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People's Republic of China at 60: Maoism and popular power, 1949–1969

Youth demonstrate during the Cultural Revolution.

[Click HERE for more analysis of the Chinese Revolution and its evolution.]

By Pierre Rousset

With the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) found itself at the head of a country three times larger than Western Europe, with a population of some 500 million. The internal situation was favourable to the revolutionary regime. At the end of a long series of civil and foreign wars, the population sought and relied on the new leaders to achieve peace while the ongoing people’s mobilisation opened the way for a deep reform of society.

In December 1949, while fighting against the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalsit Party, KMT) still raged in the south, Mao Zedong flew to Moscow to meet Stalin. The USSR may have been the first country to recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC), but it had not yet abrogated the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty, signed with Mao’s opponent, KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek. For three consecutive weeks, the two heads of state played a game of cat and mouse before the Soviets agreed to prepare a new treaty – signed on February 14, 1950, by Zhou Enlai and A.Y. Vychinski, foreign ministers respectively of China and the USSR.

After the victory of October 1949, distrust was the rule between the Soviet and Chinese leaderships. Mao noted how Stalin looked down upon his experience (“He thought our revolution was fake”, Mao said) and did not want to commit to supporting China if it were attacked by the United States. However, it was Beijing that indirectly came to the help of Moscow when the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. The Korean War was not propitious timing for the Chinese leaders, who would have preferred to prioritise consolidation of the regime, revival of the economy (industry was ruined, famine hit the central plains) and gaining control of Taiwan from the KMT.

US hostility

Faced with the advance of US forces in Korea, the politburo of the CCP was split on Chinese intervention. But the decision was made to join the war effort when US troops approached China’s northern border, with Peng Dehuai leading the Chinese counteroffensive. Following four months of intensive and bloody fighting, the frontline was stabilised around the 38th parallel. Two years later, the armistice was eventually signed, on July 27, 1953, with up to 800,000 Chinese killed or injured.

The Korean War overshadowed and dominated the whole period following the 1949 Chinese Communists' victory. The confrontation (revolution/counterrevolution) assumed an international dimension, the United States building a security belt around China, with important military bases in South Korea, Japan (Okinawa), the Philippines, Thailand and South Vietnam. For the United Nations, under the hegemony of the United States, there was only one China: KMT-occupied Taiwan.

Faced with a new US imperial threat, China reverted to the Soviet bloc. But the seeds of Sino-Soviet conflict of the 1960s were already sown as Mao and the Chinese leadership lost trust in Moscow, Stalin’s promises of military aid failing to materialise. The Soviet leadership, on this occasion, gauged the power and the capacity of China to act independently with trepidation.

The first and primary consequence of the Korean War was disorganisation of the effort to consolidate the new regime, leading to a hardening of policy.

The social upheaval: 1949–1953

In China, the Korean War provoked vast anti-imperialist demonstrations. Workers sacrificed part of their wages and peasants increased production to support the war effort at the front. In this context, the campaign launched by the Mao regime to liquidate the counterrevolutionaries took a particularly violent turn. Over a period of six months, 710,000 people were executed (or driven to suicide) for their links, no matter how tenuous, with the KMT. Probably more than 1.5 million others were confined to camps of “reform by labour”.

Landlords and rural notables

China’s agrarian reform itself also took a violent turn in a society where class divisions in villages were wide: poor peasants did not forget the arrogance, contempt, stinginess and inhumanity (at their expense) of the wealthy. Poor peasants could not forget the manner in which large landlords, traders and notables had provoked deadly famine by speculating on cereals – refusing to return rice to the famished villagers to sell at a good profit in the cities. They could not forget all the militant members of peasant associations summarily tortured and assassinated by police, the army or the goons of the rich. They remembered the dispossession by powerful owners of children and young women from powerless families. Social relationships in the countryside were not brutal everywhere, but the domination of the wealthy over poor peasants was widespread. It was time for the historical settling of scores.

Where class divisions in the villages were narrow, and no one was really rich, social tensions were nevertheless acute because of extreme poverty, where notables and clan networks were the first target of the CCP. To address the complexity and the regional variations of rural stratification, the CCP classified families into five categories, from landless to landlords. In some places, middle or even poor peasants could suffer repression.

The CCP organised and encouraged mass meetings against landlords and the wealthy, at the risk, in its own words, of “excesses”. But the collective anger of poor peasants was not feigned. The revolutionary violence in the countryside was social, much more than a simple police operation. Beyond settling scores, it paved the way to a real change of power, the overthrow of the old order. In most villages, one landlord, sometimes several, was killed, summarily beaten to death or publicly executed. Many fled or were shielded from people’s vengeance. At the end of 1950, the class that ruled the rural world for centuries ceased to exist as a coherent social layer.

Urban bourgeoisie

In the urban centres social antagonisms, even if profound, were less acute than in rural regions. Moreover, in 1949, the CCP, stemming from the rural people’s war, was quite incapable of supporting industrialisation. In the framework of the “New Democracy”, the CCP tried to win the private entrepreneurs’ favour. But in 1952, the bourgeoisie felt strong enough to take the initiative against the new regime through sabotaging and blocking implementation of government policies, refusing orders given by the administration. Class struggle reasserted itself. On June 6, 1952, Mao Zedong announced that the entrepreneurs were becoming a target of political struggle.

In the cities, the Communist Party launched three mass mobilisation campaigns to remold the urban society. The first two targeted the underworld and capitalist class, the bourgeois elites: the “Three Anti” (against corruption, waste and bureaucracy) and the “Five Anti” (against corruption, fiscal evasion, fraud, embezzlement and leakage of state secrets) campaigns. Once again, most were not classical police operations and their implementation varied according to region or the fluctuating relationship of forces among factions of the CCP. Everyone was called to inform the authorities: workers denounced their superiors, cadres denounced each other, wives denounced husbands and children their parents. Psychological pressure was so great that the majority of human losses were suicides, not executions.

