A contemporary history of China (Part I): the Mao years


During this and the following two articles, I will be overviewing a recent history of China. I begin with the Mao years, then move on to the era of Deng Xiaoping (known as ‘opening and reform’), and finish with the period of China’s global ascent.

Knowledge of China’s past is crucial for understanding the country’s present. To illustrate this interrelationship, let’s remind ourselves of the case of British citizen Akmal Shaikh. In 2007, Akmal was arrested by the Chinese authorities for drug smuggling (specifically, heroin), and was sentenced to death despite the fact he was mentally ill. The representation of the case in China by the Party-controlled media recalled the nineteenth century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China’s Qing Dynasty, which involved the British trading of opium, from India, within China. The story tragically played out: this time, China was not to be humiliated; so, in spite of the British government’s plea for clemency, the Chinese state executed Akmal Shaikh in 2009.

The Second Opium War, Wikimedia Commons

The birth of Communist China

The so-called People’s Republic of China was declared in 1949 and marks the contemporary history of China as a one-party totalitarian nation-state, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

During the 1950s, the conditions of existence in the countryside (where the majority of the population resided) and in the cities was organisationally transformed by the CCP, in an effort to economically develop and exert political control within all arenas of everyday life (from work to leisure to home). Agricultural land in the countryside was bloodily ‘redistributed’ from landlords to peasants through cooperatives and collectives, and cities were ordered into work units and neighbourhood units. On the question of ownership, the State owned everything. Layers of Party bureaucracy proliferated and corruption thrived.

“Enemies Without Guns” was an early Party propaganda campaign that illustrates the pervasive affect the bureaucratic State was able to exert on its population: breeding distrust amongst neighbours, and breaking down potential camaraderie among the working class and peasant masses. The Party encouraged the population to anonymously submit the names of those who they suspected were linked to, for example, money, foreign devils and/or the rival Nationalist Party, into designated post boxes.

Alongside early rural land reforms and urban industrial projects, which sought to launch China (then home to one in four of the world’s population) into a global superpower, was the omnipresence of the State. Effort towards economic modernisation would go hand-in-hand with political repression – the defining feature of China’s political economy.


The relationship of the United States to Taiwan is critical and is based on America’s historical support for the Nationalist Party, during the early twentieth century years, to take political control of China. The 1910s to the 1940s were shaped by a struggle between the Nationalist Party, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong. The Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan when Mao took power in 1949. Taiwan has since benefited from US military aid, which is an ongoing source of annoyance for the CCP. But moreover, any desire by the Chinese state to act on its claim that Taiwan is part of China has long threatened to draw the United States into war.

Tibet is another major geopolitical tension and conflict. The CCP launched a military offensive on the region of Tibet in 1950, claiming the area was a part of China mainland. Tibetan uprising to CCP rule in 1959 was brutally crushed and caused international condemnation. It’s worth noting that the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, calls for the political demand of autonomy not a separate nation-state. The CCP remains un-negotiable.

While I was over in Shanghai in 2008, a local contact of mine relayed a story to me. He’d gone to a Björk gig that year, and at the end Björk had shouted, “Tibet! Tibet!”. His point to me, “this is not how we do politics in China, she should not have said that.” It surprised me that a liberal-minded Shanghaiese had such an opinion. But a combination of two things were at play, a proud sense of nationalism (a tremendously pervasive force in China) and a perception that politics beyond the State is foolish and dangerous.

The Hundred Flowers Campaign and Anti-Rightist Movement

While most intellectual life was controlled by the CCP, a momentary opening was created by Mao Zedong’s instruction in 1956 for the country’s citizens and intellectuals to constructively criticise the Party, known as “A Hundred Flowers to Bloom in the Arts and a Hundred Schools of Thought to Contend in Science”. What it released was a huge wave of criticism against Party bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption. Walls of universities were plastered with such criticism.

In 1957 Mao declared those he had encouraged previously to criticize the Party as Enemies and Rightists, and he appointed Deng Xiaoping to head the subsequent “Anti-Rightist Movement”. Not simply a curiously ironic affair, this effectively silenced China’s key intellectuals for decades.

Visiting China in the years 2007-2013, a frequent general observation was drawn by various of my contacts (working in the fields of academia, teaching, and business): Chinese students and graduates struggle with a sense of critique, i.e., of questioning things. Without doubt, the silencing of the country’s intellectuals decades previously has left a legacy on education, in which only a few brave teachers and students precariously and innovatively dare to question.

