1.02  Challenges Faced in Constructing a Society of New Democracy (1949 – 1952)

6 March 2018

On the eve of October 1, 1949, the CCP faced several daunting challenges.

Military Rule and Decentralization


Despite having achieved basic military victory by 1949, the absence of a CCP presence in many areas due to the vastness of the liberated territories meant that the strength of anti-Communist groups remained strong after 1949. These groups included not only remnant Kuomintang (KMT) military units but also the forces of secret societies, ethnic minorities, and other locally organized self-defense groups. Armed resistance thus continued in areas still in control by these groups after 1949. Even in mid-1950 Mao spoke of more than 400,000 "bandits" scattered in remote regions of the new liberated areas that had not yet been wiped out, and PLA mopping-up actions continued against such forces, especially in the Northwest, as late as 1954. In these areas, since the task of eliminating "bandit" opposition remained, Military Control Commissions were initially established as the supreme local authority. These, however, were explicitly temporary.


Besides the continued armed resistance against the Communist rule, there was also the issue of great variations in local conditions from area to area. As a result, no uniform policy could apply to the whole nation. Instead, the Party adopted the approach of decentralized administration but this too was seen as transitional from the outset.


The situation in 1949 thus dictated that in the first instance Communist rule would be military and decentralized. For this function, China was divided into six large regions (excluding Inner Mongolia and Tibet, which were administered separately). Reflecting the conditions of the period, four of these regions - the Central- South, East China, the Northwest, and the Southwest - were run by military-administrative committees, while North China and the Northeast were given people's governments to indicate the successful completion of the military tasks. Most areas were reported clear by mid-1951. The functions of the military units were then largely reduced to security and garrison matters as local governments now issued decrees alone. On the whole, the shift from military to civilian rule was remarkably smooth. The fact that close relations had been built up between political and military figures during the prolonged revolutionary struggle undoubtedly goes far to explain the smoothness of the shift to civilian rule. Many PLA commanders subsequently adopted civilian roles but the great bulk found ample career opportunities in an increasingly professionalized military.


The clear distinction between civilian and military authority reflected Mao’s position articulated in 1938 that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. This principle was reflected in appointments to the large regions; the key position of Party first secretary was held by political figures in every region.


The powers of the regional administrations remained considerable over the 1949-52 period even though, legally, they were still placed directly under the Government Administrative Council or cabinet in Beijing and had no autonomous rights of their own. The arrangement could be attributed to the fact that the fledgling governmental structure had only rudimentary planning and statistical capabilities. Much was thus necessarily left to the regions.


In addition, given the vast differences in conditions and problems from area to area, central leaders remained uncertain as to exactly how much regional authority was required and allowed considerable local experimentation. The overall pattern was for the center to lay down policies in fairly general form and leave to the regions the issues of pace and means of implementation. For example, in mid-1950 the Peking authorities passed an agrarian reform law but apparently did not establish any central monitoring body; the process of implementation was placed in the hands of land reform committees set up in each regional administration.

The powers of the regions were also reflected in the fact that initially some of the CCP's most powerful figures headed military-administrative committees and people's governments. Some two-thirds of the Central Committee served outside Beijing in these years. One key sign of change was the gradual transfer of such leaders to the center as the period wore on. By 1952, the most powerful regional figures had assumed important duties in Beijing, even if they generally still continued to exercise their local powers on a concurrent basis. Moreover, as the capacities of the central bureaucracies increased and conditions in the regions became more uniform, specific powers were transferred to Beijing. In March 1950, for example, the Government Administrative Council (cabinet) enacted a decision unifying national financial and economic work.


The risk of decentralized administration was that it gave scope for the "localist" deviation of ignoring the spirit of central directives in order to further some parochial interest. There is, however, little evidence to suggest regional resistance to central authority in these years. Variations did occur but they were accepted by the central leaders as not only necessary but desirable under the circumstances. Basically, this meant that programs were initiated first in North and Northeast China, where conditions were more stable and organizational resources more plentiful, and extended south only as the situation allowed. The Northwest and Southwest in particular lagged in the implementation of programs but this was accepted by Beijing as logical given the strong resistance of "bandit" forces in these regions.


