Shortly after taking control the Communist leaders named their new regime Red China. Besides being the color of Communism red is also the color of health and vitality for the Chinese. By not choosing a personal name for their new government, they deliberately disassociated themselves from the imperial dynastic tradition that had ruled China for millennia. Further as a government presumably ruled by the people, they also avoided the cult of personality, associated with a ruling family. However there were certainly some Communist heroes, who dominated the political field of action.
Intoxicated by the success of the Communist party against all odds Mao felt imbued with the Mandate of Heaven. He and the Chinese populace felt that the Communist government could do no wrong. This illusion was soon dispelled. In an attempt to find the perfect form of government Mao performed a few social experiments upon the Chinese people, which weren’t as successful as his revolution. In fact they could be called disastrous. Let’s follow the story.
After World War II, Korea, like Germany, was divided at the 38th parallel – the north falling under Russian influence and the south falling under Western influence, primarily American. The North Koreans, probably with Russian support, launched a huge offensive against South Korea in June of 1950 and were immediately successful, pushing the American-led troops to the ocean. With the United States pulling the strings the Western powers organized the United Nations to fight this Communist upsurge in Eastern Asia. The United Nations forces, primarily Americans, were so successful that they were approaching the Chinese border. Hundreds of thousands Chinese ‘volunteers’ entered the fray, driving the Western forces back beyond the 38th parallel and capturing Seoul. Eventually the American-led United Nations troops reconquered the territory to the south of 38º latitude - the dividing line between North and South Korea. At this point there was a stalemate, with neither side able to take the offensive. In 1953 an armed truce was signed that still stands in 2009, 56 years later, with no signs of abating. Communist North Korea still stands, although the Communist government in Russia has collapsed, while United States military aid is still necessary to prop up its South Korean government.
This war was a big burst for the prestige of the Red Chinese Communist government, internationally and internally. They had stood up to the armies of the combined forces of the Western powers and were able to hold their own. This was in sharp contrast to the Nationalist armies under Jiang, whose specialty was retreat and peasant abuse. The Korean War established the Red Chinese government as a world power. From this point the Western industrial powers knew that they could not easily dominate the Chinese militarily, as they had for over 100 years – since the Opium Wars of the 1820’s. Further it put the Chinese Communist system at the top of the international Communist experiment along with Russia.
Now the world had seen two diverse examples of Communist ascendancy. In Russia the revolution was based in the industrial proletariat, while in China it was based upon the agricultural peasantry. Russian Communism was more frightening for the industrially based Western governments, as their prosperity was based in industrialization and the dissatisfaction of the factory workers had spawned the revolution. However Chinese Communism was scarier for the Western imperialists, the international capitalists. They had become used to easily exploiting peasant-based third world countries for their national resources. Before the Chinese success, they had felt that the revolution would come from the cities not from the countryside. After the Chinese success, proved by their achievements in the Korean War, the international businessmen, Western and Eastern, realized that the peasantry, if organized could indeed overthrow the military based power structure. Further China’s revolution provided an inspirational example to the peasantry - internationally. It is no surprise that McCarthy quickly ascended to power in the United States by persecuting Communists during and after the Korean War.
Let it be pointed out that the American involvement in the Korean War had very little to do with human rights and everything to do with the rights of international businesses to exploit local populations. The Western Korean government has been a semi-dictatorship. There have been demonstrations and protests against the government of Korea that have been violently suppressed. Monopolies set up by international business control the South Korean economy. In general international business doesn’t like to deal with Communist governments because they limit their opportunities for exploitation, and have no qualms about nationalizing their businesses.
