Before reading this post, I suggest first reading China, The Roots of Madness to understand what led to Mao’s era in China (1949 – 1976). This link will take you to that post. When you finish, return.
Mao’s era started October 1949 with victory celebrations in Beijing, as the country with the largest population saw a Communist government come to power.
Mao says, “The People’s Republic of China is founded today. China will be free of inequality, poverty and foreign domination.”
Before 1950, most Chinese lived as they had for centuries as part of a feudal system. Even after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, warlords ruled much of China, and then China was torn by Civil War and an invasion by Japan during World War II.
For most Chinese, feudalism describes the “old society” that existed before “liberation” in 1949.
The following video shows what this life was like before Mao’s era. It is estimated that about half the people in rural China lived in severe poverty and were in debt to landowners.
(When the advertisement appears, advance the video scroll bar to 2:00 minutes to avoid it.)
In the video, Hu Benxu, a peasant farmer from Sichuan says that in the past, there was justice for the rich but nothing for the poor.
Chiang Kai-shek believed that improvements would spread through the country (sort of like President Reagan’s trickledown theory, also known as voodoo economics or Reaganomics, which did not work in the US) as foreign investments poured into China.
However, the opposite happened. As the country industrialized, the gap between the rich and the poor widened because the rich held on to money and wanted more and protests about working condition in the factories were met with death from Chiang Kai-shek’s troops.
Meanwhile, at the same time, Mao promised land reforms, and his troops treated the peasants with respect.
When Mao won China, he said, “We Chinese should work hard. The country is poor. Our people are uneducated. We must make China a modern industrialized state.”
However, there would be many mistakes and much suffering during the next 27 years. After two thousand years of an Imperial system of government, China was embarking on a journey of reinventing a country and a culture without foreign influence.
Mao held more power than anyone since the emperors, and he wanted China to be a purer, fairer more progressive state than the Soviet Union, so the peasants were the first to benefit.
As Mao promised during China’s Civil War (1926-1949 – with a break during part of World War II), there were land reforms.
Luo Shifa, a party official in Sichuan, tells his story about what happened in 1950. Rural property owners were judged enemies of the people (by the people) and hundreds of thousands were executed.
Changes in urban areas were not as violent. The owners and managers of factories were needed to keep things running but all property was signed over to the state. Factory and business owners who resisted were executed.
Women were given new rights at work and in marriage and foot binding was abolished. Literacy was also important. Before 1949, illiteracy in Mainland China was 80% and life expectancy was 35. When Mao died, the average life expectancy had increased to 55 and today it is 76 (while literacy is now more than 90% and China has done more to reduce poverty than any country on earth).
To deal with disease, the Communists launched programs to improve health care that had never existed before. Millions were inoculated against the most common diseases.
The nation went on a cleaning spree. Posters said everyone had to help exterminate pests. Songs were sung, “Pest free areas are glorious. Let’s wipe out the flies, bugs, mosquitoes and rats.”
Sparrows were considered pests since they were accused of eating crops. Whoever killed the most sparrows in each village was rewarded.
However, exterminating sparrows led to insect populations exploding, which endangered crop yields.
Then the people were told to watch for capitalistic or counter revolutionary behavior and to denounce suspicious people.
In 1958, Mao’s boldest program was launched. He wanted to out-produce industrialized nations in manufacturing and crop yields. The land given to the peasants in 1949 was confiscated and people communes of 100 thousand or more were created.
Mao believed that more people working together meant larger projects. By the end of 1958, 700 million people had been placed into 26,578 communes.
Ironically, one of the key factors in food production in China was the weather and 1958 had particularly good weather for growing food.
Then in 1959, things started to go wrong.
The excellent growing weather of 1958 was followed by a very poor growing year in 1959. Some parts of China were hit by floods. In other growing areas, drought was a major problem. The harvest for 1959 was 170 million tons of grain – well below what China needed at the most basic level.
Soon, in parts of China, starvation occurred and millions died.
