Nightmare China

The four Asian “Tigers” – Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore –  emerged during the 1960s, and Japan exceled magnificently.  Meanwhile, CHINA convulsed and burned.  In this period, Chinese leaders turned their backs both on the West and their apparent ideological ally, the Soviet Union.  In contrast to the many countries that opened themselves and advanced amid the general prosperity of the postwar world, China closed in on itself — every bit as much as it did before the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century forced it open at the barrel of a gun.  In the period from 1958 to 1972, China closed down in order to search for its own path to modernity, to industrialization, and to socialism in the two wrenching reform movements now known as the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.”  This is a period that exactly straddles the 1960s with profound negative consequences for China in lost productivity, lost world relations, and a generation of Chinese killed.  Indeed, the 1960s was China’s lost decade of the twentieth century, and only in the 1970s would the mainland again connect with such countries as the United States, Japan, West Germany and France.  Even then, China’ s leaders were divided as to the wisdom of reemergence which began with reestablishment of relations with the United States in 1972, and continued in the subsequent reforms of Deng Xiaoping after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.  China remains ambivalent to this day about the mix of free markets and state control, which in the Chinese version is dubbed officially a “socialist market economy.”

The era of the 1960s in China is the climax of events that go back several decades in the twentieth century to the Chinese Civil War, one of the great struggles of modern times.  It began in 1921 as a clash of ideologies and visions between a nationalist Kuomintang party (KMT) and a newly-formed communist party (CCP).  Until 1924, they fought together to defeat a variety of warlords who refused to relinquish power for the cause of one unified Chinese Republic after the collapse of the Ching dynasty in 1911.  Irreconcilable differences split the KMT and CCP after 1927.  General Chiang Kai-shek assumed leadership of the Nationalists from Sun Yat-sen, and the communists set up separate enclaves called “soviets” throughout the country under a variety of leaders, even declaring the “Chinese Soviet Republic” in 1931 with its own capital in the southern province of Jiangxi near Guangzhou.  Chiang launched a series of military assaults to recapture territory claimed by the CCP but failed until 1934 when a fourth offensive forced the evacuation of the communists onto a year-long 6,000-mile migration into north central China that left the movement a remnant of its former self and scattered.  In an effort to survive, the Communist army seized property and weapons along its route from local property owners, and recruited peasants to its ranks with promises of land reform.  Though weakened by 90%, this “Long March” of the communist Red Army began the ascent to power in 1935 of Mao Zadong whose leadership during the retreat gained him the support of the members of his party.  For the longer term, it gave an air of heroicism to the survivors of the retreat in the face of terrible odds that appealed to the masses of poor.

In the war years of 1937-45, Chiang and the KMT concentrated on containing the CCP because they were too weak to meet Japan head on.  Mao and Chiang left the United States to defeat Japan outside China, and sparred with each other for influence in the unoccupied provinces – so-called “Free China.”  With the Japanese surrender in 1945, the United States invited the CCP and the KMT to peace negotiations.  Each agreed on the need for political democracy, the importance of local elections, a unified military force, and the equal status for all political parties.  In addition, China should convene a National Congress to mark the end of the period of “political tutelage” that China’s first post-dynastic president, Sun Yat-sen, said would precede the transition to democracy after its European occupation.   Military realities overrode vague agreed-to principles, however, and the truce fell apart in June 1946 as China lapsed into chaos and an all-out civil war that would determine the nature of the future country – either representative democracy or communist. 

After the war, the Nationalists seemed to have had within their grasp the good chance to construct a united China.  But the Japanese occupation and the decades-long civil strife with the communists left terrible conditions throughout the country including severe shortages of staples, displacement of peoples, and acute inflation.  At first, Chiang kai-shek had an advantage over Mao in numbers and momentum from his wartime alliance with the United States, and his domination of the Chinese cities.  The Soviet Union assisted the communists with supplies – particularly in the northern area of Manchuria – including captured Japanese weapons.  The United States supplied the Nationalist forces with materiale, loans, training, soldiers, and logistical support.  But even under the best scenarios, postwar conditions would be difficult to manage, and the Chiang regime was wracked by inefficiency, corruption, nepotism, and a lack of planning that steadily whittled away the bases of popular support.

Mao relied on support from the countryside, constant movement, and guerrilla tactics in an attempt to wear down the Nationalist military superiority.  After the war, CCP claimed about a million men and it gained recruits steadily and American equipment from Nationalist surrenders.  Destroying Chiang’s rail communications, infiltrating KMT units, and always avoiding unfavorable terms of battle, Mao’s resources grew in size and power.  In late 1946, the communists reorganized its fighting forces as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and were aided by the mobilized support of millions of peasants who rallied to Mao’s sharpened ideological message to the villages and countryside.  In the north-central territories in which they were strongest, Mao shifted his land reform focus from rent reduction and redistribution to outright confiscation and public punishment of what he called “class enemies.”  By contrast, the Nationalist message to the countryside was a pledge of gradual change in land tenure.

Widespread shortages, spiraling inflation, and currency problems reduced China’s major cities to barter, and constant strikes by communist-infiltrated unions wracked industrial recovery.  The economic and social disaster matched the situation of Chiang’s armies which appeared hopeless by 1948.  Mao’s program of violent populism inspired a country devastated by war.  Without a similarly inspirational message, the forces of Nationalists became increasingly demoralized.  At a time of great want and uncertainty for millions, Mao seemed to provide both – however untested, vindictive, or vague.  