In terms of the scheme of cultural development pursued in this paper, the Chinese Communist rebellion was by far the more significant. The world has been fixed in the Bronze Age dominator political system, since before the discovery of bronze military technology. Remember that this paper defines a Bronze Age culture as one where a military aristocracy dominates an agricultural population. In China, the last society that was not based upon this model were the clan-based Longshan cultures, which disappeared nearly 4 thousand years ago. Since that time one military aristocracy has replaced another with regularity. In both Europe and China, the military aristocracy was consistently drawn from a relatively consistent gene pool. While the democratic experiments in the West were the first that overturned this scheme of leadership, China had always been locked into their dynastic tradition, with a strong imperial military that dominated the agricultural peasant classes, even unto the middle of the 20th century, with Jiang of Nationalist China falling into this same mode.
For Mao to lead a peasant rebellion against the military aristocracy and win, and then to persist is miraculous. He overturned a 4000-year-old political system. While the success was remarkable, there is always the problem that the peasant rulers become the new military aristocracy. Although the first emperors of the Han and Ming were both peasants, who led a general rebellion, both of them consciously set up new dynasties, not revolutionary councils to change the very fabric of society. Make your own judgment in the pages that follow if these revolutionary councils have become the new military aristocracy.
Although the Communist experiment in China was a huge success externally, as witnessed by their ability to expand and defend themselves, internally they were faced with huge challenges domestically. To understand the subsequent decisions of the Communist leaders after taking control, let’s review the historical context. During the course of China’s long history every successful peasant-based revolution had set up a new dynasty with all the old imperial trappings. Acutely aware of this tendency the Communist leaders based many of their choices on the desire to resist the imperialization of their government. In short the visionaries of Chinese Communism were determined to work out a new system through social experimentation. And Mao considered himself the one with the Mandate of Heaven. After all he had led and survived the Long March. Hence frequently the social experiments were Mao’s.
Mao’s first effective social experiment was to form peasant guerrilla bands to fight local injustice. Unable to find justice through the established order, Mao took justice into his own hands – vigilante style. A military solution was the foundation of his social revolution, not legal.
His next step was to reduce and regulate the exorbitant rents of the peasantry, leaving the aristocracy intact. Then he eliminated the landlords, putting the peasants in control of their own lands. Initiated in the 1930’s this process escalated in the early 1950’s. After assuming control the Communist government encouraged the agricultural peasantry to speak out against abuse. Probably a few million Chinese landlords were killed as a result of peasant accusations. While not endearing themselves to the landowners, they solidified their base of power in the countryside. These landlord purges were the culmination of this stage. Again most of these changes were dictated, not legislated. The redistribution of the land was not voluntary, but was enforced militarily. As Mao stated, revolution is generated from the muzzle of a gun.
Internally the Communist government had two spheres of activity, the country and the city. Although the Communist strength resided in the agricultural countryside, they needed to industrialize to join the modern world. Hence the Communist government needed to incorporate the industrial cities into their overall plan. However the cities had generally opposed the Communists and had supported Jiang’s GMT. The city dwellers had a higher standard living, were better educated, and generally considered themselves culturally superior to the illiterate peasantry of the countryside.
While the illiterate peasantry of the countryside made up 80% to 90% of the population, they had never been government officials, business managers or the cultured literati. Many times these three classes were the same, mainly residing in the cities. Hence Mao – like the First Emperor of Ch’in, like Liu Pang, the First Emperor of the Han, and like Chu, the First Emperor of the Ming – had to rely upon the literati, the ever-present ju class, to run and organize his enormous Empire.
Because of this dependency upon the literate business managers, the collectivization of industry proceeded slowly at first. Then in 1951 and 1952, campaigns were waged against officials and capitalists, in a 3 Anti’s and a 5 Anti’s Campaign. On the positive side these campaigns eliminated some long-term Chinese problems, including drugs, gambling, prostitution, and gangsterism. On the negative side the moderating influence of the cultured literate class was squelched and independent entrepreneurs lost all incentive, as their property and businesses were seized. Once again the central government aligned themselves with the peasantry against the business class, which included the literati and the officials. We’ve seen this so many times before.
