The first years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), from its founding in 1949 to approximately 1956, are frequently considered a golden age or honeymoon period. During this period, which predates the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, a basically unified Chinese Communist Party (CCP) managed to stabilize the country politically and to implement key elements of its socialist agenda, including land reform, nationalization of industry, and collectivization, not to mention fighting the United States to a truce in Korea. Respected academic histories of China, like the multivolume Cambridge History of China, gave expression to this view well into the 1980s.
But as China’s archives open and researchers delve deeper into the PRC’s early years, these previous positive assessments appear less certain. The achievements of the 1950s are now scrutinized both in their own right and insofar as they paved the way for the disasters of the later 1950s and 1960s. If the early 1950s often have been considered a period of success, we may well ask: what sort of success? At what cost? And to what effect?
First, we should remember that “success” in this context means success on the Chinese Communist Party’s own terms. The party aimed to vertically reintegrate the Chinese state—shattered by decades of anarchy and war—along modern, strong, and socialist lines. It aimed to establish its revolutionary communist ideology as the guiding force in the lives of China’s half-billion inhabitants. And it aimed to eliminate old social structures and crush the individuals, groups, and institutions that were capable of resisting. Broadly speaking, it succeeded.
The main vehicle used during these early years was the mass campaign: highly publicized state initiatives that stirred up massive popular participation in the pursuit of concentrated goals. A mix of ruthless violence and popular mobilization characterized initiatives such as the Land Reform of the 1950s and the 1951 Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, and succeeded in transforming China’s social, political, and economic structures at an almost unbelievable speed. In addition to the objective changes wrought by these campaigns, they gave the Chinese population a crash-course in the Marxist ideological categories that framed the CCP view of the world. These lessons were taught in the most palpable way possible: by dividing the population itself up between the regime’s friends and its enemies, and subjecting these enemies to unrelenting violence.
The CCP undertook land reform in the areas it controlled even before it ultimately triumphed in the Civil War, and it kicked this reform into high gear upon establishing its control over the entire country. Party cadres backed by the People’s Liberation Army were sent to the villages and towns of the nation, often with inadequate knowledge of the social structures of the areas they aimed to transform. Equipped with theories derived from Marxist texts and their experiences in Northern China, communist cadres had trouble making sense of realities elsewhere in the country. The division of the population into categories like “landlord,” “rich peasant,” “middle peasant,” and “poor peasant” was often capricious in character—a fact all the more perverse considering that in many cases these class labels became hereditary, effectively establishing a revolutionary caste system.
Resentments were fanned in highly theatrical public accusation meetings in which witnesses who had been specially coached by party cadres in order to arouse maximum public sympathy “spoke bitterness” against their exploiters, real or imagined. Those accused were stripped of their property and killed—often publicly—or sentenced to “reform through labor.” In addition to eliminating potential enemies, the CCP instructed the population in its class war-based outlook, seeking to make it complicit in the revolution’s bloody implementation. Estimates of those executed or killed extrajudicially during this period range from one to five million; more than thirty million were sentenced to mass labor. Around forty percent of cultivated land changed hands, benefiting sixty percent of the population. Although the boost to the economy was negligible, the reform was politically effective in gaining popular support and destroying the old social order.
Meanwhile, the CCP carried out a Soviet-inspired purge of political subversives and enemies of the regime. Beginning in 1951, the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, the “Three Antis” campaign against corruption, waste, and bureaucratism, and the “Five Antis” campaign targeting private industry and enterprise swept the country, and targeted former members and supporters of the nationalist Guomindang (GMD) regime, political unreliables in the government and business, and the leaders of religious sects. These campaigns were more concentrated in time and space than the Land Reform, and were carried out by the party-state’s regular organs rather than organized ad-hoc by cadres.
Mao endorsed “shock and panic” tactics against the CCP’s enemies and explicitly instituted a killing quota of one per thousand across the national population, a quota that would be exceeded by 1953. A fever of denunciation and arrest swept the nation. Almost every municipality held public accusation sessions, which were publicized by radio and news reports. The terror claimed between 700,000 and 2,000,000 lives, 4 million were “re-educated through labor,” and many more were cowed and intimidated.
The terror sent signals to a number of different audiences: ambivalent citizens and overly lenient officials who needed to see that the regime meant business, and communist activists who were gratified to see their enemies punished. Sometimes reneging on earlier promises of lenience for former GMD supporters, the regime showed that it was willing to use violence against its subjects and that its policies could change at any time. The way in which the CCP paired terror against its enemies with care for its supporters leads scholar Julia Strauss to refer to this strategy as “paternalist terror.”
Whether countryside land reforms or urban political lustration, the CCP’s mass campaigns were implemented through large scale public violence. But beyond the short term violence, these mass campaigns had a corrupting influence that set the stage for even worse disasters to come. To wit, even though popular enthusiasm for mass campaigns was already waning by the mid-1950s, their startling efficacy up to that point led the CCP to believe that mass mobilization was a tool of boundless versatility that could transform the country in any way the party desired. If it had been able to implement Land Reform, why not full collectivization? If it had been able to crush landlords and capitalists, why not all revisionists and capitalist-roaders? These false lessons undoubtedly contributed to the hubris that gave birth to the Great Leap Forward. The success of public accusation campaigns against the regime’s most obvious enemies would also—perhaps inevitably—devolve into the hysterical witch-hunting that reached its nadir in the Cultural Revolution.
From one point of view, the early 1950s were a time of triumphs for the PRC. Unfortunately, we are talking about the viewpoint of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP restructured the fragile Chinese state, engaged popular support, propagandized its people, expropriated and redistributed large amounts of property, and exterminated its real and potential enemies, all through intense mass campaigns that mobilized a majority of China’s people against a minority. The cost of such “success” was paranoia, intimidation, and massive bloodletting, as well as the internalization of patterns of behavior that would lead to two of the century’s most horrific tragedies.