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Is China an example of a socialist society?

The revolution delivered a huge blow to Western imperialism but embraced the model of state capitalism
Issue 2809
China Chinese revolution

Chairman Mao Zedong proclaiming the People’s Republic of China on 1 October, 1949

To understand China today, you need to analyse the sort of society produced by the 1949 revolution. Almost 75 years ago that revolution delivered a huge blow to Western imperialism.

European powers had dominated China since the 19th century. 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. For ordinary people, China before 1949 was barbaric.

The average life expectancy was in the mid-40s.

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. But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overthrew them on 1 October 1949, led by Mao Zedong. In the 1950s the lives of the majority of ordinary Chinese people improved.

The CCP redistributed land away from the landlords. The Marriage Law of 1952 meant wives were no longer seen as the property of husbands.

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

Mao’s victory followed a protracted civil war that began in 1927. Communist forces fought the Republic of China, run by General Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang party.

From 1937 the two forces allied against Japan, which occupied large parts of China’s north and eastern coast. The CCP’s strength grew as its Red Army mounted a successful guerrilla war.

And 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.

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 Russia.

The US poured millions of dollars worth of aid and arms into the Kuomintang government. But the Kuomintang and government officials simply grabbed the US loot while failing to beat the Communists.

The Communists continued to win support from peasants. And in 1945 Russia handed them the northern parts of China it had grabbed from Japan. That put more rural areas under Communist control.

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 had to retreat to the island of Taiwan. 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.

Their defeat saw the CCP embrace the model of state capitalism in Russia. Next week we will look at what happened once the CCP was in power.

This is the 16th part of a series that discuss What We Stand For, the Socialist Workers Party statement of principle. For the full series go to

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