SCMP May 23, 2004
Communism's friend a thorn in Beijing's side
William Hinton 1919-2004
BY PAUL MOONEY
William Hinton, a long-time observer of China and one of the last remaining believers in the efficacy of the communist system, has died in the United States.
He is best known for his book Fanshen, an eyewitness account of the failures and successes of land reform in Zhangzhuang village, which Hinton dubbed Long Bow, in the 1940s. Scholars have studied Fanshen for almost four decades.
Hinton's first visit was as a teenager in 1937, when he travelled to northern China. He returned in 1945 with the US Office of War Information, but two years later went to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as a tractor technician.
Outraged by the nationalists' corruption, he made his way to a 'liberated' area in Hebei, where the communists impressed him with their honesty and enthusiasm.
Hinton remained in China after the UN agency pulled out. In 1948, he joined a university project carrying out land reform in Long Bow, Shanxi province.
He spent eight months working in the fields during the day and participating in land reform meetings at night, taking more than 1,000 pages of notes.
Hinton arrived home in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy hearings. The government immediately confiscated his notes and the notorious Senate Committee on Internal Security grilled him. His passport was seized, preventing him from leaving the country.
Hinton waged a long legal battle for the return of his notes, which were given back in 1958.
He worked as a truck mechanic and on a farm he inherited from his mother, using his spare time to finish the lengthy Fanshen in 1966.
Hinton was invited to return to China in 1971 and over the coming years he made repeated visits to Long Bow, offering new agricultural techniques and funding from his own pocket.
However, when the new leadership came to power in the 1970s, he found himself at odds with the economic reforms. He remained fiercely in favour of the Maoist collective and commune models, blaming blind directives and wrong policies from above for the system's failure.
Hinton's last book, The Great Reversal: The Privatisation of China, laid out his arguments against economic reform.
He wrote that with the dismantling of communes, the entire infrastructure and the chance to mechanise were lost. Hinton also said ordinary people, encouraged to get rich, had ransacked and devastated the environment in a frantic scramble for short-term profit.
Hinton also criticised the western media and academics for being 'too mesmerised by China's reform rhetoric and market progress' to see the true picture.
And he slammed the new Chinese leadership for its lack of communist ideals, saying they were only interested in 'carving the economy into gigantic family fiefs'.
Long Bow's grateful mayor reportedly visited Hinton in a Boston nursing home two years ago.
Not surprisingly, there was no mention in the Chinese media last week of the passing of one of the staunchest defenders - and reminders - of the heady days of communism in China.