The Great Leap Forward

The launch of the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958 signified Mao’s ambition to equal the West in industrial output within fifteen years. What it actually was was a huge propaganda campaign with ludicrous and counterproductive initiatives and targets that – in combination with natural disaster – literally starved to death millions.

People were told to convert scrap iron and steel into pots, and so the countryside was marked by rows of giant furnaces that made piles of pots which were useless and cracked easily. And yet it went on. To meet targets, Party bureaucrats inflated the figures for the actual production of grain thus too much grain left the countryside, generating a food crisis while grain lay stored in excess in the cities. One propaganda slogan, “The corn will grow higher the more you desire”, accentuates the farce.

Wikimedia Commons

There was little to no questioning of the Great Leap Forward as a consequence of the Hundred Flowers Campaign and Anti-Rightist Movement.

Author of “Mao’s Great Famine: The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe”, historian Frank Dikötter argues that the Great Leap Forward, with a death toll of 45 million, “ranks alongside the gulags and the Holocaust as one of the three greatest events of the 20th century…. It was like Pol Pot’s genocide multiplied 20 times over” (cited in Akbar, 2013).

The Cult of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and the close of the Mao years

By 1964 the infamous little Red Book, a book of Mao quotes, was produced and widely distributed. Its reach cannot be underestimated, both within China and globally. And what it came to symbolise was the cult of Mao, that is, his status as a living god and the irrational fervour that went along with that. In this climate, Mao decided that the Party itself had become an impediment to genuine revolution, and in May 1966 he launched a campaign that called on the youth to attack the Party and steer it onto the path of true revolutionary politics; the “Cultural Revolution” was born.

The fever-ridden young Red Guards were instructed to destroy the “Four Olds”: “Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits”. In other words, the very cultural and historical fabric of Chinese society was devastated – museums, libraries, temples, street signs, and so on. By 1967 the Cultural Revolution descended into factional warfare, with a splintler from the Red Guards forming, known as the Rebels (supported by Mao). By the summer China was in civil war.

Echoing the destiny of the participants of the Hundred Flowers Campaign who became labelled Enemies and Rightists, the youth that Mao had encouraged to take the banner as authentic revolutionaries were ordered to disarm and, by the end of 1968, were sent to the countryside to be re-educated by authentic revolutionaries. They became known as the “Sent-down Youth”.

It is estimated that thirty six million people were harassed during the Cultural Revolution and up to one million killed (Branigan, 2013):

They beat her, bound her and led her from home. She knelt before the crowds as they denounced her. Then they loaded her on to a truck, drove her to the outskirts of town and shot her. Fang Zhongmou’s execution for political crimes during the Cultural Revolution was commonplace in its brutality but more shocking to outsiders in one regard: her accusers were her husband and their 16-year-old child. More than four decades on, Fang’s son is seeking to atone by telling her story and calling for the preservation of her grave in their home town of Guzhen, central Anhui province, as a cultural relic. […] “My mother, father and I were all devoured by the Cultural Revolution,” said Zhang, 60, who is now a lawyer. “[It] was a catastrophe suffered by the Chinese nation. We must remember this painful historical lesson and never let it happen again.”

In addition to the political and everyday human horror is the cultural vacuum left by the Cultural Revolution. What does culture actually mean in China today? It is hardly surprising that one of the country’s main contemporary crises is that of culture.

The question of Mao’s successor arose in the early 1970s, with the deterioration of his health. There was popular distrust of the vying for power by the Gang of Four (who led the Rebels faction during the Cultural Revolution, and included Mao’s wife). After Mao’s death in 1976, the Gang of Four were arrested. Mao’s successor was to be a pragmatist, but nonetheless someone who was there right from the start, Deng Xiaoping.

Article source:

Zeitgeist Films (2007) “China: A Century of Revolution”.


Akbar, A (2013) “Mao’s Great Leap Forward ‘killed 45 million in four years’”. The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/maos-great-leap-forward-killed-45-million-in-four-years-2081630.html

Branigan, T (2013) “China’s Cultural Revolution: son’s guilt over the mother he sent to her death”. The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/27/china-cultural-revolution-sons-guilt-zhang-hongping

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