Chinese Revolution

Chinese Revolution



Shortly after the conclusion of World War II, the Chinese Communist Party seized power in China in 1949. Under the leadership of the party dictator, Mao Zedong, the Communists in China developed their own version of Marxist-Leninism in the 1950s and 1960s, and eventually challenged the Soviet Union for leadership of the worldwide Communist Revolution.


Learning Objectives

  • Assess how the conflict between the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and the Chinese Communist Party was affected by external and internal developments in China.
  • Identify factors that contributed to the Chinese Communist Party's victory in the Civil War.
  • Examine the economic, political, and cultural changes resulting from the Chinese Revolution.
  • Examine the Nationalist Party in the Chinese Revolution and settlement in Taiwan.


Key Terms / Key Concepts


Chinese Civil War: a civil war in China fought between forces loyal to the Kuomintang (KMT)-led government of the Republic of China, and forces loyal to the Communist Party of China (CPC) (The war began in August 1927 with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition and ended when major hostilities ceased in 1950.)

Five Year Plan: a nationwide centralized economic plan in the Soviet Union developed by a state planning committee that was part of the ideology of the Communist Party for the development of the Soviet economy (A series of these plans was developed in the Soviet Union while similar Soviet-inspired plans emerged across other communist countries during the Cold War era.)

Great Chinese Famine: a period in the People’s Republic of China between the years 1959 and 1961 characterized by widespread famine that resulted in deaths ranging from 20 million to 43 million (Drought, poor weather, and the policies of the Communist Party of China (Great Leap Forward) contributed, although the relative weights of these contributions are disputed.)

Great Leap Forward: an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC) that took place from 1958 to 1961 and was led by Mao Zedong aimed at rapidly transforming the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through quick industrialization and collectivization (It is widely considered to have caused the Great Chinese Famine.)

Hundred Flowers Campaign: a period in 1956 in the People’s Republic of China during which the Communist Party of China (CPC) encouraged its citizens to openly express their opinions of the communist regime (Differing views and solutions to national policy were encouraged based on the famous expression by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong: “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” After this brief period of liberalization, Mao abruptly changed course.)

Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech”: a report by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 25, 1956 in which Khrushchev was sharply critical of the reign of deceased General Secretary and Premier Joseph Stalin, particularly with respect to the purges which marked the late 1930s

Kuomintang: a major political party in the Republic of China founded by Song Jiaoren and Sun Yat-sen shortly after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911;  currently the second-largest political party in the country, often translated as the Nationalist Party of China or Chinese Nationalist Party (Its predecessor, the Revolutionary Alliance, was one of the major advocates of the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of a republic.)

Maoism: a political theory derived from the teachings of Chinese political leader Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976); developed from the 1950s until the Deng Xiaoping reforms in the 1970s, the guiding political and military ideology of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and revolutionary movements around the world


The Chinese Civil War


The Chinese Civil War, fought between forces loyal to the Nationalist Kuomintang-led government (KMT) and those loyal to the Communist Party of China (CPC), represented an ideological split between the CPC and the KMT and resulted in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the exodus of the nationalists to Taiwan. It continued intermittently until late 1937, when the two parties came together to form the Second United Front to counter the Japanese threat and prevent the country from crumbling. However, the alliance of the CPC and the KMT was in name only.

The level of actual cooperation and coordination between the two parties during World War II was at best minimal. In the midst of the Second United Front, the CPC and the KMT still vied for territorial advantage in “Free China” (i.e., areas not occupied by the Japanese or ruled by Japanese puppet governments). In general, developments in the Second Sino-Japanese War were to the advantage of the CPC, as its guerrilla war tactics won them popular support within the Japanese-occupied areas, while the KMT had to defend the country against the main Japanese campaigns since it was the legal Chinese government.

Under the terms of the Japanese unconditional surrender dictated by the United States, Japanese troops were ordered to surrender to KMT troops and not to the CPC, which was present in some of the occupied areas. In Manchuria, however, where the KMT had no forces, the Japanese surrendered to the Soviet Union. Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Japanese troops to remain at their posts to receive the Kuomintang and not surrender their arms to the Communists. However, in the last month of World War II in East Asia, Soviet forces launched a huge strategic offensive operation to attack the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria and along the Chinese-Mongolian border. Chiang Kai-shek realized that he lacked the resources to prevent a CPC takeover of Manchuria following the scheduled Soviet departure.

