China. Oh, China. You’re so confusing and so simple at the same time. China is a land of tradition and continuity. But one guy is going to try to change all of that in the postwar world. His name is Mao Zedong.
The Chinese Civil War
The Chinese were in the middle of their civil war to figure out what their new nation should look like now that they had gotten rid of the last emperor. But the civil war was interrupted by the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. Remember – this was the event that also put the Japanese on the path to war with the U.S.
It was like that scene in Wayne’s World where they’re playing hockey in the street but they keep having to stop for cars. When the Japanese invaded, the opposing sides in the civil war were like, “Car!” And they paused to fight Japan. But then when World War Two ended, both sides were like, “Game on!”
In the 1940s the Chinese government was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek and that Nationalists. They wanted to establish a western-style democracy and they were supported by the United States. But they were being opposed in their civil war by the communists, led by Mao Zedong. The communists benefited from the war with Japan because it weakened the government.
Also, as the Japanese committed atrocities in China and the Nationalist army failed to stop them, the communists retreated into the countryside and lived with the peasants. Remember that anatomy of a revolution again? Mao Zedong goes to the peasants – the 3s – and is like, “Man, this sucks, right?!” And they go, “Yeah!” And so he gains support. How do you like that explanation? I’m trying to get through a lot today, guys!
In 1949 the communists won the civil war and established the People’s Republic of China, which is still in place today. The nationalists fled mainland China and set up their government in Taiwan, where they still are today. Both places claim to be the real Chinese government, which is confusing. But today we’re focusing on what we think of when we say “China” – the People’s Republic of China that controls all of the mainland.
Mao Zedong was radicalized when he was a college student, kind of like every college student. He probably visited home and had arguments with his dad about politics, which is always fun. He quickly rose to be the most influential leader of the Chinese Communist Party and he was its leader, and thus China’s leader, after they won the civil war.
At first, Mao Zedong followed the Soviet model fairly closely. The Soviets sent tons of aid and advisors to help their new communist ally. The Chinese also supported other communist movements in the region, especially North Korea during the Korean War. All of this contributed to the U.S.’s fear of a domino effect in Asia, which is why we fought so hard and for so long in places like Vietnam later on.
But Mao disagreed with the Soviets on a lot. One of the biggest disagreements was over philosophy. Karl Marx had predicted that communism would come about by mobilizing urban workers in industrial factories. Lenin and his successors had followed this pretty closely – focusing their attention on the cities and workers.
But Mao had a different approach. He tried mobilizing workers in the cities but they weren’t having it. They were benefiting from trade with the west – remember all those spheres of influence after the Opium Wars? Europe and the U.S. still had a lot of influence in those port cities. So Mao went to the peasants instead.
This philosophical difference was the beginning of the long Sino-Soviet Split. Generally, dictators don’t like being told what to do. That’s why they became dictators. So Mao is chafing under all of this Soviet “advice.” And the Soviets see China not as an equal, but as a sort-of little brother in their global communist movement. So Mao does a few things in the 1950s and 1960s to try to prove that he can do things differently. And they go really bad. Let’s talk about them.
the hundred flowers campaign
First, seven years into his rule, he hasn’t fully gained the support of a lot of the intellectuals in the city. Remember, China has thousands of years of Confucian tradition. Scholars have been the top of Chinese society since the Han Dynasty, but now the communist party has replaced them. And they’re pissed. But Mao needs these scholars to help him bring China up to speed with the Soviets and, eventually, the U.S.
So Mao issues a thing called the Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956. He announces, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” The Communist Party allows people to speak up. People are encouraged to issue complaints or proposals of how to make this new China even better. Does this feel like a trap to you? Yeah, me too.
So historians aren’t sure whether Mao intended this to be a trap from the beginning or if he was just naïve and truly didn’t think people would have many complaints. But they did. Scholars, especially, flooded the party offices with issues about how they had been treated by the new government and how they wanted to go back to the old capitalist ways. And boy, did Mao not like that. He was like, “Nope! This is why we can’t have nice things!” and he took his ball and went home. People who complained, especially intellectuals, were punished and often send to work on distant farms or in labor camps. That will be important in a second.
the great leap forward
Realizing that things maybe weren’t going as well as he thought, Mao decides that China needs to unite in a new goal. Something that would help China move forward. Or even make a… Great Leap Forward. In 1958, Mao attempts to overhaul the entire Chinese economy – both industry and agriculture. But remember, he’s doing this without the help of scholars and intellectuals, who have been sent off to work as farmers instead of being engineers or whatever. Uh oh.
