[Review] 李小尉《新中国初期的中国人民救济总会研究》(Li Xiaowei: Research on the People’s Relief Association of China in the Early Period of the PRC)

Li Xiaowei 李小尉, Xin Zhongguo chuqi de Zhongguo renmin jiuji zonghui yanjiu 新中国初期的中国人民救济总会研究 (Research on the People’s Relief Association of China in the Early Period of the PRC), Beijing: Renmin chubanshe 人民出版社, 2020. ISBN 9787010221021, 441 pages, 90 RMB.

Reviewed by Henrike Rudolph (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

In the 1930s and 1940s, refugees flocked to the larger cities of war-ridden China in search of safety, a steady income, or at least something to eat. Many returned to their villages or found work in the expanding industrialization programs after 1949. Others, such as disabled veterans, orphans, and impoverished peasants, still roamed the streets when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power. In the existing scholarship, we find diverging assessments of the extent of the problem and the need for state relief programs. While some scholars claim that urban poverty was a problem quickly solved by expanding industrial employment,[1] others argue that it severely affected the consolidation of the new regime.[2] Officially, social relief (shehui jiuji) targeted only those who fell through the cracks of the proposed production unit and commune system because they could not work and had no family to support them. However, especially in the early 1950s, large parts of the population were still affected by devastations of war or natural disasters and looked to the government for assistance.

As Li Xiaowei argues in this book, social relief was a crucial element of the CCP government’s attempts to stabilize society. It needed professional structures to provide and supervise essential relief services. During the civil war, a relief association already operated in the areas under Communist control, so this organization was officially expanded to the People’s Relief Association of China (PRAC, Zhongguo renmin jiuji zonghui) in 1950. The PRAC’s main task was to “close, merge, and transform” the remnants of Republican-era relief organizations (p. 72), to supervise the relief worker’s political re-education (p. 21), and to gather reports and statistics on the effectiveness of relief measures (p. 107). The PRAC fulfilled a transitory function and merged with the Red Cross in 1956. Its low public visibility and short existence might explain why no anglophone works, and only a handful of Chinese articles, explore the PRAC’s history and operation.

Li Xiaowei seeks to amend this lack of scholarly literature by presenting a wealth of archival and published sources. Li is an expert on the history of poverty relief in China, and the book builds on her previous work on social aid in the first years of the PRC.[3] Research on the People’s Relief Association of China in the Early Period of the PRC is a welcome addition to the existing scholarship as it helps us to understand how poverty threatened social stability and Communist rule. It is also an insightful case study of the expansion of the CCP’s administrative capabilities and mechanisms for policy adjustment in the early 1950s.

The first chapter outlines the reasons for establishing the PRAC as a nationwide association. The PRAC’s early leaders included experienced and well-connected members of the Chinese elite like Song Qingling, Wu Yaozong, and Li Dequan, who were involved in an expansive network of domestic, foreign, and religious relief organizations. The PRAC brought these organizations under government control, reorganized them, and ensured their continued functioning. The CCP further depended on the relief workers’ expertise but distrusted their political reliability. Therefore, a major task of the PRAC was to politically educate the staff and streamline relief programs according to government policies. In addition, the PRAC supported government efforts in tackling disaster relief, unemployment, and urban poverty (see chapter two).

Li draws on a vast body of archival sources and includes over 200 pages of selected PRAC records from the Jiuji gongzuo tongxun in the appendix. These sources demonstrate that the PRAC had to respond to various demands. The government could, for example, call on the local PRAC branches in the case of a natural disaster to mobilize experienced relief workers, communicate with local communities, and support government campaigns on the grass-root level. Because the PRAC did not necessarily implement such relief measures and acted on an ad-hoc basis, the practical division of responsibilities between the PRAC and state institutions like the Central Relief Committee (Zhongyang jiuzai weiyuanhui) remains elusive. Large parts of the book describe not the PRAC’s work but the actions of local government branches. Even though Li does not explicitly discuss this point, the Communist government, which had established vertical administrative structures down to the local level, apparently depended on non-governmental expertise to coordinate or at least externally monitor the stratified government apparatus. At the same time, the PRAC’s horizontal structures assisted the government in gathering information and communicating with higher authorities. Li quotes numerous work reports illustrating severe cases of wasted resources, excessive use of force, or lax monitoring (see chapter four). The reports and statistics compiled by the PRAC amended the lack of transparency resulting from rigid party hierarchies and lines of command.

In chapter three, Li emphasizes the ideological dimension of relief work. She identifies restructuring society and remolding people’s thoughts as a central aim of relief work in the 1950s and thus highlights the PRAC’s role in the new government’s attempts to educate “new citizens” for a socialist future (p. 72). In addition, the PRAC took on yet another bridging function on the international level by serving as a “people’s representative.” Li argues that as a non-governmental body, the PRAC contributed to normalizing relations with foreign countries despite ideological constraints in China’s foreign policy (see chapter five).

The study remains more descriptive than analytical, probably due to the politically sensitive nature of the CCP’s social policies and early PRC history in general. Unfortunately, the lack of source criticism results in a one-sided account that reproduces arguments and assessments from documents written to justify the PRAC’s work and align it with the CCP’s political demands. It is a story written by the organization itself in which the voices of the (often reluctant) beneficiaries are omitted. As is often the case, the availability of sources limits historical inquiry and makes it challenging to present subaltern perspectives, yet the source biases are not even discussed here. Nonetheless, for the trained historian, it is easy enough to read between the lines. The book sheds light on the most pressing social issues of the early 1950s, the CCP’s fear of social instability, and its attempts to exert control, especially over those “vagrants” that were not integrated into work units. It speaks of individuals that need a strong hand to be transformed into “new citizens” (xinmin) and “people of use” (you yong zhi ren) for the realization of socialism (p. 76).

