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Reluctant and Illegal Migrants in Mao's China: Civil Defense Evacuation in the Tianjin Region, 1969–1980

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2021

Jeremy Brown*
Simon Fraser University, Canada, email:


More than 100,000 people from the city of Tianjin were evacuated to the countryside in a civil defense program during the 1970s. Many evacuees refused to submit to state migration mandates, instead sneaking back to the city illegally or petitioning to regain urban residency. City officials responded flexibly to the evacuees’ pleas, sympathizing with family reunification and treating suburban districts (jiaoqu) on the outskirts of Tianjin as a buffer zone between city and countryside. Dominated by agriculture but home to a growing number of factories, workshops, and offices during the 1970s, jiaoqu became a solution to evacuation headaches. When compared with the recent coerced movement of hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens on national security grounds, the civil defense evacuations of the 1970s suggest that it may be misguided to think of the Mao Zedong years as a faraway time that was more radical or repressive than China today.

Modern China
Copyright © The Author, 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 One classic account of the imposition of migration controls through the hukou system is Cheng, Tiejun and Selden, Mark, “The Origins and Consequences of China's Hukou System,” China Quarterly 139 (1994), 644–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the concept of a cellular political economy, see Shue, Vivienne, The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

2 Brown, Jeremy, City Versus Countryside in Mao's China: Negotiating the Divide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Wang, Ning, Banished to the Great Northern Wilderness: Political Exile and Re-education in Mao's China (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017)Google Scholar.

4 Honig, Emily and Zhao, Xiaojian, Across the Great Divide: The Sent-Down Youth Movement in Mao's China, 1968–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Meyskens, Covell F., Mao's Third Front: The Militarization of Cold War China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 The figure of 106,000 evacuees is from Zhonggong Tianjin shiwei 中共天津市委, “Guanyu gonggu zhanbei shusan chengguo de tongzhi” 关于巩固战备疏散成果的通知, October 18, 1972, author's collection (hereafter cited as AC), 1.

7 Honig and Zhao, Across the Great Divide, 34.

8 Meyskens, Mao's Cold Front, 28–29.

9 Kuisong, Yang, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969,” Cold War History 1.1 (2000), 30CrossRefGoogle Scholar. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals refer to a little known third battle on March 17, 1969. Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 310.

10 Yang Kuisong, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969,” 34.

11 MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution, 313.

12 Mao left for Wuhan until April 1970, while Vice-Chairman Lin Biao moved to Suzhou. Man Donghong 莽东鸿, “1969 nian de Beijing gaogan da shusan” 1969 年的北京高干大疏散, Dangshi bolan 2006.1, 24–27.

13 Lorenz M. Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 344.

14 Yang Kuisong, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969,” 47.

15 Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split, 344.

16 Yang Kuisong, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969,” 42.

17 Turley, William S., “Urbanization in War: Hanoi, 1946–1973,” Pacific Affairs 48.3 (1975), 381CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Qiao Qingmiao 乔庆淼, “Yi dangnian Shanxi daxue zhanbei shusan zhi lu” 忆当年山西大学战备疏散之路, Tengxun wang, November 8, 2018,; Chen Qinfu 陈钦甫, “Zhanbei shusan dao Shaanxi Changwu xian” 占被疏散到陕西长武县, Xizang minzu daxue, September 7, 2018, /; Song Yuanpeng 宋元鵬, ed., Shanghai minfang zhi 上海民防志 (Shanghai: Shanghai shehui kexueyuan, 2001).

19 Tianjin shi geming weiyuanhui zhengzhi bu 天津市革命委员会政治部, Zhanbei jiaoyu cankao tigang 战备教育参考提纲, May 28, 1969, AC, 1, 6.

20 Details about each of Tianjin's city-to-village movements are in Brown, City Versus Countryside. Honig and Zhao show that Shanghai officials faced similar challenges and used similar methods to carry out sent-down youth policy in the 1960s and 1970s; Honig and Zhao, Across the Great Divide.

21 Tianjin shi geming weiyuanhui shangshan xiaxiang bangongshi 天津市革命委员会上山下乡办公室, “Gaoju Mao Zedong sixiang weida hongqi zhunbei dazhang, duoqu shangshan xiaxiang de xin shengli!” 高举毛泽东思想伟大红旗准备打仗, 夺取上山下乡的新胜利! August 22, 1969, AC, 4.