Throughout the summer and fall of 1948, the communist armies increased in scope and confidence and they abandoned guerrilla tactics in favor of a conventional strategy of massed troops – the same approach so often used against them by Chiang.  Reminiscent of the Manchu invasions of the mid-17th century that ended the Ming Dynasty, Mao pressed inexorably into central China, spilling over the Yellow River to the banks of the Yangzi – the natural line dividing north and south China.  There he halted in early spring, 1949, and presented an ultimatum of surrender to the Nationalists.  Refused, the communist campaign resumed with lightning speed, capturing the KMT’s capital of Nanjing in April, and scattering several Nationalist armies in the south and east; and as far as Xinjiang in the west.  The Nationalist government retreated to Canton, then to Chongqing and Chengdu before abandoning the mainland altogether on December 10, 1949 for the island of Taiwan which Chiang had prepared as a last resort the previous year.  Amidst these dramatic events, Mao Zadong had declared the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949.  After twenty-eight years of hard trial and error on the road to power, the Party appeared to possess the vision, confidence, and will to create a new China.  

The communist victory recalled the great epochs of the Chinese past when sweeping reorganizations took place when one dynasty replaced another as when the Ming had swept away the Mongol regime (Yuan) and established a new imperial order, or the Manchus referred to above.  In the first months and years of the CCP, the main focus of the Chinese leaders had to do with practical tasks:  stabilizing the country politically after the civil war with the Nationalists and reorienting it ideologically, increasing agricultural production, rebuilding the country’s degraded industrial base after the World War II, and restoring law and order.  It also had to do with designating Peking as China’s capital in place of Nanjing, choosing a five-pointed star with four subsidiary stars on a red field as a national flag, and establishing a centralized banking system as well as a single “people’s currency” or renmindi – as a new money standard.  

Together with stabilization policies, the Party had to follow through with some kind of land reform to maintain the basis of peasant support.  Starting in mid-1950 this occurred in comparatively mild form and over about 40% of cultivated land.  Though these first plots were quite small for families, landlord and tenant ties were broken that had lasted for generations.  Reforms wrecked the power base of the old landlord elite in the countryside as party cadres infiltrated the farms, and pitted people against each other in an attempt to create class-based loyalties for the revolution, stirring up animosities and encouraging public denunciations.  Perhaps a million landlords or landlord family members died in this earliest reform effort.  

In the cities, by contrast, the first tasks of the regime were to prevent confrontation, not encourage it, and to entice workers to stay on the job so industry could retool after years of disruption.  In this, Mao’s meeting with Stalin in Moscow in December 1949 was key, as he secured a long-term agreement of “friendship, alliance, and mutual assistance” by which the Soviets supplied the Chinese with financial and technical assistance for reconstruction and economic recovery.  Nine months after Mao’s victory, war broke out in Korea.  This complicated the relationship with the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, which seemed close based on what appeared to be a common ideology of communism and a common opposition to the West.  In these first years, though, China needed resources, and modeled itself on the Soviet Union in industry, education, and even followed the Soviet lead in foreign affairs.

The Korean War changed many perspectives.  Six months before war broke out, the United States declared a containment perimeter in Asia that included neither Korea nor the island of Taiwan.  Now that perimeter included both.  For the Soviet Union, the energetic American response in Korea made it more willing to supply assistance of various kinds to China.  For China itself, the American switch of policy on Taiwan from neutral to defensive triggered a wave of anti-Americanism, and China targeted the United States as its prime “imperialist” enemy.  A wave of arrests of Americans in China on business or for religious reasons persisted throughout the war years.  But anti-Americanism developed into a broader hardening of attitudes to anyone foreign or perceived to bear malign intentions toward the Party such as those who had been in contact with foreign firms, universities, or religious organizations. 

Most importantly, the war provided a kind of cover for the CCP to reorganize the country politically along revolutionary communist Maoist lines. , and build up its own ranks of Party faithful, by tearing it apart with four targeted campaigns against  its own citizens deemed by leadership to be blocking revolutionary progress.  

The years 1950-53 saw four overlapping campaigns that targeted perceived enemies of the state, and sought to find and test Party loyalists.  The first campaign was aimed at foreign businessmen generally as well as Western institutions, such as the Catholic Church and, importantly any Chinese associated with them.  Domestic “counterrevolutionaries” possibly opposed to the CCP were next.  Millions of Chinese who had been in the Nationalist party, armies, or youth organizations were now investigated, and mass rallies in cities publicized the “crimes” of the those with unacceptable past histories.  “Bandits,” “criminals,” “spies” and ancient secret societies were ferreted out by the thousands of committees formed in the neighborhoods and wards across the country.  Shanghai formed 2,000 committees alone and assembled evidence on 40,000 people.  Over 28,000 people were executed in Guangdong alone.  The state used the campaign against counterrevolutionaries to disarm the populace of the bewildering mass of weaponry accumulated during the long years of fighting between Mao and Chiang.  As an additional security measure, all those over fifteen had to obtain passports to move from one locale to another.