The fines imposed on private firms for illicit activities during these campaigns amounted to US$2 billion, a colossal amount at the time. The majority of the large traders and entrepreneurs withdrew to Hong Kong (transferring their means of production) or abroad. The capital drain actually began as early as 1946 in reaction to KMT rule. A certain number of large capitalists, however, remained and sometimes benefited from a very favourable situation. The activity of micro-entrepreneurs (craftspeople, hawkers, peddlers, and so on) was both repressed and tolerated by the regime.

Chinese capitalists were not physically liquidated and some collaborated with their own social disappearance. Following the “Five Anti” campaign, the bourgeoisie (merchants and industrialists) ceased to exist as a coherent class dominating the modern economic sector. Seven years after victory, in 1956, the nationalisation of industries and trade sanctioned the capitalist class’s disappearance as an autonomous social force.

As the old order was uprooted, the power structures of the KMT were dismantled, both in the urban centres and in the countryside.

The third campaign – reform of thought – targeted mostly urban intellectuals, in particular those trained in the West. Conceived ideologically as the “movement of rectification”, implemented in Yan’an (Yenan) during the war to consolidate the Maoist leadership’s authority, the campaign denounced individualism, elitism, indifference to politics and pro-Americanism. This campaign was implemented in different ways to the “Three Anti” and “Five Anti” campaigns: through successive self-criticism implemented by small discussion groups, combined with police repression. As such, intellectuals found themselves under the firm control of the Communist Party.

“Class origin” became an important criterion to gain access to education, political positions or good employment. Not without perverse effects, children of rich families (or classified as such) became forever “responsible” for who their parents were before 1949. But the symbolical upheaval of the social hierarchy had a radical ideological importance in a society where “inferior” classes were despised, and at everyone’s beck and call. The process was not merely symbolic. In parallel with the disintegration of the old dominating classes, the status of the dominated classes was substantially modified as new social layers developed.


The fact that the peasantry played an important role was not peculiar to the Chinese Revolution. Before the Long March, the Comintern enjoined the CCP to work among the peasantry, but for a long time the CCP politburo turned a deaf ear to that advice. The CCP became the principal political force organising the peasantry – which was not the case in Russia, where the influence of revolutionary socialists or anarchists (or, more simply, of local non-politicised rural elites) was much more significant than Communist Party influence.

In the years following the conquest for power, the CCP was careful not to impose a Stalinist type of forced collectivisation. The party started through the creation of “mutual aid” teams, paving the way for the formation of cooperatives. The approach evokes what Lenin envisaged retrospectively in one of his last critical and self-critical writings, constituting his “testament”: “On Cooperation” (January 4, 1923). The approach helped to consolidate the new status of the poor peasantry, while offering the peasant class a future in the revolution rather than demanding their transformation into agricultural workers in state farms. But in order to block any rural migration, the peasants had no right to change their residence without authorisation.

Working class

With the rapid industrialisation policy initiated by the Mao regime, the working class was considerably reinforced: from 3 million before 1949 to 15 million by 1952, and nearly 70 million in 1978. The change was not only quantitative, as a new state-directed industrial sector was born together with a new working class with a radically different status than had prevailed before 1949.

Workers were recruited in the framework of a policy of massive salarisation (“low wages, many jobs”). Only urban workers benefited from the new administrative status of “worker and employee”. As a general rule, peasants had no right to migrate in search of work in cities. Once obtained, employment became a guaranteed right. Low wages were offset by social benefits (including residence, health service, life employment, old-age pension). Each worker was assigned to an enterprise and to a work unit. Workers reaching retirement age could frequently pass on their status to a family member. Benefiting from important privileges in relation to the rest of the population – other than political cadres – the working class was for a long time a solid social base of the regime.


In the 1920s in Chinese progressive circles, it was commonplace to denounce both “feudal” and “patriarchal” oppression. The emancipation of women and the criticism of Confucian conservatism were considered essential to modernisation. Laws in favour of gender equality were adopted under the Soviet Republic of Jiangxi. The establishment and development of feminist organisations were crucial in the nationalist and civil war eras. Membership in the CCP-led Women’s Democratic Federation reached 20 million in 1949 and 76 million in 1956.

In 1950, the law on marriage was among the first two pieces of legislation (with agrarian reform) promulgated under the young People’s Republic. This new legislation insured, in theory and often concretely, the free choice of partner, women’s equal rights and protection of the legal interest of women and children. The law opposed traditional arranged marriages and permitted administrative divorce by mutual consent. Thanks to measures of agrarian reform, women gained the right to own land. The law’s implementation faced strong social resistance – including within the CCP – but was supported by a strong women’s movement.

Cadres and bureaucracy

Two parallel power structures were established in China: the administration and the Communist Party. Cadres in both structures emerged from the revolutionary struggle. Those among them from well-to-do family backgrounds sacrificed wealth and social status to advance the revolution and were not privileged similarly to the old dominant classes. Henceforward, cadres in both structures enjoyed mostly modest privileges, but more importantly a quasi-absolute monopoly of political power. Even before the victory, CCP cadres constituted a thin “bureaucracy of war” in “liberated zones”. After 1949, the politico-administrative structure was considerably enlarged with the reconstruction of the state at the national level and the development of a vast public economic sector. These new social strata assumed an unprecedented place in Chinese society, rapidly gaining consistency and giving birth to a ruling social elite.


