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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Localising the Soviet in China: Industrial Development Beyond Centralised Models

Karina Khasnulina


At the beginning of the First Five Year Plan in China, Mao Zedong said: ‘What can we make at present? We can make tables and chairs, teacups and teapots, we can grow grain and grind it into flour, and we can make paper. But we cannot make a single motor car, plane, tank, or tractor’. Four years later in 1958, the No. 1 Tractor Plant(第一拖拉制造厂,一拖(YTO) located in the city of Luoyang, Henan province produced the first Chinese tractor, known as Dongfanghong (东方红, ‘The East is red’). The Dongfanghong was an exact copy of the Soviet DT-54, which was a model of a tractor that was manufactured at the Kharkiv tractor plant until the end of the Cold War. Constructed during the first Five-Year Plan as one of the Plan’s 156 industrial projects, YTO was the result of technology transfer from the Soviet Union to China. The project of the tractor factory was implemented during the period within which the Soviets carried out their most significant program of international assistance. According to Odd Arne Westad, Soviet assistance to China was more significant than the support provided by any nation in the postwar period, including the US Marshall Plan which was aimed at the economic reconstruction of Europe.[1] 

 

The literature on economic construction in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) in the 1950s suggests that the establishment of new industrial infrastructure and management policies were characterized by the transfer of the Soviet model. The concept of the Soviet model in the PRC has been employed in scholarship, both as a category of analysis and as an object of study. In the field of history, this is the dominant concept that scholars have used not only to describe the Chinese adoption of Soviet-style political modes and centralised economic planning, but also to define the new communist government’s attempts to construct a new culture, science, urban planning, literature, and other fields.[2] Within this research, the notion of the ‘Soviet’ refers to the homogeneous, universal models that were shaped within the USSR during the era of Stalinism. At the macro-level category, focusing on this notion of the ‘Soviet’ in the PRC often hides the specific internal Soviet national references and experiences that Soviet experts brought to China. 

 

Examining the microhistory of socialist enterprises such as the YTO challenges the use of  ‘Soviet’ to describe the technologies, concepts, and ideas that were adopted by China during the time of ‘learning from the Soviet Union’.[3] In this blog post, I suggest a new lens to analyse the microhistory of the socialist construction project in China. 

 

My approach is to move away from the Moscow-Beijing line when studying Soviet-Chinese cooperation in the 1950s. I will show below how socialist construction, an essential element of national construction in early Maoist China, followed the 'Kharkiv model' in its various manifestations, be it the city plan, technology, or industrial relations. For the people involved in the project in China, the ‘Soviet’ had concrete manifestations that were rooted in this specific Ukrainian city.

 

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In 1953, the USSR’s Ministry of Automobile and Tractor Industry and the First Ministry of Machine Building of the PRC signed an agreement in Moscow on a tractor factory project. The Soviet Ministry tasked the Kharkiv Tractor Factory and Engineering Bureau (Giproavtotraktoroprom, also located in Kharkiv) with compiling the project design and assembling a group of specialists who would travel to China. For the future factory, they decided to use the already-existing blueprints of major shops and assembly lines in Kharkiv (Fig. 1). The State Planning Committee of the People's Republic of China included Luoyang in eight key cities that were to become centres of socialist industrialisation. As once in interwar Kharkiv, the tractor plant essentially became a new city-forming enterprise around which a new socialist city of Luoyang grew.



Fig. 1 Plan of the Tractor Plant and Bearing Plant in Luoyang developed by Giproavtotraktoroprom, Kharkiv.


Source: Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documentation, f. Р-79, op. 1-4, d. 1018, l. 14.


The urban plan selected by Chinese city planners, in collaboration with Soviet consultant D. Baragin, closely resembled the Ukrainian socialist city. The two blueprints below illustrate the city's development during the first (left) and second (right) stages of urban construction (Fig. 2). The red rectangular zones at the top designate factory areas. A long highway with a green zone in the centre separates these industrial areas from the residential zones. As shown in the two plans, the residential area gradually expands through the addition of new microzones.

 

This division into zones, with the potential for the subsequent addition of city blocks, is known as a linear city and the principle of anchorage. Soviet architect Pavel Aleshin employed this concept when designing New Kharkiv (an area round the Kharkiv Tractor Plant) in the early 1930s.[4] This innovation allowed for easy transplantation to various domestic and international locations, depending on city planners' ability to adopt the linear blueprint. A similar concept, known as privyazka, was adopted by PRC urban planners. In China, this principle is represented by the idea of massive or large-scale expansion (da guimo kuojian 大规模扩建).

