60th anniversary of the Chinese revolution: A great leap forward?

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Post-revolutionary China needed rapid industrialisation to meet the demands of the middle class and compete with other capitalist states, but it was the workers and peasants who paid the price. Simon Gilbert continues our series on the revolution's sixtieth anniversary

By the time of the 1949 revolution China had been dominated for over a hundred years by foreign powers. Its economic development had been held back and its corrupt political systems propped up. Not surprisingly, then, the twin objectives of national independence and modernisation (meaning industrialisation) were central to the ideas of the layer of frustrated middle class intellectuals who monopolised political thinking from the end of the 19th century.

Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Party, was no exception. Writing in 1940, he made it clear that socialism was not on the immediate agenda of the forthcoming revolution. The "objective mission" of the revolution was "to clear the path for the development of capitalism". Though wrapped in Marxist rhetoric, the project was essentially nationalist: "In applying Marxism to China" it "must be combined with specific national characteristics and acquire a definite national form."

The revolution did bring some important reforms, but they can be understood within the context of modernisation. The methods used were initially copied straight from Stalin's Russia, top-down centralised planning implemented through a series of five-year plans. Industrial development was prioritised over agricultural development, heavy industry over light industry, and national development over individual consumption.

High levels of reinvestment were achieved by squeezing worker and peasant producers. Workers' pay was very low, although skilled workers in the state sector were partially compensated by subsidies for some of the necessities of life.

However, there was a problem. The concentration of investment in heavy industry could produce impressive growth in industrial output. Agriculture, however, was starved of funds and grew only slightly faster than the population. Yet agriculture not only had to feed the growing urban population, but was also China's only source of exchange for the imported machinery that was essential to industrialisation. This contradiction lay at the heart of the periodic political convulsions.

Worse than Hitler?

In 1958 Mao launched the Great Leap Forward in an attempt to overcome these problems. The aim was to tap into the one resource that China had in abundance, labour power, to compensate for the lack of investment capital. In a policy known as "walking on two legs", the focus on heavy industry was maintained, while it was hoped that locally funded, labour-intensive industries could cater to the needs of agriculture. Meanwhile peasants were corralled into unwieldy communes and set unachievable targets for grain production. The working day was extended beyond endurance.

The Great Leap has been called a "vision, rather than a plan" and it soon collapsed, descending from farce into tragedy. At least 15 million people, and perhaps twice as many, died in the resulting famine. The horror was exacerbated by the unwillingness of fearful officials to report the true scale of the problems to those above them.

In their 2005 biography Jung Chang and Jon Halliday claimed that this made Mao worse than Hitler. But there is a clear difference between the deliberate genocide of the Nazis and the dismal failure of the Great Leap, however ill-judged it was. Mao must take the blame for prolonging the suffering though. When confronted with the failure by defence minister Peng Dehuai at the Lushan plenum in 1959, he preferred to continue his disastrous policies rather than concede.

Subsequently, other leading Communists were more circumspect, effectively pushing Mao upstairs, so that he retained his prestige as leader of the revolution while being removed from control over economic decision making. In 1966 he started a comeback, using his popularity to appeal for student support over the heads of the majority of the party leaders, and launched the Cultural Revolution. Culture was just a pretext; what was really taking place was a power struggle at the top of society. But Mao could use the frustrations of young people with the regime to create a force outside formal party control, the Red Guards, to attack those in power. But Mao's opponents weren't going to give up without a fight and soon the movement degenerated into chaotic virtual civil war with competing Red Guard units all claiming to be the true representatives of "Mao Zedong thought". Eventually the army was called in to suppress the movement by force.

Although the negative impact of the Cultural Revolution on the economy was far less than the Great Leap, it was a political watershed. The popular enthusiasm for the revolution that Mao had been able to tap into in the 1960s was frittered away in endless political campaigns. One reason for the introduction of reforms at the end of the 1970s was that, as the then reformer Chen Yun put it, the Chinese people "were not willing to swallow the same old line". They wanted change.

The conventional wisdom today is that the command economy of Mao's time was a complete failure and growth only really started with the market reforms. But it is a myth. For all the problems and human suffering, industrial growth in the Mao years averaged around 10 percent a year, a figure that contemporary British chancellors could only dream of.

