of horrendously expensive prestige building projects designed to bedazzle everybody with the wonders of Maoism. All this was part of Mao’s attempt to usurp the mantle of the leader of world-communism after Stalin’s death in 1953 by showing that China had accomplished more in the few short years of his rule than the Soviets had managed to do since 1917.

According to Dikotter the construction projects embarked upon suffered from widespread defects; a shortage of adequate materials led to substandard replacements, including poor quality cement and steel reinforcing bars made from brittle metal, all assembled hurriedly by exhausted and starving workers. As can be imagined, although these buildings looked fine from a distance, they were simply rotten to the core inside.

Flattening centuries old cityscapes, Mao transformed Tiananmen Square in Beijing into a vast parade ground where the masses could congregate to worship their new emperor. Old buildings were regarded as backward and shameful and were demolished to make way for modernist, Soviet inspired, monstrosities designed to ‘serve the people.’ But however bad conditions were in the cities they bore no comparison to the countryside where the vast majority of the population lived.

Even the mighty industrial plants the regime was so proud of, that were supposed to propel China overnight into a great  power, were more white elephants that produced lots of junk rather than quality products. But in a system that defined progress through statistics, output was king. Inadequate servicing and a lack of spare parts meant that the shiny new machinery of the 1950s soon rusted away and became unuseable. And the easiest way to get rid of the all toxic waste produced was to dump it into the nearest river with no thought about the impact this would have on health or the environment.

But this was as nothing compared to the rural water conservation schemes in which millions of people were forced to work on in order to increase irrigation and improve agricultural output. Many of these river diversion schemes and dams were constructed simply by having vast numbers of people pile up earth banks with no adequate thought to engineering or planning. The result was horrendous. As well as the inevitable bursting of badly built dams, this grand scheme proved to be an environmental catastrophe.  Soil eroded more quickly, rivers became silted up, flooding increased because the rain had nowhere to go and fertile topsoil was simply washed away leading to the expansion of deserts. Interestingly, less than twenty years later Pol Pot and his genocidal Khmer Rouge henchmen copied this same model in their effort to transform Cambodia into their own nightmarish version of utopia.

Although the book is designed to showcase collective might and architectural wonder, it is appropriate that many of the images are completely bereft of people. These photographs of the modernist blocks, the dams and belching factories can be regarded as tombstones to the memory of the countless numbers sacrificed in this megalomaniacal ego trip.

Mao’s legacy is still writ large upon both the Chinese people and landscape to this day.

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