Chinese Revolution and Mao

The Bipolar "North," 1945-1991

Author: Wallbank;Taylor;Bailkey;Jewsbury;Lewis;Hackett

Date: 1992

Chinese Revolutions

Between 1927 and 1937 Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang)

government initiated useful reforms in the cities which, had it not been for

Japanese aggression in China, might have expanded to include the rest of the

country. Unfortunately for Chiang, the Nationalists after 1937 lost many of

their strongest supporters and most of their prosperous area to Japanese

control. By the end of World War II, after eight years of combat, the Chinese

Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek was a defeated and worn-out regime.

In contrast, the communists came out of the war with great popularity, control

of an area with 90 million people, and a disciplined and loyal army of


Civil War In China

Following the victory over Japan, U.S. troops, cooperating with Chinese

Nationalist forces, recaptured land taken by the Japanese. The Americans

helped move Chinese troops to strategic areas such as Manchuria. At the same

time, the Soviet Union reclaimed areas formerly controlled by the tsars.

During this time Chiang tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement with

Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). In October 1945 heavy fighting broke out between

the Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces.

For the next three years the United States tried to end the conflict. In

December 1945 President Truman defined American policy toward China: The

United States regarded the Nationalist regime as the legal government of China

but since it was a one-party system, it was necessary that full opportunity be

given to other groups to participate in a representative government. To that

end, Truman urged an end to the fighting.

General George C. Marshall, U.S. army chief of staff, went to China to

implement Truman's policy and to act as friendly mediator. Marshall, newly

appointed as American secretary of state, returned home in January 1947, his

mission a failure. In his final report, he blasted extremists on both sides

for failing to make peace.

The Communist Victory

Chiang's army - poorly equipped, miserably paid, and suffering low morale

- began to disintegrate. The communists captured city after city, frequently

facing only token resistance. Economic problems added to Chiang's military

dilemma. The Nationalists had been unable to rebuild the economy after 1945,

and inflation soared: the U.S. dollar came to be worth 93,000 Chinese dollars

on the black market. Serious riots broke out, and thousands of workers went on

strike in Shanghai.

By the end of 1947 the Nationalist forces went into retreat. In 1948 the

Nationalist presence in Manchuria collapsed. The complete defeat of Chiang's

armies occurred in 1949 when the "People's Liberation Army" captured the major

cities in China. Mao proclaimed the establishment of his government on October

1, 1949, and by the middle of 1950 Mao ruled all of mainland China. Chiang's

Nationalists sought refuge on Formosa.

Mao and his forces imposed a tightly centralized administration extending

to Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and Chinese Turkestan. In 1950 his armies moved

into Tibet. The Peking government continued to seek to regain the traditional

holdings of the "Central Kingdom," especially those lands gained by Russia

during the nineteenth century. Such a policy caused serious problems not only

for the Soviet Union but also for Vietnam, Burma, and India.

Mao's policy attracted a large following, calling as it did for a mild

program of reform, including the confiscation of large farms, state control of

large businesses, protection of small private concerns, rapid

industrialization under state control, and increased benefits to labor such as

social insurance. The government that eventually appeared, however, was far

more fierce and totalitarian.

Right-wing Americans, influenced by the demagoguery of Senator Joseph

McCarthy, charged that liberals and "fellow travelers" (those who espoused

social aims similar to the communists') lost China. ^1 U.S. American military

aid to China during World War II totaled $845 million; from 1945 to 1949 it

came to slightly more than $2 billion. It is extremely doubtful whether

additional American military aid poured into China would have changed the

final outcome of the civil war. The bulk of the Nationalist forces had lost

the will to fight. Large quantities of American arms sent to Chiang's army

were turned over to the communists by apathetic Nationalist leaders.

[Footnote 1: Richard Rovere, Senator McCarthy (London: Methuen, 1959), p. 24.]

Mao's Government

After 1949, Mao used his version of Marxism to change the whole order of

society from its traditional patterns. Tolerating no opposition, he

concentrated all power in the communist party, which was led by the People's

Central Committee. This group held all major civil and military positions. The

day-to-day work of the central committee fell to a smaller politburo, headed

by Mao, the chairman of the republic.

