Today's post is from the historian Philip Scranton, formerly the University Board of Governors Professor, History of Industry and Technology, at Rutgers University—Camden. Phil gave an excellent paper at The Maintainers conference, titled "Fixing Holes in the Plan: Maintenance and Repair in Communist Europe, 1945–1970," which you can read here.
What follows is a translated article on the organization of repair services at a communist-era machine-building plant, taken from Kung-jen Jih-pao (Workers’ Daily) [6 April 19, 196l, page 2]. By early 1961, the People’s Republic of China was experiencing a multi-dimensional crisis. It resulted from planners’ overconfidence (repurposing a great deal of agricultural land to industrial uses, after a huge harvest in 1958), an abrupt schism with the USSR (triggering the withdrawal of thousands of Soviet engineers and technicians working on industrial and infrastructure projects) and a series of floods and droughts that ruined both food and cotton crops. State managers imported millions of tons of grain to address famine conditions, and as early as 1959, instituted nationwide “campaigns” for conserving materials, repairing articles and reducing waste, to deal with narrowed supply chains. The Workers’ Daily essay here reproduced details how this “social services movement” was experienced at a major machine-building plant in the capital. The involvement of families was simplified in part because expanding PRC enterprises funded construction of dormitories, in order to retain workers, given that Beijing’s population was growing faster than its housing stock. My best guess is that the plant employed at least 1000 people. (Phil Scranton, 26 April 26, 2016)
REPAIR SERVICE ORGANZATION IN A PEIPING (Beijing) FACTORY
In response to public demand, the Hsing-ping Machinery Factory in Peiping has instituted repair services among the families of its employees and is intensively developing the project, which has been quite successful so far. As of now approximately one-half of the families that had joined the social services movement are participating in the repair service activities.
During the month of February, services rendered to the employees and their families include, over 3,000 pieces of garments, repaired and newly made; over 3,000 pieces of clothing and bedding, renovated and cleaned; l60 pairs of shoes repaired, 500 odd vehicles, including automobiles[i] and handcarts; 160 pieces of household ware, such as basins, [cooking] pots, and water pots. The repair service charges are generally 10-20% lower than market charges.[ii] At a time when the [living] standard of the people has been raised, certain consumer goods are insufficient to supply demands, and the capacity of repair service in society is inadequate, any effort to increase production, to provide facilities for the masses' use, to promote economy in spending and consumption, and to minimize the chore of the families of employees is bound to win the good will and praise of the employees and their families.
The mentioned factory had in 1958 organized the families of its employees to participate in production activities, but for some time it was not clear what was being done in that setup. Some families aimed at making more money, They moved to wherever they could get better pay, and were not consistently content with the work of the instituted repair service. In view of the situation described above, the party commissar during the past year has been engaged in some well planned thought-reform and political work. By means of reports, group discussions, and visits to the homes in teams, he extensively propagated the meaning of the repair service activities. He also publicized facts about some of the employees who loved and were enthusiastic about their [repair] jobs, who bore responsibility and blame, and employed every means at their disposal to serve the masses. In this way he succeeded in a short time in arousing the families of the employees to take a positive participation in the service activities.
Take the case of “Great-gent” Huang,[iii] for instance. He is the father of Huang Chen, manager of a carriage shop. Now past sixty, "Great-gent" has not been working for many years. He had been in the business of repairing carriages in the past. All his four sons being gainfully employed, he now lives a comfortable life. Upon learning that no one had joined up in that branch of the service [work on carts], he enthusiastically volunteered. He explained: "The happy days we have been enjoying since liberation were given us by the Party. Carriages requiring repair are many, but repair personnel is lacking. Since I know a little about the trade, it would be a pleasure-and happiness on my part to do something for others."
With the exception of necessary maintenance of their houses and furniture, and some other assistance, all of which are provided by the factory, all structures, such as the shoe repair shop, day nursery, and the buildings that house the twenty-two rooms comprising the dining halls and warehouses, have been constructed by the employees themselves, who did all the work, of transporting the salvaged bricks and clay, also carpentry and masonry. All the fixtures were made in a simple and humble way, under the circumstances. Some of them were made with odds and ends, and waste material. The material used for their repair work, except for the small quantity that had to be requisitioned through the service agency, all consisted of scraps, which they continue to collect and accumulate as their work progresses.
Of all the problems confronted in the development of the service activities, the most difficult one is that of know-how. In endeavoring to solve this problem, workers did their utmost to seek out latent talents from among themselves on the one hand, sent delegates to learn the trades from the experienced, and hired teachers to teach them at work on the other hand. They even taught one another while working, if feasible. This is inter-teaching, interchange of knowledge. It helps to raise the standard of quality of workmanship. To illustrate:
Lu Hsueh-I and Tsou Feng-ying of the shoe repairing division were absolutely ignorant of shoe repairing. When they started out they had bent many a nail or tack and hurt their fingers with the hammer many a time, but they firmly believed that knowledge is not inborn, and that if one is willing and determined to learn, one will know how to do things. So while they were working, they studied each situation, helped and learned from one another. At present each can repair about twelve pairs of shoes per day, as compared with two or three pairs at the beginning. In the past they could only handle slippers. Now they are repairing leather shoes.
Since the inception of the repair service these people have been studying the requirements and demands of the masses, inviting the expression of their opinions and accordingly enlarging the scope of the service from time to time. When some families toward the end of last year made known the difficulty they encountered in obtaining metal goods locally and in the vicinity, and the inconvenience they must suffer when they had to go to the city to procure such items, the repair teams, as a body took the initiative to investigate the needs of the employees and their families. At the conclusion of that investigation, they discovered more than 2,300 water kettles, water buckets, aluminum and-other metal utensils, and about 1000 vehicles consisting of oxcarts and automobiles that were for the employees' own use, required repair. In view of the facts discovered they decided to establish new divisions for repair of automobiles and metal utensils.
For the convenience of the masses, in addition to the regular services given at the receiving station, teams were organized to go to the dormitories of the employees daily and, following preplanned division of work and addresses, ring doorbells and collect items for repair. And given the extent of the factory and public demand, they continuously improved their workmanship and improved the standard of repair services, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In one previous period when some individuals complained about the unsatisfactory ironing work of the laundry, a system of division of work was instituted by the repair service station. All ironing work was henceforth handled by Mu-Hsiu-ying, who excels in ironing, and by her assistants.
On account of proper arrangement of personnel and improved management, the time to complete a repair job has been reduced to 1-2 days, on the average, as compared with four days in the past.
JPRS (Joint Publications Research Service) Report 4893, Selections from Kung-Jen Jih-Pao, No. 4, circulated 4 August 1961, pp. 80-82, Available online at Readex: infoweb.newsbank.com, a subscription database.
[JPRS was a Department of Commerce Cold War operation, delivering translations of millions of newspaper and journal articles, interviews, broadcasts, decrees and public documents to US policy makers, 1958-1992. Most of these materials are conserved in the Newsbank database, and are keyword searchable.]
[i] These were chiefly US and Japanese trucks, mostly from the WWII years, not personal autos.
[ii] Yes, there was a vast private market in all Chinese cities for repair and refurbishment of personal and household goods, with pricing both customary and negotiated.. Enterprisers were not permitted to employ other workers, however, but could involve family members in their tasks.
[iii] Think “Grandpa”.