Simultaneous with the second campaign was a third – a purging of the communist party itself by Party chiefs – and directed against what was called the “Three-Anti’s” of corruption, waste, and obstructionist bureaucracy.  In January 1952, the Three Anti drive thrust into still a fourth mass campaign, this time directed against Chinese industrialists and businessmen who had stayed on after the Communist takeover, and who “represented” the capitalist class – a vague category that could include anyone the state chose to charge.  Domestic businesses were now threatened as foreign capitalists had been the year before.  Party cadres organized workers into brigades to find and root out employers guilty of “crimes” of all sorts and exhorted workers to confront their bosses directly, denounce them of “abuses” and demand “voluntary” confessions.  In Shanghai, some 70,000 businessmen were examined and denounced in the month of April 1952 alone.  This campaign took place in all Chinese cities as an act of class warfare that mirrored in scope and intensity the earlier moves against the landlords in the countryside.  The campaign identified Party loyalists, asserted government control over worker organizations, and cowed those business leaders who did not leave the country since it was clear the CCP would not honor private property or acknowledge any separation between the operation of the private sector and the state.  With land reform complete, the capitalist class broken in the cities, foreigners expelled, and the Korean War over, the CCP was ready to proceed to transform China into a modern and communist state – including mass collectivization in both agriculture and industry.  In 1953, it introduced its first Five-Year Plan to build up a country it had just torn down.

One goal of the plan was to increase farm production to meet the food demands of the growing cities and to pay for goods imported from the Soviet bloc.  To this end, nine-tenths of peasants had pooled their small holdings into fully collective farms with shared equipment, seed, and draft animals.  These farms became the focus of village life throughout China, and were run by collective farm chairmen who were enthusiastic appointees of the Party that replaced the scholarly Confucian gentry in power for centuries.  These officials were among the most local administrators, and they reported through a tightly-centralized structure up through provincial and regional levels to the seven-member Central Committee in Peking.  

The class warfare was less vicious in the cities.  The communists tried to win the support of the managers and technicians the Revolution needed to keep the mills and plants running and to assimilate those capitalists who had not left with the Nationalists in 1949.  Nevertheless, the CCP adopted a Soviet model of state-controlled production, and during the period 1953-57 nationalized all banking, industry, and trade.  Those big bosses who resisted outright state ownership or joint ownership with the state were executed immediately.  The less important ones were forced to reform through hard labor.  The first five-year plan set all kinds of targets for commodities like steel, chemicals, cement and cotton goods; and government ministries multiplied to handle an ever-more complicated production profile.  The twin initiatives in farming and industry saw dramatic production increases of foodstuffs and industrial goods.  And progress across the country seemed to forestall resistance to Party initiatives.  Indeed, most of China’s population during these years saw no alternative but to have faith in Chairman Mao and the Party, though in truth, most anti-communist leadership had been eliminated in the period before the First Five Plan.

Despite disruptions, the four years after 1953 were a time of optimism and expectations for China compared to what would come later.  Population rose rapidly; the end of the Korean War and the death of Joseph Stalin marked new beginnings; and the new Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, visited Peking in 1954 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the People’s Republic.  China’s charismatic foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, worked to tighten relations with neighbors such as Mongolia, Laos, and North Korea; and China enhanced its international prestige diplomatically when a Chinese delegation under Zhou attended the meetings convened in Geneva, Switzerland in April 1954 to settle the Franco-Vietnamese War.  Here, Zhou walked a delicate line between Soviet, French, American, and North Vietnamese demands and counterproposals.

Perhaps of greatest political importance was China’s participation in the Bandung conference held in Indonesia in 1955.  The communist Vietminh had won an impressive victory at Dien Bien Phu against French forces.  This led a number of non-Communist countries to form a new alliance in September 1954 called SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) signed at Manila by the United States, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan.  Its goal was the general one of stopping Communist advances in Asia, but specifically in Laos and Cambodia.  Zhou En-lai complained vociferously that the United States was rearming Japan and aiding the Nationalists in Taiwan while China was working only for “the progress of mankind and world peace.”  In response to area tensions, the five countries known as the Colombo Powers – India, Burma, Indonesia, Pakistan (which was also a SEATO member), and Ceylon – invited China to join them at Bandung in the spring of 1955 for a general gathering of twenty-nine African and Asian nations.  Here was the germ of a grouping of purportedly neutralist nations whose ranks would grow with dissolution of British and French Empires during the 1960s.  They would join not the “first world” bloc of the West nor the “second world” bloc of the communist East.  Rather, these new nations would compose a “third world” whose leaders would be a veritable “Who’s who” of neutralist leadership in the 1950s and 1960s including Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and Sukarno of Indonesia.  To this grouping, China added its voice.

Chinese confidence came from its increasing economic stability, its acceptance on the world stage in Asia, and its relationship with the Soviet Union.  After Korea, China followed the Soviet pattern of industrialization and drew close militarily.  Mao called for “a tidal wave of learning from the Soviet Union on a nation-wide scale.”  In army, naval and air force affairs, China followed the Soviet lead, with China assembling Soviet hardware and Chinese officers training at Soviet schools.  In 1954 and again in 1958, Chinese shelled Taiwan and adjacent islands.  On the surface at least, this period seemed to see China advancing in confidence and benefitting from a series of high-profile Soviet triumphs: the explosion of a thermonuclear device (hydrogen bomb) in 1953 and launching of two satellites into orbit (Sputniks) in 1957.

