The Chinese Revolution of 1949 (Part-5)

Effects of Chinese Revolution, 1949 and Aftermath

Impact on the course of International Relations:

  • In the first place it gave a serious set back to the prestige of United States. The American Government provided lot of economic and military help to the nationalist government of China after the defeat of Japan, still the Communists succeeded in inflicting a defeat on Chiang Kai Shek. According to Schuman, the Chinese revolution was the first victory of Soviet Union in post-world war period and the first defeat of America.
  • The emergence of Communist China provided a new tilt to the balance of power between the Western powers and Communists. After the Second World War, Soviet Union was the only leading Communist country of the world. No doubt, communist governments were established in a number of countries of Eastern Europe, North Korea and Outer Mongolia but the balance of power was very much in favour of Western powers. After the emergence of Communist China, the Communists acquired a dominant position from the viewpoint of population even though militarily they were not in a position to outweigh the Western powers.
  • The emergence of China produced revolutionary impact on the whole of Asia. On the one hand, it greatly influenced the nationalist forces in Asia and Africa and on the other hand, it became an experimental ground for the industrial development of all the backward countries. It also became symbolic superiority of Com­munist system, over capitalist system, and naturally upset the Americans.
  • The Revolution of 1949 marked the advent of Communism in Asia. As so far Communism existed only in the Western countries. The Chinese revolution made a beginning for the emergence of Communism in Asia.
  • The Revolution left a deep impact on Africa. The Communist Government of China soon after assuming the regions of power openly declared its support to the nationalist movements everywhere, which pro­vided impetus to national struggle which was being waged by the Africans against the imperialist powers.
  • The emergence of Red China also left a deep impact on the policy of Soviet Union. Though initially the Soviet leaders considered the emergence of Communist in China as increased its military power, but soon they discovered that China was posing as a rival for leadership of the Communist world. This gave rise to struggle for supremacy and ideological conflict between Soviet Union and China, and posed a serious threat to Soviet leadership of the Communist world.
  • Thus we find that the Chinese Revolution left a deep impact on the world politics. It not only gave rise to new problems but also accorded new dimensions to the East-West Conflict and transformed South-East Asia into a focal point of world politics.

Social and Cultural Reforms:

(1) Role of Women:

  • Traditionally, women were regarded as inferior to men. Girls had to be obedient to their fathers, wives to their husbands and old women to their sons (the Marriage Law abolished this). The Marriage Law abolished the supremacy of man over woman, and also concubinage and child-marriage. It allowed a wife to divorce her husband, but forbade a husband to divorce his wife if she had a child less than one year old.
  • Child-marriage was still common, and helped ensure that husbands dominated their wives. Baby girls were sometimes killed or abandoned (the Communists banned this).
  • Girls could be sold as servants, concubines or prostitutes (the Communists banned this).
  • In the communes, women were regarded as equal to men, and had to work like men; their children were put in crèches so they could work, but this damaged their role as a mother.
  • Under the pressure of the Famine of 1959-61, women lost many of the social advances they had made; men sold their wives to be servants, and their daughters as prostitutes.

(2) Health:

  • Patriotic Health Movements: Teams of cadres went into the villages explaining the connection between dirt and disease, and how to avoid dysentery and malaria.
  • Barefoot Doctors: A million people were given 6-months basic medical training and sent out into the villages to provide basic medical care free of charge.
  • Opium addiction: Poppy fields were burned, and addicts killed or forced to reform; their families were made responsible for their future good behaviour
  • Commune medical care: Under the Great Leap Forward, the commune was supposed to provide medical and hospital facilities; mostly this proved impossible.
  • During the Cultural Revolution, properly trained doctors were despised, and forced to show solidarity with the workers by mopping the hospital floors; this actually reduced the standard of medical care in China.

(3) Education:

  • A national system of Primary education was set up; the literacy rate, 20% in 1949, was 70% by 1976. Officially, education was free and for both boys and girls.
  • To help with communication and writing, the government introduced a phonetic form of Mandarin called pinyin; this greatly eased the learning of Mandarin.
  • Education beyond the basic was despised; a survey in 1982 found that only a quarter of the working population had been to school beyond the age of 12, and only 1% had a degree.
  • The Red Guards of the cultural revolution despised education – 130 million of them left school and rejected learning as bourgeois and reactionary.