Needless to say, these radical policies provoked dissent amongst many sectors of society. However the peasant foundations of the Communist government were so strong that while there were uprisings, they were easily suppressed. When the government moved to nationalize private industry and eliminate private property there was nothing like the civil war in Russia. That war had already been won against Jiang. However things heated up so much that there was a reign of terror in 1955.
While expecting to reap great harvests from peasant run land, the increase was moderate but not enough to fuel the industrial development that the Communist government felt they needed to compete with Russia and the West. It was obvious to the Chinese Communists that agricultural wealth was needed to fuel their industrial revolution.[i] This realization combined with the fact that the system of giving land to the peasantry was quickly producing a new landed aristocracy inspired the Communist leadership, led by Mao, to pursue a process of collectivization. Instead of only working their own plot the peasantry would join with others for mutual benefit – sharing tools, machines and labor. By 1955 650,000 cooperatives had been set up, about 15% of the peasant population. Mao pushed the program ahead quicker than the rest of the Communist Party wanted achieving nearly full collectivization by 1957. Considering that China’s peasantry numbered in the hundreds of millions, this was truly an incredible achievement. It established beyond any doubt that the peasantry was cooperating with the Communist Party in their social revolution. This type of reorganization is too massive to occur at the point of a gun. Further productivity did not suffer, but grew instead.
Intoxicated by his successes Mao actually invited criticism. Instead of heaping praise the students and literati responded aggressively, criticizing the rigidity of the Communist leadership. Mao responded with an intellectual purge, pulling out the ‘poisonous weeds’ in 1957 and relocating them to the countryside. This experience embittered him permanently towards the intelligentsia and threw him further into his power base, the nonintellectual peasantry. Not trusting Western technology or his own intelligentsia, which included the scientists, he abandoned modern agricultural technology and relied upon the enthusiasm of the peasantry for reform. Mao praised the 600 million poor Chinese as a blank slate upon which he could write beautiful new characters. Indeed Mao's calligraphy was distributed throughout China.
Due to their miraculous achievements in such a short time there was the growing feeling that the Communist party could do no wrong. After all they had already achieved the impossible. With the momentum going their way in 1957 the Communist government initiated a program called the Great Leap Forward. This was an attempt to catch up to and surpass the first world countries industrially and agriculturally within 3 years.
A foundation of this Great Leap was the continued collectivization of the cooperatives into larger communes to further intensify agricultural production. By 1958, just one year later, nearly 90% of China’s peasantry was organized into 5000 household communes. Further the 1958 harvest was larger than the year before. Through 1958 all the external signs indicated that the Communist collectivization of the countryside was a success economically and politically. There were increased yields plus the peasantry was cooperating with the Communist social revolution. 600 million people are not reorganized in only one year at the point of a gun. They must cooperate to make it work.
As evidence of the people’s willingness to cooperate was their tolerance of their new government’s attitude towards the traditional Chinese stronghold, the family. The leadership of the party wanted to eventually dismantle the family structure. This attack upon families by the imperial, er … the central government (hard to tell them apart) probably had the most devastating impact on Chinese society. As had many dynasties before them, including the influential First Emperor, the Communists viewed the unified family clan as a threat to the authority of the state. Initially campaigns were launched to retrain the citizenry to understand that the government was more important than family. But then, obsessed with the urge to collectivize, they began attempting to break up families. This radical step was only met with muted resistance as long as the economy was strong and growing.
Everything changed in the next few years. Poor weather combined with unrealistic expectations led to a huge drop in agricultural production in 1959. 1960 was even worse only achieving 75% of the 1958 harvest. What happened? Based more on will power and less on agricultural technology, many stupid mistakes were made. Ideology was considered more important than technology at running a farming cooperative. Hence inexperienced Communists were put in charge of running these large agricultural cooperatives. It was a huge failure, resulting in millions starving to death due to crop failures. Some estimates say that up to 20 million Chinese starved to death.