Ambivalence about the course of China’s revolution bubbled to the surface from what appeared to be Chairman Mao’s clarion call for free speech in 1957, but what turned out to be a mechanism by which the Party could identify and purge the opposition.  During the “Hundred Flowers Campaign,” thousands of intellectuals at universities and across the country criticized recent rural and industrial policies, and once they had done so, were branded as “rightists . . . those with incorrect thoughts . . . counter-revolutionaries.”  Historians, writers, economists, philosophers, scientists – scholars of all descriptions – were ruined, exiled to labor camps, shot, jailed, driven to suicide and subjected to withering propaganda campaign in major newspapers.  The elimination of the final pockets of friction came with a vengeance.  Almost all foreigners, opposition businessmen and intellectuals had left the country, and China lurched toward the 1960s ready for a new era of revolutionary struggle.

In 1958 a new five-year plan began, and its first emphasis was agriculture.  To speed up progress, Mao wanted to use the force he believed in most – China’s sheer numbers – for what has come to be known as “The Great Leap Forward.”  Propaganda cartoons showed how China was meant to overtake western industry and food production.  Land, so ceremoniously given to the peasants in small plots after the Revolution, was now taken back and peasants were herded into huge farms, or “people’s communes,” of often 100,000 people each.  Projects of huge proportions had thousands assigned to them.  Production brigades were sent where they were thought to be needed most, and under military-style discipline.  The Party said it was a better, faster, more efficient way to build socialism.  The last vestiges of private land ownership were eliminated completely by 1958; with the organization of the population into large groupings, now family life would be destroyed.  Peasants would eat food cooked in central kitchens; children would be looked after in communal groups while their parents worked round the clock.

Besides agriculture, huge construction projects pitted great masses of people against apparently insuperable obstacles.  Hundreds of thousands of workers set to work on dams, canals, railroads, power stations and bridges and were celebrated as revolutionary heroes. (Red Flag Canal of the 1960s was built entirely by dynamite and manual labor.)  To meet the most ambitious Great Leap goal, Mao told the Chinese that production of steel had to double in one year.  And instead of producing this just with heavy industry, the energy and idealism of the peasants were to be mobilized again.  Furnaces for production of raw steel were built in all shapes and sizes in villages and backyards across the country.  Thousands collected any useable metal scrap, and melted down doorknobs, wash basins, iron-chain fences, tools, even cooking woks.  People formed teams and competed day and night to see who could produce more steel.  Forests were decimated to fuel the primitive furnaces twenty-fours a day.  Coal was dug out when wood supplies ran low.  People of all professions – from doctors to accountants – neglected their normal jobs to answer the call for production.

Less than a year after it had begun by thousands, many began to see that the massive mobilization in industry and the countrywide was folly.  Slowly it became clear that after so much effort and time, after so much metal melted down, after so much wood and coal burned, the steel produced was impure, weak, and useless.  The full effect of the disastrous experiment began to be seen in 1959 because, while the peasants had been busy making steel, they had done little else.  Crops had rotted in fields, seed hadn’t been planted.  In fact, the farming situation was worse than represented because of falsified data.  Throughout the summer of 1959, local officials claimed bumper harvests.  Mao himself was taken to see the supposedly prodigious yields being reported, which were much higher than reality, with gross exaggerations the rule in order to meet targets and satisfy local official demands.  Party cadres inflated claims and figures for fear they would be “defeatists” or “rightists.”  But the peasants paid their taxes in grain based on the size of the harvest.  Because the figures had been falsified, may were forced to surrender all they had.  Critical shortages set in.  Even grain sent to the cities did not make it to the city dwellers there because much of each harvest from the Chinese countryside was exported to pay back Soviet loans coming due.

A drought made the problems worse and, in 1960, the scarcity turned into a major famine.  National food production fell by a quarter.  Reports of cannibalism became common, and the affected areas were sealed off – people left to starve.  In a secret report in 1962 the Party admitted the full extent of the calamity.  Their official figures showed that about 20 million had died from the famine.  It was almost certainly more.  The disaster was partly natural – due to drought, but it was mostly man-made, the report said.  “The Great Leap” – Mao’s Second Five-Year Plan; the drive to jumpstart China by mobilizing its people – failed catastrophically.  Revolutionary zeal, so rigorously encouraged, had not been enough.

As the Great Leap Forward collapsed, relations between China and the Soviet Union did also.  (in what history knows as the Sino-Soviet Split)  China depended on Soviet assistance to develop its own industry, communications network, and power supplies in the first ten years of the People’s Republic.  Soviet influence was also strong in education, city planning, architecture, and the arts.  After the death of Stalin in 1953, Soviet friendship and influence continued and even intensified, particularly after the Korean War had vividly illustrated the weaknesses of the Chinese military that the Soviets could perhaps improve.  In 1957 the two socialist giants signed a secret agreement in Moscow to share technology and learning, including in the nuclear area. 

