The Bipolar "North," 1945-1991
Author: Wallbank;Taylor;Bailkey;Jewsbury;Lewis;Hackett
Date: 1992

Chinese Revolutions

Between 1927 and 1937 Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang)
government initiated useful reforms in the cities which, had it not been for
Japanese aggression in China, might have expanded to include the rest of the
country. Unfortunately for Chiang, the Nationalists after 1937 lost many of
their strongest supporters and most of their prosperous area to Japanese
control. By the end of World War II, after eight years of combat, the Chinese
Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek was a defeated and worn-out regime.
In contrast, the communists came out of the war with great popularity, control
of an area with 90 million people, and a disciplined and loyal army of

Civil War In China

Following the victory over Japan, U.S. troops, cooperating with Chinese
Nationalist forces, recaptured land taken by the Japanese. The Americans
helped move Chinese troops to strategic areas such as Manchuria. At the same
time, the Soviet Union reclaimed areas formerly controlled by the tsars.
During this time Chiang tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement with
Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). In October 1945 heavy fighting broke out between
the Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces.

For the next three years the United States tried to end the conflict. In
December 1945 President Truman defined American policy toward China: The
United States regarded the Nationalist regime as the legal government of China
but since it was a one-party system, it was necessary that full opportunity be
given to other groups to participate in a representative government. To that
end, Truman urged an end to the fighting.

General George C. Marshall, U.S. army chief of staff, went to China to
implement Truman's policy and to act as friendly mediator. Marshall, newly
appointed as American secretary of state, returned home in January 1947, his
mission a failure. In his final report, he blasted extremists on both sides
for failing to make peace.

The Communist Victory

Chiang's army - poorly equipped, miserably paid, and suffering low morale
- began to disintegrate. The communists captured city after city, frequently
facing only token resistance. Economic problems added to Chiang's military
dilemma. The Nationalists had been unable to rebuild the economy after 1945,
and inflation soared: the U.S. dollar came to be worth 93,000 Chinese dollars
on the black market. Serious riots broke out, and thousands of workers went on
strike in Shanghai.

By the end of 1947 the Nationalist forces went into retreat. In 1948 the
Nationalist presence in Manchuria collapsed. The complete defeat of Chiang's
armies occurred in 1949 when the "People's Liberation Army" captured the major
cities in China. Mao proclaimed the establishment of his government on October
1, 1949, and by the middle of 1950 Mao ruled all of mainland China. Chiang's
Nationalists sought refuge on Formosa.

Mao and his forces imposed a tightly centralized administration extending
to Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and Chinese Turkestan. In 1950 his armies moved
into Tibet. The Peking government continued to seek to regain the traditional
holdings of the "Central Kingdom," especially those lands gained by Russia
during the nineteenth century. Such a policy caused serious problems not only
for the Soviet Union but also for Vietnam, Burma, and India.

Mao's policy attracted a large following, calling as it did for a mild
program of reform, including the confiscation of large farms, state control of
large businesses, protection of small private concerns, rapid
industrialization under state control, and increased benefits to labor such as
social insurance. The government that eventually appeared, however, was far
more fierce and totalitarian.

Right-wing Americans, influenced by the demagoguery of Senator Joseph
McCarthy, charged that liberals and "fellow travelers" (those who espoused
social aims similar to the communists') lost China. ^1 U.S. American military
aid to China during World War II totaled $845 million; from 1945 to 1949 it
came to slightly more than $2 billion. It is extremely doubtful whether
additional American military aid poured into China would have changed the
final outcome of the civil war. The bulk of the Nationalist forces had lost
the will to fight. Large quantities of American arms sent to Chiang's army
were turned over to the communists by apathetic Nationalist leaders.

[Footnote 1: Richard Rovere, Senator McCarthy (London: Methuen, 1959), p. 24.]

Mao's Government

After 1949, Mao used his version of Marxism to change the whole order of
society from its traditional patterns. Tolerating no opposition, he
concentrated all power in the communist party, which was led by the People's
Central Committee. This group held all major civil and military positions. The
day-to-day work of the central committee fell to a smaller politburo, headed
by Mao, the chairman of the republic.

