Modern China

Communist China


   When Mao declared the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, he instantly moved the capital to Peiping (later called Peking and now called Beijing), adopted a new flag (red with a large yellow star surrounded by four smaller stars), and adopted a statement of national purposes. The Soviet Union was the first country to recognize the People's Republic followed in quick order by other communist countries. The first non-communist countries to recognize the new state were India, Burma, and Pakistan, who were soon followed by the European countries. The United States, however, refused to recognize the Peoples Republic until 1979; until that point, they recognized only the Nationalist government in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China.

   Mao faced two central problems: unification of China and the centralization of government. In order to accomplish both of these he put into practice his New Democracy or "Democratic Dictatorship." Under the Democratic Dictatorship, all four classes of society would be represented (democracy), but the government would deal with conservative or counter-revolutionaries harshly (dictatorship). From 1949 to 1954, Mao undertook an aggressive campaign against all his political opponents around the country. Mao claimed to have executed some 800,000 individuals described as "class enemies," but Western historians put the figure at several times that amount. He established forced-labor camps, numerous prisons, and massive "re-education" and "self-criticism" programs in order to weed out counter-revolutionary political ideas.

   At the same time, however, Mao managed to unify the country—a goal that had been unrealized all throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Mao claimed the t'ien ming , or Mandate of Heaven, for his new government. He attempted to unify the country with centralized democracy; in this system of government, the people elected local assemblies; these assemblies would then elect their own representatives for higher level assemblies. So the country, at the local level, was a democracy, but the local assemblies owed the higher assemblies complete obedience—this is the centralized part of the government. However, the real reason for Mao's rapid unification of China was the Korean War. When the Chinese Communist revolution spread to Korea, the government there split into two factions, one in the north near China and one in the south. When the United States entered the war and threatened to attack China's industrial base in Manchuria, Mao called on the Chinese to unite and push back this new imperial threat. The Chinese attacked and drove the American forces south and continued fighting the Americans to a draw. This victory against the Americans did more than anything else to legitmate the Communist government in the eyes of the Chinese.

The State

   The government established by the Communists was centralized in a single body, the Central People's Government Council, which exercised all executive, legislative, and judicial powers. This council consisted of a chairman (Mao), six vice-chairmen, and fifty-six members elected by the People's Political Consultative Council. When the Central People's Government Council, which met twice a month, was not in session, its powers were assumed by a twenty member body called the State Administrative Council headed by a premiere (Chou En-lai); when this body was not in session, the state powers fell to the chairman of the state (Mao).

   In 1953, voting rights were extended to all citizens over the age of eighteen except landlords and counterrevolutionaries. In 1954, the first local assemblies were elected and these assemblies in turn elected provincial assemblies, which in turn elected the National People's Congress, which approved a new constitution on September 28. This constitution ratified centralized democracy and spelled out a series of rights that all citizens would enjoy. Paramount, however, in this list of rights was the exclusion of counterrevolutionary individuals; the Chinese bill of rights also reserved for the state the power to "reform traitors and counterrevolutionaries." That is, every Chinese citizen had the full line of legal rights and guarantees unless they disagreed with the government.

Socialist Man

   At the heart of the Chinese Communist experience under Mao is the concept of the Socialist Man. Perhaps more than anything, this ideology best portrays life in Maoist China. The Socialist Man was responsible not only for his life, but for other people's lives as well. His job was to monitor the business and thoughts of the people around him, and correct any improprieties or counter-revolutionary thoughts or actions. The Socialist Man was required to put the state before himself or his family, and was supposed to be able to face others with self-criticism and confessions of wrong-doing. He was to be animated by five loves: Love of Country, Love of People, Love of Labor, Love of Science, Love of Common Property.

Mass Movements

   The central aspect of Maoism is the belief in mass movements. When Mao advocated peasant revolution, he based his theory entirely on the importance of a unified and universal mass movement. As a result, Maoist China was characterized by a continuous stream of organized mass movements designed to attain specific outcomes. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say that the social rhythm of Maoist China was set by the beat of mass movements; so common were they throughout Mao's tenure, that within a couple decades the Chinese people had become the single most organized people in the world.