By this time, however, things had begun to unravel.  Nikita Khrushchev’s post-Stalin policies disconcerted Mao.  Khrushchev’s address to the Twentieth Soviet Party Congress in 1956 had attacked Stalin, someone who Mao had supported politically and ideologically.  Khrushchev also restored relations with people who       Mao considered traitors such as Josef Tito of Yugoslavia who Stalin had roundly denounced in 1948.  But Mao took greatest issue with Khrushchev’s de-emphasis of that core of Marxist-Leninism that called for an inevitable war between communism and capitalist nations.  Khrushchev called this notion outdated, and declared his foreign policy doctrine one of “peaceful coexistence” since there were, in his words, “many paths to socialism.”  In the later 1950s, in the triumphant age of Sputnik and atomic parity with the West, Mao believed that the Communist bloc should present 

a vigorous challenge to the West.  He even saw the benefits of nuclear war, since it would provide the chance to rebuild “on the debris of dead imperialism a civilization thousands of times higher than the capitalists.”  Mao denounced those forsaking such core revolutionary beliefs as weak and “revisionist.”  

In 1958, relations were chilly.  China felt increasingly isolated and uncertain of its grasp over its economy.  It felt threatened by a Taiwan armed by a hostile United States it believed was bent on using nuclear weapons against them.  For his part, Khrushchev increasingly viewed the enormous communes of the Great Leap as “reactionary;” not the keys to rapid development as Mao claimed them to be, and Khrushchev failed to deliver on several provisions of Soviet aid promised in the October 1957 agreements, including those including prototypes of atomic weapons.  In the late 1950s, a series of foreign policy events created trouble for China in foreign policy as well as provided evidence of deteriorating relations with the Soviets.  In 1958 Khrushchev did not support China when the PLA bombarded elements of Chiang Kai-shek’s army on the island of Quemoy near Taiwan.  Rather, China was humbled by President Eisenhower’s show of American naval strength in the Formosa Straits.  In 1959, the coming to power of a pro-Chinese communist government in Laos was thwarted by a right-wing coup – likely with American involvement.  Protests in Tibet turned into rebellion against the Chinese occupation so violent that the Dalai Lama fled to India; and even with Chinese troops dispatched, a Tibetan insurgency continued for some time.  Anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia resulted in thousands of Chinese killed or injured, and many were forced to leave the country – their property destroyed or confiscated.  Khrushchev showed little support for China in the Indonesian dilemma.  To the contrary, he exacerbated problems with new loans and trade agreements with Indonesia, and followed these with support for India when fighting broke out between China and India in territorial disputes over Tibet. (in China’s border conflicts with Pakistan over the northern provinces in Kashmir and Jammu.).  Khrushchev’s trip to the United States that same year seemed to signal the very accommodation with the West that Mao opposed.  “Peaceful co-existence” with the openly hostile “imperialist” Americans in Washington violated Mao’s plans for “continuous revolution” in China and confrontation abroad.

During the summer of 1960 the Soviet Union removed its 1400 experts and advisers from China, and cancelled major projects and contracts.  In November, the USSR called for a meeting of Communist parties from around the world which Mao  declined to attend, and in 1961 when Zhou Enlai attended the Soviet party congress in Moscow, he and the Chinese delegation walked out of Khrushchev’s plenary speech that criticized Stalin.  By the time of the 1962 Cuban crisis, the Chinese denounced Khrushchev’s “adventurism” in the provoking the crisis and “capitulationism” in ending it.  At the time, the Kennedy administration questioned how deep the rift between the socialist giants was, and did not know that it would widen into an irreparable breach.  Without doubt, however, the 1960s began the genuine fracture of the Sino-Soviet “bloc” so feared as monolithic in Asia by so many after 1949.

INTERLUDE 1962-1966

Outwardly the Party portrayed the Great Leap Forward as a huge success.  By the early 1960s, however, virtually all foreigners had left the country, and the outside world had no way of knowing the full extent of the disaster.  The worst hit provinces – Yunnan and Shantung for example, wracked with malnutrition, cannibalism, drought, famine and disease – were officially sealed off from view.  Mao and others members of the Party leadership, however, realized that the country faced mass starvation by the middle of 1961.  At this time, President Liu Shaoqui and others toured the country (Mao’s BR), and the subsequent secret report of 1962, discredited the Great Leap – pronouncing it “30% natural disaster, 70% man-made.”  

In the aftermath of the Great Leap, the Party retrenched under the guidance of its chief economic planner, Chen Yun.  Limited privatization was reintroduced in the countryside, wages were again paid according to labor done; the massive communes decentralized; family life returned to normal.  Far smaller communes were incentivized to produce for the open market on their own plots.  Petty retail was sanctioned and marketplace relations reestablished.  By this time, the exhaustion of the Great Leap, compounded by drought and withdrawal of Soviet assistance had decreased Chinese GDP by one third.  Transport was in shambles.  Industry stagnated, and the human cost of Mao’s first large effort to push China into the first rank of nations had been almost 38 million dead; at least 45 million dead (Mao’s Bloody Revolution – YouTube, 35 min. in; Frank Dikotter, “Mao’s Great Leap to Famine”)

But the lessons of the Leap were not that it had sapped freedom to innovate, or blunted pursuit of individual goals and aspirations, perverted incentives to work and produce, or even in its casualty rates.  To the contrary, the Party viewed the information collected in the aftermath of the Leap as evidence that China needed a comprehensive new program to embed basic socialist values into society.  A range of leaders including Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping as well as Mao himself agreed on a new purging of corruption throughout the land, the priority of the collective over the individual, and public property ahead of the private.  