To relieve the population, as early as the 1930s soldiers were called to produce food when possible. In the postwar reconstruction, the movement for an autarchic economy within the Red Army (initiated at the beginning of the 1940s) was extended. The army was essential in the aftermath of 1949, but continually occupied an ambivalent position in the Maoist structures of power. As the backbone of the revolutionary struggle, the army was the only institution that resisted all crises, including the Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, it remained subordinate to the political leadership. In the words of Mao Zedong, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and always “the party commands the gun”. This role of the army, both central and subordinated, is typical of the Maoist revolution.

A succession of crises

The new Maoist government in 1949 was a radical revolutionary and dynamic force. But in 1966 – less than 20 years later – the society was shaken to the core by a paroxysmal crisis: the misnamed Cultural Revolution. The tumultuous history of the People’s Republic of China in the first two decades has been interpreted variously: apologetically, critically but progressively and in a bluntly reactionary way (considering revolution illegitimate). There are recurrent political questions that help to explain the succession of unresolved crises leading to the explosion of 1966: pluralism, legality and socialist democracy, and one-party rule.

During the 1950s, debates occured within the Communist Party on the independence of trade unions and other mass movements. But the CCP reaffirmed its direct leadership, refusing to grant any political autonomy. These organisations were responsible for implementing official policy and also, thanks to their genuine social roots, for informing the leaders on the people’s state of mind – or their grievances. But this conception of the cadres “listening to the masses”, of a two-way transmission belt, was inoperable, at least in times of peace.

One Hundred Flowers

In 1954–55, strong tensions emerged between numerous intellectuals and the Communist Party. The latter reacted by repression, incarcerating even some close fellow travelers like Hu Feng. The leadership of the CCP anxiously monitored the crises that hit the eastern bloc (for example, in Hungary and Poland) in 1953–56, and the implications of the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s report at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1957, Mao denounced both the vestiges of bourgeois ideology and the gravity of the “bureaucratic style of work” hampering “socialist development”. Given Mao’s popularity, he had the legitimacy to exert pressure on the apparatus, seeking political and cultural liberalisation and launching the slogan “Let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend”. Mao could not foresee the extent to which his words would be acted upon.

In May-June 1957, the CCP became the target of a wave of criticism concerning the recruitment process of its members (who then numbered more than 10 million), cadre privileges, authoritarianism and the domination of the party. Students rapidly took over where intellectuals had left off, denouncing dogmatism of study and demanding respect for constitutional rights of freedom of speech and expression. In response to this flurry of criticism, on June 8, 1957, the People’s Daily denounced “poisonous weeds”. In Wuhan, worker activists brutally intervened on June 12 and 13 to reestablish order after two days of near rioting.

The repression of the Hundred Flowers severed the CCP from an important sector among intellectuals and students – a missed opportunity that deeply influenced the future course of events. The main leader (in title at least) of the Federation of Unions, Lai Ruoyu, again raised the demand for trade union independence, to no avail. The issue of socialist legality was alluded by the party leadership: recognition of civic rights was only a question of political opportunity. Such an approach had far-reaching consequences in all spheres of life, especially in the women’s emancipation struggle. Under the circumstances, the women’s movement was unable to intervene as an autonomous force to shatter deeply rooted patriarchal ideologies. Whatever the progress in women’s rights, the “other revolution” of gender equality remained largely an unreachable utopia.

Rapid collectivisation and the Great Leap Forward

The Hundred Flowers movement had barely ended when another crisis of even greater proportions erupted, threatening the relationship between the party and the peasantry, as well as the political balance within the CCP.

In 1956–57, new social tensions manifested themselves in the countryside and enterprises. A meagre harvest provoked peasant discontent, and poor working conditions pushed waterside workers in Canton (Guangzhou) to launch a strike. The regime resolved the crises and the protest movements remained localised, but the social unrest was a warning signal. After its seizure of power, lacking experience, the CCP had initially copied the Stalinist model of heavy industrialisation. In the late 1950s, the CCP had to define a “Chinese way” that was adapted to the peasantry and to the demographic density of the country, since by 1958–60 China’s population had reached 700 million.

The economic orientation elaborated by the CCP in 1956–7 sought to respond to real needs. To prevent the impending formation of a huge megalopolis in the coastal urban areas (similar to, if not worst than, those in the early 20th century in the global South), the CCP found it necessary to avoid the European model of urbanisation, industrialisation and massive rural-to-urban migration. However, in spite of strict controls, rural migration started spontaneously, to the point of instigating conflict between undocumented labour of rural origin and urban workers with “official” status.

To avoid mass relocation of the population, the CCP favoured local development through the creation of large peasant cooperatives, the introduction of infrastructures and services in the countryside, and the creation of industries in small towns and rural centres. To increase women’s participation in the workforce, many canteens, nurseries and children’s playgrounds were opened. Ideologically, the ideal of the abolition of wage labour was again raised. China had to become a vast federation of communes, largely decentralised and self-sufficient, linked together through the powerful apparatus of the Communist Party and its mass organisations.

The CCP leadership assigned to this new economic model unrealisable goals (to “overtake Great Britain in 15 years”, in Mao’s words), which quickly proved highly problematic. The regime chose to resort to mobilisation methods that were successful in times of war, but not in peacetime. In China, the policy of the Great Leap Forward placed intolerable burdens on the administration and the population. The policy left no time to prepare, coordinate or plan economic measures.

After an initial success, it retreated into chaos and failure. Microindustrial production (iron, steel, tools) proved to be of low quality, and harvests and transport were disorganised. In 1959–61, various regions of the country were hit by scarcity and deadly famine, aggravated by a succession of natural catastrophes, with the tragic consequence of possibly 30 million deaths.

The Communist Party leadership lacked the capacity to respond quickly to the disaster. In the absence of independent mass organisations and democratic political institutions, the CCP did not perceive the development of the crisis in time. Tensions between the Communist Party and the peasantry reached breaking point, and upheavals erupted in some areas. Belatedly appeasement measures were taken. In 1961–62, at the initiative of leaders such as Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, a more modest concept of cooperatives was adopted, leaving space for family production. Emphasis was placed on the development of light industry to assist agriculture rather than on heavy industry.