A fragile truce between the competing forces fell apart on June 21, 1946, when full-scale war between the CPC and the KMT broke out. On July 20, 1946, Chiang Kai-shek launched a large-scale assault on Communist territory, marking the final phase of the Chinese Civil War. After three years of exhausting military campaigns, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, with its capital in Beijing. Chiang Kai-shek and approximately two million Nationalist Chinese retreated from mainland China to the island of Taiwan after the loss of Sichuan (at that time, Taiwan was still Japanese territory). In December 1949, Chiang proclaimed Taipei, Taiwan, the temporary capital of the Republic of China and continued to assert his government as the sole legitimate authority in China.


Photo of a group of people
Mao Zedong Proclaiming the Establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.


During the war, both the Nationalists and the Communists carried out mass atrocities, with millions of non-combatants deliberately killed by both sides. Benjamin Valentino has estimated atrocities resulted in the deaths of between 1.8 million and 3.5 million people between 1927 and 1949. Atrocities included deaths from forced conscription, as well as massacres.


The United States and the Chinese Civil War


During World War II, the United States emerged as a major actor in Chinese affairs. As an ally, it embarked in late 1941 on a program of massive military and financial aid to the hard-pressed Nationalist government. In January 1943 the United States and Britain led the way in revising their treaties with China, bringing to an end a century of unequal treaty relations. Within a few months, a new agreement was signed between the United States and China for the stationing of American troops in China for the common war effort against Japan. In December 1943 the Chinese exclusion acts of the 1880s and subsequent laws enacted by the United States Congress to restrict Chinese immigration into the United States were repealed.

The wartime policy of the United States was initially to help China become a strong ally and a stabilizing force in postwar East Asia. As the conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists intensified, however, the United States sought unsuccessfully to reconcile the rival forces for a more effective anti-Japanese war effort. Toward the end of the war, United States Marines were used to hold Beiping and Tianjin against a possible Soviet incursion, and logistic support was given to Nationalist forces in north and northeast China.

Through the mediatory influence of the United States a military truce was arranged in January 1946, but battles between Nationalists and Communists soon resumed. Realizing that American efforts short of large-scale armed intervention could not stop the war, the United States withdrew the American mission, headed by General George C. Marshall, in early 1947.

The civil war, in which the United States aided the Nationalists with massive economic loans but no military support, became more widespread. Battles raged not only for territories but also for the allegiance of cross sections of the population.

The Nationalist government sought to enlist popular support through internal reforms. The effort was in vain, however, because of the rampant corruption in government and the accompanying political and economic chaos. By late 1948 the Nationalist position was bleak. The demoralized and undisciplined Nationalist troops proved no match for the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The Communists were well established in the north and northeast. Although the Nationalists had an advantage in numbers of men and weapons, controlled a much larger territory and population than their adversaries, and enjoyed considerable international support, they were exhausted by the long war with Japan and the attendant internal responsibilities. In January 1949 Beiping was taken by the Communists without a fight, and its name changed back to Beijing. Between April and November, major cities passed from Guomindang to Communist control with minimal resistance. In most cases the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under Communist influence long before the cities. After Chiang Kai-shek and a few hundred thousand Nationalist troops fled from the mainland to the island of Taiwan, there remained only isolated pockets of resistance. In December 1949 Chiang proclaimed Taipei, Taiwan, the temporary capital of China.


Taiwan or the Republic of China?


The resumption of the Chinese Civil War led to the ROC’s loss of the mainland to the Communists and the flight of the ROC government to Taiwan in 1949. The island of Taiwan was mainly inhabited by Taiwanese aborigines before the 17th century, when Dutch and Spanish colonies opened the island to Han Chinese immigration. After a brief rule by the Kingdom of Tungning, the island was annexed by the Qing dynasty, which was the last dynasty of China. The Qing ceded Taiwan to Japan in 1895 after the First Sino-Japanese War. While Taiwan was under Japanese rule, the Republic of China (ROC) was established on the mainland in 1912 after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Following the Japanese surrender to the Allies in 1945, the ROC took control of Taiwan. Although the ROC claimed to be the legitimate government of “all of China” until 1991, its effective jurisdiction since 1949 has been limited to Taiwan and its surrounding islands, with the main island making up 99% of its territory. The official name of the entity remains the Republic of China although its political status is highly ambiguous.

