Local inspections (difang shicha, also known as diaocha yanjiu) used to be a “special window” through which central leaders in China could understand local politics. Using historical analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) visualization, this article examines the inspections conducted by 35 central leaders, including Mao Zedong, between 1949 and 1955. The analysis focuses on the leaders’ patterns of mobility, the function of the inspections, and the relationship between inspections and central decision-making. The results of GIS visualization show that the 35 leaders visited mainly cities with access to rail, as opposed to rural areas. Although these inspections were sometimes used for policy propaganda, their original function was to gather information for central decision-making. However, due to local impediments involving strategies such as cover-ups, frauds, and staged performances, it was difficult for central leaders to understand the actual state of local politics. Even Mao Zedong, who had a special power, was no exception. Using the case study of the 1955 agricultural collectivization, this study further demonstrates how local inspections failed to bring policy success in Mao’s era, finding that local inspections functioned more as a means for Mao to prove his legitimacy than as a method for obtaining real information. As a result, the inspections led to misjudgments and policy mistakes by Mao regarding agricultural collectivization and laid the groundwork for the Great Leap Forward in 1958.
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