How far did life improve for the following groups between 1949 and the early 1960s in Communist China: Women; Landlords and Businessmen; Peasants.
The years of 1949-1960 in China were indeed ‘Years of Great Change’. Who could have predicted a civil war, a Communist takeover, a complete turnaround in the land ownership system (and the economy in general) and the launch (and failure) of a near-Industrial Revolution? Mao and co heralded a headfirst launch into the twentieth century for China’s governmental system, that’s for sure. But amid all the “reforms”, how much did life actually improve for the Chinese population? This essay aims to examine what reforms were made, and how they affected the peasants, women, landlords and businessmen of China.
Before China’s Communist “liberation”, it had been ruled by Chiang Kaishek and the Guomindang. Their Nationalist regime had favoured the businessmen and landlords of China. Chiang Kaishek ruled as a dictator and had his army of “blueshirts” to enforce order, just like Hitler and Mussolini. By the late 1940s, however, his rule was starting to become unstable, with massive inflation causing poverty for many people in the cities. He realised that his regime was doomed, and retreated to the island of Taiwan, leaving the Communists to rule China. Nearly everyone, even the landlords and businessmen, would have been happy about any kind of takeover at the time, as everyone’s future looked bleak under the collapsing Guomindang government. The Communists came as a breath of fresh air. But were they?
The Communists were not exactly verbose in their Common Programme when they said “Women shall enjoy equal rights with men”. Likewise, Mao wasn’t when he said “Women hold up half the sky”. Yet that was the Communist attitude towards women: equal to men, no more, no less, and it was a refreshing one at the time. The traditional attitude to women was that they were strictly possessions of their husbands.
Consider that women had been oppressed virtually since the start of Chinese society: it was traditional to practice such things as foot-binding and child prostitution. Under the Communists, the 1951 Marriage Law abolished both of these barbarities, as well as arranged marriages, child marriages and bigamy. Two of the most significant events equality-wise were the property and divorce law changes: husbands and wives now jointly owned property and either one could divorce the other (before only men could divorce women).
Nearly all women would have been pleased about this, and the Party now had a whole gender, so to speak, on its side. However, there were downsides. For the older generation, who were fierce traditionalists, this would have been shocking and disruptive, and since they had not much time left to enjoy the newfound freedoms brought by Communism, they might be opposed to these changes. The only women not affected at all by these reforms were those living in the remote parts of China. These places refused to break with tradition, even under pressure from the Communists.
Also, the Marriage Law and social reforms meant that women were now treated exactly the same as men; i.e. they were expected to work just as hard regardless of their state of fitness. A lot of the Maoist policies towards women were fuelled by the wish to turn the currently unworking half of the nation into a productive force; for example, the crï¿½ches organised for children were designed not really for the benefit of the women as such, but to get them out working in the fields again. Not to be unfair to them though, some policies were selfless: the law to give mothers maternity leave with full wages for two months does seem to be fully aimed towards helping women. In general, I believe that life for women definitely improved under the Communists. There was still quite a way to go, but Communist policy in this area was in many ways quite prescient.
Landlords and businessmen probably came off the worst under the Communists. Under the Common Programme, they were defined as being “capitalists” and “reactionaries”. The same document stated that they would be “deprived of their political rights”, so their harsh treatment did not come entirely as a surprise.
Under the Agrarian Reform Law, landlords lost an average of 93% of the land they had own. They were also subject to abuse, heavy fines and sometimes, in cases where they had been particularly cruel to their tenants, execution, at “speak bitterness” meetings. Around three million landlords were killed during these meetings.
Businessmen had it nearly as bad. If you had business with the Guomindang or had ripped off the peasantry, you could be sure of at least re-education, if not complete deprivation of any form of rights (in society; no-one in Communist China really had any “political rights”). Even if you hadn’t committed any “offences”, you would face fines.
Life wasn’t good if you were either a landlord or a businessman in China. It was probably worse if you were a landlord; businessmen at least weren’t executed. At least, not very often; the Communists had something nasty against anyone who had dealings with their old enemy, the Guomindang.
Considering that most of Mao’s Communist policies were targeted towards peasants, they are the most important part of this essay. Under Mao, there were three types of peasants, “rich”, “middle” and “poor” peasants. Rich peasants meant those who could afford to hire other peasants to work for them. Middle peasants were those who could afford some basic equipment, while poor peasants formed the vast majority of China’s agricultural system, and were employed by landlords who paid them a pittance to work the land.
Mao was very ambitious when it came to China’s work system. First he turned the land-ownership system around full circle. Then he launched the country into the industrial era of the twentieth century. He had to start somewhere, however, and that place was the Common Programme, where it was stated that “[the party] must systematically transform…the land ownership system into a system of peasant land ownership…It must steadily transform the country from an agricultural into an industrial one”.
This was some goal, considering that the years of warring between the Communists and the Guomindang had lain waste to farms and peasants, causing the agricultural output to drop radically. And through all this there was massive population growths, so there were more mouths to feed with less crops. Mao and his ragtag band of Communist officials had the peasants’ support, though. Many peasants supported the Communists already; after all, they were the original worker’s party, and they had been very popular in the liberation areas, respecting the locals and trying out some reforms with regard to land and women with great success.
The first step he took towards his agricultural revolution was by profiling all the peasants and teaching them how to sort themselves into the classes mentioned above. Land was then redistributed between the peasants evenly.
