Political campaigns in 1950s China

While the 1950s, for many Americans, signified the age of "back to normalcy," a conservative and subdued lifestyle compared with the 1960s, in China, the 1950s saw radical social transformations that involved hundreds of millions of lives. Unlike capitalism, the goal of Communism was to introduce radical social transformation that theoretically aimed at complete equality of social classes. It was more easily said than done, especially for the Chinese Communists, the majority of whom were uneducated peasants and other non-professionals. Although a relatively small group of Communists were well educated, of middle class background, and mostly among the leadership, the winning of the Communist revolution depended on the masses of grassroots Communists.

Although the two groups allied during the war against the Japanese invaders during the Chinese war against Japan (1937-45), which constituted part of the Pacific phase of World War II, and against the republican Chinese government, the Nationalists, after they succeeded in taking over the government, they could no longer cover up their differences.

Rift within the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s

The Communist call for equality could not overcome the deep-seated mistrust and lack of communication between the urban/educated and rural/illiterate Communists. Reflected at a higher level, the question was what goals should Communist policies reflect: a technocratic focus on economic development, or a continuous emphasis on political revolutions and mass mobilization. The continuous political movements that followed indicated a lack of effective new means for the Communists to bind the country together except for the traditional forms of mass political mobilization, which the Communists applied successfully in the late 1940s and early 1950s to win the masses over. During the 1940s, the Communists used this form of mass mobilization to conduct land redistribution: in villages where large wealthy landlords existed, they would conduct mass meetings where poor peasants were asked to go up one by one to empty their grievances against the landlord, e.g. charging high interest rates on loans, high rents on tenant farmers, etc. These "mass criticism" meetings were followed by the confiscation and redistribution of the landlord's land. Many poor peasants joined the Communist Party after such land redistribution to protect their newly acquired land.

Political movements and mass mobilization as the Communists' means of establishing social control.

Because of the tension among the different social groups within Communism, and because the Communists lacked effective new policies to establish social control, in the face of foreign threat (e.g. the Korean War, 1950-53, and the possible U.S. landing in China via Taiwan as well as north Korea), Chinese Communists often triumphed against dissenting colleagues who argued for a technocratic approach that focused on the urban areas and on economic/industrial development, and resorted to the traditional strategies of mass political mobilization, which they had used in the 1940s and early 1950s, in having peasants condemn their landlords, redistributing land, abolishing arranged marriages, etc., thus winning over a large spectrum of lower classes in Chinese society. To establish a unified society, Communist China often used coercive measures in the 1950s-60s to define who did not belong to the proletarian classes, designating enemies of the people, and coercing them to recant and reform.

Political movements in the 1950s:

Social classification: every one in China was put into a social category, such as workers, poor peasants, middle level peasants, landlords, poor city residents, etc.

The Counterrevolutionaries Campaign (1950): arrest of remaing Nationalist soldiers, spies, and others against the Communist regime.
The Three Antis and Five Antis campaign (1951-1952): anti-corruption, anti-waste, and anti-bureaucratism; anti-bribery, anti-tax evasion, anti-cost reduction through quality reduction; anti-theft of state property, and anti-espionage of state economic intelligence (the last five primarily targeted against private businesses).
Campaign against hidden revolutionaries (1955).

The Anti-rightist campaign
The Great Leap Forward (1958).

The early political campaigns were aimed at establishing certain guidelines for the newly established Communist China. The early social classification campaign was to determine who should be the greatest beneficiaries of the socialist system, in terms of joining the Communist Party, chances of going to college, promotion and salary raises in the work place (although not exclusively by those criteria). Those who were not classified as workers, peasants, and soldiers, the “proper” social classes that constituted the “people” in Communist China, were to be worked on so that they would gradually see eye to eye as those of the people--it was believed that the social background of someone determined their world view. This belief originated from the Marxist materialist position: one's class background was determined by economic interests, and economic interests determined one's attitude toward things in life. It was also influenced by traditional Chinese beliefs in the genealogy: if parents think in a way, children are likely to think in the same way. A traditional jingo went: the dragon begets dragon, the phoenix begets phoenix, and the son of the rat digs holes in the ground. During the Cultural Revolution, this jingo was turned into: if the father is a hero, so is the son; if the father is a counter-revolutionary, the son must be a son of a bitch.

