The civil war between Communists and Nationalist Guo Min Dang, interrupted by the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, resumed with victory over Japan in 1945. Despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned by Nationalist forces, Mao’s forces, supported by Stalin, had prevailed the American backed Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai Chek by 1949. Chiang Kai Chek retreated to the island of Taiwan where his government continued to rule, claiming it was the only legitimate regime for all of China. The status of a prosperous democracy on Taiwan, backed by American military support and claiming independence from the mainland communist regime, remained a serious source of tension into the 21st century.
The victory over the Guo Min Dang was only the start of the communist Revolution in China. It would take hard decisions and tough policies to put China back on the path to being a great power. Luckily for the communists, the Chinese people accepted their rule and policies for several reasons. For one thing, the discipline and helpfulness Mao’s troops showed the peasants contrasted with the actions and policies of the Guo Min Dang. Second, since China was nothing like the industrial society that Marx had predicted as the base for a socialist society, Mao shifted the focus of his revolution to the peasants with land reform as its main goal. This radical shift in emphasis for Marxist revolution created a virtually new socialist theory known as Maoism. Third, the Chinese were weary from years of civil strife and war with Japan, and felt the communists offered the best chance of restoring peace and stability. Finally, Maoism fit into the pattern of previous peasant movements in Chinese history with its utopian vision of a more just society, especially in its promise of land reform.
China in 1949 hardly constituted a socialist society, and the communists themselves were a small minority in the nation. Therefore, at first, they had to rely heavily on the cooperation of non-Communist officials to carry out their reforms until enough communists had been trained to replace them. Mao, described his new government as a democratic coalition under communist leadership, letting non-Communists hold prominent posts well into the 1950’s. By the same token, Mao started slowly on his reforms in order to win popular support and avoid too much alarm before instituting more radical reforms and programs.
The Communists’ first major policy after seizing power was the long awaited land reform. Communist cadres set up peoples’ courts where they encouraged peasants to denounce convict local landlords and rich. Their lands would then be divided among the peasants while they would either be executed or sent to slave camps for indoctrination and hard labor. An estimated 1.5 million people died in these camps from overwork, exposure to the elements, malnutrition, and suicide. Unbeknownst to the peasants, this was only the first stage of agricultural collectivization along the lines of the Soviet Union. However, the Communists, wanting to avoid the disasters that befell Soviet agriculture under Stalin, were determined to follow a somewhat more gradual course.
Encouraged by the success of this first stage Mao implemented more reforms in the first of China’s Five Year Plans (1953-57). For one thing, he instituted the next stage of collectivizing the farms by sending in “mutual aid teams” to pool the peasants’ farm tools, animals, and labor. This was probably not such a shock, since Chinese peasants had traditionally cooperated in such a way. However, the government soon entered the next phase by “buying” all the peasants’ recently acquired lands and forming communes which assumed control of the agriculture by loaning out seed, selling fertilizer, and purchasing the crops at fixed prices. By 1956, some 90% of the land had been formed into such communes. Similarly, Mao was collectivizing China’s industries, railroads, shipping, foreign trade, and banks.
At the same time, the communists started an extensive propaganda and brainwashing campaign to turn the Chinese into devoted Communists whose primary goal was to build a socialist paradise. The government targeted remaining landowning peasants, “corrupt” bureaucrats from the old order, and capitalist merchant. Children were taught to love their fatherland, the Chinese people, science, labor, and public property, but not their families, which were seen as a threat to the state. They also learned that life was serious, humor decadent, and romantic love a bourgeois emotion. By 1954, some 12 million young people were enrolled in the Democratic Youth League.
People targeted for intense brainwashing were cut off from their families and friends and subjected to long hours of hard work to break their spirits. They had to read and memorize long passages of communist literature and undergo grueling “therapy” sessions of self-criticism or small group criticism where they would write, rewrite, and publicly recite confessions of their “crimes” against the people and give speeches on how the struggle for a new society was the only worthwhile goal in life. Such confessions were supposed to provide them with a sense of relief that they associated with communism.
China’s foreign policy in the early 1950’s was also somewhat aggressive. In 1950, Chinese forces took control of Tibet an area China had ruled from time to time in the past. China’s continued occupation of Tibet has tarnished its international image ever since. China also allied with the other great Communist power, the Soviet Union, which supplied substantial military and technical aid, including the knowledge to help it develop nuclear weapons. China also became involved in the Korean War (1950-53). Although this conflict ended in a stalemate, the Chinese saw it as a victory since, for the first time in the modern era, they had stopped what they saw as Western aggression.
China’s successes in these endeavors made it feel confident and strong enough to launch even more ambitious programs. Economically, the Communists carried agricultural collectivization a step further by gathering the communes into large collectives of up to 10,000 acres. In some of these, men and women were kept in separate dormitories, families were split up, and children were raised by nurseries. This was extremely unpopular among the peasants, who relied on the stability of the village and family. Eventually, the government backed off a bit by subdividing the collectives into units that corresponded roughly with the old villages and allowed more family life.
