Chapter 27 The Era of Decolonization

Section 2 The People's Republic of China

The end of the Pacific war also marked the end of the intermission in the civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists that had begun during the 1920s. During the war Mao had pursued a policy designed to obtain support from the mass of Chinese peasants, while leaving Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists to bear the brunt of fighting the Japanese. In 1949 the Communists launched a final offensive, which drove Chiang and the Nationalists off the Chinese mainland to the large offshore island of Taiwan.

The Triumph of Communism

On October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the existence of the People's Republic of China (P.R.C.). Mao's proclamation signaled a two-fold break with China's past. In one sense it was a victory for Chinese nationalism—once again China ran its own affairs. At the same time, it was also a victory for Chinese communism. Mao and his comrades had won the civil war in the name of Marxism-Leninism and soon set about creating a communist state. They purged Nationalists, landlords, and other supporters of the old regime. The purge entailed enormous violence and terror. Justifying the violence, Mao quoted part of a famous 1927 report he had made on conditions in Hunan province: 

"When the local bullies and evil gentry were at the height of their power, they killed peasants without batting an eyelid. . . . In view of these atrocities by the local bullies and the evil gentry, as well as the white [reactionary] terror let loose by them in the rural areas, how can one say that the peasants should not now rise and shoot one or two of them, and bring about a small-scale reign of terror in suppressing the counter-revolutionaries?"[8] 

In fact, in the "small-scale reign of terror" that Mao thus endorsed, about a million people were murdered.[9]

            Yet even though most of their enemies had been killed, frightened into submission, or had gone into exile, the Communists still seemed to fear for the safety of the revolution. The Nationalists remained entrenched on Taiwan, and the United States remained un-reconciled to the Communist victory in China. Consequently, the Chinese Communists looked to the other great Communist power, the Soviet Union, for support.

The Great Leap Forward

The Chinese Communists also looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration in economic development. In 1953, for example, they unveiled a Five Year Plan, patterned after similar Soviet plans, that called for sweeping land reform—a chronic demand of China's hundreds of millions of peasants. The new government confiscated millions of acres from landlords and distributed much of it to peasants. Meanwhile, the government also devoted itself to rapid industrialization. With Soviet assistance, the Chinese invested heavily in basic industries such as coal and steel. Despite these efforts, however, the first Five Year Plan brought only mixed results. Combined with Stalin’s death in 1953, it contributed to a shift in Mao’s thinking—a shift away from blindly following the Soviet model. 

Break with Moscow. After Stalin’s death, Mao became increasingly unhappy with Moscow's leadership of the world socialist movement. The Chinese watched suspiciously as Stalin's successors in the Kremlin pursued warmer relations with the West and a more liberal line at home. Eventually, Mao concluded that China must make its own way in the world. In 1957 he criticized China's unquestioning imitation of the Soviet model: 

"I couldn't have eggs or chicken soup for three years because an article appeared in the Soviet Union which said that one shouldn't eat them. Later they said one could eat them. It didn't matter whether the article was correct or not; the Chinese listened all the same and respectfully obeyed. In short, the Soviet Union was tops."[10] 

As relations deteriorated with the Soviet Union, eventually Mao came to consider Moscow China’s number one enemy. During the 1960s and 1970s, the two Communist giants became increasingly hostile and even fought one another in skirmishes along their borders in central Asia. 

The second Five Year Plan. By 1958, Mao was ready to unveil his own development schemes in China’s second Five Year Plan, which he called the Great Leap Forward. The new plan was nothing less than a design for modernizing China overnight—forcing the pace of changes that had required generations in the West. The Great Leap would simultaneously strengthen China and establish China's position of leadership among the developing countries, especially of Asia.

            The Great Leap attempted to complete the process of land reform by creating large rural collective farms, called people's communes. These huge farms, which grouped together hundreds or thousands of smaller holdings and comprised as many as 25,000 people, were an effort to apply the principles of mass production and industrial efficiency to agriculture. The second major aspect of the Great Leap was an accelerated program of industrialization. The government sent industrial experts into the countryside to teach peasants to build small blast furnaces in their own neighborhoods to produce steel on a local level. 