This table illustrates how the land reform system changed:
% crop area owned
Poor peasants and others
The Agrarian Reform Law turned the land ownership system on its head. Rich peasants lost land, poor peasants gained the rich peasants’ lost land and middle peasants stayed roughly the same (the increase is due to the heavy imbalance between landlords and poor peasants; there was almost too much land to go round after the landlords had been stripped of their land).
The peasants had troubles, however: they found that they hadn’t enough money or equipment to cultivate the land. Mao suggested that peasants therefore organise themselves into Mutual Aid Teams, groups of peasants who would share each other’s land and equipment. So far, Mao’s plan was going extremely well; he was popular with the peasantry, having given them the land that had been their dream, and allowed them a chance to get back at their landlords (the “speak bitterness” meetings were known for becoming quite bloody).
The Communist government, however, refused to leave its land reform manifesto at this stage. The Five-Year Plan to revolutionise China’s economy was underfoot, and mutual aid teams were not efficient enough to hit the high economic targets that Mao had set for China. So the co-operatives were introduced: first lower and then higher stage. The lower-stage co-operatives were simply an extension of the mutual aid teams idea, only with many families (around forty) pooling their resources.
Only when the higher-stage co-operatives went into action was what Mao probably would have called true Communism in action achieved: two to three hundred families, all having surrendered land, animals and equipment to the co-operative and being paid nothing except for what they earned in the fields for it. The immense pressure and control on Chinese society (wall-posters, censorship and propaganda everywhere) was borne out by the fact that by 1956 ninety-five percent of Chinese peasants had joined higher-stage co-operatives, an idea that must have looked unattractive even then.
As you can see, even for peasants Communism was not without big downsides. Perhaps one of the biggest was the onslaught of conformity and control inherent in the whole Maoist idea. “Propagandists” ensured a constant stream of pro-Communist posters. The media broadcast tutorials on how to defeat American imperialist pigs. Anyone who might be anti-Communist was either forced to leave the country or sent to a camp to be “re-educated”. And what happened when the censorship was relaxed?
Mao decided to let the people say what they wanted about the Communists for a while. From 1956 people said exactly what they pleased, and many of them were rather vocal in their criticisms of the regime. In June 1957 Mao suddenly stopped the period of free discussion, known as the Hundred Flowers period, and clamped down on the more vocal opposition to his regime. Chinese society was back to its closely-controlled state, and if anything, the censorship was even harsher than before.
“Perhaps…because of the steely control, China was more stable in 1956 than at any time this century. Foreign occupation, civil war, widespread death from starvation…inflation –all seemed to be things of the past. Stability, the dream of the Chinese, sustained the faith of people.”
Perhaps the Chinese forgave all of the Communists’ flaws just for a little stability. They abided by their standards and conformed purely to stop any of these other tragedies occuring, and the Communists realised this, and even called meetings to remember how bad things were under the Guomindang.
Overall, peasants would have been initially pleased but quite dubious in the long term about the benefits of Communism. They would have enjoyed the land – for the short period that it was available to them. By the end of the first period of land reform, the Communists would be losing their popularity. Mao liked the peasants to seem selfless, and working towards a common good, and depending on how brainwashed they truly were, this might have been the case to an extent. But I am sure that peasants secretly longed to have back the privately owned land it felt like they’d fought for. Some of them would also be unhappy about the repression and censorship, but this would have been even harder for most to see because of the controlled media’s constant presence.
In 1958 a “Great Leap Forward” was announced: a plan to make China into a competent world power, both industrially and agriculturally. It was similar to the first Five-Year Plan in that it relied heavily on the organisation of society into steadily larger parts. These parts were called “communes”, and were created as groups of villages containing about 5000 families who gave up land, animals and equipment to common usage and ownership by the members of the commune.
This was the ultimate unit of control in Chinese society: it was something that was everywhere you went, you ate there, you worked there, you slept there, and anything you felt was also felt by your whole commune. Or so Mao hoped. Posters, speeches, newspaper articles and all the other standard propaganda mechanisms were much more effective there because there really was no escape.
The communes were a great success, producing things in record time, and the workers were well motivated. The Communist brainwashing was so total that people were working harder and were motivated because of the propaganda and censorship. However, only a year later, the honeymoon period was over, the Great Leap Forward was having serious marital issues, and the only marriage counsellor was too busy telling his workers to work harder. In short, Mao pushed too hard. Equipment fell apart. Workers fell asleep at their tasks. To add to this, lack of field workers, bad weather two years running and government lies caused a horrific famine, killing over twenty million people.
Mao Zedong really should have been forced to resign after this; indeed, if Chinese society had not been so utterly brainwashed I believe he would have. Instead, he was forced to step down slightly, but was still a very prominent figure. And, crucially yet unbelievably, he retained the public’s support after all his crimes against them. The peasants were still with him. But I do not believe life got better for peasants under the Communists during the period I have described. An improved living standard cannot justify the removal of identity from an entire nation and a famine killing millions.
I do not believe that the Communists did a lot of good for the vast majority of China. The only segment of Chinese society whose lives improved markedly were women, and when evaluating the importance of the reforms to end sexism, you have to take into account that most women were also peasants. So, whilst they were freed from being killed at birth and so on, they were also left to die later on in the famine, or through overwork, since women now had to work just as hard as men. The lives of landlords and businessmen could hardly be expected to get better under the Communists. However, perhaps they were unnecessarily cruel; execution hardly seems necessary. But Mao’s regime’s performance regarding peasants is unforgivable. A peasant-focused regime making thing worse for peasants is unforgivable, and life indeniably was worse for peasants by 1961.