The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party presented these ideas in a formal resolution in May of 1963 called the Socialist Education Campaign.  Taking the form of ten general guidelines, the Party confirmed the wisdom of Mao’s “thought,” warned that any deviation would lead to a resurgence of “rich peasants and landlords,” the strengthening of “secret-society elements” as well as “speculators and degenerates;” and stressed the need for a much deeper knowledge of Marxism, particularly among the masses of the countryside.

Despite official resolutions, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Leap, Mao took a step back.  He removed himself from day to day operations, and let China’s president and Mao’s presumed ideological successor, Liu Shaoqui, run the country.  Mao bided his time.  He feared his revolution was losing steam and he was losing control.  He saw a privileged bureaucratic class emerging as had happened in the Soviet Union.  He feared the return of capitalism and material incentives, and believed China’s chance to build a perfect socialist society was passing away.  

Mao’s ambivalence and anxiety were understandable.  By 1965, China was beginning to work again economically and growth gained traction.  The broad freedoms reintroduced by the Party in 1960 were key here, as were the rapidly-developing energy assets in barren far northeastern China .  The huge Daqing oilfields in Heilongjiang, first discovered and explored by technicians in the Great Leap period, produced over two-thirds of China’s total oil by 1964 and with other rich fields discovered further south in Shandong and Tianjin, China nearly eliminated her need for importing crude oil by 1965.  Chinese ingenuity was demonstrated also in physics with the successful testing of a nuclear device in October 1964 at Lop Nur basin with only minimal Soviet assistance.  Mao valued these achievements and allowed the transfer of experts from industrial enterprises, such as oil-rich Daqing, into China’s economic-planning institutions.  

These industrial experts supported the Party’s liberal policies put in place under Chen Yun to recover from the Great Leap – with solid results.  Chen searched for an alternative to collectivization, and undid the faulty planning of the Great Leap.  The Party removed millions of urban workers from state payrolls by the closing of over 25,000 government enterprises.  This led to short-term drops in coal, cement, and steel production but turned a government deficit into a surplus; and the displaced workers found work either in the new small-commune farming of the countryside or in the revitalized petty retail and industrial sectors.  In the three years to 1965 agricultural production returned to 1957 pre-Great Leap levels.  The output of light industry expanded at 27 percent a year clip and heavy industry at 17 percent (Spence 596).  Oil production surged and natural gas generation increased fortyfold.  

If such steady advances of the mid-1960s continued, China might have a chance to enter an era of sustained real rising standards of living based on real incentives and markets under the leadership of the CCP.  The problem was that the party professionals and the planners – not Mao and the masses he assumed would be central to any change – would be guiding the way to China’s future.   This was the basis of Mao’s unease, who had stepped back after the Great Leap, and the unease of his allies.

While economic planners were working out ways to grow the Chinese economy in 1964, Mao’s supporters printed a book of quotations from his political speeches and writings, distributed it widely among the population, and used it as the basis for a new attack on what Mao called “the capitalist road.”  Key here was the help provided  by Lin Biao, minister of defense and head of the People’s Liberation Army.  A devout communist, Lin did all he could to rebuild a good and heroic vision of Mao – tarnished somewhat by the Great Leap – and by 1965 the Quotations from Chairman Mao were being taught, studied, discussed, and memorized throughout the army ranks to a level of reverence.  Consistent with socialist equality, Lin abolished all army ranks and insignia making officers and men indistinguishable from each other in uniform.  He rapidly increased the number of Communist Party members in the army, and imbedded PLA officers throughout China’s local and regional civilian governments.  With Mao’s knowledge, Lin started a mass campaign of indoctrination using the Chairman’s thoughts, stressing the idea of service to the country, on self-sacrifice, and self-reliance – contrasting the vitality of the army with the lack of revolutionary fervor displayed in the general culture by intellectuals and writers across the country.  “Learn from the PLA,” said Mao, undercutting the authority of the present Party leadership which, in his view, had swapped ideological purity for an increasingly bourgeois path.

As the army became more devoted to Mao, so it grew in prestige and usefulness.  For years, the United States was portrayed as an enemy over Taiwan and Korea, and America’s growing commitments in Southeast Asia in 1964 and 1965 added a palpable threat on China’s southern border.  The PLA had supervised the successful Chinese atomic program, and had performed well in its border wars with India in 1962.  Now it was the principal bulwark of Chinese defense against an American invasion.

With Lin working to cement the army’s allegiance to socialism, Mao was joined by four others centered in Shanghai: his third wife, Jiang Qing, Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao, and Wang Hongwen who were all outspoken in their objections to the cultural direction of China between 1962 and 1965.  Together, they objected publically to specific plays, operas, works of history, and the fine arts in order to draw battle lines between culture reflecting Mao’s revolutionary vision for China and what they branded as current “traditionalist,” “feudal,” “reactionary” positions of the leadership under the gradualist President Liu Shaoqui in Peking.  Labeled as “bourgeois, sinister, anti-socialist poisonous weeds,” opposed to Mao’s thoughts, elite art and writings did not reflect the proletarian part of the Chinese population.  China’s future would “depend on the masses, trust the masses, and fight to the end.” (Mao in Spence, 605)

{Mao quote here} – mass swim


At age 72, Mao unleashed the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, his final attempt to insure that his ideas of revolution continued after his death.  In this, he was assisted by a group later known as the above “Gang of Four,” that would build the Mao personality cult to new heights.  Over the next ten years, China descended into a nightmare that exceeded the Great Leap in its ideological fury, and from which the country has only now fully recovered.  