These regional administrations, with some changes in nomenclature, remained in existence until 1954, but their powers were gradually transferred to the center as conditions allowed. [1]

Shortages of Personnel and Skill Sets


The CCP was also caught unprepared by the speed of the final victory. As a result, there was a critical shortage of personnel and skill sets to manage the expansive territory, especially the cities, and the modern urban economic sector developed while under the rule of the Kuomintang (KMT 国民党, also known as the Nationalists).


To solve the problem of personnel shortage in the short term after taking over the cities, the Party called for existing personnel to remain at their posts while recruiting new cadres from the ranks of students and literate urban youth. Communist cadres were then deployed to the various administrative organs and key economic enterprises to assume political control and gain an understanding of operations without active participation in their actual administration and management. In the longer term, from 1951 on, the plan was to weed out new cadres who were judged unreliable and accelerate political and professional training for those remained. Eventually the retained personnel would be placed by these newly recruited trained cadres. To prevent spreading their limited resources thin and to enhance CCP’s capacity to shape future events, Liu Shaoqi centralized political organization and reallocated cadres only to the more critical modern economic sector, the educational sphere, and government administration, while leaving the traditional sector to its own devices.


Inducing Economic Recovery and Instituting Economic Controls


For the urban areas, the key objectives of the CCP were to restore production, reduce unemployment and rein in inflation.


When CCP took over the liberated cities, industrial strife was rife because of past KMT mismanagement. CCP cadres initially imported methods of rural class struggle to the cities into the liberated cities and supported the workers against management through Communist-controlled trade unions. To prevent the "leftist" deviation of the cadres from impeding economic recovery, Liu instituted policies calling for labor discipline and wage restraints while seeking "reasonable" settlements of disputes. It was not that the interests of workers were ignored. Rather, the emphasis was to appeal to them to make short-term sacrifices in the interest of long-term gains. These policies succeeded in restoring production to the prewar peaks in many spheres by 1952 which in turn alleviated serious urban unemployment. At the same time, a host of measures were implemented to help bring under control the severe inflation that had discredited the KMT. These include opening supply routes from the hinterland, removing money from circulation by taxes, bonds, and forced savings; curbing government expenditures; controlling key commodities through state trading companies; meting out severe punishment for speculation. By 1951, the CCP government managed to reduce astronomical inflation rate to the manageable rate of about 15%. On the whole, the process of economic recovery not only secured broad public support for the CCP, but further added to the Party's capabilities for determining subsequent developments.[2]


Meanwhile, CCP also sought to combine economic recovery with a host of measures to control the private sector. In addition to using the unions and labour laws to enforce its demands with the capitalist industrialists, the Party also leveraged on the leading economic roles played by the large nationalized enterprises, state trading companies, and banks to exercise influence and control over capitalist enterprises through loans, contracts to purchase products and supply raw materials, designated selling agents, and officially determined prices.


Establishing Control in the Rural Areas through Land Reform (1949 – 1952)


One of the crucial tasks for the new liberated areas was land reform. While continued armed resistance obviously prolonged the process of establishing control, more significant was the political and social influence of local elites whose interest was in maintaining the status quo. To counter this influence, thorough land reform would be required, and it would have to start from scratch.


In that regard, even though the Party had been engaging in rural revolution for over two decades, during which time the Party leaders had attempted a variety of approaches and refined a set of methods for peasant mobilization, it was unclear just how applicable past experience was to the new situation which was different in two ways. Firstly, the conditions in the cities were complex and past experience of rural land reforms might not be relevant. Secondly, even in rural areas where the Party had experience, the vastness of territories and the differences in local conditions, not to mention also the shortage of cadres, made the tasks even more difficult in some ways than that undertaken in the cities.


In 1949, Communist cadres, in small groups or somewhat larger work teams, were dispatched to the villages of the new liberated areas as outsiders carrying ideas based on quite different agricultural and ownership patterns, and often not even speaking the native dialect.  Only about 10% were old cadres with experience in the northern agrarian struggle. The rest was made up of students and other urban intellectuals, young rural intellectuals with family ties to landlords and rich peasants, urban unemployed and, where available, local Communist underground workers.


One of their earliest tasks was to collect taxes to support the new regime. This undertaking created friction between cadres and peasants leading to the death of three thousand cadres in the first year while trying to collect the grain tax. Support for the new order came only after it became apparent that the new policies were shifting the burden away from the poor to the rich


Other measures undertaken by the cadres in this initial period included the organization of peasant associations, carrying out a program of rent and interest reduction, and conducting struggles against "despots" or "local bullies", the most oppressive elements of the old elite.


