Strategic Railways and Local Welfare: The Diversion of State-Designated Resources in Third Front Construction

MUYU XIE, The University of Chicago

The authoritarian state implements large-scale public projects for diverse reasons. The financing of such mega-projects often forces the state to extract enormous amounts of material resources and personnel from society. The inability or unwillingness of local society to shoulder such burdens would significantly impact these state projects. Given the stakes, we might reasonably expect the relationship between local society and the state over such projects to be primarily conflictual or confrontational. Is this the case? This paper takes up this question in the context of Mao’s China, a strong version of the authoritarian state, by examining the construction of the XQ Railway and JL Railway during the Third Front Construction (1970-1973) for war preparedness in southwestern China. To complete them, 1.6 million militiamen, tens of thousands of tons of supplies, and more than 2 billion yuan of funds were required. My reconstruction of this state-drive public project is based on original research in five archive centers in the three provinces. I pay special attention to how local governments diverted state-designated resources for these strategic railways to welfare projects that benefited local societies, such as water control projects. Such practices, in principle, were strictly prohibited by the central government yet were quite common in local practice. I further investigate how, why, and under what circumstances the state acquiesced in and even supported such diversion and how local authorities leveraged the central demand for resource extraction to make claims for local welfare. Such interactions between local governments and the central state reflected complex interplays between two dimensions of public interest that the authoritarian state claimed to protect: local welfare and the defense strategy of the state. Thence, this article brings the issue of legitimation into the examination of empirical issues in regard to the governance of the authoritarian state.

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 Presented in Session 70. Strategic Infrastructural Power