No.s 59-60, Oct. 2014
Remembering Socialist China, 1949-1976
The Socialist Legacy Underlies the Rise of Today’s China in the World
– by Dongping Han
The year 2014 marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Also this year, the World Bank (WB) claimed that China would surpass the United States to become the biggest economy in the world.1
(The Chinese government has questioned this prediction, arguing that the method used by the WB is not appropriate.) However, whether or not China is number one, its rise from one of the poorest countries in the world to what it is today, in a mere 65 years, is undeniably real and warrants serious discussion on the forces behind it.
I. China in 1949, before the Chinese Communist Party came to power
Foreign powers treated China and the Chinese people like dogs, because China was weak and could not fight back to defend itself. After China lost in the first Opium war of 1840 and the second Opium War of 1860, British and American drug dealers flooded Chinese society with opium. Millions of Chinese became addicted to the drug. China’s silver, its currency at the time, flowed out of China in payment. The British and French also imposed war indemnities on China of thirty two million ounces of silver, which China had to borrow from British and French banks to pay. In 1894, China lost its war with Japan over Korea and had to pay 300 million ounces of silver to Japan as war indemnities, which amounted to two years’ tax revenue of China’s national government and four years’ tax revenue of Japan’s national government. In 1900, the Chinese people revolted against foreign missionaries interfering in the Chinese justice system. Eight foreign powers seized the opportunity to send troops to China to suppress what came to be called the ‘Boxer rebellion’. These foreign bandits raped Beijing and the surrounding areas. This time, the imperialist powers, Japan, Russia, the U.S. Britain, France, Germany, Austria and Italy imposed war indemnities on China of four hundred and fifty million ounces of silver. China, the number one economy in the world until 1850, was bled so pale that it was on its knees, receiving beating after beating.
When I first came to the United States, I made a lawyer friend. This lawyer was from a wealthy family and he liked to discuss Daoist philosophy with me. He would ask me rhetorical questions like, “what would Laozi say in a situation like this, Dongping?” Later, this friend showed me a beautifully bound book of diaries his grandfather made for each one of his three grand children. The diaries were written by his grandfather who travelled to East Asia in 1905, visiting Hong Kong, Japan, and China. In the diaries, the grandfather joked about the horribly low status of the “Chinamen” at the time. At the border crossing between the United States and Canada, he noticed that everybody else was able to come to the US without a search. But “Chinamen” had to go into an animal cage naked, where they would be searched thoroughly before they would be allowed into the United States. While in the Far East, he observed the dirty, hungry, and poorly dressed “Chinamen” who were working like beasts and were treated like beasts in Hong Kong, the British colony, and in Canton, in the “Chinamen”’s own country. He constantly asked himself why a “Chinaman” anywhere was such a problematic person. One night, while I was drinking with my American friend in a restaurant, I mentioned to him that his grandfather would not rest in peace if he knew that his grandson was having dinner with a “Chinaman”. My friend, apparently, had not read his grandfather’s diary yet and was surprised by my comment. When I told him what his grandfather wrote in his diary, he laughed and said that times had changed, and that his grandfather would have changed his attitude as well in his tomb.In the western system of ‘international law’, our world in practice is little more than a jungle. The powerful can do whatever they please and the weak have to put up with the actions of the powerful in order to survive. As China lost the power and will to defend itself, it became victimized at the hands of western bullies, again and again. China was weak. Its people were suffering from all the social vices of the time. In westerners’ writing about China at the time, malnutrition, infanticide, trafficking in women, drug abuse, banditry, crimes, prostitution, and corruption fill the pages.4 The Chinese people were known as the sick men of East Asia. More than 90 per cent of Chinese people were illiterate, and the life expectancy in 1949 was only 32 years. In Shanghai, with a population of two million, an average of 200 dead bodies were picked up off the streets by the city’s social department every day. Land was concentrated in the hands of a small minority. Bankrupt peasants swarmed to big cities like Shanghai because they could no longer survive in the countryside. Many poor peasants’ children became child workers in factories and many rural girls became prostitutes in the city’s red light districts.5
Famine was a common occurrence in China because of natural disasters, wars of foreign aggression, and wars between different groups of warlords. In 1938, to block the advances of Japanese forces, Jiang Jieshi (better known to English speakers as Chiang Kai-shek) ordered the bombing of Yellow River dike at Huayuankou. As a result, hundreds of thousands were killed and more than ten million people lost their homes to the flood. In 1942-43, there was a drought in Northern Henan. Five million people perished as a result. Peasants lost their land and were forced to sell their young children. After World War II, there was a large-scale famine in Northern China. The newly founded United Nations (UN) had to engage in huge relief efforts in China to stave off a large-scale famine.6 In the old county Gazettes, compiled by local Chinese authorities, famine was reported to be commonplace throughout China. This was one of the reasons why American elites believed that the Chinese Communist government would not be able to feed its own people and that China would have to turn to the US for help if it wanted to survive. China was behind India in many indicators of economic development and well-being in 1952.
II. China during the socialist period from 1949 to 1976
Land reform and the Korean War
When the Chinese Communist Party was founded, land to the tiller was part of its platform. When Jiang Jieshi turned his guns on his former Communist allies in 1927, Chairman Mao went to the Jinggang Mountains to launch a land revolution. His small army, composed of mostly peasants, was able to grow under the slogan of land to the tiller. They confiscated land owned by the rich minority, and gave it to the poor majority. The expansion of the Communist forces in the Jinggang Mountain areas alarmed Jiang Jieshi and his government. He mobilized one hundred thousand troops to suppress the fledging communist guerrilla force. The communist guerrilla army under the leadership of Chairman Mao was able to defeat Jiang Jieshi’s military campaign, capturing enemy weapons in order to arm themselves. Jiang Jieshi’s second military campaign with 200,000 troops, the third military campaign with 300,000 troops, and fourth military campaign with half a million troops, all ended in defeat, which enabled the Communist forces to grow tremendously at the enemy’s expense. In 1934, Jiang Jieshi mobilized one million troops and launched a fifth military campaign against the Communist base areas in Jiangshi and Hunan border regions. The Chinese communist forces lost their base area and had to go on the Long March. It was after Chairman Mao returned to the leadership position at the Zunyi Conference in January 1935 that the Chinese Communists and their army successfully completed the Long March and frustrated all Jiang’s efforts to exterminate them.