The Chinese rural society at that time could be divided into the following categories: landlords, who possessed large holdings and performed no manual labour; rich peasants, who owned land but worked it themselves while hiring other workers or renting land to others; middle peasants, who owned land and worked it themselves without exploiting others; poor peasants, who had very little land or equipment and had to rent land from others; and labourers, who occupied no land and had to live on meagre wages or loans.[3]


All the measures implemented by the cadres were preparatory for the main work of agrarian reform - the confiscation and redistribution of landlords’ land. In June 1950 the central authorities promulgated the Agrarian Reform Law to guide this work. The objectives of land reform were to improve the lot of the poor and to make them feel they had a stake in the country, thus cultivating their loyalty to the new government. The program involved turning China’s traditional social system and land ownership on its head. The Chinese word to describe this transformation was fanshen (翻身), which means to free oneself or ‘turn over the body’.


Several difficulties were encountered in preparing the villages for the subsequent land reform. First, peasants were uncertain as to how far the CCP program would go. The rich peasants and even middle peasants, for example, were worried about how the redistribution would affect their land holding. Second, and more ominous from the CCP's perspective, the landlords were still exerting power and influence over the peasants who were simply afraid to oppose the forces that had been dominant on the local scene for so long. They had little confidence that Communist rule was irreversible. Moreover, social tensions in the villages were mitigated by traditional obligations of landlords toward peasants in hard times, as well as particularistic ties of family, local residence, and clan. All these links could be and were used by landlords to subvert the peasant associations, conceal land and other wealth, and maintain the existing power structure through secret societies and other devices.

As reports indicating the entrenched power of the existing rural social order came to the attention of responsible Party leaders in the late summer of 1950, policy began to be reconsidered. It was then decided that a new land reform program of stepped-up implementation, which emphasized class struggle and mass mobilization even at the risk of some social disorder, would be adopted. Under the new line, the major steps were a class identification of all village inhabitants, followed by the confiscation and redistribution of landlord land and other productive property.


A leading role of the work teams in the process was the purification of the peasant associations and the selection of activists from their midst for local leadership positions. This new leadership was predominantly drawn from the poor peasants, although official policy reserved one-third of the leading peasant association posts for middle peasants. In many areas, by virtue of their skills, middle peasants were able to dominate. In addition, the work teams sought to mobilize the entire village against the landlords through a "Speak Bitterness" campaign (斗地主) during which the landlords were subjected to interrogation, accusation and haranguing from those they had previously exploited or mistreated. The process, devised by Mao, was promoted as a means for healing the wounds of the past and purging the soul – but its true purpose was to agitate class consciousness, empower the peasantry and encourage revolutionary thinking (Mao once described the sessions as part of the “education of peasants into socialism”).[4] The campaign quickly became an opportunity for retribution, as landlords were violently denounced by peasants. The trials also resulted in the execution of members of this class on a significant scale, perhaps a million to 2 million individuals. Reportedly, reports based on refugee interviews suggested that there was a policy to choose at least one landlord, and usually several, in virtually every village for public execution.[5]


With the change in approach, the CCP completed land reform in areas occupied by 90% of the rural population by 1952. In achieving this rural revolution, constant propaganda on the evils of the old system and benefits of the new was undoubtedly a significant factor in winning the peasants to the CCP program, but the force used against the landlords was crucial in convincing the entire rural population where power lay. Yet as important as coercion were the tangible rewards Party policies provided for the poorer elements in the villages. A more equitable tax burden, reduced rents, and finally land - in addition to leading posts for the most active - did much to convince the peasant masses of the rightness of the Party's cause.


The main achievement of the movement was political to strip the old elite of its economic assets. As a result, 43% of China's cultivated land was redistributed to about 60% of the rural population. Poor peasants substantially increased their holdings, but middle peasants actually benefited most because of their stronger initial position. At the same time, the old village institutions of clan, temple, and secret society had been displaced by the new, which assumed their educational, mediatory and economic functions. In addition, the land reform also helped CCP to achieve the objective of establishing control in the rural areas. Through the class struggle and mass mobilization, the horizons of the new elite of village cadres who emerged from the ranks of poor and middle peasants had been broadened by the class-oriented perspective of the CCP. Moreover, by implicating the local population in the ‘judicial’ process and the killings, control through fear was also quickly established.


