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1949 — Mao & the Chinese revolution

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Seventy years ago revolution in China threw off the rule of landlords and struck a blow to Western imperialism. But it wasn’t a socialist revolution, and its aims were not to put people in power, writes Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2673
Mao Zedong addressing a crowd
Mao Zedong addressing a crowd (Pic: US National Archive and Records Agency)

The ­democracy movement in Hong Kong has highlighted the ruthless nature of the Chinese state—which fully backs the repression of protesters.

China is also a major global economic power, making a quarter of the world’s products. None of this is ­progressive or radical.

But 70 years ago, a revolution in China delivered a huge blow to Western imperialism. Behind it was a widespread desire to ­transform society.

The leaders of the revolt went on to build a regime of repression—socialist in name only—to try and create a major power to rival its former occupiers.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power on 1 October 1949, led by Mao Zedong.

His victory followed a ­protracted civil war that began in 1928. Communist forces fought the Republic of China, run by General Chiang Kai?Shek’s nationalist Kuomintang party.

But from 1937 the two forces allied against Japan, which occupied large parts of China’s north and its eastern coast.

The CCP’s strength grew as its Red Army mounted a successful guerrilla war against far superior Japanese forces.

The Communists won ­widespread support among peasants, who largely lived off what they produced. The CCP brought real social change to liberated areas under the party’s control by breaking the power of the old landlords.

Fighting between the CCP and Kuomintang government resumed shortly after Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War in 1945.


But now there were bigger forces at play.

The Cold War between the US and Russia was ­beginning. The US was desperate to stop Communists taking power in China, fearing they would align with Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

The US also wanted to inherit the British Empire’s interests around the world.

China had been dominated by European powers since the 19th century. The vast ­majority of the country’s territory was under Chinese control, but ­foreign powers had a foothold in key eastern coast towns.

Britain, France, Portugal, Austria-Hungary and Germany had all “leased” territories from China. These included important ports, such as Hong Kong, which Britain seized in 1841 after a war fought over its right to sell opium to China.

After the Second World War the US wanted a bigger slice of China. So it poured millions of dollars’ worth of aid and arms into the Kuomintang government.

But the Kuomintang was ­corrupt, and government officials siphoned off funds. Local warlords that the government relied on hoarded weapons.

US president Harry Truman was furious that his plan to stop the Communists wasn’t ­working. “The Chiangs, the Kungs and the Soongs are all thieves,” he wrote.

The Communists continued to win support from peasants, largely due to their policies of land redistribution.

And in 1945 Russia handed them the northern parts of China it had grabbed from Japan.

That put more rural areas under Communist control. In major cities controlled by the Kuomintang, food supplies began to dry up. And as inflation rose, the nationalists lost even more popularity with the middle classes and workers.

As early as 2 March 1949, the  British Ambassador in Nanjing painted a bleak picture in a cable to the Foreign Office. “Despite all Chiang Kai-shek’s efforts it is in my view out of the question that further successful resistance to the Communists can be organised,” he wrote.

The nationalists held out in some provinces until 1950. But the bulk of their ­resistance had been broken by the time Mao declared the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on 1 October.

The Kuomintang was forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan, where it ruled a brutal US-funded dictatorship until the 1980s.

For ordinary people, China before 1949 was barbaric. The average life expectancy was mid-40s. There was severe poverty, little accessible health care and illiteracy was common.

Women were often bought and sold as “domestic servants”. The practice of foot binding, where women would tightly bandage their feet to make them apparently more attractive, reflected their oppression.

Rival warlords, tribes and landlords held power.

Workers lined the streets to welcome the revolution but played no part

But Mao’s revolution spelt the end for them. In the 1950s the lives of the majority of ordinary Chinese people improved. Land was redistributed. Unemployment and hyperinflation fell. The Marriage Law of 1952 meant that wives were no longer seen the property of husbands.

But the Chinese Revolution wasn’t a socialist revolution—where working class people seize political power and run society.

When the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army marched into Beijing in 1949, workers lined the streets to welcome it. But workers played no active part in the revolution and there was nothing socialist about the regime it brought to power. Workers didn’t run the factories or offices, and peasants didn’t control the villages.

In contrast, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a genuine working class revolution. In China it inspired many ­workers and radical sections of the middle classes that hoped for a better life.

The CCP was set up by a small group of socialist activists, including Mao, in the early 1920s. At that time they argued that China’s small but powerful working class had the power to drive through revolutionary change.

A wave of workers’ struggles swept the cities in 1925.

Chiang Kai-Shek, one of the warlords, initially thought his nationalist Kuomintang could gain from the revolt, so allied himself with Russia.

Russia’s leadership—increasingly dominated by Stalin—ordered the CCP to enter a disastrous alliance with the nationalists.

But Chiang Kai-Shek wanted to throw off foreign domination, not encourage workers’ revolution. In 1927 he turned his guns on the workers’ movement. Thousands of militants were imprisoned, shot or forced to flee into the countryside.

The CCP was transformed from a party of working class militants and radical middle class intellectuals into a military organisation based on the peasantry.

Stalin encouraged this. By the 1930s Russia had become a “state capitalist” country. A bloody civil war had devastated the soviets (workers’ councils) that had run the county.

Stalin and his state bureaucracy became a new ruling class. His goal was to force through rapid industrialisation on the backs of workers and peasants.

Mao wanted to turn China into a modern industrial country and saw Stalinist Russia as a model. China too became state capitalist.

A real socialist economy would be democratically planned and based on meeting people’s needs. In Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China’s the economy was based on accumulating capital to compete with imperialist rivals. Human need came a distant second.

For Mao the “chief enemies” were imperialists and ­landlords. He thought he could better build up China’s economy without them in the way.

Yet there was a huge gap between Mao’s ambition and the resources available to finance industrialisation. So in 1957 Mao announced the “Great Leap Forward”.

Peasants were rounded up into huge “People’s Communes”, some with 30,000 people in them. They were made to work around the clock and told to meet ­impossible production targets. 

Hong Kong fight rages on streets
Hong Kong fight rages on streets
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The result was a terrible famine that would claim 30 million people’s lives by 1960. Tens of millions of others were forced by hunger to eat grass and bark from trees.

Mao failed to drive China’s economic growth forward. The rest of the CCP leadership started to turn against him. But they had no alternative to his rapid industrialisation strategy.

Another disastrous plan to kick-start Chinese growth followed when Mao regained control in the 1960s. His Cultural Revolution got rid of his opponents inside the CCP, but brought China close to civil war.

Mao continued to rule China until his death in 1976.

But it was obvious that China wouldn’t catch up with its rivals by relying on continual drives to squeeze more out of workers and the peasantry.

In the 1970s and 1980s the ruling class turned towards opening up the country to ­foreign investment while maintaining tight political control.

It saw China grow into an economic powerhouse and finally achieve what its CCP rulers had wanted.

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