The ROC was a charter member of the United Nations. Despite the major loss of territory in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established by the Communists, the ROC was still recognized as the legitimate government of China by the UN and many non-communist states. However, in 1971 the UN expelled the ROC and transferred China’s seat to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In addition, the ROC lost its membership in all intergovernmental organizations related to the UN. Most countries aligned with the West in the Cold War terminated diplomatic relations with the ROC and recognized the PRC instead.

The ROC continues to maintain relations with the UN and most of its non-governmental organizations. However, multiple attempts by the Republic of China to rejoin the UN have failed, largely due to diplomatic maneuvering by the PRC. The ROC is recognized a small number of United Nations member states and the Holy See—the Catholic Pope and territories that he governs. It maintains diplomatic relations with those countries, which means they recognize the ROC government as the representative of China but not the independent status of Taiwan as a state.

The PRC refuses to maintain diplomatic relations with any nation that recognizes the ROC, but does not object to nations conducting economic, cultural, and other exchanges with Taiwan that do not imply diplomatic relations. Therefore, many nations that have diplomatic relations with Beijing maintain quasi-diplomatic offices in Taipei. Similarly, the government in Taiwan maintains quasi-diplomatic offices in most nations under various names, most commonly as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. The ROC participates in most international forums and organizations under the name “Chinese Taipei” due to diplomatic pressure from the People’s Republic of China. For instance, it has competed at the Olympic Games under this name since 1984.


Parade of cars before cheering crowds
President Chiang Kai-shek and President Dwight D. Eisenhower waved to crowds during Eisenhower’s visit to Taipei in June 1960, author unknown.


Taiwan's Political System


Taiwan is currently the 21st-largest economy in the world, and its high-tech industry plays a key role in the global economy. It is ranked highly in terms of freedom of the press, health care, public education, economic freedom, and human development. This status was not always the case in the history of Taiwan.

On February 28, 1947, an anti-government uprising in Taiwan was violently suppressed by the Kuomintang-led ROC government, which killed thousands of civilians. The massacre, known as the February 28 Incident, marked the beginning of the Kuomintang’s White Terror period in Taiwan, in which tens of thousands more inhabitants vanished, died, or were imprisoned. The White Terror, in its broadest meaning, was the period of martial law that lasted for 38 years and 57 days. Chiang Ching-kuo—Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor as the president—began to liberalize the political system in the mid-1980s. In 1984, the younger Chiang selected Lee Teng-hui—a Taiwanese-born, US-educated technocrat—to be his vice president. In 1986, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was formed and inaugurated as the first opposition party in the ROC to counter the KMT. A year later, Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law on the main island of Taiwan.

After the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988, Lee Teng-hui succeeded him as president and continued to democratize the government. Under Lee, Taiwan underwent a process of localization in which Taiwanese culture and history were promoted over a pan-China viewpoint, in contrast to earlier KMT policies that promoted a Chinese identity. The original members of the Legislative Yuan and National Assembly, elected in 1947 to represent mainland Chinese constituencies and holding the seats without re-election for more than four decades, were forced to resign in 1991. The previously nominal representation in the Legislative Yuan was thus brought to an end, reflecting the reality that the ROC had no jurisdiction over mainland China and vice versa. Democratic reforms continued in the 1990s, with Lee Teng-hui being re-elected in 1996, during the first direct presidential election in the history of the ROC. By the same token, Taiwan transformed from a one-party military dictatorship dominated by the Kuomintang to a multi-party democracy with universal suffrage.

Although Taiwan is fully self-governing, most international organizations either refuse it membership or allow it to participate only as a non-state actor. Internally, the major division in politics is between the aspirations of eventual Chinese unification or Taiwanese independence, although both sides have moderated their positions to broaden their appeal. The PRC has threatened the use of military force in response to any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan or if PRC leaders decide that peaceful unification is no longer possible.


Cross-Strait Relations


The English expression “cross-strait relations” refers to relations between the PRC and the ROC by the two sides concerned and many observers, so that the relationship between China and Taiwan would not be referred to as “(Mainland) China–Taiwan relations” or “PRC–ROC relations.”

The Chinese Civil War stopped without signing a peace treaty, and the two sides are technically still at war. Since 1949, relations between the PRC and the ROC have been characterized by limited contact, tensions, and instability. In the early years, military conflicts continued while diplomatically both governments competed to be the “legitimate government of China.” On January 1, 1979, Beijing proposed the establishment of the so called Three Links: postal, commercial, and transportation. The proposal was greeted in ROC’s President Chiang Ching-kuo’s with the Three-Nos Policy (“no contact, no compromise and no negotiation”).