The social classification paved the way for the next wave of social transformation. Those who voiced dissent against Communist party policies were labeled "counter-revolutionaries" or "against the people", which were now crimes that would lead to imprisonment or labor camps. In 1957, party leader Mao Zedong wanted to sound out the opinions of the intellectuals about the Communist Party. When the criticism was much more extensive than he anticipated, he decided to muffle these critics by labeling them "rightists." Historically, left was associated with radicalism and right with conservatism, so the label "rightist" implied over-conservatism in a radical socialist society. Rightists were often thrown into prison or sent to labor camps.

These political movements mobilized the masses to conform to the party line, and enabled the party to implement its programs with little opposition. It was against the background of these political movements that the Chinese government completed its land collectivization movement and collectivization movement of factories and companies in the cities in the 1950s. The partially market economy of republican China was now replaced by an almost completely planned economy. Although allowed to some extent in the 1950s, profit making and the free market were completely abolished in the 1960s, especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Commune peasants (starting from 1958) were required to sell all their produce except for a small amount for their own consumption at a price set by the state. The price of everything was set by the state, and kept artificially low. In order to keep prices low, a ration system was created, including coupons for staple food, cloth, cooking oil, eggs, tofu, other soybean products, sesame butter, among other things. Every household had a registration book of the names of the members of the household and every month a household gets the coupons for that month from the local public security bureau based on the household registration book. And every household was registered with the local public security bureau. Free mobility within the country was prohibited. One could change one's workplace (which was now assigned to one by the state) only with the approval of one's work unit and one could change one's residency only because of several reasons, including marriage with someone outside of the city/region, state decision to change the person's work unit, among others. Still, any decision to move had to be approved of by the state, and there were many instances of husband/wife working in two separate cities and meeting only twice a year. The household registration system went hand in hand with a socialist planned economy, and was effective especially because of the ration system, which means you could not buy many necessities of life if you relocated without approval of the state: as after you moved, your household was still registered in your old residency and ration coupons could only be collected from there.

How political campaigns impact ordinary lives:

In this class, we have picked the life of one young woman Rae Yang as an example to reflect on the impact of political movements on ordinary lives in Communist China. Yang came from Beijing, the capital of China, and a privileged, revolutionary Communist family background. Her father joined the Communist cause back in the 1930s. All Communist party members who joined during the 1930s or earlier would be considered seniors in the Communist cause by the 1950s. That was why her father became the Chinese ambassador to Switzerland in the early 1950s. Yang's paternal side were Manchus, and her greatgrandfather was an official in charge of punishments in the Qing Dynasty court, which explained why her grandmother had a house in an exquisite courtyard.

Living in Communist China that emphasized the importance of a revolutionary family background, however, did not mean everything would go your way. The political movements that swept across China from the 1950s on involved many members of the Communist Party, to such an extent that by the 1960s, it became very much a fratricide, comrades killing comrades. Two political movements are covered in the chapters for this week's reading. The book begins with the author's flashback to her days working in northeast China (Manchuria) as a high school graduate who went to the countryside to "bridge the gap between the urban and the rural," as millions of urban youth did, during the Cultural Revolution. She will get back to this episode of her life later. Another political movement she touched on was the Anti-Rightist campaign of 1957, when both her maternal and paternal uncles were charged as "rightists" and sent to the labor camps. She gave a more detailed account of her paternal uncle, with whom she had a closer relationship. What is notable with her paternal uncle's crime was that he did not say anything against the Communist Party, but just blocked an attempt at corruption by some party members. The "Rightist" label was a retaliation against what he had done. This type of political retaliation was extremely common in Communist China, where the best way to persecute someone was to fabricate some political crime against that person.

In many Chinese institutions, they were assigned quotas: they had to label a certain percentage of their members as "Rightists" otherwise the leaders themselves would be persecuted. Political campaigns becames a systematic way to coerce people into following the party line.