The early history of communism in China started when the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, overthrew the Republic of China in 1949. The political party subsequently proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Nonetheless, after the dynastic eras that lasted for thousands of years, China entered modern history with communism at the center of its sociopolitical structure.
Part of the early years in the history of communism in China was the launching of two critical sociopolitical movements aimed at rapidly driving capitalism, bureaucracy, and elitism out of the country: The Great Leap Forward that lasted from 1958 to 1961 and the Cultural Revolution that lasted from 1966 to 1976. However, these initiatives were disastrous.
Recovering from its initial failures, the country initiated an economic reform that opened the country to foreign trade and investments beginning in 1979. China has experienced a sustained period of economic development and improvements in standards of living since then. Communism still prevails across the country.
Chinese Communist Party: The Role of Sinocentrism in Promoting Communism in China
The emergence and prevalence of communism in China during the 1920s marked a renewed attempt to promote Sinocentrism—an ancient notion that the Chinese people are at the center of the world. When CCP was founded in 1921, Mao envisioned a global revolution that would position China at the forefront of the global effort to promote socialism and challenge capitalism.
Central to its own brand of communism was a sentiment against foreign influences. In the book “The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations,” Christopher Ford explained the Chinese had always strived to protect themselves from the exploitative nature of foreigners. The construction of The Great Wall was a testament to this fact.
Despite isolating China from the rest of the world, the CCP had initial success in advancing the Chinese economy. According to Warren Bruce Palmer, with a domestic output that accounted for a quarter of the global output, China used to be the largest economy in the world during the 18th century. However, the Industrial Revolution in the Western World outcompeted the country. China simply failed to adopt machinery, technologies, and competencies that provided Western countries with a competitive advantage.
Crisis befell Chinese society as political riffs and poor economic policies crippled leadership and governance. Threats of foreign invasions further disrupted internal stability. Hundreds of millions of Chinese lived in poverty. By the 20th century, the international community dubbed China as the “Poor Man of Asia.”
When CCP took over, China experienced the most efficient governance since the last century, especially with the design and implementation of the first Five-Year Plan that lasted from 1953 to 1957. There were certain achievements that, somehow, advanced the Chinese society. For instance, the mortality rate drastically improved. Furthermore, a Russian-inspired development strategy made the country one of the major industrial powers in the world. The CCP simply laid down the structures and mechanisms needed to overhaul the country.
The Great Leap Forward: A Failure in the Early History of Communism in China
Mao wanted to transform China into an economic powerhouse that would rival Western countries. He intended to do this by rapidly transitioning the country from an agrarian economy to an industrialized and centrally-planned economy. In 1958, following the first Five-Year Plan, he introduced the flagship sociopolitical and economic movement known as The Great Leap Forward.
The initial goal was to transform China within 15 years. However, the years that spanned from 1958 to 1961 were catastrophic. The documentary series “China: A Century of Revolution” directed by Sue Williams narrated the events that transpired during these transformative years.
Accordingly, the CCP mobilized the Chinese workforce to work round-the-clock. These people were working under the pretext of communism. Thus, they were working not for themselves but for the country as a whole. Competition ceased to exist. This also meant giving up their possessions and ownerships after the government assumed universal ownership of anything that had economic value.
Mobilizing an entire country was a tough task. The CCP had to abolish family life to group settlements or communities into economic units called communes. People centered their lives working for their respective communes.
The Chinese were highly enthusiastic at first. They held a strong sense of nationalism, thinking that they were collectively working for the common good. People were working hand-in-hand and in unity. The Great Leap Forward seemingly transformed China overnight. At the macro-level, the country became rich and more productive.
However, as the uniform way of life became more controlled and rudimentary, frustrations emerged. But people were not frustrated simply because they were trapped in a commune or were forced to work for a collective purpose. Instead, the disappointment stemmed from a perceived lack of progress at the micro-level.
People were not happy about their products. To be specific, they were producing substandard products using antiquated techniques. Although there was a large mobilized workforce, the people lacked critical factors of production, particularly the the technology, skills, and knowledge, needed to produce high-quality outputs.
China essentially became an economy that produced low quality industrial outputs and agricultural produces. Series of backlashes emerged, culminating in a catastrophic famine that afflicted millions of Chinese.
The Cultural Revolution: Struggles in the Early History of Communism in China
From 1966 to 1976, Mao set in motion another sociopolitical movement called the Cultural Revolution. His purpose was to promote and preserve “true” communist ideologies by removing other contradicting ideologies. There was also a belief that bourgeois elements were trying to restore capitalism by penetrating the government and several critical social institutions. Mao launched a crusade against any threats to communism.
Nonetheless, the Cultural Revolution formalized the prevalence of a class struggle in China. Apart from the CCP, the military, working-class, and the youth participated in several efforts aimed at attacking people who maintained and promoted ideologies that opposed communism. These ardent followers of the Cultural Revolution formed the growing personality cult of Mao.
But the sociopolitical movement created a sociopolitical crisis that eventually stunned the economy. There were violent struggles across the country as cultural revolutionaries harassed millions of people through public humiliation, imprisonments, torture, forced disappearance, and property seizure. They also uprooted public officials found guilty of promoting anti-communism ideologies. Cultural artifacts, historical relics, and religious objects were destroyed.
The entire movement paralyzed the country. Although Mao ended the revolution in 1969, activities lasted until his death in 1976. The CCP, in 1981, declared the Cultural Revolution as instrumental for stirring the most severe setback and heaviest losses suffered by the country since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
1979 Economic Reform and Sustained Economic Progress: Modifications in the Chinese Brand of Communism
According to a report by Wayne M. Morrison, a specialist in Asian Trade and Finance, submitted to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, an economic reform took place in 1979 that revolved around opening the country to foreign trade and investments, as well as adopting an economic system partly based on free-market competition.
Farmers were given price and ownership incentives that allowed them to sell their produces on the free market. Economic zones were established to promote specialization. Open cities and free ports served as trading and commercial centers.
Furthermore, part of the economic reform was to introduce newer technologies that would improve the production processes of Chinese manufacturers. The government started a massive drive to encourage citizens to put up their businesses.
In addition, the removal of trade barriers compelled local businesses to step up and become more competitive. Thus, with the surge of foreign products coming in China, these businesses were left without a choice but to improve the quality of their goods and services to compete in the local and global markets.
The economic growth of China was commendable and unprecedented, especially when considering the time and effort it took for such to occur. From 1978 to 2005, its gross domestic product grew on an average of 10 percent. The country has successfully removed millions of people out of poverty within a short period.
While the history of communism in China seemingly ended with this economic reform, it is essential to note that the government maintains absolute control across several facets of society. These include freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, and the use of the Internet, among others.