In 1987, the ROC government began to allow visits to China. This benefited many, especially old KMT soldiers who had been separated from their families in China for decades. This also proved a catalyst for the thawing of relations between the two sides, although difficult negotiations continued and the Three Links were officially established only in 2008.

Cross-strait investments have greatly increased since 2008. Predominantly, this involves Taiwan-based firms moving to or collaborating in joint ventures in the PRC. China remains Taiwan’s top trading partner. Cultural exchanges have also increased in frequency. The National Palace Museum in Taipei and the Palace Museum in Beijing have collaborated on exhibitions. Scholars and academics frequently visit institutions on the other side. Books published on each side are regularly republished on the other side, although restrictions on direct imports and different orthography somewhat impede the exchange of books and ideas. Religious exchange has also become frequent. Frequent interactions occur between worshipers of Matsu and Buddhists.




The ideologies of the Chinese Communist Party in mainland China have significantly evolved since it established political power in China in 1949. Mao Zedong’s revolution that founded the PRC was nominally based on Marxism-Leninism with a rural focus (based on China’s social situations at the time). During the 1960s and 1970s, the CPC experienced a significant ideological breakdown with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and their allies. Mao’s peasant revolutionary vision and so-called “continued revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat” stipulated that class enemies continued to exist even though the socialist revolution seemed to be complete, giving way to the Cultural Revolution. This fusion of ideas became known officially as Mao Zedong Thought or Maoism outside of China. It represented a powerful branch of communism that existed in opposition to the Soviet Union’s Marxist revisionism.

The essential difference between Maoism and other forms of Marxism is that Mao claimed that peasants should be the essential revolutionary class in China because they were more suited than industrial workers to establish a successful revolution and socialist society in China. Maoism was widely applied as the guiding political and military ideology of the CPC. It evolved with Chairman Mao’s changing views, but its main components are “New Democracy”, “People’s war”, “Mass line”, “cultural revolution”, “three worlds”, and “agrarian socialism”.

The “New Democracy” aims to overthrow feudalism and achieve independence from colonialism. However, it dispenses with the rule predicted by Marx and Lenin that a capitalist class would usually follow such a struggle, claiming instead to enter directly into socialism through a coalition of classes fighting the old ruling order.

The original symbolism of the flag of China derives from the concept of the coalition. The largest star symbolizes the Communist Party of China’s leadership, and the surrounding four smaller stars symbolize “the bloc of four classes”: proletarian workers, peasants, the petty bourgeoisie (small business owners), and the nationally-based capitalists. This is the coalition of classes for Mao’s New Democratic Revolution.

Maoism emphasizes the “revolutionary struggle of the vast majority of people against the exploiting classes and their state structures,” which Mao termed “People’s war.” The “People’s war” maintains that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Mobilizing large parts of rural populations to revolt against established institutions by engaging in guerrilla warfare, Maoism focuses on “surrounding the cities from the countryside.” It views the industrial-rural divide as a major division exploited by capitalism, involving industrial urban developed “First World” societies ruling over rural developing “Third World” societies.

The” Mass line” theory holds that the communist party must not be separate from the popular masses, either in policy or in revolutionary struggle. This theory runs contrary to the view of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution that the intellectual elite in the party lead the masses.  To conduct a successful revolution, according to Maoism, the needs and demands of the masses must be paramount.

The “Cultural revolution” theory states that the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat does not wipe out bourgeois ideology. The class struggle continues, and even intensifies, during socialism. Therefore, a constant struggle against these ideologies and their social roots must be conducted. The revolution’s stated goal was to preserve “true” Communist ideology in the country by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, and to re-impose Maoist thought as the dominant ideology within the Party. The concept was applied in practice in 1966, which marked the return of Mao Zedong to a position of power after the Great Leap Forward (a 1958 – 1961 failed economic and social campaign aimed to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization). The movement paralyzed China politically and negatively affected the country’s economy and society to a significant degree.

The “Three Worlds” theory states that during the Cold War, two imperialist states formed the First World: the United States and the Soviet Union. The Second World consisted of the other imperialist states in their spheres of influence. The Third World consisted of the non-imperialist countries. Both the First and the Second World exploit the Third World, but the First World more aggressively so.

In its concept of “agrarian socialism”, Maoism departs from conventional European-inspired Marxism in that its focus is on the agrarian countryside rather than the industrial urban forces. This is known as agrarian socialism.