This failed social experiment dispelled the Communist government’s illusion of invincibility. Their Great Leap Forward was supposed to have pushed them past Great Britain in industrial strength and instead resulted in massive starvation on a level never seen before. Needless to say this was a huge blow to China's prestige internally and abroad. During this bleak period the Russians broke diplomatic relations with the Chinese, recalling all of their technological advisors. (Relations with Russia weren't restored until 1989.) Once again China was isolated internationally to deal with her internal problems.
As the architect, Mao was blamed. Due to his diminished prestige Deng Xiaoping replaced Mao as head of economic policies. Reversing Mao’s more extreme policies, Deng liberalized Chinese agricultural economy by allowing private plots and free rural markets.
This insane period in Chinese politics was reflected in Tibet. To increase their military control of Tibet the Chinese initiated a multitude of public works projects, including roads. They conscripted the Tibetans as laborers. Conscription of the peasantry was somewhat acceptable, but the Chinese also conscripted the Buddhist religious leaders, who were normally exempt from this type of work. This fueled a general discontent with Chinese rule.
Intoxicated with pride by their apparently successful collectivization programs in China in the late 1950’s, the Chinese attempted the same programs in Tibet. This ignited a rebellion. Revolts broke out all over Tibet. The Chinese responded by destroying a monastery. They had already destroyed thousands of Taoist temples in China without serious repercussions, but this was theocratic Tibet.
The general revolt was so extreme that the Chinese asked the dalai lama to restore control. He refused to cooperate, fleeing in 1959. Immediately pledging allegiance to the Chinese the panchen lama vowed to suppress the rebellion and took up residence in Llasa, as he had the last time the dalai lama left. The Chinese dissolved the Tibetan Llasa government and henceforth administered Tibet directly.
The Chinese Communists did not single out Tibet for repression. They were only applying the same social principles to Tibet that they had attempted in China. Unfortunately the context was almost exactly opposite. The Tibetans had enjoyed a time of relative prosperity and cultural freedom prior to the ascendancy of Communism, while the Chinese had been in the midst of extreme social chaos for decades – including starvation and lawlessness. Hence the Chinese peasantry, in particular, were thrilled that somebody was able to restore order. Conversely the Tibetans were incredibly resentful of outside intervention in their internal affairs, the restrictions upon their personal freedoms, and their degradation into second-class citizens in their own country. This is yet another indication of the Chinese peasantry’s willing cooperation with their government. In Tibet a small population caused a huge disturbance due to the social reorganization, while China’s huge population barely whimpered, even in the midst of mass starvation.
(Note that the political struggles between Tibet and China are still ongoing, as witnessed by a newspaper article written in January of 2009. The Chinese government has instituted a national “Serfs’ Emancipation Day” which highlights Tibet’s feudal past and the economic benefits of Chinese rule. This is in response to deadly anti-government riots by pro-Dalai Lama groups, which occurred in 2008.)
As early as 1962 Mao began speaking out against revisionism and counter revolutionary forces. He was referring to Deng's liberal policies as opposed to his radical ideas. Simultaneously Lin Biao, the head of the Chinese army – the People’s Liberation Army – the PLA, began creating a cult of Mao. He had Mao's Little Red Book published and required his soldiers to memorize it.
Lin Biao had been allied with Mao since the early 1930's, before the Great March. It was he who had developed the idea of moving guerrilla warfare on the Great March, which turned out to be much more effective than the stand and fight strategy of the Russians. Further it was one of the factors that allowed the Communist Party to survive the Great March. Lin Biao and Mao went back a long way and had gone through a lot together.
In 1964 Mao set up a Cultural Revolution Group of five. This group was to be in charge of ideological soundness and censorship of counterrevolutionary material. At first this group pursued its policies unenthusiastically. However the radical forces supporting Mao stepped up their attack on backsliding Communist leaders as the cult of Mao, fanned by Lin Biao, grew stronger, especially in the army. In the spring of 1966, Mao replaced the members of the group with those loyal to him, including his wife, Jiang Qing. She quickly grew to be the dominant and moving force behind the impetus towards ideological soundness founded upon artistic and literary censorship.
