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Struggle to Transform China 1949 Essay

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Updated: Mar 25th, 2020

Introduction to Pre-1949 China

China is one of the most popular Asian countries. It is viewed as an emerging economic powerhouse by other countries in the world given its double-digit economic growth that has been sustained for years. It is a country with a unique history. The unique history sets it apart from other nations in the world. The history was especially unique prior to and during the twentieth century. The nation has been under the rule of dynasties prior to 1949. Before then, China was a relatively very traditional country in the Asian continent. Industrialization was almost non-existent, with the greater part of the Chinese economy at the time being agriculture driven. The situation at that time was significantly different from the reality on the ground today.

Following the imperialist invasion and exploitation of the country in the early twentieth century, the nation was set on the verge of radical revolutions in all sectors. The cultural, economic, political, and social revolution in the country would leave China a dominant player in global affairs in the century. The revolutions gave rise to the China we know today. In the early 1920s, China did not exist as a unified or centralized state. On the contrary, the country was a fragmented edifice shared amongst greedy military warlords. The warlords extended their authority across the inland territories of the country (Knight 30).

For instance, the Chinese coastal cities were under the rule of the Japanese or by some Western power at any given time. Perhaps, and as many historians will agree, Mao Zedong remains one of the most influential figures in the twentieth century China. The leader occupies a significant place in the history books detailing the status of the country at that time. Historians and other scholars regard Mao’s leadership as one of the major determinants of the economic and social growth of the country. His legacy is still evident in many facets of contemporary Chinese society.

From 1800 to 2000, a string of foreign incursions characterizes the history of the country. As if that was not enough for the day’s leadership, there were political and social upheavals in all corners of the nation. Things started to change in 1949 when the communist party came into power (Knight 30). The country was set on a modernization path that has seen it emerge as one of the most powerful countries in the world today. Under the communist rule, a significant transformation in the country’s political, social, and economic landscape has been evidenced. However, critics have pointed out that the starry development has been costly to the nation. For example, the nation has become more individualistic, with people focusing more on their personal gains at the expense of that of the society.

The current paper is written against this background. The author of this paper uses the works of Dikotter, Su, Hewitt, as well as documentary videos to examine the post-1949 struggle to transform China. Specifically, the author critically analyzes how Dikotter and Su differ in their approach to evaluate the events they examine. In addition, the author looks at how analysts evaluate the costs of the transformation in historical, political, economic, and social terms.

Post-1949 Struggle to Transform China

Some of the most significant developments in China, which shaped the country into what it is today, took place from 1949. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the country underwent very significant changes politically, culturally, economically, and socially. Under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, headed by Mao Zedong, the country became subject to revolutionary development initiatives. Historians argue that the revolutionary development initiatives were very costly to the entire Chinese community.

War and unrest in the country characterized the two decades preceding the 1949 turning point. In 1949, China was on the verge of political, economic, and social turmoil. Many problems had befallen the country at that time. The problems included, among others, high unemployment rates, valueless currency, and little industrialization (Dikotter 34). The country was also experiencing food shortages since food production in the countryside was very low.

Exacerbating these problems was the rapid population growth experienced in the country at the time. Dikotter (213) argues that between 1957 and 1960, the size of the Chinese urban population increased by 31 million people. The population growth and other problems exerted pressure on the Chinese Communist Party. The pressure was a contributing factor to the development experiments that followed.

There were initiatives and experiments carried out by the CCP towards development of contemporary China. They included the Great Leap Forward campaign of 1958-60, which marched the country towards communism. The ten-year period Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 formed another CCP initiative that had far-reaching effects on the country’s culture (Chung 162).

Economically, the CCP effected a gigantic transition during the post-1978 period. The CCP transformed the Chinese economy from a centrally planned one to a market-oriented socialist economy. The experiments and initiatives targeted at China’s national development elicited many controversies and gave rise to significant policy changes. The social costs were chilling considering the hardships, cruelty, and suffering the Chinese population had to persevere.

In 1949, retaliatory threats against China from the Japanese and their allies loomed large. China entered into a thirty-year alliance with Russia to counter the threat. The alliance remained strong until Stalin’s death in 1955, after which strains started to emerge. The alliance was very significant to the post-1949 transformation of China. Karl vividly captures the significance of this alliance when the author states that, “Mao Zedong learnt a lot from Russia, although he did not emulate them much” (32).

Mao’s Leadership

The 1949 Chinese revolution brought to an end the stalemate characterizing the issue of Chinese government leadership (Satya par. 1). Earlier on, the rivalry between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Guomindang (KMD) had led to a political crisis in the country. The political class founded the People’s Republic in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party took power in Beijing. The seizure of power by the CCP forced the KMD to flee the mainland and into the island of Taiwan.

In the early 1920’s, Cheek (28) asserts that Mao Zedong was not a very important leader in the Chinese Communist Party. However, a report he had written in 1927 with regard to Chinese rural poverty and the potential therein (if used to catalyze social revolution) proved very accurate. In the report, Mao had defended the appropriateness and necessity of using violence in a revolution. Popular in this essay was Mao’s famous maxim, which stated that revolution is not a dinner party (Cheek 18).

