By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles
Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party granted full rights of citizenship and participation to all members of the laboring classes, while those labeled ‘enemies of the people’ were deprived of all political rights and subjected to ruthless dictatorship. Read more about this period in history.
Mao adopted a dualistic policy within China for dealing with various class enemies, who included former Guomindang officers, rural landlords, the urban rich, and other assorted reactionary elements.
The policy combined leniency for those who admitted the error of their ways and undertook to conscientiously remold their thinking and obey the government.
This Maoist dualism was built into the very name of the new government, which was defined as a “People’s Democratic Dictatorship” (Renmin Minzhu Juanzheng).
Its core principle was the grant of full rights of citizenship and participation to all members of the laboring classes, who were collectively designated “the people”. On the other hand, those labeled “enemies of the people” would be deprived of all political rights and subjected to ruthless dictatorship by the party-state.
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Yan’an Style of Life
During the Yan’an period, the Chinese Communists had gained considerable experience in drawing the line between friends and enemies, and in isolating and controlling the latter.
Throughout World War II, Yan’an had served as a powerful anti-Japanese magnet, attracting Chinese patriots from all over the country, from every possible political persuasion, from illiterate peasants to educated intellectuals, from social democrats to Trotskyites.
To bring political unity and discipline to this rather motley mélange of disparate social classes and strata, Mao in 1942 convened a lengthy forum on art and literature. His intent was to establish a unified set of “proper” Communist Party attitudes, values, orientations, and work methods, and to inculcate these firmly in all who wished to participate in the Yan’an style of life.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Mao’s Yan’an Forum
Although Mao’s immediate focus was the reform of art and literature, the Yan’an Forum was no mere academic seminar on varieties of cultural expression.
First, Mao demanded that all artistic and literary works must faithfully reflect the noble political virtues of workers and peasants and must struggle against the exploiting of classes.
Next, Mao stressed the need to rectify the “incorrect” thoughts and class standpoints of all party members in order to ensure that “correct” ideas and actions would prevail.
At these sessions, trained cadres would read out key central party texts (often Mao’s own speeches), highlighting their main ideas and explaining their significance. Then, each participant would be required to “speak from the heart”, revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings.
In the course of this process of self-examination, each member of the party was expected to acknowledge any lingering doubts or uncertainties they might have about the party’s principles and policies. And they were further required to expose and criticize any politically incorrect behavior on the part of their friends, family members, or co-workers.
Finally, they were required to disclose any errors or imperfections in their own work. This latter process was called “dumping burdens”.
Those who unburdened themselves to the satisfaction of the group’s leaders were considered “rescued” and were welcomed back into the bosom of the party. But those who were stubborn or insincere in their self-examinations, were subjected to varying degrees of discipline, including, in at least some cases, incarceration, physical abuse, and even torture.
For any who might have viewed Mao and the Chinese Communist Party basically as a romantic band of land-reforming liberal democrats, the Yan’an experience would prove to be a real eye-opener.
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Rectification Model of Campaigns in Chinese Society
With the Communists’ nationwide victory in 1949, the rectification model of campaigns first devised in Yan’an was applied to Chinese society as a whole.
The people and their enemies were now sharply delimited, at least notionally, with the former category encompassing not just workers and peasants, who were the core of the party’s support, but also patriotic, law-abiding members of the intelligentsia, the petit bourgeoisie, and even patriotic businessmen, managers, and entrepreneurs.
In extending an olive branch to members of these “impure” classes, Mao’s goal was to enlist their talents in the important task of restoring China’s shattered economy.
On the other hand, for those labeled as “enemies of the people”, the future was decidedly bleaker, as they were earmarked for suppression and dictatorship. Some groups and strata were located uncomfortably on the borderline between the people and their enemies.
China’s ‘Bourgeois Intellectuals’
One such group was China’s so-called “bourgeois intellectuals”.
Their ranks included tens of thousands of well-educated Chinese who had either worked for the old regime or maintained suspicious foreign contacts, or else simply resisted the party’s efforts to impose uniform standards of “correct” thinking on the population at large.
These independent thinkers now found themselves labeled as “rightists” and subjected to an intensive process of group-based criticism and confrontation known as “thought reform” (or sixiang gaizao).
In the process of thought reform, the intellectuals were required to recount their personal histories and to write lengthy, detailed confessions in which they revealed all of their personal contacts and humbly acknowledged their questionable past behavior, including things as trivial as associating casually with foreigners or thinking politically “impure” thoughts. They were often required to go through several successive iterations of their written confessions, until these were judged to be sincere, whereupon they would be liberated and allowed to resume work.
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Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries
Along with the thought reform of the bourgeois intellectuals, a rather more serious campaign of suppressing counter-revolutionaries was launched in 1950.
This campaign was designed to root out those groups and individuals who were actively resisting the new regime, including roving bandit gangs (of which there were well over one hundred in the countryside), as well as saboteurs, Guomindang spies, arsonists, and assorted other diehard enemies of the people. Punishment for those found guilty was harsh.
The severity of punishment was intended both to assuage popular feelings of anger against criminals and saboteurs, and to serve as a warning to others.
According to the party’s own statistics, in the course of the two-year campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries, over two million suspects were detained. Of these, 1.3 million were imprisoned and 710,000 were executed.
The campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries wound to a close in 1952.
Common Questions about Mao Zedong and ‘People’s Democratic Dictatorship’
Mao’s dualistic policy combined leniency for those who admitted the error of their ways and undertook to conscientiously remold their thinking and obey the government, with iron dictatorship over traitors, diehard reactionaries, and others who had either betrayed or oppressed the laboring masses.
To bring political unity and discipline, Mao in 1942 convened a lengthy forum on art and literature. His intent was to establish a unified set of ‘proper’ Communist Party attitudes, values, orientations, and work methods, and to inculcate these firmly in all who wished to participate in the Yan’an style of life.
Bourgeois intellectuals were well-educated Chinese who had either worked for the old regime or maintained suspicious foreign contacts, or else simply resisted the party’s efforts to impose uniform standards of “correct” thinking on the population at large.