The Great Leap Forward is easily one of the biggest failures in human history. For example, Mao decides that China’s power lies in its peasant masses. So he decides that instead of industrializing through companies and so-called “experts,” he tries to apply communist ideas to steel production. He’s like, “Hey peasants! There’s a lot of you. And we need a lot of steel. What if you each just made steel in your backyard? Does that sound like a thing you could do?” And the peasants go, “Um no.” and Mao says, “Great!” So, in the days before YouTube, peasants were tasked with smelting steel in their backyard to provide to the government for massive building projects. Yeah. It was bad. Bridges collapsed and general failure ensued.
There were similar problems in agricultural output. Farmers were forced to leave their family farms, where they had been producing enough food to subsist for thousands of years, and live and work on massive communes. And various regions were assigned different crops to focus on producing, so that then the government could take them up and redistribute them. Yeah this went bad. Production dropped even before environmental disasters hit.
One example that just gets me every time is the Kill a Sparrow campaign. Sparrows were pests that were destroying certain crops and so Mao issued a proclamation that everyone should kill as many sparrows as they could. Without weapons, people would just go outside at dusk when the sparrows returned to their trees and just stand under the trees banging pots and pans. The noise kept the birds from landing and they fell out of the air, exhausted. They drove the sparrows to near extinction. Fine. Except that the sparrows ate a lot of insects that did way more damage to the crops. Ugh.
The Great Leap Forward resulted in famine that killed 45 million people in just four years. Since its policies can all be directly attributed to Mao Zedong, it is often considered the greatest mass murder in history.
the cultural revolution
So other members of the Communist Party are like, “Yeah, maybe you should go away for a while.” Mao steps out of the spotlight for a little while and compiles his Little Red Book, a book of all of his sayings and quotes. Basically, he’s trying to replace Confucius with his own ideas. After the devastation of the Great Leap Forward, Mao tries to figure out what went wrong. And he also realizes that he needs some new campaign or else he’s going to lose the people and their support.
Mao comes to the conclusion that the reason why his initiatives have failed so far are not because he knows nothing about the economy, clearly, or because he’s banished all of the experts to become rural farmers. No, Mao decides its because the Chinese people are still clinging to the past and are not fully committed to his new vision for China.
In 1966, Mao issued his Cultural Revolution. He stated that China was being held back by the Four Olds: Old Ideas, Old Customs, Old Culture, and Old Habits. He empowered Chinese people to attack the Four Olds and eradicate them from their communities. But he specifically targeted young people to take the lead in this phase of the revolution. Who better to attack the old than the young? Colleges, high schools and even middle schools were encouraged to join the Red Guard. These bands of young people with their raging hormones and aggression toward authority figures roamed the streets of China destroying anything that might be considered part of the “Old China.”
Teachers who taught about Confucius, parents who had a Buddha statue in their home, workers who questioned new directives from the Communist Party, officials who still communicated with their Soviet counterparts: these are examples of people who were punished during the Cultural Revolution. Teenagers also destroyed old monuments, including religious temples and shrines, and a cult of personality developed around Mao. Young people were encouraged to retrace his steps and visit various locations around China that were significant to his life. When they did they would collect pins or patches as a visible sign of their loyalty.
Notice that all Mao has done is replaced himself as the emperor. Even though he claims to want to get rid of everything old, in fact he is playing off of these deeply ingrained traditions to work in his favor. He doesn’t use these words but essentially he argues that he has the mandate to rule – not from heaven, but from the people. And by portraying himself as a father figure to all of China, he’s co-opting the Confucian idea of filial piety, or unwavering respect for one’s father.
People identified as enemies of Communism were forced to attend struggle sessions. They were paraded onto a stage in front of mobs of Red Guard members and had to listen as people accused them of worshipping one of the Olds. Mao was not specific about what things like “Old Ideas” or “Old Habits” meant, leaving the door wide open for people to take advantage and get creative. As a teacher,
I am especially fascinated by the Cultural Revolution because I can see how easily it would happen. Think about it: someone walks into your high school, sits you down, and tells you that you have power. They want you to help them identify enemies of the state. It might be your parents or your teacher or a classmate. Anyone who is not a part of the revolution is against the revolution. That’s dangerous as hell. Sometimes these Struggle Sessions turned into lynch mobs. Teachers were sometimes beaten to death by mobs of students.