Although Maoism is critical of urban industrial capitalist powers, it views urban industrialization as a prerequisite to expand economic development and socialist reorganization to the countryside, with the goal of rural industrialization that would abolish the distinction between town and countryside.


The People's Republic of China


On October 1, 1949, the People's Republic of China was formally established, with its national capital at Beijing. "The Chinese people have stood up!" declared Mao as he announced the creation of a "people's democratic dictatorship." The people were defined as a coalition of four social classes: the workers, the peasants, the petite bourgeoisie, and the national-capitalists. The four classes were to be led by the CCP, which was meant to be the vanguard of the working class. At that time the CCP claimed a membership of 4.5 million, of which members of peasant origin accounted for nearly 90 percent. The party was under Mao's chairmanship, and the government was headed by Zhou Enlai (1898 – 1976) as premier of the State Administrative Council (the predecessor of the State Council).

The Soviet Union recognized the People's Republic on October 2, 1949. Earlier in the year, Mao had proclaimed his policy of "leaning to one side" as a commitment to the socialist bloc. In February 1950, after months of hard bargaining, China and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, valid until 1980. The pact also was intended to counter Japan or any power's joining Japan for the purpose of aggression.

In the first year of Communist administration, moderate social and economic policies were implemented with skill and effectiveness. For the first time in decades a Chinese government was met with peace, instead of massive military opposition, within its territory. The new leadership was highly disciplined and, having a decade of wartime administrative experience to draw on, was able to embark on a program of national integration and reform. The leadership realized that the overwhelming task of economic reconstruction and achievement of political and social stability required the goodwill and cooperation of all classes of people. Results were impressive by any standard, and popular support was widespread.

By 1950 international recognition of the Communist government had increased considerably, but it was slowed by China's involvement in the Korean War. In October 1950, sensing a threat to the industrial heartland in northeast China from the advancing United Nations (UN) forces in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), units of the PLA—calling themselves the Chinese People's Volunteers—crossed the Yalu Jiang River into North Korea in response to North Korea's and the Soviet Union’s request for aid. Almost simultaneously the PLA forces also marched into Xizang (Tibet) to reassert Chinese sovereignty over a region that had been in effect independent of Chinese rule since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

In 1951 the UN declared China to be an aggressor in Korea and sanctioned a global embargo on the shipment of arms and war material to China. This step foreclosed any possibility that the People's Republic might replace Nationalist China (on Taiwan) as a member of the UN and as a veto-holding member of the UN Security Council, at least for the time being.

After China entered the Korean War, the initial moderation in Chinese domestic policies gave way to a massive campaign against the "enemies of the state," actual and potential. These enemies consisted of "war criminals, traitors, bureaucratic capitalists, and counterrevolutionaries." The campaign was combined with party sponsored trials attended by huge numbers of people. The major targets in this drive were foreigners and Christian missionaries who were branded as United States agents at these mass trials.

The 1951 – 52 drive against political enemies was accompanied by land reform, which had actually begun under the Agrarian Reform Law of June 28, 1950. The redistribution of land was accelerated, and a class struggle against landlords and wealthy peasants was launched. An ideological reform campaign requiring self-criticisms and public confessions by university faculty members, scientists, and other professional workers was given wide publicity. Artists and writers were soon the objects of similar treatment for failing to heed Mao's dictum that culture and literature must reflect the class interest of the working people, led by the CCP.

These campaigns were accompanied in 1951 and 1952 by the san fan ("three anti") and wu fan ("five anti") movements. The former was directed ostensibly against the evils of "corruption, waste, and bureaucratism"; its real aim was to eliminate incompetent and politically unreliable public officials and to bring about an efficient, disciplined, and responsive bureaucratic system. The wu fan movement aimed at eliminating recalcitrant and corrupt businessmen and industrialists, who were in effect the targets of the CCP's condemnation of "tax evasion, bribery, cheating in government contracts, thefts of economic intelligence, and stealing of state assets." In the course of this campaign the party claimed to have uncovered a well-organized attempt by businessmen and industrialists to corrupt party and government officials. This charge was enlarged into an assault on independent businesspeople (the “bourgeoisie”) as a whole. The number of people affected by the various punitive or reform campaigns was estimated in the millions.


The Transition to Socialism, 1953-1957


The period of officially designated "transition to socialism" corresponded to China's First Five-Year Plan(1953 – 57). The period was characterized by efforts to achieve industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, and political centralization.