 

 

Fig. 2 Construction Plan of Jianxi District, Luoyang, Phase I, 洛阳市涧西区第一期修建计划图, 1954.

Source: The Archive of Luoyang Planning Bureau 洛阳市规划局档案馆. Fig. 1.1: Construction Plan of Jianxi District, Luoyang, Phase II.


Individuals from Kharkiv and Luoyang connected the two cities even more firmly than the similarities seen in the above planning documents. Between 1955 and 1958, when the YTO was being constructed, more than one hundred people, including personnel, future plant managers, as well as skilled workers and technicians, went to Kharkiv for year-long internships.[5]

 

Given the limited archival material available from the Chinese side, oral history emerges as a particularly valuable source for understanding the subjective experience of engaging with the 'Soviet model'. My respondents, long-term residents of the Jianxi district in Luoyang, draw comparisons between Luoyang and Kharkiv. These comparisons do not reference the broader ‘Soviet’ space, but rather the specific embodiment of Soviet urban planning as realised in Kharkiv.

 

‘Have you seen our red residential houses in a conscientious style?’ - my respondent, an eighty-year-old YTO worker, asked me. ‘They are the same as in Kharkiv’; ‘Our factories are identical (yimu yiyang)’ - I heard the statements several times while interviewing the residents of the Jianxi, and published memoirs also include similar reflections. Even though the architectural forms of Jianxi differ from the buildings of Giproprom in the village of ‘New Kharkiv’, they have become ingrained in the collective memory of the residents of Luoyang.  For Kharkivites and Luoyaners, this Soviet assistance to China was not abstract but expressed in sending machines and training specialists in Kharkiv for a specific place in the Celestial Empire - Luoyang. They strongly associate their factory district with the space of Kharkiv and not with the abstract 'Soviet model'. This perception was embodied in the transmission of the idea of ​​the ‘Kharkiv model’ to the next generations of workers. Even those who had never been to the Soviet Union knew that the plant had a ‘big brother’.

 

Materialising the memory of Soviet assistance in today’s Luoyang

 

Today, the YTO serves not only an economic function but also acts as a stage for cultural and social interactions aimed at constructing the memory of the Mao era. The official intention to construct the industrial area of Luoyang as a lieu de mémoire began in the 2010s through collaboration between experts and authorities from Beijing and local municipal actors, authorities, and researchers from the local university. Highlighting that Jianxi is a ‘historical witness of the urban industrialisation of New China and has important historical, scientific, artistic, and social-emotional values,’ Shan Jixiang, the Director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, proposed a historical narrative that resonated with the party leadership: celebrating the modernisation of the Maoist period and China's unique path in this direction.[6]

 

In May 2013, the State Council of the PRC approved the designation of Jianxi streets as part of the seventh batch of national relic protection units, marking the first project to preserve an industrial city from the Mao era.[7] The Soviet-style (苏式 sushi) architecture and industrial and residential designs, along with memorial plaques installed throughout the area, serve as symbolic reminders of the Soviet role in this Mao-era industrial project:

 

The Jianxi Soviet-style building complex in Luoyang is located in Jianxi District. During the ‘First Five-Year Plan’ period, it was built with the aid of the Soviet government and has high cultural value.[8]

 

The text on the plaque, unveiled in 2018, serves as a historical reference for groups of Chinese tourists and schoolchildren who regularly visit Jianxi on group tours.

 

Constructing the memory of an era is not limited to architectural preservation. In 2012, the YTO opened the Dongfanghong Agricultural Museum, which aims to showcase the technological history of the factory and the development of agricultural machinery in the PRC.[9] The museum's exhibition hall displays a collection of artefacts related to the initial construction period. Among these are an official decision on the choice of Luoyang as the industrial base of the first Five-Year Plan, a Russian-Chinese dictionary, and photographs with captions such as ‘Soviet experts work together with builders’, ‘Soviet experts teaching in school’, and ‘Chinese trainees in Kharkiv’. Similar to the findings by K. Denton, who analysed narratives on revolutionary heroes, these photographs demonstrate a pronounced heroisation of the people who participated in the construction, both Chinese and Soviet.[10]

 

Further promoting socialist industrial construction, in 2022 CCTV-4, the international channel of the state national television broadcaster in mainland China, aired ‘The Birth of the First Tractor in New China’. This documentary highlights the history of the YTO, positioning the factory as a crucial element in the country’s development throughout the twentieth century. The documentary features memories of the first workers and other personnel of the factory, alongside images from the factory's current operations. Notably, about half of the film is dedicated to the history of Sino-Soviet cooperation, as embodied by the joint factory construction project. According to the film's narrator, Sino-Soviet cooperation began with the design of the factory and with the Soviet Union providing blueprints for residential and production areas, modelled after the ‘world's most progressive’ factory, the Kharkiv Tractor Plant.

