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B10: China under Mao Zedong, 1949-59


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B10: China under Mao Zedong, 1949-59



1: The creation of the Communist State
From October 1949 Mao was the undisputed leader of The People’s Republic of China. He was President of China and also Chairman of the CCP. This meant that he controlled the government of China as well as the Chinese Communist Party. Of the two positions, it was the latter that was to be the more important. In China, it was the Communist Party that really mattered. It took all of the decisions, while the government simply enforced them.
China immediately became a one party state. All other parties were suppressed in a series of purges from 1950 to 1952, although a few small groups were allowed to survive. Possible rivals to Mao were dismissed from office. One, Gao Gang, even committed suicide. Anyone who showed any opposition to communism was labelled a counter-revolutionary or an imperialist. This became increasingly common. In fact any one who opposed the Party line, which was Mao’s line, was simply labelled a counter-revolutionary, whether or not this was actually true. To avoid accusations, Chinese increasingly tried to prove their loyalty by accusing others. This produced an atmosphere of suspicion and revenge.
Mao’s immediate aim was to gain control of the cities, where the GMD had been at its strongest. Mao instinctively distrusted city dwellers. He believed that the strength of the Party lay with the peasants in the countryside. Mao set out to destroy any remaining support for the GMD and ordered massacres of suspects. 65,000 people were killed in Guangzhou and 28,000 in Shanghai. All suspect organisations were closed down, including churches, and all religions were attacked. Mao believed that religion would undermine loyalty to the Communist Party, so all traditional Chinese religions, as well as other world religions were attacked. Maoist slogans began to appear on walls all over China for the first time. This became another way of spreading ideas. Posters were put on display to explain Mao’s aims. They rarely actually ‘explained’ anything. They just told people what was going to happen and what they were to do. Mao believed that if he shouted loud enough, people would do as they were told. He was right. In China there had never been a tradition of democracy. The Chinese people were accustomed to being told what to do and followed Mao’s orders almost without question.
In effect, therefore, Mao became a dictator. Even so, Mao realised that he had to offer the Chinese people something in return for their loyalty. In particular, he had to reward the peasants for the support that they had given to the CCP for the last thirty years. He also knew that there was only one thing that the peasants wanted and that was land.
2: Land reform
With his position secure, Mao turned his attention to land reform, which had been a main plank of CCP policy since the 1920s. The main aspect of his policy was an attack on landlords. These were the owners of land who took rent from peasants, sometimes at extortionate levels. Mao believed that 'landlordism’ was so deeply ingrained in Chinese society that landlords had to be destroyed altogether. Only then would the peasants be able to control and work their own land.
Land reform was carried out ruthlessly. From 1950 work teams were sent out to villages to carry out land reform. Landlords were forced to give up their property, which was then redistributed among the peasants. Many landlords were then tried by village courts and often executed. As many as 1,000,000 may have died. Often no account was taken of the individual. It did not matter whether a landlord had been generous or harsh in the past, they were usually all treated the same. Similarly, reform took no account of the size or value of the holding. Mao was not concerned with the rights and wrongs of reform. He wanted to make a political statement. He wanted peasants to be aware that he was acting in their interests and that real changes were being made. So reform had to be a major issue.
Once landlords were removed, tenant farmers were given title deeds to their land and landless peasants were given plots. The land was divided up by the peasants under the supervision of surveyors. The main effect of land reform was that it gave hundreds of millions of peasants a stake in China for the first time and tied them to the new regime. It made them even more loyal to Mao. What peasants did not know however, was that the long term aim of Mao was collectivisation. Although he was prepared to carry out land reform to destroy landlords, he had no intention of allowing the peasants to retain control of the land. He believed that the only long term solution to the problem of supplying enough food for the Chinese population was to take land away from the peasants and put it under central control.
3: Communist society