Although possibly hundreds of thousands of people died, many more victims of the Cultural Revolution were not killed but were sent to reeducation camps where they often had to keep journals of all of their “wrong” thoughts. These journals would be monitored by a member of the Red Guard to determine when they had been sufficiently “reeducated.” Even after they were released, they often could not return home but were sent to work on some far-off farm. It’s impossible to know exactly but tens of millions of people were persecuted.
Over 16 million young people also became part of the “Sent Down” movement. Young people from the cities were taken out of school and “sent down” to the countryside to work in farms. This is all part of Mao’s efforts to idealize the Chinese peasant, his original and most important base of support. China’s current president, Xi Jinping was part of this movement when he was young.
After the first few years, the Cultural Revolution died down and morphed into fighting between different factions of the Communist Party. It only officially ended when Mao died in 1976 and his “Gang of Four” supporters were put on trial and blamed for everything. This included his wife, Madame Mao, who is generally considered one of the main architects of the Cultural Revolution.
Side note: President Nixon’s visit to China came during the Cultural Revolution. After China formally split with the Soviet Union, the United States stepped in to try to negotiate a better trading relationship with China. Just another example of the United States supporting anyone who was against the Soviet Union, even another communist nation.
china after mao
After Mao’s death, China came back to its senses. A modernizer named Deng Xiaoping took control and he ruled China throughout the 1980s. Like his counterpart Gorbachev in the USSR, he acknowledged that China would need some reforms in order to survive. He opened up the economy and allowed from private enterprise, as long as it was under the watchful eye of the Communist Party. It’s because of Deng that China today is this weird mix of communism and capitalism. Deng’s famous quote was, “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” Basically, I don’t care if we are capitalist or communist, as long as we are powerful and wealthy. Well played, Deng. The Chinese cat definitely has caught some mice in the last few decades.
But one thing Deng did not reform was the government. You should be noticing a trend again: dictators never legislate away their own power. Remember the absolute monarchs of Europe, the czar, and the shogun? By the late 1980s many people inside and outside of China were calling for political reforms. In 1989, seeing the protests around the Soviet Union for democracy and just months before the Berlin Wall came down, university students in Beijing marched on Tiananmen Square. They were met with tanks and gunfire from the government. Thousands died and the government maintained its power.
cnn and the tiananmen square massacre
Interestingly, the Tiananmen Square Massacre was actually the start of instant news the way we understand it today. CNN had been around for just 9 years and were the only 24-hour news network, something other outlets thought was insane (you’ve seen Anchorman 2, right?) Gorbachev was visiting Beijing and CNN had proposed a new idea: allowing them to transmit their own video feed of the visit, instead of just relying on the state-sponsored video that all the other news sources would have. China agreed, hoping for good coverage of their talks with the Soviet leader, but they would regret that.
So CNN had a live camera set up on the Square when the protests occurred. And people in the U.S. watched for days as protestors filled the square and the government sent in troops. They watched all of this live – for the first time in history.
Today China is a conundrum. They are still officially communist but they’ve also become one of the largest economies in the world thanks to corporations and trade with the U.S. and the rest of the capitalist world. So are they still communist? Well, no country that says they are communist are actually communist. Remember, the whole idea of communism was to eventually create an equal society without hierarchy. Countries like China, Cuba, and North Korea, all got stuck on extreme socialism. This was supposed to be a stepping stone toward complete communism, but the leaders who brought their country along on the revolution were never willing to give up their own power to create a truly communist society.
What I’ve learned from studying world history is that the people who are egotistical enough to think they can lead a revolution or an empire are normally never the people you would actually want leading a revolution or an empire. It makes me appreciate even more the few exceptions who did it right: Cyrus the Great, Augustus, and again, George Washington, man.
It would seem that China is still struggling with its identity. Just recently, they abolished term limits so that Xi Jinping could serve as president indefinitely. If you’ve studied history that’s never a good sign but we’ll see.