In addition, political decisions/beliefs took precedence over commonsense and communes faced the task of doing things which they were incapable of achieving.
Mao said, “Revolutionary enthusiasm will triumph over all obstacles.”
To achieve Mao’s goals, the Communist Party encouraged competition between communes. Instead, overproduction caused crops to rot in the fields and the communes hid the truth by faking records.
Huge construction projects began without proper planning leading to accidents and deaths, which were hidden by the project managers. No one wanted Mao to discover the lack of proper revolutionary enthusiasm. Some critics claim that Mao was aware of what was going on but others argue he had no idea of the extent of the problems until late 1959.
During this time, steel production was to double in one year. Instead of producing steel from industry, Mao wanted the peasants to build small furnaces.
Again, there was competition between teams of peasants, and forests were cut down to fuel the crude furnaces the mostly illiterate peasants built.
All over China, people were neglecting the fields and crops to produce steel because the people were told they had to listen to Mao. All metal was melted — including cooking woks, but the steel produced using these methods was useless.
While the peasants were producing this useless steel, the crops rotted in the fields. Then in 1960, there was a drought and food production fell more than 25% and millions died from the resulting famine (no one knows the exact number — estimates run from 10 million to 45 million or more).
Having failed, Mao publicly admitted he had been wrong and stepped aside to let someone else run the country.
The large communes were abandoned in 1960, and the peasants returned to their villages and were given land again. At the time, Mao was still popular with the people but he still resigned as the Head of State.
However, fearing a return of capitalism and exploitation of the people, Mao’s supporters printed a book with his quotations and slogans.
The goal was to break the thinking and attitudes of old China. Using film, a propaganda campaign was launched so Mao could regain power. Then in 1966, the Cultural Revolution started.
By 1966, Mao’s Red Book of quotations was being used as a textbook in the schools.
Shao Ailing, a head teacher in Shanghai says, “The pupils began to realize that all the changes taking place in their families, in school, in Shanghai and China were because of Chairman Mao.”
Mao encouraged students to attack authority and the leadership of the Communist Party that did not agree with his beliefs.
This advice was coming from a man considered to be the “George Washington” of China, the man who had delivered on his promises to the peasants in 1950 and brought them medicine and land reforms—something the emperors of Imperial China and Chiang Kai-shek had never done, and Mao was still popular with the vast majority of the Chinese people.
Zhang Baoqing, an early Red Guard member in Beijing, says, “Chairman Mao started the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) to keep up the momentum for change. We thought if we followed Mao, we could not go wrong.”
Mao motivated millions of students from speeches in Tiananmen Square. This time it wasn’t the rural peasants that suffered the most during the Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1960). This time he looked for support from China’s urban youth that did not remember or were not aware of Mao’s earlier mistakes.
Urban student anger focused on Mao’s rivals, President Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Even small children were taught to denounce Liu. Then anyone in power was denounced. The structure of the Communist Party collapsed. Schoolteachers were attacked and tortured by their students. More than a million were killed or driven to suicide.
The anarchy caused by Mao’s Cultural Revolution spread. Schools and hospitals closed. Offices and factories were in chaos. Qi Youyi, who was a factory worker in Beijing, describes how bad it was. Production stopped. No one knew when he or she might be denounced and arrested. Many workers committed suicide.
After two years (by 1968), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was called in to restore order and reestablish the Communist Party. Then to bring peace to the streets, millions of members of the teenage Red Guard were sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants.
However, the Cultural Revolution did not officially end until 1976 when Mao died.
After his death, Mao’s closest supporters, the Gang of Four, were arrested and Maoist revolutionary activities were abandoned. In an attempt to hold the country together, the Communist Party used propaganda and the PLA to maintain control.
Deng Xiaoping replaced ideological fervor with economic activity so the people would be motivated not by dreams of equality but by money. In the 1980s, the new message was “to get rich is glorious”.
This post first appeared as a six part series starting June 21, 2010 as China’s Great Leap Forward – Part 1.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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