The new government brought both inflation and corruption under control,

and then began to apply the Soviet model of the 1930s to China. As more than

70 percent of farmland was owned by 10 percent of the rich landlords, the

government proceeded to confiscate large holdings and redistribute them,

temporarily, to landless peasants. Late in 1953 the party stripped the large

landowners and even prosperous peasants of their holdings, executing an

estimated 2 to 4 percent (from 2 to 5 million) of them in the process. The

party then established huge farm collectives. Within three years, nearly all

peasants had become members of rural collectives in which, although individual

land ownership was retained in theory, all labor, farm equipment, and land

were pooled.

In 1953 a Soviet-style Five-Year Plan for economic development in

industry was begun. The Chinese made impressive advances in heavy industry,

and the success of the first plan led to the second Five-Year Plan, the

so-called Great Leap Forward. The Chinese built on their own experience,

rejecting parts of the Soviet model. They launched the Great Leap Forward with

a huge propaganda campaign and galvanized millions of urban and rural workers

into a frezied effort to increase tremendously the production of steel,

electricity, and coal. Thousands of small, backyard furnaces sprang up to

produce steel. The Chinese boldly predicted that they would surpass British

industrial capacity in fifteen years.

In the countryside Mao installed the People's Communes. The state created

some 26,000 of these units, each averaging 5000 households, or about 25,000

people. The heads of the communes collected taxes and ran schools, child-care

centers, dormitories, communal kitchens, and even cemeteries in this massive

attempt at social experimentation. Mao tried to convert peasants into a rural

proletariat paid in wages. All land, dwellings, and livestock reverted to the

effective ownership of the communes until the late 1970s. During the two

decades in which the People's Communes functioned, they helped produce

improvements in medical care and literacy.

The Great Leap Forward ultimately proved to be disastrous for China.

Central planners erred in allocating resources and capital, and farm

production fell. The steel and iron produced in the backyard furnaces turned

out to be unusable. At the same time the Great Leap was failing, the Soviet

Union withdrew its technological and financial support. From 1959 to 1961

Chinese industry lacked essential raw materials and millions of people went

without adequate food. Between 1960 and 1962 the combination of bad weather

and chaos bequeathed by the failure of the Great Leap Forward resulted in

malnutrition and the premature death of between 16 and 30 million people.

Faced with this crisis, the government radically changed its economic

policy. In the communes social experimentation and centralized control were

relaxed. Working conditions were improved and private plots in which peasants

were allowed to keep or sell the crops and animals they raised were used as

incentives to increase agricultural production. Between 1961 and 1964 industry

also recovered, and the discovery of petroleum provided new energy sources.

China made advances in light industry, especially in consumer goods and cotton

production. Signs of technological progress included the detonation of a

nuclear device in 1964 and a hydrogen bomb in 1967.

[See Mao's China About 1947]

The Cultural Revolution And After

By the early 1960s an ideological schism widened between Mao and some of

his longtime comrades. The moderates advocated gradual social change and

economic development; the radicals sought to carry on immediately with the

drastic restructuring of Chinese society. Mao believed, or so it seemed, that

many in the party had lost their revolutionary zeal. He advocated a continuous

revolution in which the masses should be kept in motion lest the revolution


In the mid-1960s Mao mobilized the Red Guards, a radical student militia.

They attacked the moderates and forced Maoist orthodoxy on party members and

populace alike. In all areas, from surgery to nuclear physics and beyond,

Mao's words were law. Application of the wisdom of Chairman Mao, as contained

in the little red book, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, was to lead to

miraculous achievements. Placing political purity above economic growth, the

Red Guards hampered production and research. Their rallies and demonstrations

disrupted the entire educational system.

The effects of this "Cultural Revolution" were dire. By 1967 industrial

production had plummeted and basic education and research had ceased; some

areas of the country were approaching anarchy. Into this void stepped the

People's Liberation Army (PLA), which was the most important element in

Chinese politics until 1985. The PLA brought the Red Guards under control,

restored order, and put an end to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao's long-time associate, Premier Chou Enlai (1898-1976) restored the

country's industrial productivity. The return to political stability was more

difficult, but Chou managed to hold the country together while rival factions

intrigued for power. Chou removed China from the diplomatic isolation in which

it had resided since 1958. He responded to a diplomatic initiative made by the

Nixon administration in 1971 and moved closer to the United States, motivated

perhaps by the armed border clashes with the USSR that occurred along the Amur

River. In addition, China sought to develop its industrial capacity through

the use of foreign technology and to bring in foreign currency through an

expanded banking system based in the British crown colony of Hong Kong and the

development of a tourist industry.