Faced with Japanese onslaught and the Chinese people’s demand for resistance against Japan, Jiang Jieshi was forced to form a second united front with the Communist Party. The Communist Party agreed to suspend its land-to-the-tiller movement for this period. But when Jiang Jieshi, with the support of the American government, launched the Civil War against the Communists in 1946, the Chinese Communist Party immediately resumed its land-to-the-tiller movement and carried out land reform in the Communist-controlled regions right away.Land reform policy played a crucial role in the Chinese Communist Party’s success during the Civil War. At the beginning of the Chinese Civil War in 1946, the Chinese Communist Army only had one million poorly armed troops versus Jiang Jieshi’s eight million; and Jiang’s troops were much better equipped, with the American government’s military support. The Communist Party was outnumbered and outgunned. But in a mere three years, the People’s Liberation Army was able to defeat Jiang Jieshi’s eight million American-equipped troops. The reason was very simple. Jiang Jieshi’s army was mostly made up of poor peasants who were drafted by his government. These poor peasants had no reason to fight for their oppressors. More than one third of them switched sides without fighting. Those who were captured by the Communist army would become communist fighters overnight once they learned that the Communist army was fighting to emancipate peasants like themselves.7
After the Communist Party came to power, it carried out land reform in all of China. Seventy per cent of Chinese peasants got land through the land reform, at the expense of landlords and rich peasants who made up only five per cent of Chinese rural population. The significance of land reform in China should never be underestimated. Land reform was the most important political educator for the Chinese people. Before the land reform, poor Chinese peasants were taught that they were poor because they were paying for their wrong-doings in their previous births. The Communist Party obviously could not change poor peasants’ previous births. But they did lead them to change their present lives, and did so dramatically through land reform. For the poor peasants, this in practice disproved the theory that poor people were poor because they had done something wrong in their previous birth. In a way, the land reform empowered the Chinese people to get rid of the bondage of traditional beliefs and increased China’s national cohesion very effectively.Before the land reform, Chinese people did not care about the Chinese State, for a good reason. The State never did anything positive for them. The ruling classes taxed people as much as they could in order to maintain a luxurious lifestyle for themselves, and drafted Chinese people’s children to fight on their behalf in order to keep themselves in power. Now the Chinese Communist government gave all people a piece of land, which in essence gave the people a reason to support their State. One of the most important reasons that western nations were able to colonize third world countries in the past was a lack of nationalist sentiments among the people of the third world countries. Like most third world countries, China lacked national cohesion. Before the Communists came to power. Dr. Sun Yatsen described China as a pile of sand, indicating the country’s s lack of national cohesion.8
For more than one hundred years before the Chinese Communist Party came to power, China lost every war it fought with foreign countries. In 1950, the US-led UN force approached the Chinese border, threatening China’s national security again in complete disregard of the Chinese government’s warning about the consequences. At the time, the American government and MacArthur, the American commander-in-chief in the Far East, had no respect for the Chinese government or Chinese people. What could China do to the most powerful nation in the world armed with nuclear weapons? MacArthur assured President Truman that China was bluffing and that the best time for Chinese intervention had passed. If China dared to enter the Korean War, it would be the biggest manslaughter in human history. China did not have a navy or an air force at the time. The poorly-armed Chinese People’s Volunteers were no military match for the best armed army of the world, whose country’s GNP accounted for 50 per cent of world total at the time.9
But the Chinese army was not simply a military organization. It was first and foremost a political organization, as Chairman Mao insisted at the time the People’s Liberation Army was founded. It had a clear political objective in mind, and it was fighting to accomplish political objectives. Most Chinese soldiers knew why they were fighting in Korea. They were fighting to defend the State that gave them land, and they were fighting to make sure that foreign forces were no longer allowed the freedom to do whatever they pleased in China. Even though Chinese soldiers did not have good weapons at the time, they were superior warriors simply because they were politically motivated to fight for a good cause. American soldiers and their allies had the best weapons in the world at the time, but they did not have any clear idea of why they were fighting in Korea, far away from home, and it was not surprising that they lost in the end, starting a trend that lasted more than 60 years, up to the present. With the most lethal weapons in the world, the American military has been the most effective killing machine in human history. But it has not been able to accomplish the political objectives it set out to accomplish. It failed in Korea, in Vietnam, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. With worldwide military failures, American power declined significantly over the last 65 years. In 1945, the US possessed 70 per cent of world gold and produced 50 per cent of world GDP. Almost every country was indebted to the US then. Today, the US is one of the most indebted nations in the world, borrowing money from other countries to get by. Its GDP, which is mostly in the service sector, amounts to only 15 per cent of world GDP today.
The Chinese People’s Volunteers pushed the US-led UN forces back from the Chinese border to the 38th parallel, the starting point of the Korean war. The Chinese People’s Volunteers made history. The poorly-armed Chinese peasant army, beginning the war without an air force or a navy, beat the US-led UN forces on their own terms. By the end of the war, the Chinese air force had been tested in war with a glowing record. The Chinese People’s Volunteers thus made huge contributions to world peace in the end. They earned respect for China and the Chinese people. It taught the US and other imperialist nations an important lesson and provided a great inspiration to national independence movements throughout the world. More than half of the world nations today were formed after the Korean War.Some people in China are still questioning if the sacrifice the Chinese People’s Volunteers made in the Korean war, while resisting the US and aiding the Korean people, was worthwhile. It is important to remind these people that in this world where the law of the jungle prevails, a nation has to earn respect. Every sacrifice a nation makes to earn respect from other nations is worthwhile. Without the Chinese People’s Volunteers’ sacrifice, it is questionable whether China would have been able to enjoy such a long span of peaceful development. Some people argue that the US had no designs regarding China at the time. That was true only because the Chinese People’s Volunteers entered the fight and imposed serious damage on the US-led UN forces. In the beginning, the UN order for MacArthur was to push back North Korean forces back to the 38th parallel, but when MacArthur found it so easy to enter North Korea, he immediately decided to violate his order and occupy the whole of North Korea. Truman did not check MacArthur when he was advancing successfully toward the Chinese border. Truman only reprimanded him when MacArthur lost the fight against the Chinese People’s Volunteers.10 MacArthur openly stated that he wanted to change the outcome of the Chinese Civil War, roll back communism in China, and also introduce Jiang Jieshi’s forces in Korea. He was literally threatening to undo the land reform in China. In doing so, MacArthur, and the US government behind him, were challenging the Chinese people, one quarter of the human race at the time. If arrogant people like MacArthur were not taught a lesson, they would have done more stupid things. Unfortunately for the Americans, they never understood why they lost in Korea and Vietnam.
Land reform and the agricultural cooperation movement
Socialist transformation in China
I met the Dalai Lama in 1998 when he came to Brandeis University to deliver a graduation speech. On that occasion, he agreed to meet Chinese scholars and China scholars in the Boston area behind closed doors. He said that in 1950, on his way to Beijing for talks with the Chinese central government, he was filled with doubt about Tibet’s future. But on his way back, he was filled with hope for Tibet and China’s future because he saw with his own eyes how Chairman Mao and other Chinese leaders were working hard for the Chinese people. He also said that Chairman Mao treated him like a younger brother, and he was able to talk with Chairman Mao freely and candidly for three days with the help of an interpreter. No Chinese leader, he said, ever treated him like Chairman Mao did. It seemed that behind closed doors and in the absence of reporters, the Dalai Lama could be disarmingly candid and persuasive.12 The Dalai Lama’s words reinforced my long-held belief that Chairman Mao and his government had convinced the Chinese people at the time that the new Chinese government was a people’s government, not just in name, but also in reality. The people’s government, the people’s bank, the people’s hospital, people’s court, people’s police, and people’s liberation army, as they were known at the time, were doing everything they could to prove that they were in the service of the Chinese people. Apparently they were able to win over even people like the Dalai Lama.
Many nationalist officials and generals joined the Communist government after the civil war. Some of them owned a lot of personal property and were wealthy. Moved by the Chinese Communist leaders’ way of life, some former nationalist leaders offered to give up their own personal properties to the Government. Chairman Mao and the government had to decline this offer because that was not the Government policy toward them. In fact, the Communist leaders’ philosophy of life and their leadership by example had a huge impact on Chinese society. In 1956, many Chinese capitalists offered to give up their factories and businesses to the State, arguing that they did not need these family properties to survive, and that they and their families could work to make a living as well, like everybody else. The People’s Daily and many regional newspapers carried many reports of capitalists deciding to turn over their privately-owned factories to the State in 1956. By the end of 1956, China peacefully completed its transition to socialism. All factories and businesses had become State-owned or collectively-owned in that year.The transition to socialism laid the foundation for China’s rapid economic development. From 1953 to 1956, China’s GNP maintained an average annual growth rate of 19.6 per cent for its industrial sector. Its agricultural sector also maintained an average annual growth rate of 4.8 per cent. The transition from private ownership to joint and state owned ventures demonstrated significant advantages in productivity. In 1952, worker productivity was 9,397 yuan a year per worker. After the transition, worker productivity increased to 10,800 yuan in 1953, to 13,401 in 1954. In 1955, worker productivity in joint ventures doubled that of privately owned enterprises. In 1956, when all privately owned enterprises became joint ventures, worker productivity increased an additional 32 per cent over 1955. The organization of agricultural cooperatives also led to an increase in the production of agricultural products. In 1956, China experienced serious natural disasters, but its agricultural output still witnessed a 4.9 per cent increase over 1955.13
The Great Leap Forward
Also during the Great Leap Forward, Chinese peasants built a great number of reservoirs throughout China. Of the ten biggest reservoirs in China today, the Danjiangkou Reservoir, Miyun Reservoir, Shisanling Reservoir, Xiashan Reservoir, Xinanjiang Reservoir, Lushui Reservoir, Xinfengjiang Reservoir, Songtao Reservoir, Shengzhong Reservoir, and Guanyinge Reservoir, nine were built during the Great Leap Forward.
