On Oct. 1, 1949 Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This was the long-awaited conclusion of a civil war between the communists and the nationalist Kuomintang party led by general Chiang-Kai-Shek. To say the fighting was brutal is an understatement. The war raged in fits and started from 1927 to 1949-50. It is unknown how many people died, but the estimates place the number somewhere between six and 14 million. But the war/revolution was the easy part. Next, Mao had to reinvent the Chinese identity in this modern world, and that struggle still remains in China to this day.
After coming to power, Mao sought to modernize China as rapidly as possible. Similar to Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union 20 years previously, Mao was faced with the problem of ruling over a large mass of people with little to no modern tools at his disposal. To do this, he followed the Soviet model. Wealthy landlords had their lands forcibly taken away and redistributed to the poorer peasants. In many cases, refusal to comply or any accusation of counter-revolutionary sentiment was met with humiliation and violence. This was virtually a fruitless endeavor because China had so little industrialization/capitalist influence; there really was no bourgeois class.
While at the same time, life for the poor peasants had never been better. Many got more land than they had ever had before and women finally got equal treatment under the law with new rights such as divorce. At first, party criticism was encouraged with episodes like the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1957. During the campaign, citizens were encouraged to voice their grievances with the party. Yet due to the mass of criticism, it was ended prematurely and the party purged those who had voiced complaints. It was clear early on, dissent would not be tolerated in the PRC.
Mao also followed the Soviet model of the five-year plans. The first one was a massive success, thanks in large part to aid from Soviet experts and money. Yet the sharp rise in economic growth could not be kept up without backsliding into capitalism. Also, due to the ever increasing Sino-Soviet split, Mao could not count on help from the Soviet Union for further five-year plans. Thus, Mao came up with the Great Leap Forward. Essentially, Mao felt the country could be psyched into more production through the revolutionary spirit. To do this all farms were collectivized or state-run. This basically meant every farmer was a government worker. Provinces and districts were given quotas to be met for food production, and provinces competed on industrial projects like dams and dikes. The problem was that nobody wanted to underperform due to the fear of facing party condemnation. This meant in many places, party administrators lied about how well they were performing, and thus the quotas were raised because it seemed that the people were easily exceeding them. This and many other factors led to the largest famine in human history. Between 1958 and 1962 an estimated 30 to 45 million people are believed to have died, many from starvation. Mao’s plan was a disaster for China and he was basically reduced to a party figurehead after that. But Mao had a plan to reinsert himself into party leadership, and it would arguably be even more destructive.
In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Mao felt China was losing the revolutionary spirit and felt that to regain it, China should empower its youth. The youth were encouraged to criticize the so-called “four olds.” They were old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. These youth members organized into what became known as Mao’s red guards. The chaos was totally and utterly unassailable. Those accused of being insufficiently revolutionary could be publically humiliated and even be met with violence. Somewhere between 500,000 and two million people are believed to have died during the Cultural Revolution. This is the period when much of China’s original Buddhist temples were destroyed and many artists and members of the party were purged. Those purged were either expelled from the party, killed or sent into the countryside to see how the “real China” operated. They were often forced to do hard labor in very unsafe conditions and were bombarded with the party line. The period ended with Mao’s death in 1976.
After the death of Mao, the nation was at a crossroads. Clearly the nation was in trauma after the Cultural Revolution and party reflection was necessary. In 1981, the party condemned the Cultural Revolution. In the 80s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, market reforms were initiated and very slowly private enterprise was allowed to enter. However, while the country was economically reformed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still maintained its ultimate authority as seen in June, 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent crackdowns, as well as the recent protests in Hong Kong. The importance of control was reinforced after the collapse of the USSR after they initiated sweeping political reforms. For China the lesson was clear: Too much political leniency could lead to a loss of power. Yet, it is hard to argue that contemporary China is a true socialist state. With billionaires present as well as corporations like McDonald’s, it is clear that their goal is no longer world revolution by the proletariat. Yet in recent years, under the current president Xi Xingping, China is seeing a resurgence in authoritarian rule. Xi has removed the practice of term limits put in place after Mao. Also, in a startling parallel to the Cultural Revolution, millions of Muslim Uyghurs in western China are being put in re-education centers. This is due to the party’s fear of Islamic terror spreading through its far western regions.
While China has made startling progress in standards of living, women’s rights and economic development in the past 70 years, the constant has been the total control of the CCP. With a slowing economy and tension with the U.S. over the current trade war, this current era is shaping up to be another critical era in the PRC’s history.
Ben Sagal-Morris is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at email@example.com