The First Five-Year Plan stressed the development of heavy industry on the Soviet model. Soviet economic and technical assistance was expected to play a significant part in the implementation of the plan, and technical agreements were signed with the Soviets in 1953 and 1954.

To facilitate economic planning, the first modern census was taken in 1953; the population of mainland China was shown to be 583 million, a figure far greater than had been anticipated. Therefore, among China's most pressing needs in the early 1950s were food for its burgeoning population, domestic capital for investment, and purchase of Soviet-supplied technology, capital equipment, and military hardware. To satisfy these needs, the government began to collectivize agriculture. Despite internal disagreement as to the speed of collectivization, which at least for the time being was resolved in Mao's favor, preliminary collectivization was 90 percent completed by the end of 1956. In addition, the government nationalized banking, industry, and trade. Private enterprise in mainland China had been virtually abolished.

Major political developments included the centralization of party and government administration. Elections were held in 1953 for delegates to the First National People's Congress, China's national legislature, which met in 1954. Only communist party members could run as candidates in these elections. The congress declared the state constitution of 1954 and formally elected Mao chairman (or president) of the People's Republic; it elected Liu Shaoqi (1898 – 1969) chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress; and named Zhou Enlai premier of the new State Council. In the midst of these major governmental changes, and helping to precipitate them, was a power struggle within the CCP leading to the 1954 purge of Political Bureau member Gao Gang and Party Organization Department head Rao Shushi, who were accused of illicitly trying to seize control of the party.

The process of national integration also was characterized by improvements in party organization under the administrative direction of the secretary general of the party Deng Xiaoping (who served concurrently as vice premier of the State Council). There was a marked emphasis on recruiting intellectuals, who by 1956 constituted nearly 12 percent of the party's 10.8 million members. Peasant membership had decreased to 69 percent, while there was an increasing number of "experts", who were needed for the party and governmental infrastructures, in the party ranks.

As part of the effort to encourage the participation of intellectuals in the new regime, in mid-1956 there began an official effort to liberalize the political climate. Cultural and intellectual figures were encouraged to speak their minds on the state of CCP rule and programs. Mao personally took the lead in the movement, which was launched under the classical slogan "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let the hundred schools of thought contend." At first the party's repeated invitation to air constructive views freely and openly was met with caution. By mid-1957, however, the movement unexpectedly mounted, bringing denunciation and criticism against the party in general and the excesses of its party members in particular. Startled and embarrassed, leaders turned on the critics as "bourgeois rightists" and launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign. The Hundred Flowers Campaign, sometimes called the Double Hundred Campaign, apparently had a sobering effect on the CCP leadership.


The Great Leap Forward, 1958-1960


The anti rightist drive was followed by a militant approach toward economic development. In 1958 the CCP launched the Great Leap Forward campaign under the new "General Line for Socialist Construction." The Great Leap Forward was aimed at accomplishing the economic and technical development of the country at a vastly faster pace and with greater results. The shift to the left that the new "General Line" represented was brought on by a combination of domestic and external factors. Although the party leaders appeared generally satisfied with the accomplishments of the First Five-Year Plan, they—Mao and his fellow radicals in particular—believed that more could be achieved in the Second Five-Year Plan (1958 – 62) if the people could be ideologically aroused and if domestic resources could be utilized more efficiently for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture. These assumptions led the party to an intensified mobilization of the peasantry and mass organizations, stepped-up ideological guidance and indoctrination of technical experts, and encouraged efforts to build a more responsive political system. The last of these undertakings was to be accomplished through a new xiafang (down to the countryside) movement, under which cadres inside and outside the party would be sent to factories, communes, mines, and public works projects for manual labor and firsthand familiarization with grassroots conditions. Although evidence is sketchy, Mao's decision to embark on the Great Leap Forward was based in part on his uncertainty about the Soviet policy of economic, financial, and technical assistance to China. That policy, in Mao's view, not only fell far short of his expectations and needs but also made him wary of the political and economic dependence in which China might find itself.