In short, by demonstrating its credibility during land reform as both a force to be feared and a provider of a better life, the CCP greatly enhanced its future persuasive capabilities among the peasants.[6]


Establishing Control in the Urban Areas through Urban Campaigns (1950 – 1952)


While land reform radically altered life in China's countryside, a series of urban mass movements left an indelible impact on the cities. The most important of these were the 1950 Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries (中共反革命运动); the 1951 Three Antis Campaign (三反运动)[7] against communist cadres for corruption, waste and bureaucratism; the 1951 Five Antis Campaign (五反运动)[8] against the hitherto respected national bourgeoisie for bribery, tax evasion, fraud, theft of government property, and stealing state economic secrets; and the thought reform campaign (知识分子思想改造运动)[9] aimed at the intellectuals.[10]


The Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries was the first political campaign launched by the PRC designed to eradicate opposition elements, especially former Kuomintang (KMT) functionaries accused of trying undermine the new Communist government.[11] According to Chinese state media, after the victory of the CCP in the Chinese Civil War, these remnants of the Kuomintang continued to gather intelligence, conduct sabotage, destroy transportation links, loot supplies, and entice armed rebellion through bandits and secret agents. Rebellions were commonplace by bandits in many parts of China. Such activities became more rampant particularly after China’s involvement in the Korean War in June 1950 when the KMT remnants thought that the Jiang would seize the opportunity to return to the mainland with the help of the US. In response, the Chinese Communist central committee issued the Directive on Suppression of Activities by Counterrevolutionaries (关于严厉镇压反革命分子活动的指示) in July 1950. The campaign proper was launched in December. In February 1951, the central people government followed up with Guidelines on How to Punish the Counterrevolutionaries (中华人民共和国惩治反革命条例). Significant numbers of "counterrevolutionaries" were arrested and executed and even more sentenced to "labor reform". The general public seemingly found the counterrevolutionaries campaign frightening but understandable, especially at a time of external threat. The campaign reached its peak in May 1951 and ended by October that year.[12]


The Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries was quickly followed by the Three Antis Campaign in December 1951 when the central people government issued a directive to uproot corruption, curtail wastage and eradicate bureaucratic behaviours as part of the strategy to raise output and productivity. The key targets were urban cadres, especially those in financial and economic departments, who had become involved in corruption as a result of their dealings with the bourgeoisie. While these individuals included some relatively high-ranking Communists (although no one of Central Committee or ministerial rank), the vast majority were either retained personnel or new cadres whose commitment to the Communist cause had always been suspect. The campaign ended in October 1952.


As for the Five Antis Campaign, the directive for action was issued in January 1952. The campaign was directed explicitly at law-breaking capitalists, particularly large capitalists, who allegedly engaged in a whole range of economic crimes and defrauded the state and public. The larger target, though, was the national bourgeoisie as a class. The campaign ended in October 1952 about the same time as the Three Antis Campaign.


Finally, the thought reform was focused on higher-level intellectuals who assertedly aided "American cultural imperialism". The objective of the reform was to weaken the influence of all intellectual currents that strayed from the CCP's version of Marxism-Leninism.


While the Korean War undoubtedly contributed to the change in attitude and probably made the various campaigns between 1950 and 1952 harsher than they would have been otherwise, in another sense, Party leaders used the Korean situation to press ahead on tasks which would have been undertaken anyway. Measures to deal with counterrevolutionaries had been drafted before Korea, and the "vacillating" bourgeoisie and Western-oriented intellectuals had clearly been targeted for ideological transformation.


The interrelated campaigns came as a rude awakening to groups who had up to then received mild and even supportive treatment from the CCP. But what was being attacked in the largest sense was a whole complex of urban non-Communist values which had hitherto been tolerated. Many cadres, taking their lead from official policy encouraging the bourgeoisie, had come to regard capitalists as progressive and capable members of society. Capitalists, for their part, hoped to continue both their business practices and well-to-do style of life. Finally, leading intellectuals valued independent thinking and resisted being pushed into a Marxist straitjacket. The overall effect of the three movements was to bring these elements to heel.