A substantial industrial base was built. It had spread from isolated pockets in Shanghai and Manchuria to cover large parts of the country, and great strides had been made in infrastructure too. In 1975 electricity output was 17 times what it had been in 1952 and rail traffic had grown sevenfold. The reforms introduced from 1978 could not have succeeded without this phase of state-led growth.

But it wasn't socialism. Workers, the agents of change in Marx's thinking, played no role in the revolution, had no say in how the post-revolutionary society was run and didn't benefit from their labours in building up industry. When the Communists came to power, workers were declared "masters of the enterprise", but they soon became frustrated by the toothlessness of the organisations through which they supposedly exercised this power.

The nationalisation of industry did not improve workers' living standards - quite the opposite. As the process was being completed in 1957, some workers struck to resist attacks on their conditions. This was at a point when, following the post-revolution recovery, exploitation was being intensified. Wage differentials between skilled and unskilled were deliberately widened, and real wages would not rise again until the 1980s.

This enabled an ever larger share of output to be reinvested in further production. However, this did not produce the expected increases in productivity. As the 1970s progressed, the rate of productivity growth was decreasing year on year. The attitude of Chinese workers was reminiscent of their Polish counterparts who joked, "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work." This was another reason for the turn to reform: the old methods were becoming less and less effective.

In other respects too the hopes of 1949 were frustrated. Women were promised liberation by the revolution and some progress was certainly made. The 1950 marriage law abolished arranged marriage and granted the right to divorce. Its implementation was patchy though; economic concerns were the real priority. When labour was required, women were encouraged to join the workforce, but when unemployment rose, their role as "housewives" was emphasised. And while women received equal pay for equal work, they tended to remain in lower paid, less skilled work than men.

Women's role

Despite Mao's assertion that "women hold up half the sky" they didn't often hold party membership cards, being very much underrepresented at all levels of the bureaucracy. The only women to play a role at the very top owed their positions to their husbands. Song Qingling, a vice-chair of the People's Republic, was the widow of the republican icon Sun Yatsen. Mao's third wife, Jiang Qing, was one of the infamous Gang of Four that led the Cultural Revolution, and so on.

For China's national minorities the promise was "self-determination", but they were to be sorely disappointed. The Communists adopted from the defeated nationalists the idea that the Chinese nation comprised five major ethnic groups, which under both regimes became an excuse for Han Chinese domination over the others.

Tibet was reincorporated by force in 1950. A deal done with the ruling class of aristocratic landowners and Buddhist hierarchy allowed their continued control in central Tibet (later renamed the Tibetan Autonomous Region). But land collectivisation and the settlement of nomads in outlying regions provoked a rebellion in 1959 which spilled over into central Tibet. The rebellion was ruthlessly put down by the army, the Dalai Lama fled to India and direct rule was imposed.

Xinjiang, a vast area to the north of Tibet whose indigenous population are mostly Turkic Muslims, was also reincorporated into China after the revolution. As in Tibet, forced immigration of Han Chinese dramatically changed the population balance. In 1949 Han made up only 6 percent of the population, but by 1980 they numbered more than 40 percent. The local Communist parties were both dominated by Han Chinese, especially at the higher levels. In both cases, the Chinese concept of a multi-ethnic China was imposed on the non-Han populations without any room for debate.

The China that the Communists inherited in 1949 was incredibly underdeveloped. It had also suffered decades of war, civil war and intermittent famine. But the objective of the new regime was a limited one - modernisation, or the building of a modern industrial economy capable of competing with the world's major powers. Socialism was indefinitely deferred. The social reforms, such as land reform or improvements to women's rights, were significant, but they were essential to the modernising agenda and didn't go beyond it. Strengthening of Chinese rule over Tibet and Xinjiang, areas which had only been ruled indirectly by China in the past, was also part of creating a modern nation state.

Real democratic socialism can only come from within the emerging labour movement, in opposition to Communist rule.

This article is the second in our series on China. The first article was When China threw off Imperialism, by Charlie Hore.