Social and cultural reforms. In addition to these economic policies, however, the Great Leap Forward was also a massive effort to undermine traditional Chinese society and cultural values. Like other socialists, Mao and his colleagues rejected the idea of individualism. Through the communes they also tried to destroy the traditionally strong bonds of the Chinese family, replacing them with loyalty to the Communist Party and the state.

            The party controlled nearly all aspects of people’s lives, including all living, working, and educational arrangements on the communes. Children were often raised not by their parents but in communally run nurseries. Eventually, as population pressures threatened China’s economic development, the Party also instituted a nationwide campaign to discourage people from having children—a major attack on traditional Chinese values.

            Accompanied by an enormous propaganda campaign, the Great Leap Forward at first generated great enthusiasm. As one visitor described the scene in Jiangxi: 

"Small red flags fly overhead indicating the sections belonging to the various companies and squads of farmer-steelworkers, who are organized like militia units. The air is filled with the high-pitched melodies of local operas pouring through an amplifier above the site and accompanied by the hum of blowers, the panting of gasoline engines, the honking of heavily-laden lorries [trucks], and the bellowing of oxen hauling ore and coal."[11] 

Failure of the Great Leap Forward. Soon, however, the Great Leap fell flat. Peasants, after having waited, and in many cases fought, for decades for land of their own, bitterly resented having to give it up to faceless, heartless communes. They also resented having their children taken from them and placed in separate dormitories. Problems in the industrial sector were just as great. China could buy foreign machinery, but lacked the technicians to make it work or to fix it when it broke down. The backyard blast furnaces proved a disaster. Those that didn't explode and maim their operators produced mostly lumps of congealed ore that was unrecognizable as steel and practically unusable.

            The result of the Great Leap Forward was one of the worst man-made disasters in history. Agricultural production plunged. Millions starved—perhaps more than 20 million between 1959 and 1962. Millions more, especially children and old people, were so weakened that they died of disease. Recovery took years.[12]

The Cultural Revolution

The catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward caused a crisis of confidence in the leadership of the Communist Party. Mao, who was both head of the government and chairman of the Communist Party, felt obliged to resign from the former post and he began to lose some of his influence in the party. As others challenged his leadership, however, he determined to fight back. In 1965 he decided to attack what he believed to be a growing bureaucratization within both the Communist Party and the government. 

“The officials of China are a class, and one whose interests are antagonistic to those of the workers and peasants. . . . Let those who will make fierce attacks, demonstrate in the streets and take up arms to provoke change. I definitely approve.”[13] 

In August 1966 he published a proclamation entitled “Bombard the Headquarters,” which invited students, figuratively, to do just that.[14]

            Thus began the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Radical students, calling themselves Red Guards, accepted Mao's invitation to challenge authority. They staged demonstrations and parades denouncing such figures as Liu Shaoqi, Mao's successor as head of state. They invaded the offices of party leaders accused of “taking the capitalist road” and forced them, on pain of physical violence, to confess their crimes against the Chinese people. They seized university classrooms and buildings; they linked arms with leftist factory workers; they joined forces with soldiers of the People's Liberation Army to root out reaction everywhere.

            For two years, the Cultural Revolution swept over China, throwing Chinese society into chaos. Although Mao had unleashed it, not even he was able to control it completely. But in his desire to maintain his power, he was willing to accept the damage to Chinese society the Cultural Revolution produced. By the middle of 1968, however, the turbulence began to die down—partly for want of anyone else for the radicals to purge, partly because Mao decided that enough shaking had been accomplished. In September, Liu Shiaoqi was stripped of his official positions and thrown out of the Communist Party. Over the next six months, Mao reasserted his control over China. He toured the country, calling for unity and making clear that the time for bombarding the headquarters was over.