The failure of the Great Leap Forward deeply impacted the leadership of the CCP. Mao Zedong offered a half self-criticism. Previously, he had enjoyed a unique position in the summits of the party on account of his role during the revolutionary struggle and a cult of personality that had been built up from the early 1940s. With the Great Leap Forward’s failure, CCP cadres realised the ``Great Helmsman'' was capable of committing catastrophic errors.

The Cultural Revolution

In the early 1960s, Mao’s authority in the party and the authority of the party in society were seriously weakened, while social tensions remained highly acute. Adding to the crisis, from 1958 the Sino-Soviet conflict rapidly worsened. Moscow called back Soviet experts from China, then negotiated and signed a treaty on nuclear tests with Britain and the US, excluding China. For the Chinese leadership, the USSR gradually replaced the US as the country’s “main enemy”.

The post-Great Leap Forward conflicts in the CCP leadership could not be contained within the party. In 1965, the political confrontation became public under the guise of cultural polemics – hence the title of “Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution”. But much more was at stake than terminology. Each faction began launching mass mobilisations to strengthen its hand, opening Pandora’s box and giving way to extensive social contradictions. The resulting crisis in China was so explosive that it destroyed a large part of the state apparatus.

The Cultural Revolution nourished radical egalitarian aspirations while inequalities among villages, between the countryside and cities, and between social sectors remained enormous. Many students did not find jobs corresponding to their diplomas. Poor peasants entered into conflicts with richer peasants, just as, in the cities, undocumented workers clashed with those benefiting from a protected status. The privileges and authority of the cadres and the authoritarianism of the bureaucracy were denounced. The socioeconomic contradictions culminated in massive street demonstrations, larger than at any time since 1949.

Student protests flared in mid-1966 as numerous groups attacked professors and teachers they considered to be “revisionists”, protected by their pre-1949 bourgeois social status and still enjoying privileges.

Eventually the “rebels” turned against the CCP itself, denouncing its “fascist” control. Some called for “big democracy” and “freedom”. In August, Mao Zedong seized the occasion to launch the slogan “Bombard the headquarters” – a declaration of war against the CCP’s number two, Liu Shaoqi. Mao called for the creation of Red Guards’ organisations and revolutionary committees. Seeking to limit the rebel movement to the cities, Mao used the Red Guard as a bulldozer to reestablish his position in the CCP leadership and reorient the party policy in the spirit of the Great Leap Forward.

Nevertheless, the crisis went far beyond the limits initially foreseen. High-level cadres were thrown to the Red Guards, including Beijing’s mayor Peng Zhen. In November the movement reached the working class, which freed itself in various places from party control. From December 1966 to January 1967, the industrial metropolis of Shanghai was the scene of violent confrontations and a spontaneous general strike where ``unofficial'' workers played an important role. The troubles spread to the countryside -- and in July and August 1967 spread to a growing number of localities where it led to the disintegration of the CCP and the administration. The party leadership was severely divided as local civil wars broke out. But the rebellion too sank into confusion, as the democratic and social aspirations of the Cultural Revolution were going round in circles, lacking political direction and undermined by factional hyper-violence.

In the eyes of all the tendencies within the CCP leadership, the reconstruction of the party and administration was an urgent requirement, for which the army was the sole institution that could maintain coherence. But it would take time. In the spring and summer of 1968, violence increased in many areas across the country. In the midst of political confusion, certain groups were still formulating radical propositions, as in Hunan, where the treason of Mao was denounced and calls made for a generalised system of democratically elected “communes” to prevent the return of a “new class of red capitalists”. Indeed, by then, Mao Zedong was calling unambiguously for a return to order and stability.

The reconstruction of a bureaucratic order

In September 1968, in their tens of thousands, former students who had become Red Guards were sent to the countryside for re-education and work. In some factories resistance continued, but was only a rearguard opposition.

For months the “rebels” of the Cultural Revolution had lived the exhilarating experience of a rare freedom of action, travelling throughout China to propagate the call for revolt. For sure, they were manipulated by various factions of the CCP (in particular Mao). They engaged in blind violence and committed terrible acts against the elderly, including numerous veterans of the revolutionary struggle, who were accused of being “revisionists”, beaten, sometimes tortured, and forced to make humiliating self-denunciations. But they gained a spirit of independence, radical aspiration and political experience. If many old Red Guards withdrew from activism, some participated 10 years later in the origin of the 1978 democracy movement.

The CCP was in ruins at the close of the 1966–8 period, with eight of the 11 members of the politburo in prison or reeducation. Out of 63 members of the central committee, 43 were disappeared and nine were severely criticised -- a process that occurred at all levels of the party. In many places CCP structures ceased to function. The apparatus of cadres was reconstituted through long seminars within the “May 7 Schools”. But years were needed to reconstruct the party throughout China.

In 1969, the ninth congress of the CCP could not put an end to the crisis as a new conflict erupted between Mao Zedong and Lin Biao, commander in chief of the army, previously considered the best of the Maoists.

Lin Biao died in September 1971 while fleeing in an airplane to the USSR, and more than 100 generals were removed from office.

At the beginning of the 1970s, many historical leaders of the Chinese Revolution were out of contention, including Liu Shaoqi (who died in exile in 1969), Peng Dehuai (tortured by the Red Guards), Lin Biao and Deng Xiaoping. The way was open for the accession to power, after the 10th CCP congress in 1973, of the “Group of Shanghai”, called by its adversaries the “Gang of Four”. They centered around Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing.