This past summer (2014), I was invited by Xu Junshan, Professor of Zhongshan University and Vice President of Guangdong University, to give a talk at Zhongshan University on China’s agricultural development. While there, Professor Xu took me to see the two big reservoirs built during the Great Leap Forward in Guangdong Province: Xin Fengjiang Reservoir and Fengshubai Reservoir. Xinfengjiang Reservoir was nationally famous at the time it was built. I had read about it before, but seeing it in person this summer nevertheless had a profound impact on me. The reservoir has a 14 billion cubic meter capacity, an average of ten cubic meters of clean water for each Chinese citizen today. It has generated billions of kilowatts of electricity, helping power China’s rural and urban development. It has been an important asset in flood control and irrigation for the region. Today, it is one of the most important water sources for Guangdong Province and Hong Kong.
In the reservoir’s museum, I wept in front of the pictures of peasants working with hand tools at night on the projects. They touched me because they reminded me of my own participation in the building of the biggest irrigation project in my own village during the Cultural Revolution. I was in middle school in 1970. But when we heard that our village’s irrigation project was reaching a critical stage in construction, my classmates, teachers, and I all went there to volunteer at night. We worked with the peasants until past midnight. Local government officials, school teachers, and soldiers all came to volunteer. It was the social climate of the time under the Communist government.
After my recent visit to Guangdong, I was asked to say a few words in front of a TV camera. I said that the Mao Era was an era of construction, laying the foundation for China’s future take-off. The peasants and workers of the Mao era, our predecessors, were born to unprecedented hardship and made tremendous sacrifices for China’s rise today. They were the heroes of China and they should be remembered as such by the young people of today. Tears almost came to my eyes when I spoke because there were so many in China who were actually accusing Chairman Mao and his generation of leaders of undermining Chinese development because of the Great Leap Forward. They have been effectively brainwashed by the rumours spread by China’s enemies.The Great Leap Forward also laid the foundation for China’s industrialization. During the three years of the Great Leap Forward, China made great strides in the output of steel, coal, machine tools and electricity. The increase of output over these three years accounted for 36.2 per cent of China’s total coal production, 29.6 per cent of China’s cloth production, and 25.9 per cent of China’s electricity generation between 1949 and 1979.15 Of the industrial projects the Chinese government launched between 1949 and 1964, two-thirds were started during the Great Leap Forward. During the second five-year-plan, which included the three years of the Great Leap Forward, China invested 120,090 million yuan and completed 581 big and medium industrial projects. Fixed national industrial assets increased by 861,820 million yuan. Without the hard work of the Great Leap Forward, it would be hard to imagine that China would be able to take off in the automobile, boat, transportation, and national defence industries. That China would develop nuclear bombs and satellites would be questionable.16
The Great Leap Forward grain shortages
I grew up during the Great Leap Forward, and I have done rural research in China during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. In 1958, the year when the commune was formed, we had the greatest summer and fall harvests in recorded history. People ate so well. That was true not only in my hometown in Shandong Province, but also in Henan and Anhui Provinces, where I studied. Peasants in Henan and Anhui told me that they were able to eat very well, better than ever before, in 1958. This indicates that the forming of the people’s communes and the Great Leap Forward only improved people’s livelihoods in 1958.
In 1959, my hometown suffered a summer flood without precedent in the last hundred years. I still remember that my mother and my aunt took me to the fields in those days. After several days of rain, the ditches beside the roads were filled with water. All of our fields were water-logged. My mother pulled out some of the sweet potato plants which were planted about a month earlier, and saw no growth. I heard my mother tell my aunts that we were going to have a hard time that year. In the spring of 1960, my hometown had a very bad drought. On top of that, we had another very bad summer flood. The crops failed again. Quite a few people in my village migrated to the Northeast with their families, and quite a few young people left the village to look for opportunities elsewhere.
Thus our region was hit very badly by natural disasters for two consecutive years. The Shandong Provincial Government, as well as the Central Government sent teams of investigators to our county to find out what was happening with the local leadership. The County Party Secretary Xu Hua and the Head of County Government Office Wang Changsheng were both dismissed by the upper government because of the grain shortage in the county.18 But during the two years of natural disasters, we got relief grains from the Central government, the provincial government, Qingdao City, Shanghai City and many other regions. I still remember the two dried wild vegetables shipped to us from Yunan Province: one with golden hair which we called ginmaogou (golden-haired dog), because it was shaped like a tiny dog, and another which was brown and shaped like a pig liver, called yezhugan (wild pig liver) by the local people. For many years, my parents kept a piece of each of these wild vegetables as souvenirs of the two hardship years, and also to remember the help we got from other people in China.
People in Baoding Prefecture, Hebei Province, published a collection of memoirs titled During the Difficult Days, whichdescribes how, amid the severe grain shortages, people worked together helping each other, and how the local government leaders shared the hardship of the common people.19 When I read the book, I was reminded that the reason very few people starved amid the natural disasters of the Great Leap Forward was because of the spirit of socialism. Whenever and wherever one place had difficulties, people from other places helped. I remember many peasants told me that if it were not for the help of the People’s Government, many people would have starved amid disasters like the one in 1960.By contrast, in Northern Henan Province (where the grain shortage during the Great Leap Forward was supposed to have been severe), five million people had starved to death in 1942. The Government at that time had done nothing to help the local people.20 In the 1990s, I accompanied Ralph Thaxton, my advisor in graduate school, to study (on a Guggenheim scholarship) the region’s famine. When he said that he had come to study the famine, peasants thought that he was studying the famine of 1942-3. During that 1942-43 famine, not only did five million people starve, but many people had to sell their land, their houses, and their children, before fleeing their hometowns. The local government and national government did nothing to help the people there. But nothing like that took place during the grain shortage of the Great Leap Forward.21
Amid the grain shortages, my maternal grandfather died of a disease. My paternal grandfather also died that year at the same age. They were both in their sixties. (Chinese people’s life expectancy was less than 60 years then.) They had been sick for a long time. The grain shortage might have weakened them, and they may have eventually succumbed to disease. But I think there is a significant difference between that and saying that they starved to death. Only people with ulterior motives would blame principally the Great Leap Forward, or the public dining halls, or the people’s communes, for the grain shortage we faced during these three years amid severe natural disasters. The grain shortage was caused first and foremost by natural disasters.