Mao also launched “The Great Leap Forward” in 1958, an ambitious program with the goal of surpassing British steel production in 15 years through intensive use of backyard furnaces. This was largely a reaction against Soviet style central planning. Mao felt that ideological incentives could get economic results and that the people’s revolutionary fervor alone would provide the needed impetus for economic growth. However, mismanagement and the lack of incentives and technical expertise in such things as standard controls over heat and quality led to inferior quality steel. The Great Leap Forward Even had an even more disastrous impact on China’s agriculture. The attention diverted away from farming, along with three years of bad floods, produced a severe famine that may have killed 30,000,000 people.
In foreign policy, Mao tried to export the Communist revolution to other countries in Asia, Africa and South America. However, this met with very limited success, largely since it was beyond China’s means to effectively support such revolutions from so far away. At the same time, China’s relations with the Soviet Union went sour because of border disputes and ideological differences. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union softened its stance against the West somewhat, gave more power to specialists in their fields rather than devoted revolutionaries, and did away with the personality cult surrounding its leaders. Chinese communists, still enthusiastic in the early years of their revolution, saw the Soviets as “revisionists” who had sold out the revolution. Mao especially like to emphasize the hero-worshipping personality cult built up around himself. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, tensions increased and the Soviets withdrew their aid from China. This triggered a Sino-Soviet split which at times even erupted into border violence, although never all out war.
The Cultural Revolution (1966-70)
By the mid 1960’s, China’s Communist revolution seemed to be floundering with Mao’s position as leader of the revolution somewhat in jeopardy. Therefore, he launched the Cultural Revolution to revive China’s revolutionary fervor, largely by attacking Mao’s enemies. The primary agents of this upheaval were the Red Guards, mostly students and other young people who were armed with Mao’s Little Red Book of quotations and the belief they had the authority to rampage through China’s cities and countryside in the name of Mao’s revolution. Unfortunately, the Red Guards and Cultural Revolution ran out of control, and virtual anarchy reigned for two years, shutting down schools and thoroughly disrupting the economy. Intellectuals and members of the professions (e.g., doctors) were put in prisons and camps or were sent to the country for hard agricultural labor on the farms. Eventually, Mao had to use the army to get the Red Guards and Cultural Revolution under control. By 1970, the worst of the Cultural Revolution was over. It had set China’s education and economy back several years, but Mao was satisfied that his Revolution was back on track.
China since the Cultural Revolution
Gradually, the forces of moderation, led by Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, resurfaced and prevailed, especially after Mao’s death at the age of 82 in 1976. After a brief power struggle against extremist elements led by Mao’s widow and a faction known as the Gang of Four, the moderate and more practical Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s new leader. Since then, China has progressed in both the fields of foreign policy and economy.
In foreign policy, China’s more moderate image led to its acceptance as a member of the United Nations in 1971. This put increased pressure on the United States to recognize the communist government in China. The Chinese communists, in turn, wanted better relations with the West to act as a counterbalance against the Soviets. In 1972, President Nixon visited China and started the long road towards normalizing relations between the two nations. A major stumbling block was America’s support of the Nationalist government of still ruling the island of Taiwan. The communist government on the mainland insisted that its relations with Taiwan were an internal Chinese affair and that the United States should cut relations with and support for the government there. In 1978 the United States agreed to most of China’s demands, although it informally maintained economic and diplomatic relations with the government on Taiwan. Other erstwhile enemies, notably Japan, also normalized diplomatic and economic relations with mainland China during this period.
Economically, Deng Xiaoping, instituted significant economic reforms known as The Four Modernizations (agriculture, industry, science and technology, and military) which provided farmers and factory workers incentives to work harder. Farmers were allowed to keep small plots for growing surplus food which they could sell, while factory workers could also do business on the side as long as they did not hire (and thus exploit) employees in the capitalist manner. To many hardliners, these reforms seemed too capitalistic in spirit. However, they helped lift China’s economy dramatically in the following decades. As Deng put it, he did not care whether a cat was black or white as long as it caught mice.
China’s growing prosperity brought demands for more political rights and power for the common people, which Deng was not willing to grant. Unfortunately, this contrast between economic progress and the lack of corresponding political progress created tensions in Chinese society, much like the tensions in Soviet society caused by more political rights but the lack of economic progress. In 1989, massive demonstrations demanding more political rights spread across many Chinese cities. After several weeks of indecision, the aging leaders brutally suppressed the movement at Taiananmen Square in Beijing and reestablished a harsh and repressive rule.
Since then, China has rapidly emerged as a major economic force facing both new opportunities in economic and diplomatic affairs and challenges in its political policies at home. Much of what will happen hinges on what sort of new leadership would take the helm when the last of China’s first generation of Communist leaders finally passes on.