The primary attack was upon ‘reactionary bourgeois’ members of the Communist party. Bourgeois in this context would be associated with normal middle class family values. In many ways they would be considered Confucian. Mao wanted to eliminate the family structure as a threat to state loyalty. Anyone who wanted to go this easy way was deemed counter-revolutionary and a threat to the state. Intoxicated with his power Mao wanted to create a brand new social order and felt that the only way to do this would be to reeducate an entire generation. Because the themes of family pride and loyalty inundated all of traditional Chinese culture, it all had to go.
While Mao was attempting to dismantle the family as a social force, he was in no way doing it for personal gain. He was doing it as a social experiment. He was experimenting with socio-political technologies. Because he considered the peasantry a blank slate, he wanted to make sure that the correct things were written on them. Hence all of Confucian morality based upon filial responsibility, which had been such a huge part of Chinese culture, was eventually banned. This included the Classics.
Another aspect of Chinese culture that was also considered taboo was the glorification of imperial military aristocracy at the expense of the peasantry. Any arts that were based in the military aristocracy of the ju class were suspect in that the peasantry was excluded. Hence the Cultural Revolution Group was involved with weeding out politically incorrect literary and artistic expression, It is ironic in this context that Mao's calligraphy was paraded before the population. For calligraphy has always been one of the most aristocratic of the traditional Chinese arts. It shows the high esteem with which all Chinese social classes hold calligraphy.
These 'reactionary bourgeois' tendencies in the Communist leadership were undermining the necessary social revolution in the minds of the radical Communists associated with Mao. At first the attack centered on those with Western cultural leanings, mostly intellectuals. But by the end of 1966, the government denounced Deng and the head of the state as public enemies. The head of state died in prison while Deng had to publicly admit his 'crimes' and was sent to work in a factory.
Mao announced his return to power in July 1966. Always the master of symbol, Mao at the age of 72 was shown swimming in the Yangtze River fully clothed, a symbol of his vigor.
During this time a student movement known as the Red Guards had spread across the country. They were given free rides on the rail system. At the end of 1966 there were six mass rallies, where these young people were exhorted to destroy the 'four olds' – old culture, ideas, customs and habits. These Red Guards spread across the nation destroying anything old with government sanction. Tibet's culture was devastated, as 90% of their monasteries were destroyed. Of course this was also the time that there was the widespread destruction of Taoist temples throughout China.
At the end of 1966 the people were exhorted to 'seize power from below'. In Shanghai in February 1967, under Mao’s leadership the Red Guard and the factory workers seized control of the government, the former bastion of the Western powers and location of Jiang's Shanghai purge in 1927. They set up a worker's commune.
This political technology was supposed to spread spontaneously to all the cities, but instead was resisted militarily by local militia-worker groups. One city, Wuhan, repelled the Red Guard – preventing them from entering the city in July of 1967. Further even Mao who had just been watching this 'spontaneous' outburst called the worker commune of Shanghai, 'sheer anarchy'. It was disbanded within 17 days.
Further as the Cultural Revolution spread, everyone had their own agenda. The country was on the verge of civil war, having degenerated into '800 princely states' as Mao said. The final straw for Mao seemed to be when the Red Guard began attacking foreign embassies, burning the British embassy to the ground. Mao, who had been watching the dissolution of his state, decided to engage the PLA to stop Red Guard abuse in mid 1967.
There was bitter fighting ahead as the Red Guards did not relinquish their power peacefully. By the end of 1968, the PLA had finally suppressed mob violence in China and the Red Guards had been packed off to the countryside 'to learn from the peasants'. The revolution to end all authority ended with the PLA firmly in charge.