(4) Destruction of Traditional Religion and Culture:

  • 1.5 million Propagandists: Propagandists were loyal Party members charged with spreading the latest Party message.
  • Ordinary people would be made to attend one or two meetings a week, people needing ‘re-education’ would have to go to more; they would listen to lectures.
  • Many of Beijing’s ancient houses and structures were pulled down and replaced by Soviet Realism concrete eyesores.


  • Mao said religion was as bad as Nazism, and had to be eradicated; during the Cultural Revolution it was denounced as one of the ‘Four Olds’.
  • Churches were destroyed, priests and monks mocked and beaten – ancestor worship was condemned as a superstition.
  • In Tibet, the government feared the mixture of Buddhism and nationalism, and embarked on a campaign of religious persecution.
  • In Xinjiang, the government feared the mixture of Islam and nationalism, conquered the area in a military campaign, and settled huge numbers of Chinese immigrants in the region to try to counter the local population.


  • Mao believed that the Communist revolution should brutally overthrow every aspect of the past, and he put his wife in charge as ‘the cultural purifier of the nation’.
  • The government banned traditional songs and dances, festivals and wandering poets; instead, children were made to chant communist slogans.
  • All traditional and western culture was banned, only politically-correct proletarian culture was allowed, which furthered communist ideals.
  • Musicians, authors etc had to conform, or they were persecuted and sent for re-education; many gave up or committed suicide.


Agricultural changes

These transformed China from a country of small, inefficient private farms into one of large co-operative farms like those in Russia (1950-6). In the first stage, land was taken from large landowners and redistributed among the peasants, no doubt with violence in places. Some sources mention as many as two million people killed, though historian Jack Gray, writing in 1970, when Mao was still alive, claimed that ‘the redistribution of China’s land was carried out with a remarkable degree of attention to legality and the minimum of physical violence against landlords’. Recently, however, during the atmosphere of goodwill and openness surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities decided to declassify some secret archives and make them available for historians. These show that the official accounts of a number of events and policies do not tell the whole truth; achievements were exaggerated and unpleasant events were either toned down or not reported at all. Professor Frank Dikotter of the University of Hong Kong has shown that in some areas there were very few wealthy landowners, since the land was already fairly equally divided between the peasants. What actually happened was that their land was taken away from them and redistributed to communist party activists, with considerable violence, torturing and execution. One document from the Hebei archives reported that:

When it comes to the ways in which people are killed, some are buried alive, some are executed, some are cut to pieces, and among those who are strangled or mangled to death, some of the bodies are hung from trees or doors.

By 1956, whatever the methods used, about 95 per cent of all surviving peasants were in co11ective farms with joint ownership of the farm and its equipment.

Industrial changes

These began with the government nationalizing most businesses. In 1953 it embarked on a Five Year Plan concentrating on the development of heavy industry (iron, steel, chemicals and coal). The Russians helped with cash, equipment and advisers, and the plan had some success. Before it was complete, however, Mao began to have grave doubts as to whether China was suited to this sort of heavy industrialization. On the other hand he could claim that under his leadership the country had recovered from the ravages of the wars: full communications had been restored, inflation was under control and the economy was looking much healthier.

The Hundred Flowers campaign (1957)

This seems to some extent to have developed out of industrialization, which produced a vast new class of technicians and engineers. The party cadres (groups who organized the masses politically and economically – the collectivization of the farms, for example, was carried out by the cadres) believed that this new class of experts would threaten their authority. The government, feeling pleased with its progress so far, decided that open discussion of the problems might improve relations between cadres and experts or intellectuals. ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend‘, said Mao, calling for constructive criticism. Unfortunately he got more than he had anticipated as critics attacked:

  • the cadres for incompetence and over-enthusiasm;
  • the government for over-centralization;
  • the Communist Party for being undemocratic;
  • some suggested that opposition parties should be allowed.

Mao hurriedly called off the campaign and clamped down on his critics, insisting that his policies were right. The campaign showed how much opposition there still was to communism and to the uneducated cadres, and it convinced Mao that a drive was needed to consolidate the advance of socialism; so in 1958 he called for the ‘Great Leap Forward’.

