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Mao's Leaps and the Cultural Revolution

In 1953, China was still an agrarian society. The Communist Party supported land reform, land to poor peasants, the core of the Revolution's political support. China had been disrupted by more than ten years of war and the Party's leadership wanted some production by the larger farms maintained for the sake of continuity in production and a smooth and orderly transition to a socialist society. Zealous Party cadres joined in the passions of class conflict that was rocking rural communities. Estimates are that more than a million died during these conflicts. Those believed to have been overly zealous in leading communities in land reform were removed from the Party.

Free enterprise remained, but it had been reduced. With little established industry the Party was looking forward to industrialization and looked to the Soviet Union as a model. Factory and infrastructure projects were based on Soviet designs. China was establishing a collectivized agriculture similar to what existed in the Soviet Union. The average collective farm consisted of around 170 families, each living as a family unit in his own home, with a small plot of land for growing crops it could sell on the market.

When Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, China's Communist Party was offended and embarrassed. The Party had been praising Stalin and was not about to confess that the praise had been misplaced. The Party 's leader, Mao Zedong, declared that despite some faults, Stalin had been a good, well-meaning Marxist revolutionary. Mao had another grievance against Khrushchev. He felt that the Soviet Union was not treating China as an equal partner, and he thought Khrushchev's idea of peaceful competition with the United States was naive. Regarding Khrushchev's desire for joint Soviet-Chinese projects, Mao told him:

I produce from these private plots as they pleased. Several jointly owned Sino-Soviet corporations had been established, but Mao considered these to impinge on Chinese sovereignty and they were had been disbanded.

Listen carefully. We have worked long and hard to drive out the Americans, the British, the Japanese, and others. Never again will we allow foreigners to use our territory for their purposes.

By 1958, Mao had separated himself from the Soviet model and announced a new five-year economic plan: the "Great Leap Forward." It was promoted as the proletarianization of the economy. It replaced collective farms with People's Communes. Each commune consisted of from ten to twenty thousand people – around twice the size of collective farms. People ate in mess halls. Their tools and farm animals were pooled to the commune, as were their chickens and some of their property, like furniture and chickens. Women were encouraged to join work brigades.

Also in 1958 the Four Pests campaign began: a mass mobilization to eradicate rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. The sparrows were included because they ate grain seeds. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs broken and nestlings were killed. Sparrows and other birds were shot from the sky. Sparrow extermination enabled the proliferation of locusts, resulting in severe crop damage. The anti-sparrow campaign was halted in 1960.

In the United States, the Eisenhower had been pursuing its campaign against China. It didn't recognize the Peoples Republic of China and opposed it being admitted to the United Nations. China's recognition by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt in 1955 had been involved in the crisis that unfolded in the Middle East in 1956, followed by the anti-Communist alliance there called the Eisenhower doctrine that came in 1957. India had recognized the People's Republic of China in 1950, which created friction between India and the United States.

The US was supporting the Chian Kai-shek regime on the island of Taiwan, protecting it with the Seventh Fleet and aiding it in its fantasies about winning back the mainland. In 1954, Chiang Kai-shek had been able to move 58,000 soldiers to Quemoy and 15,000 to Matsu. These are islands off the coast of mainland China that Chiang Kai-shek used as a jumping off point for harassing the mainland. China responded defensively and bombarded the islands. The US Congress in 1955 had given President Eisenhower total authority to defend Taiwan and the off-shore islands. That same year the Chinese offered the US negotiations. In September 1955, the People's Republic and the United States began talks at Geneva to address the issue of repatriation of nationals, but also to discuss preventing the escalation of future conflicts. Talk had arisen in the US about China's aggression and a need for war and use of "tactical" nuclear weapons. It was from this that differences of opinion arose between Khrushchev and Mao about fear of a nuclear war. On September 22, 1958, Chiang's airforce clashed with Chinese MIG (Russian) aircraft in a series of aerial engagements. President Eisenhower resisted demands from those who were more hawkish than he, and the crisis cooled down to periodic artillery shelling back and forth to 1960.