The Great Leap Forward centered on a new socioeconomic and political system created in the countryside and in a few urban areas—the people's communes. By the fall of 1958, some 750,000 agricultural producers' cooperatives, now designated as production brigades, had been amalgamated into about 23,500 communes, each averaging 5,000 households or 22,000 people. The individual commune was placed in control of all the means of production and was to operate as the sole accounting unit; it was subdivided into production brigades (generally identical with traditional villages) and production teams. Each commune was planned as a self-supporting community for agriculture, small-scale local industry (for example, the famous backyard pig-iron furnaces), schooling, marketing, administration, and local security (maintained by militia organizations). Organized along paramilitary and laborsaving lines, the commune had communal kitchens, mess halls, and nurseries. In a way, the people's communes constituted a fundamental attack on the institution of the family, especially in a few model areas where radical experiments in communal living— large dormitories in place of the traditional nuclear family housing—occurred. (But those large dormitories were quickly dropped.) The system also was based on the assumption that it would release additional manpower for such major projects as irrigation works and hydroelectric dams, which were seen as integral parts of the plan for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture.

The Great Leap Forward was an economic failure and resulted in the Great Chinese Famine. In early 1959, amid signs of rising popular restiveness, the CCP admitted that the favorable production report for 1958 had been exaggerated. Among the Great Leap Forward's economic consequences were a shortage of food (in which natural disasters also played a part); shortages of raw materials for industry; overproduction of poor-quality goods; deterioration of industrial plants through mismanagement; and exhaustion and demoralization of the peasantry and of the intellectuals, not to mention the party and government cadres at all levels. Throughout 1959 efforts to modify the administration of the communes got under way; these were intended partly to restore some material incentives to the production brigades and teams, partly to decentralize control, and partly to house families that had been reunited as household units.

Political consequences were not inconsiderable. In April 1959 Mao, who bore the chief responsibility for the Great Leap Forward fiasco, stepped down from his position as chairman of the People's Republic. The National People's Congress elected Liu Shaoqi as Mao's successor, though Mao remained chairman of the CCP. Moreover, Mao's Great Leap Forward policy came under open criticism at a party conference at Lushan, Jiangxi Province. The attack was led by Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai, who had become troubled by the potentially adverse effect Mao's policies would have on the modernization of the armed forces. Peng argued that "putting politics in command" was no substitute for economic laws and realistic economic policy; unnamed party leaders were also admonished for trying to "jump into communism in one step." After the Lushan showdown, Peng Dehuai, who allegedly had been encouraged by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to oppose Mao, was deposed. Peng was replaced by Lin Biao, a radical and opportunist Maoist. The new defense minister initiated a systematic purge of Peng's supporters from the military.

Militancy on the domestic front was echoed in external policies. The "soft" foreign policy based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence to which China had subscribed in the mid-1950s gave way to a "hard" line in 1958. From August through October of that year, the Chinese resumed a massive artillery bombardment of the Nationalist-held offshore islands of Jinmen and Mazu, controlled by Taiwan. This was accompanied by an aggressive propaganda assault on the United States and a declaration of intent to "liberate" Taiwan.

Chinese control over Tibet had been reasserted in 1950. The socialist revolution that took place thereafter increasingly became a process of imposing Chinese culture on the Tibetans. Tension culminated in a revolt in 1958 – 59 and the flight to India by the Dalai Lama—the Tibetans' spiritual and de facto temporal leader. Relations with India, where sympathy for the rebels was aroused, deteriorated as thousands of Tibetan refugees crossed the Indian border. There were several border incidents in 1959, and a brief Sino-Indian border war erupted in October 1962 as China laid claim to Aksai Chin—nearly 103,600 square kilometers of territory that India regarded as its own. The Soviet Union gave India its moral support in the dispute, thus contributing to the growing tension between Beijing and Moscow.

The Sino-Soviet dispute of the late 1950s was the most important development in Chinese foreign relations. The Soviet Union had been China's principal benefactor and ally, but relations between the two were cooling. The Soviet agreement in late 1957 to help China produce its own nuclear weapons and missiles was terminated by mid-1959. From that point until the mid-1960s, the Soviets recalled all of their technicians and advisers from China and reduced or canceled economic and technical aid to China. The discord was occasioned by several factors.

The two countries differed in their interpretation of the nature of "peaceful coexistence." The Chinese took a more militant and unyielding position on the issue of anti-imperialist struggle, but the Soviets were unwilling, for example, to give their support on the Taiwan question. In addition, the two communist powers disagreed on doctrinal matters. The Chinese accused the Soviets of "revisionism"; the latter countered with charges of "dogmatism."

Rivalry within the international communist movement also exacerbated Sino-Soviet relations. An additional complication was the history of suspicion each side had toward the other, especially the Chinese, who had lost a substantial part of territory to Tsarist Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. Whatever the causes of the dispute, the Soviet suspension of aid was a blow to the Chinese scheme for developing industrial and high-level (including nuclear) technology.