The Great Leap Forward

Mao felt that something new and different was needed to meet China’s special problems – something not based on Russian experience. The Great Leap Forward involved further important developments in both industry and agriculture, in order to increase output (agriculture in particular was not providing the required food) and to adapt industry to Chinese conditions. Its most important features were:

  1. The introduction of communes. These were units larger than collective farms, containing up to 75000 people, divided into brigades and work teams with an elected council. They ran their own collective farms and factories, carried out most of the functions of local government within the commune and undertook special local projects. One typical commune in 1965, for example, contained 30000 people, of which a third were children at school or in crèches, a third were housewives or elderly, and the rest were the workforce. This included a science team of 32 graduates and 43 technicians. Each family received a share of the profits and also had a small private plot of land.
  2. A complete change of emphasis in industry. Instead of aiming for large-scale works of the type seen in the USSR and the West, much smaller factories were set up in the countryside to provide machinery for agriculture. Mao talked of 600 000 ‘backyard steel furnaces’ springing up, organized and managed by the communes, which also undertook to build roads, canals, dams, reservoirs and irrigation channels.

Backyard furnaces:

  • With no personal knowledge of metallurgy, Mao encouraged the establishment of small backyard steel furnaces in every commune and in each urban neighborhood. Huge efforts on the part of peasants and other workers were made to produce steel out of scrap metal.
  • To fuel the furnaces the local environment was denuded of trees and wood taken from the doors and furniture of peasants’ houses. Pots, pans, and other metal artifacts were requisitioned to supply the “scrap” for the furnaces so that the wildly optimistic production targets could be met. Many of the male agricultural workers were diverted from the harvest to help the iron production as were the workers at many factories, schools and even hospitals.
  • Although the output consisted of low quality lumps of pig iron which was of negligible economic worth, Mao had a deep distrust of intellectuals and faith in the power of the mass mobilization of the peasants.
  • Mao visited traditional steel works in Manchuria in January 1959 where he found out that high quality steel could only be produced in large-scale factories using reliable fuel such as coal. However, he decided not to order a halt to the backyard steel furnaces so as not to dampen the revolutionary enthusiasm of the masses. The program was only quietly abandoned much later in that year.

At first it looked as though the Great Leap might be a failure: there was some opposition to the communes, a series of bad harvests (1959-61) and the withdrawal of all Russian aid following the breach between Russia and China. All this, coupled with the lack of experience among the cadres, caused hardship in the years 1959-63; statistics which emerged later suggested that some 20 million people may have died prematurely as a result of hardships, especially the disastrous famine of 1959-60, caused by the Great Leap. Even Mao’s prestige suffered and he was forced to resign as Chairman of the People’s Congress (to be succeeded by Liu Shaoqi), though he remained Chairman of the Communist Party. Professor Dikotter’s researches in the newly opened archives reveal that the situation was much worse than the official account shows. Towards the end of the Great Leap Forward, special teams were sent out to discover the extent of the disaster around the country. Their findings included reports on peasant resistance during the collectivization campaign, reports about mass murders, confessions of leaders responsible for millions of deaths and reports about working conditions. In the words of Professor Dikotter:

What comes out of this massive and detailed dossier is a tale of horror in which Chairman Mao emerges as one of the greatest mass murderers in human history, responsible for the premature deaths of at least 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It is not merely the extent of the catastrophe that dwarfs earlier estimates, but also the manner in which many people died: between two and three million victims were tortured to death or summarily killed, often for the slightest infraction. When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, local boss Xiong Dechang, forced his father to bury him alive. The father died of grief a few days later. … The killing of slackers, weaklings, those too ill to work, or otherwise unproductive elements, increased the overall food supply for those who contributed to the regime through their labour. At one meeting Mao announced: ‘It is better to let half the people die so that the other half can eat their fill’.

However, in the long term the importance of the Great Leap became clear. According to the official account, by the early 1970s both agricultural and industrial production had increased substantially, and China was at least managing to feed its massive population without any further famine (which had rarely happened under the KMT). The communes proved to be a successful innovation. They were much more than merely collective farms – they were an efficient unit of local government and they enabled the central government in Beijing to keep in touch with local opinion. They seemed to be the ideal solution to the problem of running a vast country while at the same time avoiding the over-centralization that stifles initiative.