Gallup polling in the US would describe a change in public opinion about the Chinese people since 1942. By 1966, those seeing the Chinese as intelligent would drop from 24 to 14%, as progressive would drop from 14 to 7%, as treacherous would rise from 4% to 23%, as warlike would rise from 4 to 23%, as cruel from 3 to 13%.

The Great Leap Forward meanwhile was being victimized by bad weather, bureaucracy and poor organization. Normal market mechanisms had been disrupted. Interactions between commune leaders and central government bureaucracies were faulty. Distorted figures to cover up or promote contributed to inadequate distributions of supplies, including food. Voicing criticism was attacked as hostility toward the revolution. China's Communist Party blamed everything on the weather – and on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had withdrawn all of its technicians and advisors from China, taking their blueprints with them. In its attempt at backyard steel production the Chinese melted down much of its pots and woks for cooking, and what produced was a metal too poor in quality to be of any use.

One of the loudest opponents of the Great Leap Forward was the Defense Minister, Peng Dehuai. He was a believer in orthodox Soviet-style economic planning and totally against experimentations. Abandoned communes dotted the countryside. Peng blamed Mao for the ruined crops and the piles of useless pig iron. In retaliation, Peng was denounced as a member of an "anti-Party clique" and purged from holding office for the rest of his life.

Peng was replaced by Mao's ally, Lin Biao. Mao was under pressure within the Party, and as the new leader of the People's Liberation Army, Lin Biao began promoting Mao. The Party was trying to make adjustments. Industry, large and small, was to remain state owned, but authority was given to trained managers over Maoist ideologues. Skilled technicians were to be promoted, and material incentives were created in the place of moralistic slogans. Control over commerce was returned to an economics ministry. The government closed thousands of small and inefficient factories. The industrial work-force was cut in half, and many were sent back to the countryside, where, it was hoped, they could find gainful employment. The Party abolished the commune school system, seeing people were teaching subjects in which they had no training. Many peasants had already dismissed them as failures, wishing to have their children educated instead in the old-fashioned schools.

China is described as having suffered famine between 1959 and 1961, the result of drought, poor weather, and Mao Zedong's policies. China's government statistics estimate the famine as having produced 15 million deaths beyond normal. Historian Frank Dikötter, having been granted special access to Chinese archival materials, estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths from 1958 to 1962 — strong stuff for those who want to trash Marxist-Leninist or Maoist ideology.

The Great Leap disaster was followed by market reformers becoming influential within the Party and the government. Mao was suffering at least a bit of humiliation, and his ally, Lin Biao, was promoting him by putting together a little red book of quotations from Mao for distribution within the army. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, belonged to a group who wished for purity in literature and the performing arts. Lin Biao invited her to establish cultural policy for the People's Liberation Army. Jiang Qing's group described China's culture as infested with "anti-socialist poisonous weeds." She called for a revolution against bourgeois culture – a cultural revolution. Mao was encouraged and spoke about a regeneration of communist attitude. He spoke of weeding from authority those who had chosen to lead China down "the capitalist road." Old comrades directly beneath Mao – Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping – chose to accommodate Mao and his supporters rather than collide with them head-on.

China was still in need of peace and order, but now came greater disruption, violence and persecution of able people. Young people called Red Guards, imbued with support for revolution and hostility toward tradition, rampaged through the country. Millions, including Party members, were persecuted. Something like a million more were said to have died in the violence. With intolerance riding high, violence erupted between Red Guard factions. Mao ordered the People's Liberation Army to enforce Red Guard unity, and Lin Biao as head of the People's Liberation Army called on the Red Guards to stop fighting each other and instead to study the works of Mao. The chaos became too much for Mao. Jiang Qing spoke out against what she called "ultra-leftist tendencies." The People's Liberation Army itself splitting into hostile camps. Mao wanted order, and he commanded that the Red Guards disperse.

By the summer of 1968 the People's Liberation Army had subdued the Red Guards. Some of the Red Guards were sent to do labor in the countryside. For order, Mao was counting on the People's Liberation Army, and he had the army form revolutionary committees in all provinces.


Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.