The 1950s saw very mixed results from Mao’s reforms overall. Many of the economic reforms failed dismally, but in other respects there were real improvements for the Chinese people. Mao did make real efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people and destroy some of the unpleasant aspects of traditional Chinese society. Unemployment fell dramatically and insurance was introduced. However, urban workers had no right to choose where they worked and were assigned jobs by state labour offices. This often had little regard for the individual's abilities and a job was usually for life. Residence permits prevented people moving, and it was virtually impossible for peasants to move to the cities. In fact Mao tried to force city dwellers to move to the countryside on several occasions.
The restrictions on industrial workers were part of Mao’s attempts to control the cities, which had been the strongest areas of the GMD’s support. Mao instinctively distrusted urban workers and all forms of technical experts. This distrust continued all of his life and became one of the reasons for the Cultural Revolution.
On the positive side, an eight-hour, six-day working week was introduced. Workers received one week paid holiday a year and up to three weeks 'family visiting' holiday. This was intended to compensate industrial workers for the lack of choice in where they worked. Retirement was introduced at 50-55 for women and 55-60 for men. Pensions were 60%-80% of income. Health services and education were free for all. Education became a right and was made compulsory. Housing, water, electricity and other services were all subsidised.
Mao also tried to improve the status of women in China. Before 1950 Chinese women had few rights and were considered to be second class citizens. Peasants wanted sons to work in the fields, so daughters were often sold as slaves or forced to marry. Men could be polygamous and women could be concubines. Some progress had been made under the GMD, but the changes had had little impact outside of the cities. In the countryside traditional values survived. Mao, however, introduced important reforms from 1950. Equality of the sexes in education, employment and pay was made law and women were given the right to own property for the first time. In 1950 the Marriage Law banned arranged marriages, polygamy, child betrothal and concubinage, although some practices continued. Divorce was allowed in China for the first time. Maternity benefits were introduced in 1951, including feeding time and nurseries in government run businesses.
There were some significant results from Mao’s policies. By the 1970s almost 50% of China's doctors were women and 30% of engineers and scientists, but there were only two female ministers, out of 29 and only one of the twelve vice-premiers was female. While the CCP preached equality and enforced it in society, it did not practise what it preached. The Party hierarchy continued to be dominated by old men
Mao's policies regarding women were somewhat undermined by his determination to increase the population as much as possible. Mao saw an increase in the population as a way of increasing the strength of the nation. Peasants wanted sons who could work in the fields. Mao wanted a larger population because he believed in the use of manpower for industrial progress. However, by the late 1950s the consequences of unlimited population increase were becoming obvious.
4: The First Five Plan
At the same time as the attack on landlords, the CCP also brought the Chinese economy under control. By the early 1950s the economy faced severe problems. During the years of GMD domination, corruption had led to inflation and a devalued currency. This weakened central control. The military campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s had resulted in massive expenditure and debt. Somehow these had to be tackled. The Chinese population was also beginning to increase rapidly, in particular in the cities. From 1949 to 1957 the number of people living in Chinese cities increased from 57 millions to 100 millions. These posed the most serious problems. Not only was there the question of making sure that the cities were under effective CCP control, but these massive increases meant that food production had to increase because city dwellers could not feed themselves.
Mao set about tackling these problems. By 1952, inflation was down from 1000% to 15%. A new currency, the yuan, had been introduced, which stabilised public finances and restored confidence. Public expenditure had been reduced and taxes on city dwellers had been increased. Mao was assisted by plans that had been set up by Chiang before his flight to Taiwan. The GMD had already created a National Resources Committee and 200,000 of its workers had stayed in China. This was the background for the First Five Plan. Without the aid of the infrastructure set up by the GMD, Mao would have found his task much more difficult.