The crucial decision had been taken that China would remain predominantly an agricultural country with small-scale industry scattered around the countryside. The economy would be labour-intensive (relying on massive numbers of workers instead of using labour-saving machines). Given the country’s enormous population, this was arguably the best way of making sure that everybody had a job, and it enabled China to avoid the growing unemployment problems of the highly industrialized western nations.

Other genuine benefits were the spread of education and welfare services and a reduction in infant mortality, which fell from 203 per thousand births in 1949 to 84 by the end of the 1960s. There was also a definite improvement in the position of women in society.

Again, however, the true picture may well not be quite so rosy as it appears. In 2012 Jonathan Fenby, an expert in Chinese affairs, making use of the latest research, claimed that Mao ‘had brought the country to its knees’ and that China was virtually bankrupt in 1976 when Mao died.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-9)

This was Mao’s attempt to keep the revolution and the Great Leap on a pure Marxist-Leninist course, and to hit back at what he considered to be an over-bureaucratic party leadership under his deputy, Liu Shauqi. In the early 1960s, when the success of the Great Leap was by no means certain, opposition to Mao grew. Right-wing members of the Party believed that incentives (piecework, greater wage differentials and larger private plots, which had been creeping in in some areas) were necessary if the communes were to function efficiently. They also felt that there should be an expert managerial class to push forward with industrialization on the Russian model, instead of relying on the cadres. Even Deng Xiaoping, one of Mao’s most loyal supporters, had grave doubts about the wisdom of the Great Leap. But to the Maoists, these ideas were totally unacceptable; it was exactly what Mao was condemning among the Russians, whom he dismissed as ‘revisionists’ taking the ‘capitalist road’. The Party must avoid the emergence of a privileged class who would exploit the workers; it was vital to keep in touch with the masses.

Between 1963 and 1966 there was a great public debate between the rightists (including Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping) and the Maoists about which course to follow. Mao, using his position as Chairman of the Party to rouse the young people, launched a desperate campaign to ‘save’ the revolution. In this Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as he called it, Mao appealed to the masses. His supporters, the Red Guards (mostly students), toured the country arguing Mao’s case, and carrying their Little Red Books containing the thoughts of Chairman Mao. In some areas schools, and later factories, were closed down, as young people were urged to move into the countryside and work on farm. If questioned, they were required to say that they. would like to spend their whole life on the farm, whether it was true or not. It was an incredible propaganda exercise in Which Mao was trying to renew revolutionary fervour.

Unfortunately it brought chaos and something close to civil war. Once the masses had been roused, they denounced and physically attacked anybody in authority not just critics of Mao. Teachers, professionals, local party officials. all were targets, millions of people were disgraced and ruined. By 1967 the extremists among the Red Guard were almost out of control, and Mao had to call in the army, commanded by Lin Biao to restore order. Mao, privately admittmg that he had made mistakes, publicly blamed his advicers and the Red Guard leaders. Many were arrested and executed for ‘committing excesses.

At the party conference in April 1969 the Cultural Revolution was formally ended, and Mao was declared free of all blame for what had happened. Later. Mao blamed Defence Minister Lin Biao (his chosen successor), who had always been one of his most reliable supporters for the over-enthusiasm of the Red Guards. Some sources claim that Mao decided to make Lin Biao the scapegoat because he was trying to manoeuvre Mao into retiring. He was accused of plotting to assassinate Mao (which was highly unlikely). and was killed in an air crash in 1971 while trying to escape to the USSR, or so the official reports claimed.

The Cultural Revolution caused great disruption. ruined millions of lives and Probabl. held up China’s economic development by ten years. And yet in spite of that, there was probably some economic recovery in the last few years before Mao’s death. Certainly China had made great strides since 1949. Nevertheless. Jonathan Fenby’s recent verdict on Mao was damning:

In general. China had been laid low by his experiments. Poverty was institutionalized. Much of the country was still in a pre-industrial stage. Productivity had slumped. Urban wages were half what they had been under the Nationalist Republic. It took six months’ pay to buy a sewing machine. In Guangdong 90 per cent of would-be army recruits were rejected on grounds of size or health …. Productive people were demoralized. Trade was tiny. If there was equality in the People’s Republic, it was the equality of poverty.

The most surprising development in Mao’s policies during his last years was in foreign affairs when Mao and Zhou En-lai decided it was time to improve relations with the USA.


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