China Since 1976

After Chou's - and Mao's - death in 1976, the jockeying for control

continued with varying intensity. Leading the more militant faction, the

so-called Gang of Four, was Mao's widow, Jiang Xing (Chiang Ching), who was

overthrown, disgraced, and brought to a televised show trial in 1980. Her

demise paved the way for the advent of a more moderate, pragmatic group of

officials led by Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-Ping).

Deng was a political survivor, whose roots in the party went back to the

1920s. He survived political exile and the cultural revolution to introduce

his variant of reform Marxism in which the party kept control of the

"commanding heights" of the economy. Aided by his liberal chief lieutenants,

Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Deng introduced a pragmatic series of economic


The first major move to introduce a more market-oriented economy came in

the countryside in 1978. The party allowed greater personal profit for the

peasants, and this resulted in a vast increase in productivity. China had a

grain surplus in six of the next seven years. With more food in the cities,

and a contented peasantry, Deng in 1985 encouraged the introduction of the

free market economy in the cities, with the goal of gaining similar economic

gains there. To foster the rapid transformation of the underdeveloped country,

Deng permitted the entry of Western experts and technology. Western,

especially American, influence grew in the cities in China during the 1980s,

along with foreign trade and the influx of foreigners.

The government continued to keep the cost of medicine low and

supplemented wages with accident insurance, medical coverge, day-care centers,

and maternity benefits. The standard of living in China improved, but the

removal of price controls on food and other staple items led to inflation.

Even with economic progress, the standard of living in China remained far

below the standards in industrialized countries.

The educational system changed drastically under the communists. In the

1930s only 20 percent of the people had been literate. By the end of the

1980s, the figure had risen to 75 percent. Across China, a crash program of

schooling was initiated, and "spare-time" schools with work/study programs for

those unable to attend school full-time were established. Thousands of Chinese

students emigrated abroad to study, including some 40,000 who went to the

United States.

Deng Xiaoping had worked for the economic liberalization of his country

but had not sponsored similar reform on the political front. The students in

1987 were the first to express discontent with inflation and corruption in

China. In the spring of 1989, students across China demonstrated in honor of

the liberal politician Hu Yaobang, who had died in March. The demonstrators

went on to criticize the government of Deng Xiaopeng. The protest reached a

climax in May and June when thousands of demonstrators calling for democracy

occupied the ceremonial center of modern China, Tiananmen Square in Peking.

The party split over how to deal with the protestors and their

supporters, sometimes numbering a million strong. Zhao advocated accommodation

but Li Peng called for a crackdown. While the debate went on within the party,

the students erected a tall replica of the Statue of Liberty to symbolize

their demands for democracy and an end to corruption. By the end of May the

students had won the enthusiastic support of the workers and citizens of

Peking, Shanghai, and Chengdu. Finally, in June the party had decided what to

do about the protestors. The People's Liberation Army, using tanks and machine

guns, cleared the Square and the surrounding area of the student

demonstrators. Over 3000 people were killed in the massacre.

By 1990, it was apparent that China would not retreat into another period

of diplomatic isolation. Deng Xiaoping had integrated his country too firmly

into the world economy for that. Chinese leaders worked skillfully to maintain

their commercial relations and to regain two traditionally Chinese areas to

help their struggling economy.

The leaders in Peking had already worked out an agreement with the

British in which the rich crown colony of Hong Kong would come under Chinese

authority in 1997. Peking saw a major potential source of economic strength

across the Straits of Formosa in Taiwan, where Chiang and the remnant of his

forces had fled in 1949. For the next quarter century, the United States

recognized the Taipei government as the legitimate government of China. By

1989 Taiwan's GNP had reached $100 billion, and its 23 million people had an

average annual per capita income of close to $5000. Mainland China, in

contrast, had a GNP of $440 billion, and a per capita income of $360 for its

1.15 billion people.

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