Despite all of the efforts of the GMD and the CCP, China had remained a mainly agricultural country with few industries. Mao’s solution was a period of rapid industrial expansion similar to that the Stalin had set up in the 1930s in the Soviet Union. The First Five Year Plan was aimed at rapid industrial growth, which would enable China to develop quickly. The main areas of concentration were coal, steel and petro-chemicals.


In almost all respects the First Five Year Plan was a success. Economic growth ran at 9% per annum during the five years. Most targets were achieved, with the notable exceptions of oil and merchant ships. National expenditure rose from 6,810 million yuan in 1952 to 29,020 million yuan in 1957. However, most investment was concentrated in 150 large projects, which meant that much of Chinese industry was left untouched.
Significantly, however, the success of the First Five Year Plan was to some extent due to the presence of 10,000 advisers from Soviet Russia. These had been sent by Stalin and remained after his death in 1953. These were almost the last examples of Soviet influence in China. Mao believed that Chinese communism should be based on agricultural communes and not on the urban workers, as Marx and Lenin had stated. In addition, Mao had a deep suspicion of ‘technology experts and scientists’ and believed that the Chinese people could triumph because of their sheer numerical strength. Mao’s determination to put these ideas into practice and to reject other alternatives for modernisation was to prove disastrous in the later 1950s and 1960s.
5: The Hundred Flowers
Despite the industrial success of the First Five Year Plan, it created huge problems. The increase in the numbers of city dwellers meant that food and housing were in very short supply. This led to a great deal of criticism of the Plan. Apparently in response to this criticism, Mao allowed public discussion of the plan. In May 1956 Lu Dungyi, the propaganda chief of the CCP issued the slogan 'Let a hundred flowers bloom and a thousand schools of thought contend’. In February 1957 Mao backed up this statement by calling for public discussion to resolve the problems faced by the Party. This became known as the Hundred Flowers.
The Hundred Flowers was most untypical of Mao, who normally resented criticism and who disliked experts and intellectuals. On the face of it, therefore, Mao was calling for a great debate on the Five Year Plan, but in reality the campaign may well not have been sincere, but simply an attempt to discover any potential opponents.
One interpretation of the Hundred Flowers is that Mao had travelled widely throughout China during the early 1950s and had always been received very warmly. He may have believed that it was now possible to allow greater freedom of expression in China. Mao also seems to have heard that local CCP officials had been accused of acting heavy-handedly and wanted to hear other opinions. Mao may also have become concerned that China was beginning to suffer from the bureaucracy that had affected Soviet Russia. Here there were layers of officials who all had some say in decision-making. Mao seems to have wanted to cut through the red tape and produce a simpler more direct party organisation.
But there is also evidence that Mao’s ideas were becoming less popular in China. In 1954 President Liu Shaoqi had delivered a report to the Congress of the CCP in which he mentioned Mao's name 104 times. At the next Congress in 1956 Liu mentioned Mao only four times. The constitution of 1945 stated that the CCP should be guided by the ‘Thought of Mao Zedong'. In the constitution of 1956 the phrase was not included. To Mao, changes such as this may suggested a weakening of his position in China. Therefore, an alternative view of the Hundred Flowers is that Mao was simply encouraging his opponents to speak out so that he could identify them and deal with them.
Whatever Mao’s motives were, the results of the Hundred Flowers were startling. Many people openly criticised the Plan, especially university lecturers, artists, writers and teachers. Party individuals and policies were attacked as being corrupt, inefficient or unrealistic. Even Mao himself was included. Faced by this criticism, Mao called an immediate end to the campaign and began the Anti-rightist movement, which was directed by Deng Xiaoping. Most of the critics were arrested, lost their jobs and underwent periods of re-education in labour camps. This usually involved making public apologies for their actions. Some leading figures in the CCP were purged. Altogether about 500,000 people were removed.
By the late 1950s the problems caused by China’s rapidly rising population were becoming severe. The population of China's cities had grown, but food supplies had not matched the increase. Mao’s solution was to bring peasants under central control. He ordered the creation of 25,000 Communes. Most contained about 5-6,000 people, but some were as large as several hundred thousand.
The aim of Collectivisation was to restore the balance between the cities and the countryside. The Second Five Year Plan, which began alongside Collectivisation in 1957, was also based on the Commune. Many peasants, who had migrated to the cities during the First Five Year Plan to find work, were now ordered to leave the cities and return to the Communes.
Life in the Communes was strictly regimented. Peasants were ordered to live communally in dormitories, eat in mess halls and tear down their own houses. One aim of this treatment was to try to ensure that the family would become less important. Schools would take over responsibility for the rearing of children. This would ensure that children grew up suitably indoctrinated with Maoist ideas. However, these ideas were only put into practice on a few occasions.
It was not only peasants’ lives that were strictly controlled in the Communes. Strict controls were also enforced to regulate agricultural methods. All individual plots of land were confiscated by the Commune and peasants were also ordered to farm according to instructions and not according to their own experience. This meant that peasants’ knowledge of local conditions was ignored and replaced by central planning. To make matters even worse, the ideas of the Soviet scientist Trofim Lysenko were adopted. He had put forward fraudulent theories, which did great harm to farming. For example, he ordered deep ploughing, which ruined the topsoil and bird-scaring, which allowed insects and pests to flourish.
The results of Collectivisation were disastrous. In 1958 China produced 200 million tonnes of grain and 4.3 million tonnes of meat, but by 1960 the figures were 143.5

