By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
Gary Rawnsley, a China-based scholar in diplomatic studies, says that Mao Zedong used the Korean War to advance internal policies, such as domestic land redistribution, and to label his opponents as agents of ‘American imperialism’. Neutrality became impossible, domestically. The government called on “all ‘good’ Chinese to do their duty…to report and help catch ‘counterrevolutionaries’” and defend the revolution.
Patriotism and Revolution
According to official statements, between 1950 and 1952, more than 700,000 Chinese were labeled as counterrevolutionaries and executed. This created a model to militarize the revolution, with clear linkages between patriotism and revolution that would continue to define the People’s Republic.
From late 1950 until a ceasefire in 1953, the bloody stalemate that defined the Korean conflict demonstrated China’s new potency on the world stage. It also gave Mao Zedong and his communist government confidence. In 1953, with help from the Soviet Union, Mao embarked on the first of a series of five-year plans of economic and social development.
Soviet leader Stalin, ever suspicious, had always harbored reservations about Mao. And the two countries were, in actuality, not closely aligned, despite of assumptions in the US. But with Stalin’s death in March 1953, a new era in the Sino-Soviet relationship opened up. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, saw the potential for a more sincere socialist friendship. Khrushchev agreed to send economic aid and a veritable army of industrial advisors to help China industrialize.
Chinese propaganda celebrated the partnership. The Soviets were depicted as industrial guides and socialist comrades. Chinese citizens were encouraged to ‘study the advanced production experience of the Soviet Union’, and to learn from this socialist mentor. More and more Chinese citizens transitioned from farm to factory. Private industry disappeared, as individual firms were converted to state-owned enterprises. Jobs became plentiful. And though wages were quite low, the Communist government extended sizable social benefits.
But there was another side to the government’s growing control.
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As Mao Zedong’s government galvanized the people to devote themselves to transforming and modernizing the country, private concerns increasingly came to be seen as suspect and potentially counter-revolutionary. Being a loyal Chinese citizen meant being 100% committed to revolutionary ideals.
Immediately after the revolution, the government had focused its suspicions and retribution on former members of the elite. But now, even members of the Communist Party could become labeled as potentially counterrevolutionary if they were viewed as obstacles. The Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang—whose communist mother fell under suspicion at this time—says:
In the early 1950s, a Communist was supposed to give herself so completely to the revolution and the people that any demonstration of affection for [even] her children was frowned on as a sign of divided loyalties. Every single hour apart from eating or sleeping belonged to the revolution and was supposed to be spent working. Anything that was regarded as not to do with the revolution… had to be dispatched with as speedily as possible.
Mao Following the Soviet Lead
To root out ‘hidden counterrevolutionaries’, the party cast a wide net. Any individual need only have the slightest connection to the exiled Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists to be suspected of divided loyalty. Mao claimed that such people secretly plotted to return the nationalists to power, or that they were working in the interests of the United States.
In the quest to cultivate a complete and total commitment to the revolution, he sought to purge any semblance of independent thinking. More than 100,000 innocent Chinese were labeled as counter-revolutionaries.
But then, for a time, it appeared as if such repression and dogmatism might give way to liberalization. Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech to a closed session of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 denouncing Stalin’s persecution of loyal communists and creation of a cult of personality. Now, it seemed Mao might follow the Soviet lead once more.
Hundred Flowers Campaign
In May 1956, the Chinese leader announced the Hundred Flowers Campaign, directing the Chinese people to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend”.
The campaign was supposed to reenergize the country by encouraging individual initiative. Intellectuals, artists, and writers were encouraged to speak their minds. And after some hesitation, critiques of party corruption and faulty policies took off. Much of the criticism revolved around the ideological rigidity of cultural life and the Communist Party’s monopoly of power.
The Repercussions of the Hundred Flowers Campaign
Although the party and government offered assurances that such criticism would not be held against those who voiced it, the critics discovered their trust was misplaced. In July 1957, the government declared that its campaign had ‘enticed the snakes out of their lairs’.
More than half a million Chinese were detained under a new anti-rightist campaign. These so-called rightists and ‘counterrevolutionaries’ were sent to prison, labor camps, or exiled to frontier regions. Many of them were actually independent-minded intellectuals who simply didn’t belong to the Communist Party. Others were faithful party members. All of them suffered greatly.
Common Questions about Mao Zedong and the ‘Counterrevolutionaries’
More than 700,000 Chinese were labeled as counterrevolutionaries, and executed, between 1950 and 1952, according to official statements.
Chinese citizens were encouraged to ‘study the advanced production experience of the Soviet Union’, and to learn from this socialist mentor. More and more Chinese citizens transitioned from farm to factory. Private industry disappeared as individual firms were converted to state-owned enterprises. Jobs became plentiful. And though wages were quite low, the communist government extended sizable social benefits.
During the Hundred Flowers Campaign, intellectuals, artists, and writers were encouraged to speak their minds. Although the party and government offered assurances that criticism would not be held against those who voiced it, the critics discovered their trust was misplaced. More than half a million Chinese were detained under a new anti-rightist campaign. These so-called rightists and ‘counterrevolutionaries’ were sent to prison, labor camps, or exiled to frontier regions.