Paradoxical legacy: controlled transition to capitalism

After the death of Mao in 1976, it was the Gang of Four’s turn to be thrown from power. “Historical” Maoism had died a decade before, in the delirium of Mao’s personality cult and betrayal of the anti-bureaucratic aspirations expressed in the Cultural Revolution. No coherent “left turn” was available after 1969, and in 1971 US President Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing (while the US military was escalating the war in Vietnam), announcing normalisation of the Sino-US relationship. The reign of Jiang Qing, an ossified dictatorship, finally discredited the “left”, paving the way for the return of Deng Xiaoping and other surviving “rightists” who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution

In the 1980s, counterrevolution took the form of a sustained and controlled transition to capitalism. A “reverse” social transformation occurred, as radical as the post-1949 era. The state sector of the economy was largely dismantled, privatised or administered according to neoliberal capitalist criteria. A new class of entrepreneurs formed, composed of bureaucrats committed to personal enrichment and allied to Chinese transnational capital in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere.

The protected status of the established working class was methodically dismantled, giving way to a layer of technicians and skilled workers, and a new and young proletariat -- a mass of unstable labour from rural regions, often denied any social or labour rights. After benefiting from decollectivisation initiated in the early 1980s, the peasantry found itself faced with many of the same threats of dispossession as its counterparts in other countries of the global South. Social inequality increased brutally: the poor were again ignored and the rich honoured.

Over the 20th century, the growth of the Chinese bourgeoisie was hindered by the KMT dictatorship before being crushed by the Communist-led revolution. But – through an irony of history – by the early 21st century Chinese capitalism had reaped the benefits of Mao’s radicalism. Without it the country would have fallen under the exclusive dependency of Japan or, most probably, the grip of US imperialism. Without Maoism, as in many other Third World countries, China’s modern capital could not free itself from rural traditional landowning, a legacy of the past.

It can be said that, thanks to the CCP-led revolution (and its eventual failure), Chinese capitalism received a second historical chance. But the memory of the revolution can also serve as a political ferment for social resistance against the growing inequalities and uncertainties of life.

References and suggested readings

Benton, G. (1982) Wild Lilies, Poisonous Weeds: Dissident Voices from People’s China. London: Pluto Press.

Bergère, M.-C. (2007) Capitalisme et capitalistes en Chine, XIXe–XXIe siècle. Paris: Perrin.

Bianco, L. & Chevrier, Y., (Eds.) (1985) Dictionnaire biographique du mouvement ouvrier international: la Chine. Paris: Editions Ouvrières/Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques.

Chan, A. (1985) Children of Mao: Personality Development and Political Activism in the Red Guard Generation. London: Macmillan.

Chen, E. (1984) China: Crossroads Socialism. An Unofficial Manifesto for Proletarian Democracy. London: Verso.

Croll, E. (1983) Chinese Women since Mao. London: Zed Books.

Deng Xiaoping (1985–) Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, (3 vols). Beijing: People’s Publishing House.

Hinton, W. (1983) Shenfan: The Continuing Revolution in a Chinese Village. New York: Random House.

Klein, D. & Clark, A. (1971) Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Communism 1921–1965, (2 vols). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Li, Y. (1977) ``Socialist Democracy and the Legal System''. In A. Chan & J. Unger (Eds), Chinese Law and Government, 10, 3 (Autumn).

Liu, S. (1984) Selected Works of Liu Shaoqi, (Vol. 10). Beijing: People’s Publishing House.

MacFarquhar, R. (1974, 1983, 1997) The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, Vol. 1: Contradictions among the People, 1956–1957; Vol. 2: The Great Leap Forward, 1958–1960; Vol. 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961–1966. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MacFarquhar, R. & Fairbank, J. K., (Eds) (1987–92) The Cambridge History of China (Vols. 14 & 15). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maitan, L. (1976) Party, Army and Masses in China: A Marxist Interpretation of the Cultural Revolution and its Aftermath. London: New Left Books.

Mao Zedong (1975) Chairman Mao Talks to the People: Talks and Letters: 1956–1971. Ed. S. Schram. New York: Pantheon.

Mao Zedong (1977) Selected Works of Mao Tsetung, (Vol. 5) . Beijing: People’s Publishing House.

Schram, S. (1969) The Political Thought of Mao Tsetung. New York: Praeger.

Vogel, E. (1969) Canton Under Communism: Programs and Politics in a Provincial Capital, 1949–1968. Harvard : Harvard University Press.

Wolf, M. (1985) Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China. Stanford : Stanford University Press.

Zhou Enlai (1981) Selected Works of Zhou Enlai. Beijing: People’s Publishing House.

[This article first appeared as ``China, Maoism and popular power, 1949–1969.'' The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest. Ness, Immanuel (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Blackwell Reference Online. A corrected version appeared at Europe Solidaire sans Frontieres. Pierre Rousset is a member of the new Anti-Capitalist Party in France, and a leading member of the Fourth International.]


Interview: Growing up amid China's Cultural Revolution

28 September 2009. A World to Win News Service. The following interview with Bai Di is reprinted from the 12 April issue (no. 161) of Revolution, voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (

Bai Di grew up in socialist China (before capitalism was brought back after the death of Mao in 1976) and participated in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). She is a co-editor of the book, Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up During the Mao Era and is the Director of Chinese and Asian Studies at Drew University. Revolution correspondent Li Onesto did the interview in February 2009.

Li Onesto: A young person who heard you talk about your experiences growing up in socialist China told me that before this they had no idea at all what it was like during the Cultural Revolution, including what it was like to be a woman during that time.