My village during the Great Leap Forward
There were six Liu families. Liu Kongxun had one grown son. Liu Zengxun, the third younger brother of Liu Kongxun, had five children. Liu Mengxun was the second of the Liu brothers and was the chief of the production team. One of the village leaders accused him of mismanaging the production teams’ grain supplies. He got scared and hanged himself in the production team’s forest one night. His widow, who shared a big house with her younger brother-in-law, convinced her brother-in-law to migrate to the Northeast with her. My mother and people in the team used to say that Liu Zengxun was stupid to migrate with his elder sister-in-law. She wanted to find a new husband in Northeast because her husband died and because she had no children. She needed to sell her half of the house. If her younger brother-in-law was not willing to sell his half of the house, she would not be able to sell her half of the house. Because she convinced her younger brother-in-law to migrate, she was able to sell her half of the house together with that of her younger brother-in-law. Liu Zengxun figured out late that he was being stupid, and moved back to the village in 1966, but the village had to help him to build a new home on a collective village building lot.There were three other Liu families in my production team. Liu Chengrui, his younger brother, and his elder sister lived with their mother. His father had been drafted by the Nationalist army in 1949, just before the Communists came, and he later went to Taiwan. Liu Chengrui’s mother had bound feet, and could not work in the fields. But the three brothers, one sister, and the mother all survived well. Liu Jiamin, of another Liu family, was also young at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward. His mother too had bound feet. Liu Jiamin and his three younger sisters and his mother all survived well during the Great Leap Forward. The last Liu family was that of Liu Junxun. He was only seven years old at the time of Great Leap Forward. His father was mentally sick, and one day cut his genitals himself and died of bleeding. His mother took him and his two younger sisters to the Northeast. Later he came back to the village, while his mother and two younger sisters remained in the Northeast.22
There were two Zhang families. My mother was one of the Zhangs. There were three children and my grandfather in my family. Only my grandfather died. All three children born before the Great Leap Forward, and both the children born after the Leap, have survived. The other Zhang family had five children. The father died of a disease before the Great Leap Forward and the mother decided to migrate to the Northeast with three younger children during the Great Leap Forward, leaving the two older sons home. All five of the children survived, and of the three children who migrated to the Northeast, two came back to the village afterwards; only the youngest decided to remain away.23
There was also a Zhou family, a Song family and Lu Family in my production team. They all survived the Great Leap Forward unharmed. Of the more than 130 people from about thirty families in my production team, none could be said to have died of starvation, even though we all felt the pain of hunger. I remember that every morning before my mother went to work in the collective, I would hold on to her clothes, refusing to let her go. I said to her that I would starve to death if she did not give me some more food. My mother would knead a piece of dough, roast it on a small fire, and give it to me. With that, I would let her go to work. I do not know anybody in my village who really starved to death. Of those who left the village during the Great Leap Forward, most managed to come back, and all those who did not come back were accounted for.24
Like my mother, my father never went to school when he was young. He started working as an apprentice when he was 13 years old. When the Communist Party came to power, the Government set up night schools for workers who wanted to learn how to read and write. He learned how to read and write at the night school. Later, the factory sent him to get training from Shandong Industrial College in Jinan. Because of the training he got, he and a few others were put in charge of building a steel factory in my county (Jimo County) during the Great Leap Forward. The factory was set up in 1958, and in a very short time span, the factory recruited 2000 workers from the rural areas in the county, mostly young men in their late teens and early twenties. For three months, my father interviewed and recruited these workers. Two years later, faced with economic difficulties caused by the natural disasters and the souring of relations with the Soviet Union, the Government decided to close down the steel factory. The 2,000 young workers my father recruited and trained were all asked to go back to their original villages.25
Mr. Sun Jingxian (who, as mentioned earlier, wrote a refutation of the inflated estimates of deaths during 1959-61) argues in his article that the alleged population loss (on paper) during the Great Leap Forward was partly caused by the fact that a large number of people moved in this period. First they moved as a result of industrialization at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward; and later they moved because the closing down of these factories led to workers being sent back. What happened in my father’s factory could support Mr. Sun’s argument. An important point I want to make here is that these rural youth received important training during the two years working in my father’s factory. Later, when the economic situation improved in the country, these people became important resources and assets for the development of their villages, particularly during the Cultural Revolution years. They helped set up village industrial projects. Some of my father’s former apprentices came back to my father for technical advice on a regular basis till his death in 1984.26
In 1993, I gave a lecture at Hunter College in New York. My topic was “the Accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward.” When I entered the room that morning, the big lecture hall was packed. Before my speech, an old man sitting in the front challenged me. He almost yelled at me: “Young man, face it, 40 million people starved to death, and you have the guts to come here to tell us the accomplishments of the Great Leap Forward!” I was really angered by the arrogance of Americans. They thought that they knew more than I did about China and about the Great Leap Forward simply because they were Americans. They disregarded the fact that I was Chinese and I lived through the Great Leap Forward. But I kept my calm, and said to him: “Let us examine it together. Tell me how you know that 40 million people starved to death in China.” He said: “We sent the best American demographers to Qinghai and Gansu Province in China in the mid-1980s to talk with the local officials, and they were told by the local officials that twenty per cent of the local population starved.”“That is how you find out how many people starved during the Great Leap Forward? Twenty years after the event? Did they make sure that the officials they were talking to had even been born by the time of the Great Leap Forward?” Let me tell you how I found out if people starved to death during the Great Leap Forward. I went to the places where the famine was supposed to have been very bad. I talked with all the old people in the village and asked them how many people starved to death in their village. In one village, where there were 2,000 people during the Great Leap Forward, some people said that about 100 people died and some people said that 50 people died. I then asked these same people to tell me the names of these people who died and how old these people were when they died. It turned out that in this village of 2,000 people, these old people could only name 15 people collectively, and those who died were all over 60 years old (when life expectancy then was less than 60 years), except one man who was in his forties. But this man was a mentally handicapped orphan, who lived alone, could not care for himself and had nobody else to help him. And sadly, he died prematurely.27 In the last 30-odd years, one heard many stories about starvation and famine during the Great Leap Forward. But most of the stories could not stand close scrutiny and examination.
After hearing how I studied the Great Leap Forward famine, the angry old man who confronted me told me that he was Hugh Deane, the president of the US-China Friendship Association. He asked me to send my writing to him, and promised me that he would read it. I did send him my writings, but I never got a reply from him.Frank Dikötter, the author of Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, won the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, Britain's most prestigious book award for non-fiction.28 It is also rumoured that he received a $2 million scholarship for writing his book. But one of my friends in Malaysia alerted me that the front cover of his book used a picture from Life magazine of 1946. This friend wrote to Dikötter about this. Dikötter answered saying that he used the picture of the famine of 1946 in China because he could not find any pictures of the Great Leap Forward famine. Such is the academic honesty of anti-Mao scholars in the West. Because they could not find any authentic pictures, they resort to fake pictures. And yet they are able to get away with such dishonesty.
Frank Dikötter also claimed that he had documents to prove that Chairman Mao was willing to starve half of the Chinese people to death so that the other half could have more than enough to eat. My friend challenged him to produce the document. Dikötter said that he had an agreement with the source of the document not to show the document to anybody. But under pressure, he agreed to let my friend in Hong Kong to see the document. It turned out that the document was a speech by Chairman Mao at a meeting discussing the investment planned in industrial projects. China had planned to launch over one thousand industrial projects in 1960. Chairman Mao said in the speech that he would rather cut the number of investment projects by half so the Government would have enough money to quickly complete the remaining half of the projects. But Dikötter interpreted Chairman Mao’s words to mean that he was willing to starve half the Chinese population in order that the other half have more than enough to eat. Dikötter claimed that he was a China specialist. I wonder if he was able to read and understand Chinese text, or he was in fact a linguistic genius who could read into the Chinese language something that was not there in the first place.
I had a debate with one of my professors when he said in class that 40 million Chinese peasants starved to death in the Great Leap Forward. I asked him why the Chinese peasants, allegedly facing certain starvation, did not rebel during the Great Leap Forward. Chinese peasants had rebelled so many times in history when there was a famine. He said that Chinese people were too starved to rebel then. I said that apparently the Chinese peasants were not too starved to build thousands of reservoirs during the Great Leap Forward. He then said that the Chinese peasants did not have weapons during the Great Leap Forward with which to rebel. I said that throughout Chinese history, the Chinese ruling classes never allowed Chinese peasants to have weapons. But that did not prevent Chinese peasants from rebellion with sticks and shovels, again and again. In our Chinese language, we have a proverb, “jie gan erqi” (pick up a bamboo stick and rebel), to describe one of the earliest rebellions in the Qin Dynasty. I also told my professor that the Mao era was an exception in Chinese history: under Chairman Mao, the Chinese State did allow the Chinese people, both peasants and workers, to have weapons. During the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government called upon the Chinese people to organize several hundred divisions of militia. Peasants worked in the fields with rifles stacked beside them.This summer I interviewed the former village party secretary of Yakoucun Village in Guangzhou. He told me that during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution years, his village’s militia had more than 200 rifles, machines guns, and even anti-air artilleries. The village militia was trained regularly. The weapons were taken away from the village when Deng Xiaoping started the rural reforms in 1982. It would be much easier for peasants to rebel, if they wanted to, with such easy access to weapons. But there was not even a protest, let alone a rebellion, during the Great Leap Forward.29
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and its impact on China’s development
The reason that Chairman Mao considered the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution one of his two most noteworthy accomplishments is because it had a profound impact on the course of Chinese history. This was due to the educational reforms it introduced and the democratic experiment it carried out. The Cultural Revolution inspired the Chinese people to rise up and democratize Chinese society to an extent never before reached in human history. It also inspired a generation of young people outside China. College students in Europe, America, Japan, and elsewhere, like their counterparts in China, revolted against the existing order, asserted their influence on society, and had an impact on the course of world history. The world would never be the same after the Cultural Revolution.
