China under Mao

Transformation and Revolution

For decades China had been either at war with or occupied by Japan. Mao and the Communists moved rapidly to strengthen their rule over China’s 550 million people. The Communists claimed to have a new “Mandate of Heaven.” And they aimed to restore China as a powerful nation.

Transformation Under Mao Zedong

After taking power, the Chinese Communists began to tighten their hold on the country. The party’s 4.5 million members made up just one percent of the Chinese population. But they were a highly disciplined group. Like the Soviets, the Chinese Communists set up two parallel organizations.

These were the Communist party and the national government. Until 1959, Mao ruled as both chairman of the Communist party and head of state.

Mao’s Marxist Socialism

Mao determined to reshape China’s economy based on Marxist socialism. Eighty percent of the population still lived in rural areas. But most Chinese farmers owned no land. Instead, ten percent of the rural population controlled 70 percent of the farmland.

  • Under the Agrarian Reform Law of 1950, Mao seized the holdings of these landlords. He then divided them among the peasants. His forces killed more than a million landlords who resisted this policy.
  • To further his socialist principles, between 1953 and 1957, Mao’s government forced the peasants to join collective farms. These farms each consisted of 200 to 300 households.
  • The Chinese Communists also eagerly embraced Marxist ideas about women and the family. They made women fully equal in the home and in the workplace. They also instituted state-sponsored child care.
  • Mao’s changes also transformed industry and business. Gradually, the government nationalized all private companies, or brought them under government ownership.
  • In 1953, Mao launched a Soviet-style five-year plan that set high production targets for industry. The plan succeeded. By 1957, China’s output of coal, cement, and electricity had doubled. Steel production had quadrupled.

Mao’s Communes

To expand the success of the first five-year plan in industry, Chinese leaders planned another ambitious program. Early in 1958, Mao proclaimed the “Great Leap Forward.” This plan called for still larger collective farms, or communes. By the end of 1958, the government had created about 26,000 communes.

The average commune sprawled over 15,000 acres and supported over 25,000 people.

  • In the strictly controlled life of the communes, peasants organized into “production battalions.” Under the leadership of company and squad leaders, they worked the land together. They ate in communal dining rooms, slept in communal dormitories, and raised children in communal nurseries. And they owned nothing.
  • The peasants had no incentive to work hard when only the state profited from their labor. Most of them hated living in the huge, impersonal communes.

The Great Leap Forward proved to be a great leap backward for China. Poor planning and inefficient “backyard” industries hampered growth. Worst of all, crop failures between 1958 and 1961 unleashed a famine that killed approximately 20 million people. The government officially discontinued the program in 1961.

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