Bai Di: In my generation, most of the women hoped to accomplish great things. When we were young, when we were teenagers, there were revolutionary ideals. We worked for some goals. We felt that our lives were full of meaning, not for ourselves but for all these larger goals of society. That is what we were discussing at that moment. We were idealistic about the world that we envisioned. We were about 15 years old when we went to the countryside, around 1972. At that point I graduated from high school. The school was reopened after about a year of closing in 1966. We spent most of the time studying Chairman Mao's works, and some math, chemistry and physics. Later on we were digging tunnels in the schoolyard because of the Soviet threat of war. We were trying to protect our country.

Our class had more than a thousand students and four of us, all women in our high school, got together and decided to write an epic of the history of the Red Guards. We were very ambitious at that moment, now to think about it. There were two guys who tried to join us and we interviewed them. I remember that each of them presented something poetic written by them, and the four of us looked at them. We decided not to have them in this writing group because they were not good enough. We just laughed at their writings because they were not up to our standards. We totally rejected them. The four of us, we thought we were the best. We wanted to record our deeds of trying to educate other people with Chairman Mao's teachings. We organized the first "Chairman Mao Thought Propaganda Team" in the school.

L.O.: When most people hear the term, "propaganda team", they don't know what that is and/or they look at it like a negative thing, like it's about just telling people what to think, that it goes against critical thinking.

B.D.: The Mao Zedong propaganda teams in the beginning of the Cultural Revolution were organized by the revolutionary Red Guards so that educated people, students, armed with all the songs and poems, could go to the neighbourhoods in the cities and later on in the countryside to spread knowledge to the not so well educated. They tried to teach the so-called "less educated people" about the party's directives and Chairman Mao's ideas. Our propaganda team taught people revolutionary songs and read the current events from the newspapers to them. We organized our school's students to go to clean up the neighbourhoods and after that we performed dances and songs and called on people to clean up the neighbourhood because sanitation was very important. We felt that was part of building a greater society.

L.O.: How did you see that in relation to the ideals that you had?

B.D.: The idea was that we could make a change, that there were all these opportunities. We were going to change the world; we were going to change China. That was the mission of my generation because we lived in a very special era: the great 1960s and 1970s. We called that moment the dawn of communism, that's the point. We were working to build up this great society and we felt that everyone in that society should have education. Because we students could read and we could write so we used this to try and inspire other people – to teach them to sing and teach them sections of Mao's works. That was what the propaganda teams did. Something gets lost in the translation of this concept to English. In Chinese right now this phrase still refers to what is considered a very positive thing. The phrase propaganda team is not a negative thing, it is to let everybody know what they need to know, the ideas of the party's central committee, what they are doing.
During the Cultural Revolution everybody needed to know that. China at that point, it was such a large country, and the government organization at each level had a propaganda department, you needed this at every level. There was a lot of illiteracy. And Chairman Mao's teachings aren't all very easy and they are open to interpretation. If you change one line, it changes the meaning. You can't just teach the words, you have to explain it.

Take something like what was called the "constantly read three articles" by Mao: "Serve the People", "The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains" and "In Memory of Norman Bethune". Look at the old story about the foolish old man – why do we have to talk about that? That is an ancient Chinese fable that everyone already knows. It is about an old man who called on his sons to dig away two big mountains that were obstructing their way out.. Others made fun of him saying it was impossible for them to dig up these two huge mountains. But the Foolish Old Man replied, "When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity." This resilience impressed the God so much that God sent down two angels, who carried the mountains away on their backs. But Chairman Mao changed it and said it was the hard working people who moved the mountains. He said, right now, we the communists, the
party are like the Old Foolish Man. We will try to move all these three mountains – imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism – but we cannot do that. So we have to impress the Chinese people; they are the God. Only they can move away the three mountains that are oppressing us. And we have to entrust the people. Do you get that?

So we have to move them, we have to understand what we are doing. You have to explain that to people, why that is very important. We have to keep doing something and we have to keep letting people know what we are doing. We have to politically educate people – that is our job. When I think back – that was our whole mission. We were so lucky that we able to get the ability to write and understand things and others didn't understand that, didn't see the connection. So that's what we were doing and when I think about it, what confidence we had.

L.O.: What effect did the Cultural Revolution have on the status of women?

B.D.: One example is what I told you before, that young women changed their names. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 Chairman Mao would greet the Red Guards at huge rallies in Tiananmen Square, for about eight times I think. At one of the rallies, one girl went up to Tiananmen and put a Red Guard armband on Mao. He asked her what her name was. She said, Song Binbin. Mao said, that is very Confucianist, Binbin means prudence and modesty. And Chairman Mao said, why be prudent, why be modest? You should be Aiwu; you should love that militancy in women. So she changed her name from Binbin to Aiwu, which stood for loving militancy, fighting. Then there started a trend: the girls who had feminine names like Flower or Jade or whatever, changed their names.

According to Chinese culture, your name means something. My name never had gender connotation and this was due to my parents. Bai is my family name; it means cypress, like the tree. It's a great surname in the first place. I was the first born and my parents were very progressive at that moment in the 1950s. They were checking out the dictionary to get a name. My father grew up in the communist system and he was among the first class in the Foreign Languages School run by the Communist Party in 1946, when the Russian Department of that school was moved, Yenan [the revolutionary headquarters] moved to Harbin. He was in the class with children of many famous communists including Chairman Mao's second son. He and my mother were very revolutionary. So they went to the dictionary and they found "Di" which means wood, which is not very assuming but very easy to survive. And it seems that I have lived up to the name. When young women were trying to change their
names from these girlish names to something revolutionary, I didn't have to change my name because it meant independence already. Girls tried to change their girlish names if it wasn't revolutionary or too feminine they would change it into something fighting and strong like the men's names. After capitalism came back, I can give you three instances where women changed their names back. One of my friends, before the Cultural Revolution, her name was very womanish, so she changed it to Wenge, which literarily means "cultural revolution". But recently I heard from her and she changed her name back. I have another friend who is an editor in a Beijing publishing house and her name was "Red" and she changed it back to "Little Flower".