The new government brought both inflation and corruption under control,
and then began to apply the Soviet model of the 1930s to China. As more than
70 percent of farmland was owned by 10 percent of the rich landlords, the
government proceeded to confiscate large holdings and redistribute them,
temporarily, to landless peasants. Late in 1953 the party stripped the large
landowners and even prosperous peasants of their holdings, executing an
estimated 2 to 4 percent (from 2 to 5 million) of them in the process. The
party then established huge farm collectives. Within three years, nearly all
peasants had become members of rural collectives in which, although individual
land ownership was retained in theory, all labor, farm equipment, and land
were pooled.

In 1953 a Soviet-style Five-Year Plan for economic development in
industry was begun. The Chinese made impressive advances in heavy industry,
and the success of the first plan led to the second Five-Year Plan, the
so-called Great Leap Forward. The Chinese built on their own experience,
rejecting parts of the Soviet model. They launched the Great Leap Forward with
a huge propaganda campaign and galvanized millions of urban and rural workers
into a frezied effort to increase tremendously the production of steel,
electricity, and coal. Thousands of small, backyard furnaces sprang up to
produce steel. The Chinese boldly predicted that they would surpass British
industrial capacity in fifteen years.

In the countryside Mao installed the People's Communes. The state created
some 26,000 of these units, each averaging 5000 households, or about 25,000
people. The heads of the communes collected taxes and ran schools, child-care
centers, dormitories, communal kitchens, and even cemeteries in this massive
attempt at social experimentation. Mao tried to convert peasants into a rural
proletariat paid in wages. All land, dwellings, and livestock reverted to the
effective ownership of the communes until the late 1970s. During the two
decades in which the People's Communes functioned, they helped produce
improvements in medical care and literacy.

The Great Leap Forward ultimately proved to be disastrous for China.
Central planners erred in allocating resources and capital, and farm
production fell. The steel and iron produced in the backyard furnaces turned
out to be unusable. At the same time the Great Leap was failing, the Soviet
Union withdrew its technological and financial support. From 1959 to 1961
Chinese industry lacked essential raw materials and millions of people went
without adequate food. Between 1960 and 1962 the combination of bad weather
and chaos bequeathed by the failure of the Great Leap Forward resulted in
malnutrition and the premature death of between 16 and 30 million people.

Faced with this crisis, the government radically changed its economic
policy. In the communes social experimentation and centralized control were
relaxed. Working conditions were improved and private plots in which peasants
were allowed to keep or sell the crops and animals they raised were used as
incentives to increase agricultural production. Between 1961 and 1964 industry
also recovered, and the discovery of petroleum provided new energy sources.
China made advances in light industry, especially in consumer goods and cotton
production. Signs of technological progress included the detonation of a
nuclear device in 1964 and a hydrogen bomb in 1967.

[See Mao's China About 1947]

The Cultural Revolution And After

By the early 1960s an ideological schism widened between Mao and some of
his longtime comrades. The moderates advocated gradual social change and
economic development; the radicals sought to carry on immediately with the
drastic restructuring of Chinese society. Mao believed, or so it seemed, that
many in the party had lost their revolutionary zeal. He advocated a continuous
revolution in which the masses should be kept in motion lest the revolution

In the mid-1960s Mao mobilized the Red Guards, a radical student militia.
They attacked the moderates and forced Maoist orthodoxy on party members and
populace alike. In all areas, from surgery to nuclear physics and beyond,
Mao's words were law. Application of the wisdom of Chairman Mao, as contained
in the little red book, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, was to lead to
miraculous achievements. Placing political purity above economic growth, the
Red Guards hampered production and research. Their rallies and demonstrations
disrupted the entire educational system.

The effects of this "Cultural Revolution" were dire. By 1967 industrial
production had plummeted and basic education and research had ceased; some
areas of the country were approaching anarchy. Into this void stepped the
People's Liberation Army (PLA), which was the most important element in
Chinese politics until 1985. The PLA brought the Red Guards under control,
restored order, and put an end to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao's long-time associate, Premier Chou Enlai (1898-1976) restored the
country's industrial productivity. The return to political stability was more
difficult, but Chou managed to hold the country together while rival factions
intrigued for power. Chou removed China from the diplomatic isolation in which
it had resided since 1958. He responded to a diplomatic initiative made by the
Nixon administration in 1971 and moved closer to the United States, motivated
perhaps by the armed border clashes with the USSR that occurred along the Amur
River. In addition, China sought to develop its industrial capacity through
the use of foreign technology and to bring in foreign currency through an
expanded banking system based in the British crown colony of Hong Kong and the
development of a tourist industry.