22 Hexi District Archive (hereafter abbreviated as HDA), 2-6-126C, 165–66.

23 Honig and Zhao, Across the Great Divide, 35.

24 Tianjin shi geming weiyuanhui 天津市革命委员会, “Zhuanfa shangshan xiaxiang bangongshi he shi caizheng ju, Zhongguo renmin yinhang Tianjin fenhang geweihui ‘Guanyu shusan renkou he shangshan xiaxiang renyuan jingfei kaizhi de shixing yijian’” 转发上山下乡办公室和市财政局, 中国人民银行天津分行革委会 关于疏散人口和上山下乡人员经费开支的实行意见, January 2, 1970, AC.

25 Joel Andreas, Disenfranchised: The Rise and Fall of Industrial Citizenship in China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

26 HDA, 2-6-126C, 91.

27 HDA, 2-6-126C, 92. Sent-down youth also struggled to earn work points for agricultural work, not only because the work was difficult and unfamiliar, but because villagers calculated and awarded points in discussion meetings that disadvantaged outsiders. See Honig and Zhao, Across the Great Divide.

28 HDA, 2-6-126C, 93.

29 Zhonggong Tianjin shiwei, “Guanyu gonggu zhanbei shusan chengguo de tongzhi,” 2.

30 To protect the privacy of individual evacuees, I have changed their names. HDA, 2-6-126C, 73–77.

31 Honig and Zhao, Across the Great Divide, 61.

32 Xu Hongci, No Wall Too High: One Man's Daring Escape from Mao's Darkest Prison, trans. and ed. Erling Hoh (New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2017), 239.

33 Heping qu xiupei gongsi 和平区修配公司 dossier, June 20, 1973, AC.

34 Heping qu xiupei gongsi dossier June 4, 1972, AC.

35 Heping qu xiupei gongsi dossier, “Gongsi suoshu danwei shusan daoliu hu qingkuang biao” 公司所属单位疏散倒流户情况表, undated, but based on context, definitely after 1974, AC.

36 Heping qu xiupei gongsi dossier, letter dated October 7, 1974, AC.

37 Heping qu xiupei gongsi dossier, letter from Li to Tianjin shi geming weiyuanhui, September 10, 1974, AC; report by repair company cadre titled “Guanyu yuan jinshupin she sheyuan XXX shusan qingkuang” 关于原金属品社社员 XXX 疏散情况, September 27, 1974, AC.

38 Heping qu xiupei gongsi dossier, letter from Hong to “leading comrades” at the repair company, August 9, 1974, AC.

39 Redress and, eventually, rehabilitation and compensation continued quietly through the late 1970s and early 1980s, and was often referred to by the euphemism “fixing policy” (luoshi zhengce 落实政策). See Jeremy Brown, “A Policeman, His Gun, and an Alleged Rape: Competing Appeals for Justice in Tianjin, 1966–1979,” in Victims, Perpetrators, and the Role of Law in Maoist China: A Case Study Approach, edited by Daniel Leese and Puck Engman (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2018), 127–49.

40 Zhonggong Tianjin shiwei, “Guanyu tuoshan jiejue jige zhengce xing wenti de tongzhi” 关于妥善解决几个政策性问题的通知, April 25, 1973, 4, AC.

41 Heping qu xiupei gongsi dossier, draft letter from what appears to be a lower-level work unit cadre to Heping qu xiupei gongsi, November 10, 1974.

42 Inner Mongolia was in fact an autonomous region, not a province, but in informal conversations and correspondence, many people in the People's Republic refer to autonomous regions as provinces, tacitly admitting that autonomy is a myth.

43 Handwritten letter from ZH, twenty-two-year-old male, to his mother's work unit, November 16, 1979, AC.

44 Heping qu xiupei gongsi dossier, Heping qu di si caifeng chejian 和平区第四裁缝车间, “Congye renyuan shusan qingkuang diaocha biao” 从业人员疏散情况调查表, June 30, 1972, AC.

45 Heping qu xiupei gongsi dossier, Heping qu di er caifeng chejian 和平区第二裁缝车间, “Congye renyuan shusan qingkuang diaocha biao” 从业人员疏散情况调查表, June 28, 1972, AC.

46 Author interview.

47 Schoenhals, Michael, “The Global War on Terrorism as Meta-Narrative: An Alternative Reading of Recent Chinese History,” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies 8.2 (2008), 179201CrossRefGoogle Scholar.