L.O.: You've written a lot about the role of women in revolutionary China. Can you compare the status of women before 1949, then 1949 to Cultural Revolution, then during Cultural Revolution and then what it is like now for women under capitalism?

B.D.: I always like to look at the differences among the three generations of women in my family as an indicator of how China had changed under the Communist Party. Both my grandmothers were born at the turn of the 20th century and they both married early, one at the age of 14, the other at 15. They both had bound feet and each of them gave birth to14 kids. They were arranged marriages. They were both illiterate. They did nothing for their whole life but giving birth and having kids, seeing some of the newborns die helplessly. My mother's life is very different. She was born in the '30s, so basically in 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded, she was in middle school and in the early '50s she went to college to study Russian dreaming to be a diplomat. Both my parents were the first generation of college educated people in their respective families. My mother was a translator and researcher in Russian literature before her retirement.

Then I think of my generation. I am a college professor with a Ph.D degree. I have been travelling around the world teaching and writing. Compared with my grandmas and my mother, I am more ambitious, more idealist and more confident. I am very grateful that I grew up in an extremely special moment in Chinese history. The dominant ideology was that women hold up half of the sky; what men can do, women can do. Those may sound now as hollow slogans; but I lived through that period really believing in myself, in my ability in bringing about changes in my own life and the lives of other people.

And then I think of the fourth generation of the family. I do not have a daughter, so I will use my niece as an example. She is now about 26 years old, having a college degree and a very high paid job in China. It seems that all she is interested in are brand name bags and clothes. She likes to talk about who has money, who has brand name bags, what kind of husband is there. And I just look at her now and I see that there is another generation right now. It is called "post-'80s" in China, a generation that puts most of their energy into this consumer culture When I was young, the social ideal was to do something good for other people, to work to change the world into a better system. We were willing to sacrifice. And we all believed in fair and equal distribution of social wealth. But right now for young people growing up in China, it's me, me, me. And the whole culture buttresses that. And also the women's role today, you can see it ingrained, basically
that you should be a good wife and then right now the Chinese popular culture is full of this kind of discussion. On CCTV, on the women's programs, both the hosts and guests will focus on what kind of husband you will be happy with; how one can be more feminine so that she is more attractive. The famous women in every realm of the society are invited in to talk about this.. Can you imagine a program that famous men were to talk about how to be a good husband? They never ask the guys this kind of question.

L.O.: One of the things during the Cultural Revolution was refutation of Confucius thinking and how this is oppressive, especially to women, the feudal and patriarchal thinking. Can you talk about that and compare this to now?

B.D.: This kind of criticism of feudalism was going on back in May 4 Movement at the beginning of the 20th century. But the real legal reform started in 1930s in the Red Soviet areas controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. After the founding of the People's Republic of China, the first law that the new government passed was not the Constitution, the Constitution was passed in 1954. The first law passed by the Communist government in 1950 was the Marriage Law – for the first time it abolished the concubinage system, abolished arranged marriages, saying men and women should be partners in marriage and that women should get equal inheritance and divorce rights, banned polygamy, child brides and also the concept of "illegitimate" children. That was a great moment in history. Think about how the government saw the role of gender issues in changing people's minds and lives.

In order to build a new world, women have to be liberated. Like Marx said for the liberation, you have to liberate everybody. And if women are not liberated you cannot say that the nation is liberated. This showed the progressiveness of the Chinese Communist Party. So the first law passed was the Marriage Law and the second law passed a month later was the land reform law. So basically you can see in 1950, the next year after the founding of the People's Republic of China, two laws basically representing the new government's focused agenda. First, the change of superstructure – because families were so ingrained in Confucian family hierarchy, this was so ingrained in Chinese culture, that you had to change it. So I think that was a symbol of the change of culture.

Secondly, the change in the infrastructure of the economic base, that is of the poor peasants and their ownership of the land. You were not only changing the economic structure, you had to change the superstructure, including people's ideas. And law is a part of superstructure. So that's Mao's great idea, changing both sides, rather than just the economy. On the other hand, those who wanted to bring capitalism back, like Deng Xiaoping, said that if you just change the economy, everything else will change. But at the beginning, the Chinese Communist Party saw that you have to abolish the old things that are oppressive. There is a dialectic, you can see this in anything. Like the problem with the Marriage Law. There was great resistance all along. Because it's not like you will just have a law and then all the people will follow that. There were still a lot of women's issues for the 17 years after 1949 from the start of the new socialist government until
the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

When new China was founded in 1949, the new government met so many challenges: prostitution, concubinage, drug problems. And miraculously, within two or three years, all the prostitutes were reformed and all the drug addicts got treated. My grandmother told me about how there was this place in Harbin where there was this neighbourhood for prostitution and it then became a normal residential area. Unfortunately today that area has gone back to its "tradition" of prostitution.

L.O.: A lot of things were changed in the first 17 years, but what made it necessary to go further? What problems was the Cultural Revolution trying to address, including around the woman question?

B.D.: There was the newly emerged elitist group within the Party and the government. They were called the capitalist roaders in the Cultural Revolution and they were the targets of the revolution. But I think "capitalist roader" may be a misnomer. They were people who were trying to return back to the old hierarchy in the society. Also the social idea was emerging that those who were educated should stay in the cities and then they looked down on their parents in the countryside. This was one of the symptoms in that 17 years and then the Cultural Revolution tried to get rid of this.

The peasants said of their children who were lucky enough to go to the university in the cities: The saying went: the first year they are country bumpkins, the second year they catch up with the other people, the third year, they will desert their parents in the countryside. So that's a change in the peasant children sent to the cities. This was used to talk about the larger problem and social issues. The Communist Party came also from the peasant base. It represented peasants' interest. So people send them to govern the country, they go to Beijing right? First, they're fine. They keep their basic colour, their values, and their mission. But after a while, the second period, they catch up with all the people there, they try to "get in", they forgot why they were there in the first place.