The education reform
During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in response to the demand of students in Beijing, the Chinese Government suspended the college entrance examination system, and called for a reform of the educational system. As a result of the reform, college students were no longer selected through a set of entrance examinations. Instead, high school graduates were required to work at least for two years at a factory, or in the countryside, or in the army before they were eligible for the college entrance examination. After 1973, when Zhang Tiesheng protested against the academic tests, the academic test part of the selection of college students was eliminated completely.31 Students were selected by workers and peasants based on their work performance. In 1976, a further important reform was instituted: college graduates would return to the place they came from, to serve the community that sent them to college in the first place.32
Had this new college student selection system continued, the idea of college as the training ground for traditional elites would have been discontinued in China. We would have had a brand new type of college graduates: dedicated to service of the people in their community rather than to personal glorification and self-enrichment. I have always argued that the worker, peasant, and soldier college students have been the best college students that China ever had. It is too bad for China and for the world that the system of selecting college students from among workers, peasants and soldiers was discontinued abruptly in China in 1977. The post-Mao Chinese Government leaders could not see the merits of the new system introduced during the Cultural Revolution. They wanted an education system in line with the general reversal they were instituting.
The more profound change in the field of education took place in the primary, middle, and high schools of China. Before the Cultural Revolution, educational professionals were in charge of running the educational system in China. These educational professionals tended to stress certain standards of education, rather than the expansion of the school system to enable more people to go to school. By stressing the importance of standards, they inadvertently limited many people’s access to education. The Cultural Revolution weakened the educational professionals’ control of the educational system, and allowed workers and peasants to have more say in the education of their children. Peasants were allowed to run their own village schools. A village would build its own primary school with local materials, hire its own teachers, and then provide free access to all villagers’ children in the village.
Several villages would pool their resources to build a joint middle school which would provide free access to all peasants’ children in these villages. The people’s commune would open two to three high schools so that all the peasants’ children would be able to attend high school free of charge. There were 1,050 villages in my home town, Jimo county, Shandong Province. During the Cultural Revolution years, every village set up a primary school. All the rural children were able to go to school free. Before the Cultural Revolution, there were only seven middle schools in Jimo county, which had a population of 750,000. During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, the number of middle schools increased to 249. Every four villages shared one middle school. All primary school graduates were able to go to these middle schools free of charge, without needing to pass any tests. Before the Cultural Revolution, there was only one high school in Jimo county. For seventeen years before the Cultural Revolution, only 1,500 people graduated from that high school and more than half of them went to college and never came back. For 17 years, Jimo high school was not able to train a single high school graduate for each village in Jimo County. Most villages did not have even a single high school graduate before the Cultural Revolution.During the Cultural Revolution, the number of high schools in Jimo increased to 89. Almost every commune had three high schools. When I graduated from middle school in 1972, only 70 per cent of my classmates were able to enter high school. By the time my younger sister graduated from middle school in 1973, all of her classmates were able to go to high school. By the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, there were more than 100 high school graduates in my village and there were more than 12,000 high school graduates in my commune.33 The expansion of education during the Cultural Revolution years was unprecedented in Chinese history. It profoundly transformed the Chinese people and society. As the people became more educated, they became more empowered in both political and economic activities.
The Cultural Revolution and the democratization of Chinese society
Most people who talk about democracy in this world tend to make the concept of democracy very complicated. Democracy is a very simple and straightforward concept. It means that, contrary to the old system which allowed the elite to run the political affairs, the ordinary people participate in decision making. It means that ordinary people are part of the governance of their society. In order for democracy to work, ordinary people have to be empowered and made equal to the government officials, the old elite. In a democratic society, there should be no privileged classes and there should be no elite. Everybody should be equal politically and economically. That is a prerequisite of democracy.In the so-called western democracies, one per cent of the people own most of wealth. Because of this gap in wealth, the small rich minority can buy power, influence, and control. They literally have a monopoly over power. That is not a real democracy at all. Democracy like that is in name only. It is fake. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution tried to build a real democracy. It empowered the ordinary Chinese people to write big character posters to criticize their leaders, and required their leaders to participate in manual labour like everybody else. It was a big step forward in the progress of Chinese society. During the Cultural Revolution, most Chinese officials had lifestyles similar to those of ordinary people. They lived in houses similar to those of ordinary people. Their children went to the same schools as other Chinese people. They went to work on bicycles like everybody else. Production team leaders were elected by peasants and worked with peasants in the field every day. Village leaders worked with peasants 300 days a year in the fields because they had to attend meetings and make plans for the community. Commune leaders were required to work 250 days a year with peasants in the fields and county government leaders had to work with peasants for two hundred days a year.34
Chen Yonggui worked as a peasant all his life. After the Communist Party came to power, he became the party secretary of Dazhai Village in Xiyang County, Shanxi Province. He did a good job leading the people in his village to build a better future. During the Cultural Revolution he was promoted to be vice premier of the People’s Republic of China, and member of Political Bureau of Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in charge of China’s agriculture. But he continued to devote one-third of his time working with peasants in the fields, and continued to dress and live like a peasant even when he met foreign dignitaries. He was an example of the peasant, worker, and soldier officials that emerged during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. They continued to live like peasants, workers, and soldiers even though they were also government officials. That was the democracy, the proletarian democracy that Chairman Mao tried to build during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a democracy that empowered the 99 per cent at the expense of the one per cent.
There were many other national leaders like Chen Yonggui. Wang Jinxi, an ordinary worker in the petroleum industry, Ni Zhifu, a mechanist who invented the most efficient drill bits, and Hao Jianxi, an efficient textile worker from Qingdao, Shandong, continued to work in their respective fields after becoming national leaders. Many more workers and peasants served in local government. These workers and peasants served in the government while continuing to work among the working class and peasants.This created a strong egalitarian social climate in China that promoted a strong work ethic and led to an economic performance outstanding in world history. During the Cultural Revolution years, Chinese management personnel were required to participate in manual labour and workers participated in management’s decision-making process. Workers, engineers, and management cooperated to solve technical, and managerial problems. Unreasonable rules and regulations were reformed with workers’ input. This revolutionary management philosophy and style empowered the workers, engineers, and management personnel to work together. (Such pooling was formulated as a capitalist management concept and dubbed ‘post–Fordism’ in the West, or ‘team spirit’ in Japan.) It led to a great burst of productivity during the Mao era.35
The Cultural Revolution’s impact on industry and agriculture
During the third and fourth five year plans, China invested 316,642 billion yuan in infrastructure, and increased its industrial assets by 215,740 billion yuan. By 1979, there were 355,000 enterprises, 2.25 times the number in 1965. The size of these State-owned enterprises expanded across the board. Among these enterprises, the big and medium-sized enterprises amounted to 4,500.37
In the field of energy, between 1967 and 1976, China’s petroleum output increased by an average of 18.6 per cent annually. By 1978, its annual output of petroleum reached 100 million tonnes, a five-fold increase over 1965. During the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, China maintained an annual growth rate of 9.2 per cent in the output of coal, chemicals, and electricity.38
Between 1965 and the mid-1970s, China invested 205 billion yuan in third line industrial projects. A group of steel plants, machine tool plants, airplane plants, space programs, and electronic plants were built in the central and western regions. By late 1970s, the industrial assets in the third line region accounted for one-third of the total industrial assets in China. China’s industrial output increased 3.92 times. The industrial development of the central and western regions improved the overall picture of China’s industrial development, with profound strategic significance for China’s national security and development as a nation.