   The mass organizations of Maoist China were in reality semi-government bodies, really big semi-government bodies. These mass organizations include the All-China Federation of Democratic Youth (the first, 1953, and largest), the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and the Young Pioneers, composed entirely of children. These mass organizations became instruments of mass indoctrination and provided a massive and organized set of groups for demonstrations. The mass organization would be the principle means by which political action was effected in China from 1950 to 1980.

Economic Policies

   China in 1949 was in a bad way economically. The economy had been disrupted by eight years of bloody fighting with the Japanese and four years of civil war piled on top of that. Inflation had rendered the currency useless and industrial output had dropped seventy-five percent since 1937. In order to stabilize the economy, the People's Republic introduced a new currency, controlled it strictly, and set all wages by the price of five staple products: rice, coal, flour, oil, and cotton. As the prices of these commodities fluctuated, wages would correspondingly increase and decrease. So while wages constantly changed from week to week, the purchasing power of those wages remained constant. This would characterize communist economic policy for the next several decades: careful and minute control of the economy.

   In 1950, the government passed the Agrarian Reform Law, which officially ended land ownership in China. All land and agricultural tools were to be evenly distributed among the landlords, rich peasants, and poor peasants. In reality, though, the enforcement of the law led to bitter trials in local rural communities. Poor peasants denounced the predatory practices of landlords and rich peasants. Most lost everything and many were executed. In 1953, the Chinese government entered a new stage of agrarian reform by collectivizing farms. In the first stage, peasants were required to help one another on their various plots of land. In the second stage, peasants were required to pool their tools, labor, and land, though they still retained rights over individual plots. In the third stage, completed in 1956, farms were completely collectivized under cooperative communities of farmers. By 1957, there were some 800,000 collective farms in China, each consisting of some six to seven hundred individual persons. Finally, in 1958, the social life of the country was transformed into communes.

   In order to recover the industrial base, Mao launched the First Five Year Plan in 1952. Under this plan, China embarked on an ambitious project of building factories and infrastructure. Even though the plan wasn't implemented until 1955 (making it, really, the Two Year Plan), the massive outlay of industrial investment doubled industrial output in China by 1957. So successful was the First Five Year Plan, that in 1957, the government undertook, you guessed it, the Second Five Year Plan. In addition, the government completely reformed education to emphasize science and engineering over liberal arts; in addition, the university curriculum was reformed to emphasize specialization over broad knowledge.

The Great Leap Forward

   In February, 1958, the National People's Congress announced the "Great Leap Forward" Movement that called for massive increases in steel production and electrical and coal output. The goal was to surpass British industrial output by 1972. In order to achieve this, the planners of the Great Leap Forward recruited everyone in the country, no matter who they were, to participate in industrial production. Backyard steel furnaces popped up in everybody's backyard. The Great Leap Forward produced spectacular results in output; the quality, however, left much to be desired, as the government later admitted. Most of the steel produced was simply useless, for backyard furnaces could not produce quality steel the way giant steel mills could.

The Sino-Soviet Split

   Mao's Great Leap Forward proved to be a disaster for the Chinese. It so crippled the economy, that the people of China avoided famine only because of the government's strict and efficient rationing system. The failure of the Great Leap Forward brought stinging criticism from Nikita Kruschchev in 1960. Mao, in turn, criticized Krushchev as a revisionist, a coward, and a capitalist. Krushcheve then cut off all economic and military aid. China and Russia had for almost three hundred years been mortal and suspicious enemies; the common bond of proletariat revolution could not undo centuries of Russian expansion and imperialism and Chinese suspicion. The rupture between the two governments would never heal. The world now had two separate communist superpowers pursuing radically different courses; the immediate effect, however, of the split was to isolate China internationally, for it now had no friends in the world.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

   Mao's influence over Chinese politics waned severely after the Great Leap Forward, and the Sino-Soviet split had produced a deep division within the Chinese leadership. A number of leaders, including the future chairman of China, Deng Xiaoping (T'eng Hsiao-p'ing—I'm using the modern spelling in this instance for it is the one most people are familiar with), advocated a more pragmatic course. They argued that collectivization and industrialization had been pursued too quickly and that the mass campaigns were draining vital resources and energy. Most of these leaders, in fact, had grown deeply suspicious of the mass movement character of Mao's China, and future events would deepen this suspicion. In fact, the experience of Mao's mass movements in part explains the Tienanmin Square incident of 1989; most of the Chinese leaders of the time deeply hated and distrusted mass movements, and Tienanmin Square looked alot llke the Maoist movements they felt had produced chaos.