As in the case of land reform in the countryside, official violence was used on a substantial scale, particularly in the campaign against counterrevolutionaries and to a far lesser degree in the Three and Five Antis campaigns. Reportedly, the primarily urban campaign against counterrevolutionaries may have resulted in as many as 500,000 to 800,000 deaths.[13] In addition, intense psychological pressure was brought to bear by various measures, including forced confessions in small groups and mass trials attended by tens of thousands (and broadcast to millions). This fostered a climate of distrust that broke down established personal relationships and resulted in large numbers of suicides. Estimate by researchers, for example, put the number of people who committed suicide at more than half a million during the suppression of counterrevolutionaries and 200,000 plus during the Three and Five Antis movements.[14] In addition, the campaigns discredited the concerned groups in the eyes of others who traditionally had had submissive attitudes toward them. Thus workers in small enterprises who had previously accepted the paternalism of their employers now began to adopt official class struggle attitudes.


Meanwhile, the control of the bourgeoisie over their enterprises was also weakened by both the establishment of new trade union organs and the purging of existing unions which had often been run by friends and relations of the capitalists. Moreover, the campaign itself generated large numbers of new cadres ostensibly loyal to the CCP program. Of critical importance was the recruitment of new elites for lower-level positions in economic enterprises and government particularly as positions were opened up as retained personnel and tainted new cadres were weeded out.


Finally, the Three and Five Antis campaigns also had an important economic impact. Apart from generating substantial funds for investment and development through fines and back taxes, the movements greatly enhanced state control over private enterprises through new loans and government contracts which capitalists found necessary in their financially weakened state. Moreover, these toughened external controls were now accompanied by internal controls. A key measure was that businesses with heavy fines to pay would meet their obligations by selling stock to the state and creating joint public-private enterprises. The process resulted in state cadres being sent to assume leading positions in the concerned enterprises. Together with the strengthened trade unions, the setting up of Party branches in many large and medium enterprises, and especially the vast amounts of information gathered during the investigation of capitalists' "crimes," this now gave the authorities a much greater knowledge of the internal workings of the private economic sphere. As a result, CCP leaders had achieved a position where planned economic development was genuinely feasible.


On the whole, these campaigns indicated to broad sections of society the full extent of the Party's aims for social transformation. As the emphasis shifted from the initial reassurance to tightening control, many groups that had hitherto been left basically alone were now drawn into the vortex of directed struggle. By the end of 1952 the CCP had become, for the majority of China's urban population, a force to be reckoned with.


More importantly, together with the success of land reform, China's cities as well as villages saw the emergence of new elite elements in these years. This change in social strata and the ideological state of minds in both the urban and rural areas made New China now poised for a more radical transformation towards a Marxist-Leninist-oriented socialist society which had always been the prime objective of the CCP.

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NEXT: 1.03  Socialist Transformation From New Democracy to Socialism (1953 – 56)



[1] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). “The Cambridge History of China: Volume 14. The People's Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949-1965.” Cambridge University Press. Pg. 79 - 83.

[2] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). “The Cambridge History of China: Volume 14. The People's Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China 1949-1965.” Cambridge University Press. Pg. 75.

[3] See R. Cairns “Agrarian reform.” Alpha History.

[4] See R. Cairns “Agrarian reform.” Alpha History.

[5] See A. Doak Barnett with Ezra Vogel. () “Cadres, bureaucracy and political power in Communist China.” Pg. 228. Quoted in Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg. 87.

[6] See Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg. 83 - 88.

[7] See Baidu百科. “三反运动.”

[8] See Baidu百科. “五反运动”.

[9] See Baidu百科. “知识分子思想改造运动

[10] See Allan Lawrence. (2004). “China Since 1919: Revolution and Reform : a Sourcebook.” Psychology Press. Pg 121.

[11] See Yang Kuisong. (2008). "Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries". The China Quarterly. Vol. 193. Pg. 102–121.

[12] See 人民网. “土地改革和镇压反革命运动”. June 19, 2001.

[13] See Benedict Stavis. (1978). “The politics of agricultural mechanization in China.” Pg. 29. Quoted in Denis Twitchett & John K. Fairbank. (Eds) (2008). Pg. 88.

[14] See Chow Ching-wen. (196). “Ten years of storm: The true story of the communist regime in China.” Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Pg. 115.