The reform push of the later 1960s was different that that of the earlier part of the decade.  This time, it was not the peasants of the countryside who were to be the agents of modernization and change.  This time it was the most educated, privileged, and ideological part of the population: school-aged children and college students.  These would install permanent revolution in the country, oppose Soviet-style revisionism of Marxist-Leninism, and insure China as the head of communist world.  

The Revolution began in the spring of 1966 as a protest movement of middle school students who denounced the academic establishment and the Party bureaucracy.  Mao took up the cause of the students as his chance to return to power and control after waiting on the sidelines for four years.  For the first time, young people were encouraged to attack authority and the old hierarchy of the Party.  And the advice came from Mao himself who asserted the idea that “to rebel is justified.”

Whipped into a fury through mass rallies, the army and millions of young people rallied to Mao, and almost anyone who held power of any kind was labeled a capitalist sympathizer and denounced.  The direction of the fury was first directed at Mao’s rivals, including President Liu Shaoqui and party secretary-general Deng Xiaoping.  Even figures who had been with Mao since the early days of the Long March were denounced, and within a year the whole structure of the Party – from Beijing leadership to village administrators – was purged and brought down.  The predators who had pushed the Great Leap Forward became the prey as students became ever-more fanatical and outlandish to fulfill direct admonitions from Mao, and prove their loyalty by carrying out Revolution in the form they thought Mao intended by the maxims of his “Little Red Book.”  

Chairman Mao is the Great Commander.
We are under the Great Commander’s orders.
If we all listen to Chairman Mao carefully,
The Cultural Revolution will develop smoothly
And achieve great victories.
We want to smash old thought, old culture, old habits,
And old customs of all exploiting classes.
Let us clear away all pests and smash and smash all obstacles!

Thus, Mao’s appointed number two, Lin Biao, issued these instructions for the destruction of the “Four Olds” at a rally in August 1966, and in the following year students from middle school to college – millions of shock troops called “Red Guards” who had rallied to Mao – suddenly turned against their parents, their aunts, uncles, cousins, officials and former friends in an avalanche of confiscation, ransacking, and destruction of any article perceived to be of old China, and beat or killed anyone holding property or land –- those with so-called “bourgeois values.”  Most schools closed, and those which managed to remain open purged Confucious.  

The Cultural Revolution involved Mao reasserting control over the tempo of cultural politics and events.  It was above all, however, an attempt to change people’s minds, to wash them clean of old thinking and the behavior that went with it.  Former landlords and capitalists with the words “bourgeois element” inked on their shirts were forced to undergo “re-education” by militant youths.  To prove their revolutionary integrity, Red Guards turned on anyone who tried to hold them in check, anyone with contacts with the West, and anyone who represented to them “reactionary” modes of thinking.  Public humiliations befell thousands of people, forced to parade through the streets of Chinese towns and villages in dunce caps or with self-incriminatory placards around their necks; then forced to publically self-criticize before jeering crowds.  In an unorganized surreal frenzy, thousands of intellectuals, business owners, public officials, and intellectuals were beaten to death, died of injuries, committed suicide, or imprisoned.

“Without destruction, there’s no construction,” was a popular Mao quotation in the Revolution’s first phase, and on the belief that things must be destroyed to create a better world – a better China – the Red Guards wrought unparalleled human and physical damage throughout the country.  Old temples and buildings were sacked and gutted of all sorts of relics, books, and valuables.  Religious symbols and institutions of all kinds were attacked, razed to the ground, and replaced with the quasi religious symbols of the Revolution such as the Little Red Book for scripture, Mao’s plain attire for vestments, Miracle Plays depicting the magic of the Revolution, and the incarnation of the Buddha or Christ substituted in the thousands of stenciled Mao portraits in people’s hands or on every city building. (Wilson, 30).  The violence unleashed as a spring is made tense after many years of winding, Mao stood above the fray – all wise, all knowing – appearing in public at massive rallies of supporters.  At the end of 1967, the Party was purged of all but the most loyal.  The PLA crushed counter-revolutionary organizations.  In Guangdong, Fujian, and Sichuan for example, the numbers of killed was in the hundreds of thousands, with eyewitness reports of rivers blocked with bodies, and corpses washed up on the shores of Hong Kong. (Spence, 611)

Having served their purpose, the Red Guards were packed off to work in the countryside.  Sent ostensibly to the rural areas to carry Mao’s revolutionary message to the peasants, children were taken away from the families, denied schooling, and “educated” in the countryside or a rural factory through hard labor and physical privation.  Over 16 million urban youths were resettled in 1967 and 1968, one million from Shanghai alone.  Yunnan in the southwest absorbed 600,000 youths from various cities, and Heilongjiang in the far northeast, on the Soviet border, 900,000. (Spence 638)  This vast program of relocation eased the fanatical violence in the major cities, but led to terrible personal dislocations and hardships due to family fracturing, and disorientation of so many unused to the harshness of rural labor.  The massive displacements were organized by new organs of power known as revolutionary committees set up to replace the former Party administration.  They were composed of soldiers, workers, and Party veterans whose revolutionary credentials were beyond reproach.  The displacements completed, Mao in 1968 convened the first Party Congress for the first time in a decade in order to announce a new constitution, reward the army with key positions, and declare that the Cultural Revolution had been brought to a successful close.