The Sino-Soviet Split


Relations between the USSR and the PRC had begun to deteriorate in 1956 after Khrushchev revealed his “Secret Speech” at the 20th Communist Party Congress. The “Secret Speech” criticized many of Stalin’s policies, especially his purges of Party members, and it marked the beginning of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization process. This created a serious domestic problem for Mao, who had supported many of Stalin’s policies and modeled many of his own after them. 

With Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin, many people questioned Mao’s decisions. Moreover, the emergence of movements fighting for the reforms of the existing communist systems across East-Central Europe after Khrushchev’s speech worried Mao. Brief political liberalization introduced to prevent similar movements in China, most notably lessened political censorship known as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, backfired against Mao, whose position within the Party only weakened. This convinced him further that de-Stalinization was a mistake. Mao took a sharp turn to the left ideologically, which contrasted with the ideological softening of de-Stalinization. With Khrushchev’s strengthening position as Soviet leader, the two countries were set on two different ideological paths.

Mao’s implementation of the Great Leap Forward, which utilized communist policies closer to Stalin than to Khrushchev, included forming a personality cult around Mao, as well as instituting Stalinist economic policies. This angered the USSR, especially after Mao criticized Khrushchev’s economic policies through the plan while also calling for more Soviet aid. The Soviet leader saw the new policies as evidence of an increasingly confrontational and unpredictable China.

At first, the Sino-Soviet split manifested indirectly as criticism towards each other’s client states. China denounced Yugoslavia and Tito, who pursued a non-aligned foreign policy, while the USSR denounced Enver Hoxha and the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania, which refused to abandon its pro-Stalin stance and sought its survival in alignment with China. The USSR also offered moral support to the Tibetan rebels in their 1959 Tibetan uprising against China.

By 1960, the mutual criticism moved out in the open, when Khrushchev and Peng Zhen had an open argument at the Romanian Communist Party congress. Khrushchev characterized Mao as “a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist.” In turn, China’s Peng Zhen called Khrushchev a Marxist revisionist, criticizing him as “patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical.” Khrushchev denounced China with an 80-page letter to the conference and responded to Mao by withdrawing around 1,400 Soviet experts and technicians from China, leading to the cancellation of more than 200 scientific projects intended to foster cooperation between the two nations. After a series of unconvincing compromises and explicitly hostile gestures, in 1962, the PRC and the USSR finally broke relations. Mao criticized Khrushchev for withdrawing from the Cuban missile crisis (1962). Khrushchev replied angrily that Mao’s confrontational policies would lead to a nuclear war.

In the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear disarmament was brought to the forefront of geopolitics. To curb the production of nuclear weapons in other nations, the Soviet Union, Britain, and the U.S. signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. At the time, China was developing its own nuclear weaponry and Mao saw the treaty as an attempt to slow China’s advancement as a superpower. This was the final straw for Mao, who from September 1963 to July 1964 published nine letters openly criticizing every aspect of Khrushchev’s leadership. The Sino-Soviet alliance then completely collapsed, and Mao turned to other Asian, African, and Latin American countries to develop new and stronger alliances and further the PRC’s economic and ideological redevelopment.


Readjustment and Recovery, 1961-1965


Meanwhile in the early 1960s, Mao faced criticism within China as well. In 1961 the political tide in China began to swing to the right, as evidenced by the ascendancy of a more moderate leadership. In an effort to stabilize the economic front, for example, the party—still under Mao's titular leadership but under the dominant influence of Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, Bo Yibo, and others—initiated a series of corrective measures. Among these measures was the reorganization of the commune system, with the result that production brigades and teams had more say in their own administrative and economic planning. To gain more effective control from the center, the CCP reestablished its six regional bureaus and initiated steps aimed at tightening party discipline and encouraging the leading party cadres to develop populist-style leadership at all levels. The efforts were prompted by the party's realization that the arrogance of party and government functionaries had engendered only public apathy. On the industrial front, much emphasis was then placed on realistic and efficient planning; ideological fervor and mass movements were no longer the controlling themes of industrial management. Production authority was restored to factory managers. Another notable emphasis after 1961 was the party's greater interest in strengthening the defense and internal security establishment. By early 1965 the country was well on its way to recovery under the direction of the party apparatus or, to be more specific, the Central Committee's Secretariat headed by Secretary General Deng Xiaoping.


1 of 4