While stressing self-reliance, Chairman Mao approved of importing technology when necessary. In 1972, Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai approved the plan of importing 26 foreign industrial plants with a total investment of $5 billion. A big group of petroleum and chemical plants were constructed, which increased China’s output of fertilizer, chemical products, and artificial fabrics. The thirteen big fertilizer plants built during this time accounted for one-fifth of China’s chemical fertilizer output. During the 1970s, China also built many small-scale chemical fertilizer plants. By 1978, there were 1,534 small chemical fertilizer plants in China. The emergence of these small fertilizer plants in China played an important role in the country’s agricultural development.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the US and other western nations spread the Green Revolution technology to Third World countries like India, Mexico, Brazil, Philippines, and so on. The spread of Green Revolution technology in Third World countries had some devastating effects on the agriculture of the third world countries. The use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and big machineries increased the input of agriculture. But the increase of yield also caused grain prices to decline. Moreover, input costs went up over time. Many small peasants were not able to deal with the challenges caused by market fluctuations. A large number of small peasants became bankrupt, and lost their land. They had to migrate to urban areas in order to survive. The emergence of large shanty towns and homeless populations in the Third World countries was one of the direct results of the spread of western Green Revolution technology. It led to a three-fold crisis of agriculture, rural areas, and peasants. The long-term impact of this crisis is difficult to fathom today.China was the only country that was able to successfully escape this three-fold crisis of agriculture, rural areas, and peasants, because of its collective farming practices. The organized Chinese peasants developed their own home-made Green Revolution. Because Chinese peasants owned the land collectively, and shared the benefit of the Green Revolution technology more equally, they enjoyed the benefits while avoiding the devastating negative effects. The homegrown Green Revolution technology reduced the intensity of farm labour, and also gave rise to many rural industrial enterprises. Because of the rise of these rural industrial enterprises, peasants were able to leave the fields, but not the village, to engage in industrial work. With the development of local Green Revolution technology, the use of locally-made farm machines, and the rise of rural industrial enterprises, Chinese peasants’ living standards improved significantly during the Cultural Revolution years.39
The emancipation of women
After the Communist Party came to power, the first law the Government passed was the Marriage Law. This law, enacted on April 13, 1950, stipulated that the State would protect women and children. It guaranteed that wives and husbands were equal in marriage. There would be only one husband and one wife in a marriage. Men were not allowed to have any concubines. The State guaranteed the freedom of young people to choose their own marriage partners. In case of divorce, the court would make sure that the best interests of women and children were safeguarded.
The Chinese government not only passed the law, but also launched an unprecedented social movement to educate the public about the law, and to promote awareness of the law through the news media, print media, and performing arts (such as plays and films). With the new marriage law, Chinese women’s social and political status in Chinese society rose significantly.
The Chinese government also promoted equal work for equal pay in the State sector. Women who worked for the State were able to get equal pay right away. The State-owned enterprises also provided women a three-month maternity leave, which could be extended to half a year. Factories and government offices provided free childcare services for women employees, and mothers were given breaks from work to breastfeed their babies.
To safeguard women’s rights, the Chinese government set up women’s federation committees throughout China. Every Chinese village, factory, school, and government office had a women’s federation committee during the Cultural Revolution years. If a husband did not treat his wife properly, the women’s federation in the village would organize a group of women to confront the husband, and force him to apologize to his wife. If the husband did it again, the women’s federation would come back. In the urban areas, women could file a complaint with the women’s federation committee, and the committee would take action on their behalf. Besides the women’s federation committees, the Chinese government stipulated that every level of government had to have women representatives on the committees. Government laws and regulation had to take into consideration women’s special needs in life. Workplaces were required to provide mothers with childcare and breastfeeding breaks, and, when women had their menstrual periods, the right to change their work.
The Communist government took the issue of women’s rights seriously, and not simply as an issue of women’s rights. Its repercussions affect the well-being of children, the family, and the whole nation. When women’s rights are not safeguarded, not only women suffer. Children suffer, and families would suffer. If children and families suffer, the whole nation suffers. The Chinese Communist government was able to eliminate social vices like drug addiction, prostitution, trafficking of women and children, organized crime, and banditry very effectively in a short time because it empowered Chinese women to become productive members of Chinese society and helped them to participate equally in Chinese political, social, and economic life. Chinese people’s life expectancy rose from 35 years in 1952 to 69 years in 1976, almost doubling in less than 30 years. China achieved this 20 years ahead of India, whose average life expectancy in 1976 was only 50.This achievement had a lot to do with the Chinese government’s efforts to empower women and safeguard women’s rights.With socialism and under Chairman Mao’s leadership, China in less than three decades built the most equal society in the world. Top Chinese leaders like Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai worked the hardest for the Chinese people, but they were only paid the same salary as a professor. They never owned any private property in their life. With such good leadership by example, the Chinese people worked hard to build up their motherland into an industrialized modern country with the most advanced political and social system, free medical care, and free education for everyone. More importantly, real workers, peasants, and soldiers were in the Government and running the Government. These worker, peasant, and soldier Government leaders continued to work with peasants and workers even after they became Government leaders. The guiding principle for these Government officials was to serve the people. This is real democracy, a government of the people, for the people, and by the people. These peasant and worker Government officials were no longer just representing peasants’ and workers’ interests in the Government. They were peasants and workers themselves. They lived and worked as peasants and workers.40
III. The regression of China after Mao
Hua Guofeng did what he did to seize power for himself. But he needed to politically justify what he did. He used political lies and half-truths to anoint himself as Chairman Mao’s trusted successor and to claim that he was carrying out Chairman Mao’s will by arresting the supposed ‘Gang of Four’. He and his co-conspirators used underhand means to tarnish the images of these four representatives of Mao’s line. But his mean-spirited efforts inadvertently undermined his own position within the party. Very soon Hua Guofeng’s co-conspirators were forced to resign from their positions and Hua Guofeng became harmless in Chinese politics under the onslaught of the capitalist faction. Deng Xiaoping, who was removed from power twice by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, managed to return to power a third time. Chairman Mao had removed Deng Xiaoping from power at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping wrote three self-criticisms and two letters to Chairman Mao begging for an opportunity to work again. In 1974, Chairman Mao reinstituted him, but removed him again in April following the April 5 1976 riot in Tiananmen Square.After Deng Xiaoping returned to power, he began to dismantle the many landmark accomplishments of the Cultural Revolution. He discontinued the practice of selecting college students from workers, peasants, and soldiers, and reinstituted the college entrance examinations. He also dismantled the people’s communes and collective farming. The collectively-owned farm land was divided into small spaghetti-like pieces for peasants to farm individually.41
After the land was divided up, the rural public education and medical care network (built up during the Cultural Revolution) collapsed. As the urban-oriented capitalist development program under Deng Xiaoping was taking shape in the early 1980s, the Government’s investment in rural areas declined significantly from 15 per cent of the national budget to around 5 per cent. Peasant families had to pay tuition for their children to study in primary school. Many peasant children lost access to education because they could not afford to pay the tuition and other costs of education. During the Cultural Revolution years, enrolment of school aged children in rural areas reached close to 100 per cent. But with the collapse of collective farming, many rural schools were closed down. New generations of illiterate peasants, particularly women, emerged in the Deng Xiaoping era.
During the Cultural Revolution years, Chairman Mao criticized the Chinese Ministry of Health for ignoring public health in rural areas and for its focus on serving the urban population. In response to Chairman Mao’s criticism, China’s public health policy began to shift toward the countryside. Doctors based in the urban areas were required to tour the countryside to provide free treatment for peasants and workers on a regular basis, and they were also required to train ‘barefoot doctors’ for the countryside. The barefoot doctors were high school graduates of a village, chosen by the village to receive free training in urban hospitals for three- to six-month cycles. Each village would have three to six barefoot doctors who would continually receive service training on a regular basis. These barefoot doctors grew up and lived in the village all their lives. They were paid for their services with work points, like other villagers in the village. They were available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year, in all weather conditions, because their clinic was in the village and they could always come to the villager’s home when they were needed. These barefoot doctors got rudimentary training from urban doctors, and provided rudimentary care to the peasants. If there was a problem they could not handle, they could always turn to the urban doctors for help. By the end of 1976, every village in China had a clinic and a few barefoot doctors providing free care for villagers. Barefoot doctors played an important role in the improvement of Chinese medical care and the increase of life expectancy in China.
The rural network of barefoot doctors depended on the collective farming system, in which everybody was paid equally with work points, not salaries. When Deng Xiaoping dismantled collective farming, the network of barefoot doctors collapsed with it. Barefoot doctors were converted into rural doctors who had to charge their patients for their services. Many peasants could not afford the cost of the medical care. Fewer people could afford the medical service and as a result many barefoot doctors could no longer survive as doctors. They had to change their trade in order to make a living.
I do not think that Deng Xiaoping and his followers understood the systemic nature of the Chinese society, and social consequences of dismantling collective farming. Or maybe they understood, but simply did not care about what would happen to poor peasants when they could not afford to pay for their children’s tuition and medical care. Many peasants were forced to turn to crime in order to get money to pay for their children’s tuition and medical care.
With the collapse of collective farming, crime increased significantly. Peasants who could not afford to buy fertilizers, often resorted to crime. Rural children who were forced out of school turned to crime as well. By 1983, crime had reached such a high level that Deng Xiaoping ordered a campaign to suppress crime – with extra-legal measures. The top three leaders of any gangster group were ordered to be executed. The police and the courts were given a quota of the number of criminals that had to be executed.