L.O.: You're saying this was an analogy to those who were supposed to be serving the people but then ended up somewhere else. And the reason why Mao and others started calling them capitalist roaders was because there were two roads that China could go on, one to socialism, one to capitalism. And there were those like Deng Xiaoping who were saying China should be capitalist and this is why they were called "capitalist roaders".

B.D.: But I don't think these people wanted to go to capitalism, they were trying to take people back to old [feudal] tradition, and they were trying to retrench back to feudalism. Before China didn't really have capitalism. But Deng Xiaoping was really a capitalist roader who wanted to emulate the capitalist system. Liu Shao Qi was trying to emulate the capitalist system too.

L.O.: What about the role of model operas, the role of women, the importance of the superstructure – the Confucius superstructure had a certain image of women – the mummies, beauties, etc. on the stage.

B.D.: Jiang Qing gave a speech in 1965 and said we have to reform the opera and literature; that signaled the official start of the Cultural Revolution.

L.O.: Why was it so revolutionary what they did with the model operas?

B.D.: That is what my research is all about. I feel that before the Cultural Revolution, even though the Chinese Communist Party was very aggressive politically, but culturally the Party still carried a kind of conservative bend. The Marriage Law was passed and was a great moment in Chinese history, a very progressive thing. But culturally, at the same time it carried something very traditional – why a marriage law, it is still thinking that women need to get married. That's my argument. What Jiang Qing did was more radical than that. I'm writing a paper on this that I will present this summer on the opera and literature of the Cultural Revolution. What I want to say is that compared to the old works, the gender roles changed in the model operas and ballets.

The model theatres have to be highlighted – this was how the revolution should be. We can't idealize the Cultural Revolution but this addressed the problem of the fact that there were 600 million people who still carried a lot of old baggage with them. Chairman Mao said you cannot carry out the revolution in one generation. You have to have a second and third generation; there is still baggage that the people carry with them. Right now it's very difficult to speak out about this, the people who study Cultural Revolution say that model operas have created all these false images and stereotypes. Yes, so what? Any artistic work creates and promotes certain images and stereotypes.

L.O.: And they are used to promote certain ideas...

B.D.: Exactly. What's wrong with that compared to promoting some other kinds of ideals? If you look at Swan Lake, that is a certain view of women's beauty. Then what is in the Red Detachment of Women where you use the same form of ballet but a different image of women. There is that comparison, contrast. Jiang Qing used Beijing Opera which is very, very abstract – she used this form to carry a certain message, a certain image. People say, oh those women are not real – they don't have a family. But that's the point. That the woman being portrayed isn't burdened down by a family. So in that cultural sense, Jiang Qing was more advanced. And you look at things now in China under capitalism. The family is totally disruptive for women. And in terms of women's total role, the liberation of themselves and their social roles – you have to get out of the family. Especially in Chinese culture, the word family is a loaded word, a loaded concept, you have a
role and obligation.

L.O.: It's true in U.S. culture as well – there are unequal relations, obligations, there's patriarchy...

B.D.: Exactly. Women can never be equal in the family structure. That's Jiang Qing's very radical feminism right there. So women can be revolutionaries and can be great leaders only when she is liberated from being a mother, from being a wife. Those are the images the model theater in the Cultural Revolution has built
L.O.: Can you talk more about what the Cultural Revolution accomplished and what it meant to grow up in a socialist society?

B.D.: I grew up there, and for me, I always had a purpose. That was what education was about. And you didn't have to worry about something like the kind of financial crisis that capitalism will always have periodically. We never had that much – two sets of clothes, but we never felt we should have more. You don't have that kind of crazy desires for everything, like the need to go shopping all the time. I feel that capitalism is very good at creating a void in people's psyche. It will teach you that the only way you feel okay is to want more. It is so consuming. When I grew up, I did not put much time at all in material stuff. So we had energy to do other things for greater good. We studied all kinds of subjects, and we thought our presence was very much a part of the future. Yes, we were very future oriented and our focus was also wider than only on China. It was about the whole human kind. It is what inspired us. That's what I feel education has to be

Some people believe in individualism. But if you think that you are the most important, then that is really a boring life, because your existence is irrelevant to others; that is how I feel. You can't survive that long. You have to put yourself into human history. Then your life, your existence will carry some meaning. That is what Chairman Mao said. In his memorial to Doctor Norman Bethune, he said everyone has to die. But the meaning of death is different. Somebody dies a worthy death so that death is as weighty as the Mount Tai. Some other's death is as light as a feather. And because Bethune put his life into this communist cause, we all remember him – his death was weighty. We were all trained this way. You feel that you become part of something. And this makes your life and death more meaningful. Now to think about it, we were pretty profound as teenagers. We were already coping with the existential questions for all humankind: life and death.

I had never lived in a capitalist society then so I didn't know how to compare it to socialism. But looking at the things now both in China and U.S., I feel that there was, back then, an optimism that was always in the air, we were always optimistic. People didn't complain. Right now everyone is complaining even though he/she has already so much. Under capitalism there is all these desires for all kinds of things. Right now when I go back to China everyone is complaining and it's just money, money, money. But back under socialism, the purpose in life was not money. As Lei Feng said succinctly: We cannot live without food, but our lives are not for food. It is for making a better society. That pretty much sums up the spirit. Lei Feng was an ordinary soldier in the People's Liberation Army and died manning his post. He spent his short 22 years of life helping other people. And Chairman Mao called on the whole nation to "Learn from Comrade Lei Feng" in 1964.

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