The Blank Piece of Paper

Xinjiang is a blank piece of paper (新疆是一张白纸)

On May 17, 1966, Zhang Zhonghan (张仲瀚) gazed upon a sea of “educated youth” standing before him in Shanghai’s Cultural Square. The Second Political Commissar of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, Zhang counted a crowd of over 13,000 zhiqing. Anxious to come face-to-face with “so many inspiring Shanghai youth,” Zhang later learned that his audience was even larger: 30,000 more young people around the city had tuned in via radio broadcast to hear what the bingtuan’s second-in-command had to say.

Despite his rank, Zhang was not an imposing figure. Contemporary photographs of Zhang capture a straightfaced, expressionless man. Aside from appearance, he was also an incredibly long-winded speaker. Zhang’s prepared remarks for his May 17 speech, written in small type, sprawled across 18 entire pages. How was this man, delivering the keynote speech at probably the largest “Up to the Mountains, Down to the Villages” mobilization event ever convened in Shanghai, going to rouse his audience?

Easy–simply by saying something new.

Boastful and candid, Zhang rarely indulged in the type of dull boilerplate that his audience was so accustomed to hearing on these occasions. While his language could be crude, it was always refreshing. He, for instance, did not shirk from admitting that the educated youth were embarking for hostile territory: “some ethnic minorities” (一些少数民族 yixie shaoshu minzu) despised the Han, Zhang remarked. He also playfully ridiculed the so-called “Soviet revisionists,” stating that the Production and Construction Corps “must absolutely put on a show against them” (我们跟他们对台戏是非常必要的 women gen tamen duitaixi shi feichang biyao de). No one else dared to speak to the on-the-ground realities of Xinjiang with such candor.

Most remarkably, Zhang proclaimed that Xinjiang was a “blank piece of paper” (一张白纸 yizhang baizhi), ready to be transformed and made anew by his nearly 45,000 listeners. Evoking the type of authoritarian high-modernism that had birthed the resettlement campaign in the first place, Zhang showed that he—even on the eve of the Cultural Revolution—remained a faithful believer in using state-led, urban-to-rural population resettlement to achieve ambitious goals. He mused over Xinjiang’s thirst for more sweat and blood aloud, commenting that the bingtuan was prepared to absorb 30,000 zhiqing from Shanghai in 1966 alone.

What of the years still to come? Zhang fantasized: “what if it could be 40,000 or 50,000 in the future?” (假如说今后能够去四万、五万 jiaru shuo jinhou nenggou qu si wan, wu wan[?]) Why stop there, Zhang asked? “Even better, what if 100,000 or 200,000 people could go in a year?” (一年能够去上十万、二十万人那就更好了 yinian neggou qu shang shiwan, ershiwan ren na jiu genghao le).

The spring of 1966 was, in Zhang and many others’ minds, just the beginning of a grand project to color in that blank piece of paper, Xinjiang, with the youth of the nation.

Unfortunately for Zhang Zhonghan, his proposal to dramatically scale up resettlement was voiced one day too late. On May 16, 1966, Mao Zedong issued his famous “notification” (通知 tongzhi) launching the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Over the next several months, Mao’s “last revolution” would ruin Xinjiang as a showcase site for urban resettlement; over the next several years, the entire central leadership would disown the one-time signature initiative to resettle the nation’s youth in the far northwest.

The Source: “中国人民解放军新疆军区生产建兵团第二政委张仲瀚同志在‘动员上海知识青年参加新疆建设报告大会’上的报告记录” (“Record of the Report of Second Political Commissar of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Xinjiang Military District Production and Construction Corps Comrade Zhang Zhonghan at the “Conference for the Mobilization of Shanghai’s Educated Youth to Participate in Xinjiang’s Construction”), May 17, 1966, 上海市档案馆 (Shanghai Municipal Archives [SMA]), B105-4-25, 74-82.

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