In one of the villages I studied, there had been no crime in the village for more than 10 years during the Cultural Revolution. But during the two years after the collectives were broken up, more than three dozen people were arrested and sentenced to prison for stealing grain and chemical fertilizers from passing trucks on the highway to use in their private plots. In the spring of 1983, a group of six men in this village were arrested by police and the leader of this group was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and the next most important person was sentenced to eight years in prison. The third and fourth persons were sentenced to prison for five and six years. The two leaders accepted the sentences. But numbers three and four of the group appealed against their sentences. They were caught by Deng Xiaoping’s order to suppress criminals, and were punished more severely. They were both sentenced to death – for stealing a few bags of fertilizers to be used in their own fields. The police executed the two young men in fields not far from the village in order to teach other peasants a lesson.
Throughout China hundreds and thousands of people were executed like that. One of my childhood friends, Ma Jihe, committed suicide when he heard that the police were coming to arrest him for his involvement in a criminal group. I was still in graduate school at the time. I was very angry when I heard about his death. Ma Jihe was such a good worker during the collective era. He worked very hard in the fields, and older peasants had to warn him constantly not to work so hard. After the land was divided, he lost his direction. He helped his friends to hide stolen properties. He knew that if he were arrested, he would be executed. He did not want his family to be humiliated by his execution, and committed suicide instead, leaving behind a wife and a young son. The Chinese Communist government rarely executed criminals for petty theft. Deng Xiaoping was the first to execute large numbers of peasants and workers for thefts. I hope that Chinese people remember that. After the first campaign to suppress criminals in 1983, the Chinese government under Deng Xiaoping, as well as after Deng Xiaoping’s death, carried out several similar campaigns. Many people whose crimes did not warrant an execution according to the normal legal code were executed on the whim of Deng Xiaoping and his mistaken policy.
Official corruption in China today
As Deng Xiaoping advocated the policy of allowing a small minority to get rich first, his own children demonstrated by example how the policy would work. They engaged in smuggling Japanese TVs, tape recorders, and watches, and peddling Government-controlled materials such as chemical fertilizers and steel for a high profit. All of these would be treated as criminal activities in any other country. With Deng Xiaoping’s encouragement and the role model of Deng Xiaoping’s children, Zhao Ziyang’s children, and many other high officials’ children, the Chinese official class, with few exceptions, was engaged in the business of getting rich first and fast in the early 1980s.
Official corruption and wrong-doing completely disrupted normal Chinese economic activities. The consequence was that the Chinese government was on the verge of bankruptcy after just a couple of years. By the end of 1983, the Deng Xiaoping government became desperate. It began to print a huge amount of paper currency to avoid bankruptcy. In 1984 alone, they printed more money than in the previous 35 years combined. Inflation shot up overnight. Meat used to be 73 cents a Chinese jin (i.e., 500 gram); this rose to three yuan 60 cents a jin, a five-fold increase. The price of fish used to be in the range of seven cents to 37 cents a jin; this rose to over four yuan a jin, a 55-fold increase. The price for everything else also rose significantly. The Chinese people panicked. This kind of inflation never happened during socialist China. Prices of major commodities were controlled by the State and had been stable until then. People rushed to stores to buy up everything they could lay their hands on. My mother rushed to the store and bought two hundred feet of plain cloth. Her neighbor bought four hundred pounds of salt, and another neighbor bought forty white and black TV sets. They believed that the inflation of the Jiang Jieshi era had returned and money would become worthless. People’s life savings were wiped out overnight. My parents had saved up two thousand yuan over the course of their lives. They bought their first house with four hundred yuan. But overnight, their life savings were reduced to one-tenth of their value.
With rampant inflation and other social injustices, popular resentment was on the rise. Students began to denounce the corrupt officials and their children’s self enrichment at the expense of common people. They also resented the promotion of high officials’ children to important positions. Students in some major universities took to the streets to protest. To pacify popular resentment, Deng Xiaoping fired Hu Yaobang, the puppet party secretary at the time. Hu Yaobang had been a running dog of Deng Xiaoping, doing everything he could to reverse Chairman Mao’s socialist policies and carry out Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms. Now he became the first scapegoat for Deng Xiaoping’s unpopular reform in China at the beginning of 1986.
Zhao Ziyang replaced Hu Yaobang as the puppet party secretary to run the show for Deng Xiaoping. However, popular resentment against official corruption and inflation continued. In April 1989, students joined by workers began to demonstrate again in Beijing using Hu Yaobang’s death as the excuse. Students in Shanghai and other parts of China also took to the streets, denouncing Deng Xiaoping and his reform directly. In the end, Deng Xiaoping ordered the PLA to suppress the student demonstrators in Beijing, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. For the first time in the history of the People’s Republic, the PLA turned its guns against its own people. By this point, Deng Xiaoping’s reform had become morally bankrupt. This time, Zhao Ziyang was sacrificed as the scapegoat for Deng Xiaoping’s crime.
With the bloodshed in Beijing, most people knew that Deng Xiaoping’s reform had failed, and failed miserably. The People’s Republic had to turn its guns against its own people. The demand for a return to socialism again began to raise its voice. Jiang Zemin , the new party secretary, and Li Peng, the premier, began to talk about a socialist education movement in the Chinese rural areas. However, Deng Xiaoping who still controlled China’s military power, started a tour of the south of China in 1992, and threatened to remove those who did not continue his line of capitalist ‘reform’. Jiang Zemin and Li Peng were pressurized into fast-track capitalist reforms in the early 1990s.
In the 1990s, most State-owned enterprises were sold to individual investors, and about 30 million workers who had worked for the State for their entire lives were laid off. However, the authorities did not call it that: they called them ‘off duty workers’. These workers lost their jobs, their medical care, and other benefits associated with their jobs. Many of these workers fell into poverty.
Under the rule of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, the Chinese government started an educational reform. People had to pay for primary, middle, and high school education. Those who could not afford the tuition lost their access to education. During the socialist era, education was free all the way from primary to college education. During the socialist era, students went to college with free room and board. Upon graduation, college graduates were guaranteed jobs in State-owned enterprises. After the student demonstrations in Beijing, the Government took away free tuition and free room and board. Upon graduation they had to find jobs on their own. Many poor families could not afford to send their children to college any more. College education became such a big financial burden for the working families in China that there were cases of parents committing suicide when they learned that their child was accepted into college.
The Government also privatized the medical care system. During the socialist era, hospitals were Government-owned and were non-profit organizations. They would treat the patients even if they could not afford to pay for the treatment. A visit to the hospital cost five cents, and medicine cost less than one yuan for minor problems. Now Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji turned hospitals into for-profit organizations. Hospitals had to calculate the cost of their operations. They would not treat patients who could not afford to pay. The price of medical care sky-rocketed. The cost of major medical treatment could reach hundreds and thousands of yuan. Ordinary peasants and workers could no longer afford medical care. In my studies of the villages I have seen cases of many peasants who died leaving huge medical debts for their children to bear. Some peasants, feeling it would be stupid to burden one’s children with medical debts, would refuse to seek any medical treatment if they were sick.
The Chinese government under Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji also sold all the Government-owned houses. During the socialist era, the Government provided housing for the urban population. Most State-owned enterprises provided workers with housing. Now all these houses were sold to individuals. The Government also stopped providing workers free housing. People had to buy their own houses. In the last 20 years, real estate has been the driving force of China’s economic growth. The Government sold State-owned land to developers at very high prices and developers would sell the housing units at even higher prices. Housing prices in China have been rising faster than anywhere in the world. Real estate development has become such a profitable market that a lot of money has entered real estate development. Too many houses have been built and bought by rich people, who did not need them, as an investment for higher returns. The term ‘ghost towns’ has been used to describe the real estate market in China, where there are no, or few, residents in large development projects.