As was mentioned above, many of the cited work reports testify to officials’ and relief workers’ abuse of power (see, for example, the “model case of misconduct” in Hangzhou, p. 81ff). However, Li does not further discuss the systemic roots of malpractices and the unpopularity of relief work in the early 1950s. For her, the main problem was the cadres’ lack of political understanding and devotion to serving the people (p. 165). Likewise, persistent Chinese state attitudes toward citizens in need are not examined critically. First, the family, not the state, is seen as the primary provider of help, showing an interesting paradox: Even though the Communist state aspired to regulate citizens’ lives down to the individual level, the importance of families as the prime providers of welfare is maintained. Second, state support operates under the premise of help for self-help and punishes refusals to cooperate. Furthermore, a constant fear of relief measures attracting “lazy” individuals permeates the work reports. For example, a report from Hunan describes the problem of children living so comfortably in public children’s homes that they refused to go home or returned after being sent home (p. 95). Another report from Beijing states that the food in the city’s workhouses was so good that the poor never wanted to leave (p. 91).

The book thus testifies to a prevailing state attitude towards relief work: It defined people’s needs solely in terms of the provision of food, housing, income, and political education and not, for example, as protection from domestic violence because that was seen as a private, not public, problem. The sources do not reveal the reasons for individual subversion of state relief measures, the rationale behind refusals to being sent back to the countryside, or resisting the education for “healthy thoughts” (p. 102). Even though Li conducted oral history interviews in preparation for her book, they are not presented as alternate narratives. It would have been insightful to hear the voices and experiences of the relief workers and learn more about their careers, especially as the concluding chapter highlights that not only the recipients of aid showed mixed feelings at the PRAC’s relief efforts but that even some of the relief workers despised their task (p. 163). We get many novel insights into the CCP’s struggle to implement relief policies in the early PRC, but the readers are left to contextualize these issues.

Li implicitly paints a continuous line between the early days of the People’s Republic and China today (see, for example, p. 178). Still, this continuity can only be maintained because the study does not discuss developments after the disbanding of the PRAC in 1956. It dodges the question of whether the PRAC’s mission to enhance state capabilities by “closing, merging, and transforming” relief associations had the opposite effect and limited capacities to communicate and respond to humanitarian crises. By the late 1950s, when the devastating policies of the Great Leap Forward and natural disasters caused severe famines, “there were no customary relief agents autonomous of the state, and next to no social defense mechanisms left to counter mass starvation.”[4] In the 1980s, China returned to a model of more diversified social associations resembling the Republican period. Effectively, the state monopolization and centralization of relief organizations that the PRAC had helped to create in the 1950s was discarded.

Especially in light of recent debates on the political development in China, this book provides much food for thought. It leads us to reconsider the outsourcing of state responsibilities to non-state actors and the role of mass and non-profit organizations in stabilizing CCP rule. During the COVID pandemic, relief work and the distribution of the most basic provisions for millions of citizens again presented a tremendous challenge to the Chinese government’s performance-based legitimacy. These challenges demonstrated the need for an increased coordination between local relief workers, state institutions, and party cells that render the lessons learned from the PRAC’s work in the early 1950s even more important. Research on the People’s Relief Association of China in the Early Period of the PRC hopefully inspires new research on the Chinese history of relief work and social organizations and leads us to reconsider relief mechanisms in China today.


[1] Ya Ping Wang, Urban Poverty, Housing and Social Change in China, Housing and Society Series, London/New York: Routledge, 2004, p. 44.

[2] Jin Xiaosa 靳萧洒, “Dang’an jilu xia de xin Zhongguo chengli chuqi Beijing chengshi fupin gongzuo” 档案记录下的新中国成立初期北京城市扶贫工作 [Archival Records of Beijing’s Poverty Alleviation Work in the First Years of the PRC], Beijing dang’an 北京档案, no. 10 (2010), pp. 44–47.

[3] Li Xiaowei 李小尉, “1912–1937 nian Beijing jumin de gongzi shouru yu shenghuo zhuangkuang” 1912—1937年北京居民的工资收入与生活状况 [On the Residents’ Wages and Standard of Living in Beijing from 1912 to 1937], Shixue yuekan 史学月刊, no. 4 (2007), pp. 103–108; Li Xiaowei 李小尉, “Lun jianguo chuqi ertong jiuji zuzhi de shehui gaizao” 论建国初期儿童救济组织的社会改造 [On the Social Reform of Child Relief Associations in the Early People’s Republic of China], Qiusuo 求索, no. 8 (2011), pp. 227–229, 237; Li Xiaowei 李小尉, “1949 nian zhi 1956 nian guojia zhengquan yu minjian cishan zuzhi de guanxi jiexi” 一九四九年至一九五六年国家政权与民间慈善组织的关系解析 [Analysis of the Relationship between State Power and Non-Governmental Charity Organizations in 1949—1956], Zhonggong dangshi yanjiu 中共党史研究, no. 09 (2012), pp. 66–73; Li Xiaowei 李小尉, Xin Zhongguo jianli chuqi de shehui jiuzhu yanjiu 新中国建立初期的社会救助研究 [A Study on Social Assistance in the Early Years of the New China], Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2012.

[4] Pierre Fuller, “Changing Disaster Relief Regimes in China: An Analysis Using Four Famines between 1876 and 1962”, Disasters, vol. 39, no. s2 (2015), pp. 146–165, here p. 161.



Cite this blog post
Henrike Rudolph (2023, February 9). [Review] 李小尉《新中国初期的中国人民救济总会研究》(Li Xiaowei: Research on the People’s Relief Association of China in the Early Period of the PRC). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/oha7

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