Mao’s Socialist Education Movement aimed to remind the peasants of China about the evils of the old landlord-dominated society and protect them from capitalism. However, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping felt that instead of class struggle, the real problem in China was widespread demoralization and corruption. Why did they have such views?
With tens of millions of peasants having starved to death, and hundreds of millions more suffering from varying degrees of malnutrition, by 1962 socialist morality had broken down badly, especially in the rural areas of the country.
Responding to conditions of extreme hardship, those rural dwellers with tradable resources, such as money, official position, or control over collective assets, had utilized these assets to secure their own advantage.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Effects of Famines in Villages
In areas hard hit by famine, village cadres had routinely solicited bribes from peasants in exchange for allowing them, for example, to withhold grain from compulsory delivery to the state.
Sometimes the bribes were made in cash, sometimes in goods, sometimes in labor donations, and sometimes in female sexual favors. Often, bribes in the form of sex, or cigarettes, or other scarce commodities were widely offered to village cadres who tallied work points, dispensed fertilizer, weighed harvested grain, or dispensed job assignments.
In addition, many rural cadres misappropriated collective funds, for example, using money earmarked for welfare payments to build private homes or to finance banquets or weddings.
As a result, everyone-for-himself political atmosphere that enveloped the countryside in the latter stages of the Great Famine, along with gambling and prostitution, which had been stamped out altogether in the early ’50s, made their reappearance in rural China.
Learn more about the deepening agricultural crisis in China from 1959 to 1962.
The Root Cause of Rural Moral Decay
To Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, the root cause of this rural moral decay was not counter-revolutionary sabotage by a few scheming rich peasants and class enemies, but wholesale organizational laxness and indiscipline within local party branches. Only when the party cleaned its own house could it restore its reputation for integrity and set a good example for the peasantry.
Unlike the populist Mao, who wanted to light a fire under the peasants to criticize capitalist tendencies from the bottom up, Liu and Deng were instinctive elitists. They believed in strict party discipline. For them, the preferred method of rectifying corrupt rural cadres was to dispatch work teams to conduct investigations behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes and ears of the laobaixing.
Mao’s Accusations against Liu
By the end of 1964, Mao had clearly lost patience with Liu and Deng. At a party work conference in December of that year, he angrily confronted Liu, accusing him of undermining the Socialist Education Movement by altering both its goals and its means.
In Mao’s view, corruption was not the main problem, capitalism was. And the solution was not closed-door investigations by elitist work teams but mass mobilization of the peasantry.
In January of 1965, Mao’s displeasure was expressed in a Central Committee directive entitled “Some Problems Currently Arising in the Socialist Education Movement”. In this important document, Mao made the unprecedented allegation that the central aim of the Socialist Education movement was “to rectify power-holders within the [Chinese Communist] Party who take the capitalist road.”
While no individual party leaders were singled out, Mao’s comments were clearly directed toward the very highest levels of the CCP, including the Central Committee itself.
In the five-and-a-half years that had elapsed since Peng Dehuai was purged at the Lushan plenum, this was the first time that Mao had directly suggested that any of his closest associates might be hidden counter-revolutionaries. Viewed in the context of his rising irritation with his top lieutenants, there could be little doubt that the chairman’s primary target was his second-in-command and heir apparent, Liu Shaoqi.
Learn more about Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”.
Liu Shaoqi: Strengths and Advantages
However, Liu could not be toppled as easily as Peng Dehuai.
For one thing, he and Deng Xiaoping were still formally in charge of the party’s day-to-day operations, while Mao remained on the second line of leadership. For another thing, Liu and Deng were extremely popular; they had many powerful friends and supporters within the party apparatus, people who would not sit still for another Peng Dehuai-style Maoist purge. And finally, discontent with Mao’s growing obsession over class struggle was becoming more widespread both inside the party and among the disillusioned Chinese intelligentsia.
Thus, as Mao readied himself for the final showdown, he had to proceed cautiously, preparing his moves with all the skill and deliberation of a consummate chess player.
Common Questions about the Effect of the Great Leap’s Failure
Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping believed that the failures of the Great Leap had led to widespread demoralization and corruption.
Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping felt that the root cause of the rural moral decay was wholesale organizational laxness and indiscipline within local party branches.
Liu Shaoqi, along with Deng Xiaoping, was formally in charge of the party’s day-to-day operations, while Mao remained on the second line of leadership. Liu and Deng were extremely popular; they had many powerful friends and supporters within the party apparatus. The discontent with Mao’s growing obsession over class struggle was becoming more widespread both inside the party and among the disillusioned Chinese intelligentsia.