But the purges continued.  Elements of the army and the new revolutionary committees began a “Campaign to Purify Class Ranks” during the period 1968 and 1969.  It investigated millions of cadres to find if they were connected in any way to “bad elements.”  This new part of the Cultural Revolution broke over the country for hundreds of thousands of Chinese – including former Red Guards – who were subjected to intense psychological pressure in so-called group study sessions devoted to Mao’s thought, which sought “confessions” and “disclosures” for impurities.   The investigations took place not in the cadres’ hometowns but at special Cadre Schools in the Chinese hinterland that combined incessant indoctrination with agricultural hard labor, and resembled more prisons than schools.

In 1971, the fury of the Cultural Revolution took one its original children.  Lin Biao died in a mysterious plane crash over Mongolia after dubious accusations of assassination designs on Mao.  This was bewildering to many since the official press had feted Lin for his heroic leadership of the PLA in serious border skirmishes in northern Manchuria against the Soviet Union as late as 1970.  What many Chinese did not know at the time was that Lin’s death was the climax of Mao’s purging of the PLA in 1970 and 1971 as the final step of the radical revolution begun in 1966.

Lin’s death came at an interesting time.  By the end of the 1960s, the Cultural Revolution was indeed burning itself out, but China also found itself in a difficult situation geopolitically.  The Soviet–Chinese border had become one of the most heavily fortified areas on earth.  International communism no longer appeared to be monolithic.  To the contrary, the two giant socialist states faced each other across what Life Magazine in March 1969 called an “Angry Frontier.”  A lively fear of Chinese fanaticism and expansion grew up in the Soviet Union, and armed border clashes took place along the Amur and Ussuri Rivers in the northeast, as well as in Central Asia along Xinjiang Province in the northwest.  Twenty-eight Soviet divisions, 150 medium-range missiles, and 1,200 aircraft faced China along their 2,700 common border, and the country prepared for possible nuclear war.  The Chinese denounced what they called their “#1 enemy.”  Mao urged the people to dig tunnels and store food.

The Soviet garrisons along the border with China doubled in size to 1973.  Even if most of the world was unaware of it, the Nixon administration feared that the potential for a major international crisis.  A substantive Soviet intervention in China would signal one of the most serious threats to the Cold War’s fragile peace since the Cuban missile crisis.  Though Sino-Soviet tensions continued, the death of Lin and the reform of the PLA returned China to domestic tranquility after years of chaotic civil war.  In the early 1970s, China began to turn away from complete self-reliance, and opened itself to the world – not only with continued financial support for developments projects in the Third World but in contacts with first tier countries.  The American troop drawdowns in Vietnam under President Nixon after 1969, the admission of China to the United Nations, and the idea of the United States as a general counterweight to the Soviet Union contributed to a climate of change.  American and Chinese back-channel negotiations – direct and through intermediaries – led to a slow incremental improvement of relations between the two countries.  Bans on the transfer of U.S. dollars to China ended, for example, and exchanges of sports teams resumed.  Chinese exports entered the United States for the first time since the Korean War, American grain shipments restarted to China, and western technology transfers began, especially to the developing oil industry which proved to be one of the only growth sectors of the Chinese economy in the early 1970s.

A so-called “two-Chinas” solution emerged on the American side that pleased neither Taiwan nor the mainland, but seemed to acknowledge the late 1960s shifting from a two-power Cold War world into a Sino-Soviet-American triangle.  In some of the warmest official comments by an American official in decades, American Secretary of State, William Rogers, announced that the United States would welcome a significant role by Communist China in Asian and Pacific affairs.  If Chinese leaders abandoned their “introspective view of the world,” he said, America would “open up channels of communication.” (Kissinger, 723)  And in February 1972 – in the interest of engagement; to gain a bargaining chip with the Soviets, and because he feared an actual military border crisis between Moscow and Peking – the first American president, Richard Nixon, visited China and met with Mao Zedong.

Despite relative peace in China after the chaos of the late 1960s, the leaders of the Cultural Revolution such as Madame Mao opposed contacts with the West and preferred China to “self-strengthen” from within.  They attacked Western influences and values, from economic assistance to classical music; but particularly, they attacked the rapprochement with the United States and its principle architect, the aging Premier Zhou Enlai, as symbols of a betrayal of the purity of Mao and his revolution.  The radicals again wanted to remake the education system along the paths of socialism set out in the Little Red Book that had guided policy since 1966, and they even reached back to reinstitute the systems of large communal farms that marked the Great Leap.  Mao did not guide these policies advocated energetically in his name but by the 1970s was increasingly infirm and suffering from Parkinson’s disease.  The vision of an extreme socialist path died with Mao in September 1976.  Estimates range as high as 40 million deaths between 1950 and 1976 in the cause of avoiding the “capitalist road.”  The radicals, known as the “Gang of Four” who advocated China’s recommitment to a new socialist path after 1970, were arrested one month later – in October – tried, and imprisoned.  The vision of the socialist path, and its resulting human wreckage for China, was a vision beheld primarily in the 1960s, a crucial part of China’s self-image today.  


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