The market reform Deng Xiaoping introduced in China restored capitalism in China. A great number of billionaires have been created in a very short time. According to some statistics, China has more billionaires than any other country except the United States. As a result, China’s Gini index (a measure of inequality, in which ‘0’ is perfect equality, and ‘1’ is perfect inequality, with all wealth concentrated in the hands of one person) reached 0.7, and thus China became one of the most unequal societies in the world. But during the socialist era, China was one of the most equal societies in the world; its Gini index was only 0.29 then.42
With the restoration of capitalism, all the social vices returned with a vengeance. Prostitution, drug trafficking, drug addiction, trafficking of women and children, petty crime, organized crime, official corruption, and everything related with profiteering, have become rampant in China. The Government became powerless to fight these social vices. Corruption among officials is so rampant that it would be hard to find an official who is not corrupt any more. I have encountered Government officials who openly say that by Chairman Mao’s standards they should be killed several times over. Some Chinese peasants told me that if they killed every official, there might be one or two in one hundred who would be wronged. But if they shoot every other official, then too many corrupt ones would have escaped punishment. In a social climate like this, all the Government’s efforts at ‘fighting corruption’ are useless. It seems that the more the Government ‘fights corruption’, the more corrupt the system becomes. And the people are no longer convinced about the effectiveness of the Government’s anti-corruption measures. Purges have instead become a method for the Government to remove people who pose a threat to it.
But today, many corrupt officials have sent their wives and children abroad,and many rich people have left or are leaving China to live abroad. Apparently, Chinese officials and people connected with them, who have been able to get extremely rich through the capitalist reform, do not have confidence in the future of China. They are jumping the boat.
China has been lucky in the last 15 years because the US has been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and been slowed down by one of the worst economic recessions in history. The US has been preoccupied with both international and domestic troubles. It did not have the energy and resources to undermine and weaken China as it was able to during the 1990s. Otherwise, China would have had a difficult time dealing with the challenges associated with rising popular discontent caused by the unequal distribution of wealth resulting from restoring capitalism and official corruption.
The Chinese government has been boasting about China’s development model. Its model has been very simple. It has been plundering the accomplishments of the Mao-led Chinese revolution to get capital for its capitalist development. It sold the land, the houses, the factories, and hospitals confiscated by the revolution and very many more built during the Mao period. According to some statistics, over 80 per cent of local government revenue came from selling land to developers. A model like this has no applicable value elsewhere. They are able to do this because of Mao’s revolution, even though they are constantly trying to devalue the significance of Mao and his revolution.
The reason Mao’s new democratic revolution and socialist revolution succeeded was that they were aimed at benefiting the overwhelming majority of Chinese people. Therefore, the revolution got the support from the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people.
Deng Xiaoping’s reform was bound to fail because, from very beginning, his policy was aimed at allowing a small minority of people to get rich first. When this small minority happened to be his own children, other high officials’ children, and officials themselves, people became resentful. But the Government refuses to respond to people’s resentment, and continues to insist that the reform was good and sound. Of course, the reform was good and sound for them, because they and their families profited from it. But the ordinary people, who are the overwhelming majority, have lost in the bargain, and they will continue to resent their losses. Their resentment will accumulate and some day the resentment will explode, which is one of the reasons that the rich and powerful are leaving China.
Any reform that only benefits the minority will not succeed, and will only lead to self destruction in the end, even if it appears to be going well in the beginning.
What is the way ahead for China? A return to socialism is the only way out.
1. Chris Giles, “China poised to pass US as world’s leading economy this year,” Financial Times, April 30, 2014. (back)
2. Wang Pei and Jin Ren, Xu Minguo Da An (The Big Cases of the Republic of China Continued) (Beijing: Qunzhong Press, 2003). This book records the incident of American soldier raping Beijing University student Shen Chong and the group raping of Chinese women by American soldiers in Wuhan. None of the guilty received any punishment. The Chinese government of the time tried very hard to cover up the crimes committed by the Americans. -- pp. 365, 401. (back)
3. The Amethyst Incident took place on April 20, 1949. (back)
4. Theodore White, Thunder Out of China (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1946). (back)
5. China in Revolution Series: Fighting for the Future 1936-1949, (documentary) Sue Williams, 1989. (back)
6. Ibid. (back)
7. Ibid. (back)
8. Ibid. (back)
9. Korea: McArthur’s War, Educational Network, 1991. (back)
10. Ibid. (back)
11.Wu Liandeng, “Chairman Mao had only 500 Yuan left on his account at the time he died. All his royalties from his writings were converted into membership dues to the party,” People’s net, December 10, 2013. (back)
12. Dongping Han, “Experiencing the Complexity of Dalai Lama and Tibet Issue Abroad,” Chinese Marxism, Vol. 2013, Beijing University. (back)
13. Xin Yan, “How to Evaluate China’s Transition to Socialism,” No. 6, 2006, Zhonghua Hun. (back)
14. Tai Jimao, “ What Were Hundreds of Millions of Chinese Peasants Doing During the Great Leap Forward,” Website: Wenge Yanjiu, 2014. (back)
15. Hu Sheng, Ed. The Seventy Years of Chinese Communist Party (Beijing: Chinese Communist Party History Press, 1991), pp. 415-416. (back)
16. Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic (New York: Free Press,1999). (back)
17. Sun Jingxian, “Zhongguo ersi sanqianwan de yaoyan shi zenyang xingchengde?” (“How was the rumour circulated that thirty million people starved to death?”), Zhongguo Shehui Kexuebao, September 9, 2013. Utsa Patnaik, “Revisiting Alleged 30 Million Famine Deaths During China’s Great Leap Forward,” People’s Democracy, June 26, 2011. (back)
18. Jimo County Gazettes, Xinhua Publishing House, 1987. (back)
19. Han Xiuling, Zhang Liyun ad Fan Xiulian, “During the Difficult Days,” No. 15, Baoding City Selected Historical Materials, Wenshi Ziliao Committee, Baoding, 1998. (back)
20. Interview with peasants in Henan, summer 1995. (back)
21. Interview with peasants in Henan, summer 1995. (back)
22. Interview with peasants in Shandong, summer 2014. (back)
23. Interview with peasants in Shandong, summer 2014. (back)
24. Interview with peasants in Shandong, summer 2014. (back)
25. Interview with peasants in Shandong, summer 2014. (back)
26. Interview with peasants in Shandong, summer 2014. (back)
27. Interview with peasants in Henan, summer 1995. (back)
28. Frank Dikötter, Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe (London: Bloomsbury, 2010). (back)
29. Interview with Man Shu (Lu Hanman), Yakou Cun village, summer 2014. (back)
30. Zhang Zishan and Liu Qingshan were party secretary and head of Tianjin Prefecture Government respectively. They embezzled the government relief fund intended for peasants hit by a natural disaster. They used this money to buy cars and build villas for themselves. They were executed in 1952. (back)
31. Zhang Tiesheng took the 1973 college entrance examination. But instead of answering the questions on the test, he wrote a protest against the academic tests being one of the criteria in the college student selection process. (back)
32. I was chosen by my village as a potential candidate for college in 1976. I received all the briefings about the revolutionary changes in the college enrollment policy, but was not able to go to college because of the limited number of places available. (back)
33. Dongping Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution, (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000). (back)
34. Dongping Han, “Cultural Revolution and Democratization of Chinese Countryside,” Besides the Tragedies: On the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Ed. Luo Kinyi and Zheng Wenlong, (Taibei: Storm Forum Publishers, 1997). (back)
35.Cui Zhiyuan, “Angang Xianfa and Post Fordism,” Reading, Issue No. 3, 1996. (back)
36. Meisner, op. cit. (back)
37. Hu Sheng, op cit., pp. 415-416. (back)
38. Ibid., p. 416. (back)
39. Han, The Unknown Cultural Revolution. (back)
40. This is the comment Professor Bertell Ollman of New York University made after reading one of my papers regarding the system of government of the Cultural Revolution years. (back)
41. Bill Hinton, who wrote Fan Shen (an account of China’s earlier land reform), and followed Chinese agricultural development closely, coined the phrase “spaghetti land” to express his disapproval of the Chinese Government’s policy of dividing up the land: “This was not ‘postage stamp’ land such as used to exist before land reform, but ‘ribbon land,’ ‘spaghetti land,’ ‘noodle land’ -- strips so narrow that often not even the right wheel of a cart could travel down one man's land without the left wheel pressing down on the land of another.” -- The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-89, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), p. 16. (back)
42. Global Forum, “China’s Income Gap Solution, too little, too late?” Fortune, February 15, 2013. (back)
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