China Since 1976

After Chou's - and Mao's - death in 1976, the jockeying for control
continued with varying intensity. Leading the more militant faction, the
so-called Gang of Four, was Mao's widow, Jiang Xing (Chiang Ching), who was
overthrown, disgraced, and brought to a televised show trial in 1980. Her
demise paved the way for the advent of a more moderate, pragmatic group of
officials led by Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-Ping).

Deng was a political survivor, whose roots in the party went back to the
1920s. He survived political exile and the cultural revolution to introduce
his variant of reform Marxism in which the party kept control of the
"commanding heights" of the economy. Aided by his liberal chief lieutenants,
Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Deng introduced a pragmatic series of economic

The first major move to introduce a more market-oriented economy came in
the countryside in 1978. The party allowed greater personal profit for the
peasants, and this resulted in a vast increase in productivity. China had a
grain surplus in six of the next seven years. With more food in the cities,
and a contented peasantry, Deng in 1985 encouraged the introduction of the
free market economy in the cities, with the goal of gaining similar economic
gains there. To foster the rapid transformation of the underdeveloped country,
Deng permitted the entry of Western experts and technology. Western,
especially American, influence grew in the cities in China during the 1980s,
along with foreign trade and the influx of foreigners.

The government continued to keep the cost of medicine low and
supplemented wages with accident insurance, medical coverge, day-care centers,
and maternity benefits. The standard of living in China improved, but the
removal of price controls on food and other staple items led to inflation.
Even with economic progress, the standard of living in China remained far
below the standards in industrialized countries.

The educational system changed drastically under the communists. In the
1930s only 20 percent of the people had been literate. By the end of the
1980s, the figure had risen to 75 percent. Across China, a crash program of
schooling was initiated, and "spare-time" schools with work/study programs for
those unable to attend school full-time were established. Thousands of Chinese
students emigrated abroad to study, including some 40,000 who went to the
United States.

Deng Xiaoping had worked for the economic liberalization of his country
but had not sponsored similar reform on the political front. The students in
1987 were the first to express discontent with inflation and corruption in
China. In the spring of 1989, students across China demonstrated in honor of
the liberal politician Hu Yaobang, who had died in March. The demonstrators
went on to criticize the government of Deng Xiaopeng. The protest reached a
climax in May and June when thousands of demonstrators calling for democracy
occupied the ceremonial center of modern China, Tiananmen Square in Peking.

The party split over how to deal with the protestors and their
supporters, sometimes numbering a million strong. Zhao advocated accommodation
but Li Peng called for a crackdown. While the debate went on within the party,
the students erected a tall replica of the Statue of Liberty to symbolize
their demands for democracy and an end to corruption. By the end of May the
students had won the enthusiastic support of the workers and citizens of
Peking, Shanghai, and Chengdu. Finally, in June the party had decided what to
do about the protestors. The People's Liberation Army, using tanks and machine
guns, cleared the Square and the surrounding area of the student
demonstrators. Over 3000 people were killed in the massacre.

By 1990, it was apparent that China would not retreat into another period
of diplomatic isolation. Deng Xiaoping had integrated his country too firmly
into the world economy for that. Chinese leaders worked skillfully to maintain
their commercial relations and to regain two traditionally Chinese areas to
help their struggling economy.

The leaders in Peking had already worked out an agreement with the
British in which the rich crown colony of Hong Kong would come under Chinese
authority in 1997. Peking saw a major potential source of economic strength
across the Straits of Formosa in Taiwan, where Chiang and the remnant of his
forces had fled in 1949. For the next quarter century, the United States
recognized the Taipei government as the legitimate government of China. By
1989 Taiwan's GNP had reached $100 billion, and its 23 million people had an
average annual per capita income of close to $5000. Mainland China, in
contrast, had a GNP of $440 billion, and a per capita income of $360 for its
1.15 billion people.


Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center