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Mao's China (1950s)

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 9 years, 5 months ago


China in Revolution: The Early Years of Mao's China (1949-62)


When the Communists succeeded in driving out the Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949, the CCP established the People's Republic of China (PRC) under the leadership of Mao Zedong. (Taiwan, led by Jiang Kaishek, became the Republic of China.) Mao headed the Party (there was an inner circle known as the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Central Committee, similar to the bureaucratic structure in the Soviet Union), the Army, and the government. After "Liberation," as the Communists referred to their victory, Mao and his comrades laid out several goals (short and long term) for the nation. These included the following:



  • Economic growth (including immediate reduction of inflation and development of infrastructure) especially in heavy industry
  • Social equality (including redistribution of land taken from the old landlord elites---many of whom were executed during the land reform program---, socialized agriculture and nationalized industry, and the subsequent elimination of the urban capitalist class)
  • Gender equality
  • Party control (extending to factories, schools, communes, and the family unit and including intellectual conformity)
  • Lack of government corruption (which might lead to privileged elites among Party cadres)
  • Nationalism (a strong, powerful, self-reliant China buttressed by an anti-imperialist alliance with the USSR--at least until the end of the 50s--and including the promotion of youthful idealism and revolutionary ardor)
  • Improvement in social services, literacy (use of a standard North Chinese dialect) and education


The overarching goal was to promote harmony (rooted in Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought) and stability in the society by using what appeared to be the ancient, Imperial "wu-wen" amalgam, a blend of the command and virtue ethics. However, Communist Party ideological indoctrination would succeed in instilling great fear and acquiescence in the population. Whereas imperial Confucian scholars supported imperial policies, they also advised and remonstrated with the Emperor (at times at their own peril). Such remonstration and advice was out of the question for intellectuals in Mao's China. Self-cultivation often meant thought reform for the wayward and as we shall see, much worse at times, especially when Mao believed that the "winds" of revolution (that is, class struggle) had subsided too much.


Between 1949 and 1956, Mao and the Communists succeeding in driving down inflation, driving up industrial growth significantly, though not agricultural production, helping to fight the Americans to a stalemate in the Korean War, eliminating many class distinctions, making education far more available to the population, and successfully mobilizing the masses to support the Party's policies. Even as Mao saw U.S. imperialism as a major threat to China (for example, the U.S. had already made Taiwan an ally), he was not in the least intimidated by America's growing arsenal of nuclear weapons, calling the U.S. a "paper tiger."


However, the afore-stated goals also could conflict with each other. Economic modernization necessitated the presence of skilled technicians; and, hierarchies and socio-economic inequalities in the workplace began to emerge even as industry was nationalized. As Jonathan Spence has noted, "cities tended to benefit more than the countryside from industrialization and social welfare programs, and a strict household registration system (hukou) kept rural residents from moving to cities in search of a better life."* Complete Party control over people's ordinary lives as well as political, social, economic, and cultural institutions, opened the door for corruption, and made folly of the Marxist idea of the state ultimately withering away to yield a communist utopia. *(Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), 408.)


It was not easy learning how to become a good Communist. There were prescriptive guidelines (at least for the literate) that had existed since 1939 when Long March veteran CCP leader, Liu Shaoqi (1900-1969) had written, "How to be a Good Communist." As you read the excerpt, note the emphasis on a heroic ideal of moral leadership reminiscent of Neo-Confucian tradition dating back to Song times (11th-12th centuries). But Liu was wary of self-cultivation as stressing individual and spiritual autonomy. Thus, note as well the clear message about Communist morality emphasizing group discipline and party authority. Moreover, in the true Marxist sense it was man's social being (his material life, or his class) that determined his consciousness and not the other way around.


In Wild Swans, Jung Chang's father experienced such group discipline during the Yanan Rectification campaign in 1942. After encouraging criticism of the way things were going at Yanan, Mao turned on his critics, who had allegedly "weakened the Party's unity and discipline." (120) As Jung Chang writes, "Over and over again, the Party leaders inculcated into [my father and others] the absolute necessity for complete submission to the Party, for the good of the cause." (Ibid)


Her mother, however, had a far more difficult time coming to grips with the idea that one had to get permission for everything in life from the Party, including getting married. She was accused of putting "love" ahead of the revolution.


The Communists had embarked on a radical reorganization not just of institutions, but of people's lives, especially the lives of those who had "joined the revolution." The idea was that everything personal was political; in fact, henceforth nothing was supposed to be regarded as "personal" or private. (134) ... The need to obtain authorization for an unspecified "anything" was to become a fundamental element in Chinese Communist rule. It also meant that people learned not to take any action on their own initiative. (138)


Not surprisingly then, Jung Chang's mother was often victimized by personal animosities coming from others in the Women's Federation (her work unit), where she lived. In keeping with the "New China," the organization ostensibly promoted gender equality, but traditions died hard especially among rural women. Her grandmother, for example, was hated in part because she had Goumindang (Nationalist ) connections and therefore a bad family background, but also because she had been a concubine. 


Far from being emancipated on these issues, many Communist women from uneducated peasant backgrounds were set in their traditional ways. For them, no good girl would have become a concubine--even though the Communists had stipulated that a concubine enjoyed the same status as a wife, and could dissolve the "marriage" unilaterally. (133) 


The challenges of becoming a good Communist, then, were "agonizing" for Jung Chang's mother, far more so than for her father when they were first married. 


From the beginning of their marriage, there was a fundamental difference between my parents. My father's devotion to communism was absolute: he felt he had to speak the same language in private, even to his wife, that he did in public. My mother was much more flexible; her commitment was tempered by both reason and emotion. She gave a space to the private; my father did not. (138) 



Mao's next "rectification" campaign would be in 1956. After deliberately initiating the "100 Flowers Movement" enticing intellectuals to criticize Party officials and policies (that is, Mao's policies), Mao went after those very critics who wanted to make China a better place. From 1957-76, China experienced its "lost years," and the stultification of its talent. Class background more often than not became the sole criterion for status and success in employment and school. Filial piety meant loyalty to the Party.


First came the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, then the Great Leap Forward and the "Famine," the worst man-made disaster in world history, (1958-62), and finally the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966-76. In retrospect, one might argue that Mao should have died in 1956. Until that time, he had restored stability to the country and a measure of pride in being Chinese. The absence of civil war, starvation, foreign occupation, and inflation, along with rapid industrial development, improved literacy, and available social welfare programs all contributed to a better quality of life and support for Mao. 






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