 

Both individual perceptions (recovered by the author in numerous interviews) and places of memory that have been actively recreated highlight the significant role of Soviet aid. While these references include Kharkiv, they are part of a broader Soviet model that China sought to adapt during the early Maoist era. Moreover, these places of memory illustrate the reconstruction of an international socialist identity. As Ju Li emphasised, this identity has become highly pertinent in the context of the ‘neoliberal shift’ and the declining position of the working class.[11]


 

Karina Khasnulina is a researcher in modern Chinese and Russian history and a PhD student at Leipzig University. She grew up in Siberia and earned her MA in Oriental Studies from Novosibirsk State University. After further studies and research at the European University at Saint Petersburg and Nanjing University, she is completing her doctoral dissertation, 'Reversing the Red Tractor: The 20th Century Genealogy of Transnational Transfers and Industrialisation of Early Maoist China Beyond the Sino-Soviet Route'. She recently started her second project on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian emigration from China in the early Cold War.

 

 

[1] O. A. Westad, Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945–1963, Washington, DC 1998, p. 3.

[2] Marshall I. Goldman, “China Rethinks the Soviet Model,” International Security 5, no. 2 (1980): 49–65; Bernstein, Thomas P., and Hua-Yu Li, eds. China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949-Present. The Harvard Cold War Studies Book Series. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010;   D. Kaple, Dream of a Red Factory, Oxford 1994, pp. 7-9.

On the Soviet model in the PRC higher education system establishment, see I. C. Y. Hsu, The Reorganisation of Higher Education in Communist China, 1949–61, in: The China Quarterly 19 (1964), pp. 128– 160; Z. Wang. The Chinese Developmental State during the Cold War: The Making of the 1956 Twelve-Year Science and Technology Plan, In: History and Technology 31 (2015) 3, pp. 180–205. A considerable number of works analyze imitation of the Soviet patterns in the early PRC mass culture production: T. Mai Chen, Socialist Geographies, Internationalist Temporalities, and Travelling Film Technologies: Sino-Soviet Film Exchange in the 1950s and 1960s, in: O. Khoo and S. Metzger, Futures of Chinese Cinema: Technologies and Temporalities in Chinese Screen Cultures, Chicago, IL  2009, pp. 73-94; M. Yu, A Soviet hero, Pavel Korchagin, comes to China, in: Russian history. Histoire Russe 29 (2/4) (2002), pp. 329–55; Y. Li, China's Soviet Dream: Propaganda, Culture, and Popular Imagination. NY 2018. On the Soviet model's role in the social transformations, see On the use of the concept, see H. Kun 孔寒冰 and Z. Xiang 项佐涛, Zhongguo shehui zhuanxing guocheng zhong de sulian moshi: gaibiande he mei gaibiande 中国社会转型过程中的苏联模式:改变的和没改变的 (Soviet model in the process of social transformation in China: changed and unchanged), 2013

[3] Bernstein, Thomas P., and Hua-Yu Li, eds. China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949-Present. The Harvard Cold War Studies Book Series. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010.

[4] Crawford, Christina E. Spatial Revolution: Architecture and Planning in the Early Soviet Union. Ithaca [New York]: Cornell University Press, 2022, p. 262.

[5] 一拖厂志1953-1984 Yituo Chang Zhi 953-1984. Luoyang: Henan shen diyi tuolaji zhizachang, 1985, pp. 21, 23.

[6] 李燕锋 Li Yanfeng. “洛阳工业遗产:新中国工业的历史见证.” [“Luoyang Gongye Yichan: Xin Zhongguo Gongye de Lishi Jianzheng”] Luoyang Xinwen (Luoyang News), January 6, 2011.

[7] 第七批全国重点文物,2013.

[8] “Soviet style architectural complex in Jianxi, Luoyang” Stone Plaque, The seventh batch of national key cultural relics protection units, Jianshe lu 50, Luoyang, PRC.

[9]  Interview with Tian Peng. 19.03.2023

[10] Denton, Exhibiting the Past.

[11] Li, Ju. “From ‘Master’ to ‘Loser’: Changing Working-Class Cultural Identity in Contemporary China.” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 88 (2015): 190–208.

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