Lin Biao was named Mao's successor in 1969. However there was almost immediate conflict as Mao and Zhou Enlai wanted to court American interests, while Lin Biao wanted to pursue rapprochement with Russia. In 1971 Lin Biao died in a mysterious plane accident, after being the subject of Mao-inspired propaganda. A month later the US allowed Red China into the United Nations, and in 1972 recognized the Communists as the representatives of the Chinese people.
By this time Mao's strength was failing as the result of Parkinson’s disease. The new power struggle was between Zhou Enlai, his long-term ally, and the Gang of Four, led by Mao's wife. Zhou proposed an economic reform program based somewhat upon western technology. Deng was reformed to help out. Radicals immediately attacked Deng for stressing production at the expense of ideology.
Zhou Enlai died in January 1976. The Gang of Four forbade any public demonstration of grief for their opponent. Instead there was a massive demonstration of sorrow for their beloved leader, who had always supported Mao and also been a moderating voice holding the government together, especially during the Cultural Revolution. Deng was blamed for orchestrating the protest and expelled from the party once again.
In late 1976, Mao died. His wife Jiang attempted to seize power. Instead the PLA arrested the Gang of Four, which included Jiang. Evidently their loyalty to Mao and Zhou Enlai did not extend to the Gang of Four. They were tried and found guilty of crimes against the state in 1981 – officially ending the Cultural Revolution
After a brief non-violent power struggle Deng Xiaoping was made supreme leader in 1978. He immediately shifted the government’s focus onto economic reform. This was in direct contrast to the concept of class struggle propagated by Mao, which had dominated the period of the Cultural Revolution. His slogan was ‘Seek Truth From Facts’. Under this point of view Mao's life was viewed critically. The government acknowledged that he was a great man who had made mistakes. During this period of critical self-examination Marx and Lenin were also taken off their god-like pedestal. Western trade and technology were also encouraged during Deng’s ascendancy. Of course with our technology comes our culture. This was to lead to a different level of repression by the end of 1989.
Popular dissatisfaction began to grow due to the increasing abuse of government privilege, which would be expected from second-generation leaders – a mechanism that is definitely part of the tao of China. Basically the children of influential Communist officials got preferential treatment in the appointments to prestigious and influential positions. Statewide protests broke out in 1989, focused at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The famous People’s Liberation Army broke up the protests militarily – killing a few thousand citizens in the process – liberating them from freedom.
At present the Communists leaders of China have once again instituted state exams to determine the future political officials. Also family background is given precedence over performance in determining these governmental positions. Does this sound somewhat familiar? Ever since the beginning of state exams in the Han dynasty, performance and heredity have both played a part. However the state exams do not stress the Chinese Confucian Classics anymore. It is Mao’s sayings that are studied. For the time being, at least, Mao is the new Confucius and the new First Emperor for the Chinese.[ii]
The political leaders of China have also relaxed restrictions on religious freedom, as long as it doesn’t challenge or advocate the overthrow of the government. For instance a pro-democracy movement is still banned. This is not so unusual for any government, as Communist or Islamic groups that advocate the overthrow of democratic governments are equally banned. As economic globalism engulfs the planet the differences between different political systems become less and less. As Master Ni said: “Now that there is religious and economic freedom in China, it is the same as the US. A power elite chooses the new leaders.”
[i]For those of us who are anti-industrial, we wonder why China needed to industrialize. However in considering the hostile military climate of the times, the industry was needed to match the industrial military capacity of Russia and the West, simply to defend themselves from potential invasion. Of course industrialization was also pursued to raise the general standard of living. If there is no industry, how can there be refrigerators, CD players, cars, computers, and the rest of the modern luxuries? We humans have always loved our technologies.
[ii]Don’t worry traditional Chinese culture is not dead. Millions of expatriates keep the memory of the Classics alive. This book serves the same function by regularly referencing the Classics and putting them in a larger cultural context.
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