million tonnes of wheat and 1.3 million tonnes of meat. Much of the blame lay with the central government, which had assumed that the 1958 figure was 260,000,000. The amount of land set aside for arable farming had, therefore, been reduced. In some areas the problems were made even worse by drought, which reduced crop yields even more.


The falls in production led to a major famine and about 30,000,000 Chinese died. But CCP officials dared not report this to Mao. Peng Dehuai, the Defence Minister attempted to reveal the truth in 1959, but he was condemned and dismissed. In response to Peng’s attacks, Mao had threatened to resign from all his posts if Peng was not dismissed. Eventually, however, even Mao had to admit that Collectivisation was a failure, but he reacted by accusing officials of incompetence.
6: The Great Leap Forward
One cause of the fall in agricultural production was the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which Mao announced in 1957. This was part of the Second Five Year Plan. The Great Leap Forward was an attempt to turn China into an industrial superpower within fifteen years by using the massive manpower of the country. This was followed Mao’s belief in the value of manual labour. Like Collectivisation, the Great Leap Forward was based upon Communes. Workers who had migrated to towns during the First Five Year Plan were sent back to their communes to work. A commune of 30,000 people might have sixteen brigades, who were each divided into eight work teams of 250 people. In the winter of 1957-8 these work teams were thrown into massive scheme of irrigation and water conservation.
The fundamental idea behind the Great Leap Forward was that industrial development could be achieved through the individual efforts of the ordinary Chinese people. It was not necessary, Mao believed, to go through the process of an industrial revolution. The Great Leap Forward also had other advantages in Mao’s eyes. Firstly, it would reinforce the rural community, which Mao believed was the main strength of China and the CCP. Secondly, it would avoid the creation of a class of ‘experts’, which Mao so distrusted.
So Mao appealed to the ordinary people of China to try to produce steel in their own backyards. All over China people began to set up backyard blast furnaces and produce steel. This was a disaster. The steel produced was often unusable as it was of very poor quality. What was worse, to produce steel, peasants neglected their crops that went to ruin. All over China the harvest was left to rot and this made the famine brought about by Collectivisation all the worse.
The most important reason for the failure of the Great Leap Forward was that it was nonsensical. Major industrial development needed capital investment, technology and planning; Mao rejected all of these as revisionist. He was afraid that if he allowed the creation of a class of experts he would lose control of the revolution. Mao’s personal pride and paranoia was allowed take precedence over common-sense and as many as 30,000,000 Chinese died of starvation as a result
The statistics of the Great Leap Forward were startling. Following Mao’s belief in the manual labour of the Chinese peasant, Communes dug the equivalent of 300 Panama Canals. But all of this effort was largely useless. At the same time national income fell by 29% and inflation rose from 0.2% to 16.2%.
The Great Leap Forward was the most spectacular of Mao’s failures. Surprisingly, however, it did not deter him from believing that the key to China’s successful development lay in the great mass of the Chinese people. In the 1960s, he continued to believe that he could use the support of the people to maintain his hold over China and prevent any form of progress of which he disapproved.


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