   Suspicious of what he considered counter-revolutionary tendencies in the Chinese leadership, Mao began to move in 1964 to regain his authority and his politicization of mass movements. He was, though, in precarious health. At the age of seventy-one, he was partly debilitated by Parkinson's disease and had suffered a stroke (so Western historians believe). You can imagine, then, that Mao probably thought he had little time left to set China back on the course he had envisioned. This, probably more than anything else, lent to his new programs a sense of urgency and radicality. In 1965, in order to combat the counterrevolutionary slide into bureaucracy and capitalism, Mao launched the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution."

   The principle and openly-stated purpose of the Cultural Revolution was to purge the government of counter-revolutionary, bureaucratic, and capitalist individuals. It was carried out at first in the press and then in a series of mass demonstrations by various groups, including the Red Army. The Revolution based itself almost entirely on the concept of the Socialist Man: individuals were organized to denounce family members, factory bosses, teachers, professors, and all others who had voiced or advocated "counter-revolutionary" ideas. These denounced individuals were required to publicly confess their mistakes, usually by marching in mass demonstrations with their "mistakes" written on a placard worn around their neck.

   The Eleventh Plenum of the Central Committee met and produced several resolutions central to the Cultural Revolution. Foremost among them were the creation of the Red Guards (Hung-wei ping ), who were to serve as a semi-military organizing force to carry the purge all throughout the country. The Plenum also called for the establishment of permanent local cultural revolution committees to keep a constant eye on the ideas and activities of officials. On November 22, the Central Cultural Revolutionary Committee was formed headed by Ch'en Po-ta and Chiang Ch'ing, Mao's wife.

   The Red Guards soon became a staple of Chinese life. They styled themselves the "Revolutionary Successors" of Mao and went about trying to stamp out any vestige of pre-revolutionary thought or social patterns. Several temples, monuments, and works of art were destroyed, and the Red Guards fervently sought out party officials and teachers to denounce as counter-revolutionaries. The efficiency of the mass organization of the youth of the Red Guards became a model for the student rebellions in the West in the late 1960's.

   In the end, the Cultural Revolution magnificently served its purpose. It re-established Mao as the central authority in China and it confirmed one of Mao's central tenets: that revolution never ends, rather it needs constant rectification through mass movements.

   However, the Cultural Revolution decimated the Chinese Communist Party as well as the economy of China. So much energy was put in the purges that agricultural and industrial production fell off sharply. In 1981, five years after the death of Mao, the Chinese government repudiated the Cultural Revolution.

China and the International Community

   China, thoroughly isolated after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, rejoined the international community when Richard Nixon, President of the United States, visited the People's Republic in 1972. This was, to say the least, an unexpected turn of events, but the event radically altered Chinese history. From this meeting arose a d&eeacute;tente between the two countries. The United States recognized that there was one and only China rather than two (Taiwan and the People's Republic) and affirmed the West's commitment to a peaceful reunification of the two Chinas. China benefitted in other ways as well: the détente allowed China to import airplanes, technology, and other products; this, more than anything else, led to rapid modernization in the late 1970's and 1980's. The Americans for their part gained a new trading partner which would import more American goods than export goods of its own and the Americans severely weakened the military and international position of Soviet Russia. In the game of superpower politics, Nixon's rapprochement with China cannily made the United States the key player in international politics.

   In 1972, Japan recognized China as the legitimate government and itself drew up new trade agreements with China. This began a cascade of diplomatic missions to China; by Mao's death in 1976, China had fully re-entered the international community.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-9-97