Before his ascension to power through the party, Mao had written other numerous materials on the state of China. For instance, in the 1920s, he had written on the issue of misery in rural China in his essay “Report on the Peasant Movement in Hunan”. In 1940, he wrote the essay “On New Democracy” and in 1957 wrote on “The Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People” (Cheek 42).

When one analyses his writings before becoming a top leader in China and while in leadership, Mao’s thinking is made apparent. The writings explain the impact his leadership had on the people of China. In fact, his essay “On New Democracy”, which was written while he was a top leader in the revived CCP, ended up becoming very influential to the party. Eventually, the plan Mao had outlined in this essay became the blueprint of CCP in 1949 during the institution of the People’s Republic of China (Dikotter 59).

When the CCP took over the leadership of China in 1949, Mao Zedong became the Chairman of the People’s Republic. After coming into power, Mao had the chance to execute all his previous pragmatic ideas on how to bring China to glory. The leadership faced great challenges and problems due to the previous two decades of fighting.

In order to gain the confidence and support of the population, the party needed to regain social stability. Since food shortage was one of the priority problems that required immediate address, the CCP embarked on massive restructuring of the social relationships in the countryside. The action would make the rural populace direct producers and as a result, provide more support for the party.

At the onset of his leadership, Mao was keen on all these and other issues CCP needed to address. In fact, some authors portray Mao leadership in a very balanced manner. Cheek, for instance, summarizes Mao’s leadership from the perspective of how the Chinese situation aggrieved him. Karl notes that China grieved,

“…..the memory of both Mao’s great contributions to the establishment of the nation, the application of socialist goals, and the realization of economic progress, and his cruel persecution of the intellectuals, his abandonment of the peasants, his ruinous mass campaigns, and the arbitrary dictatorship of his later years” (Karl 28).

Perhaps, Mao’s leadership and influence arose from the firm vision of socialism that he had. For instance, in his essay “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship”, the foresight to the socialist state was very clear (Thaxton 87). Mao advocated for the exhaustive pre-revolutionary destruction of institutions and their eventual replacement with new revolutionary establishments.

In Mao’s viewpoint, China needed a new order in terms of politics, economics, and culture. Communism was in the forefront of his leadership. The country needed people’s courts, workers’ councils, people’s army, and peasant associations in the countryside. The CCP’s ultimate mission lay in these requirements made clear by the society.

People expressed varying sentiments towards Mao’s leadership. The sentiments ranged from explicit heroism to vilification. In spite of this, the geographical and cultural context of China completely changed under CCP his leadership. Cheek (29) further claims that Mao eventually became a representative of the twentieth century Chinese grand achievements, noble goals, and terrible failures.

The Great Leap Forward

Between 1958 and 1961, the Chinese Communist Party embarked on one of its biggest social and economic campaigns. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Great Leap Forward initiative aimed at modernizing China and making it equal to the Western powers, such as the United States of America.

The Great Leap Forward, as a historical moment, is a testimony of Mao Zedong’s willingness to experiment with his economic and social ideas (Satya par.1). In addition, the leap made apparent Mao’s grasp of politics and his shrewd control over the government apparatus. Some conservative leaders within the party were wary of Mao’s approach to the initiative. However, the wariness of the conservatives notwithstanding, the party adopted the initiative and approved it as a national policy.

With the use of the Great Leap Forward, “Mao intended to reject the Soviet-style economic institutions, which he regarded (as) overly dogmatic” (Chung 155). Instead of these dogmatic styles, he intended to put into use the methods that the CPP had utilized in achieving the 1949 victory. The plan meant using the masses and influence of the party cadres to build the economy. It foresaw the development of a socialist society directed by the party.

The major aims of the CCP were clear in the Great Leap Forward’s agenda. The aims included development of agriculture and industrializing the economy. According to Mao, both aims had to complement each other for development to occur. For instance, in order for the industries to prosper, the workers needed proper feeding. On the other hand, the agriculturalists required industrial products, such as equipments and manufactured by products, to improve their output.

To implement the changes envisaged in the agenda, the party developed communes in the society. The communes varied in size. However, all individuals in a given commune gave up ownership of their property to the group. The government achieved the provision of social functions through the communes. For instance, education and health was no longer the responsibility of the government.

The arrangements gave the commune a lot of power. It controlled the individual. l The commune directed almost all aspects of the individual’s life, especially their work. Practically, the Great Leap Forward foundation lay on mass mobilization. It also lay on the mandatory cooperation of the direct producers in the rural countryside (Satya par.12). In a bid to maximize community productivity, CCP sent men away to work on mines, large-scale irrigation projects, and other industrial undertakings. The rural women, on the other hand, shouldered the bulk of agricultural work.

Apparently, the concept of creating communes greatly disappointed Mao Zedong. Mao visualized “a great leap from the traditional feudal society to a modern communist society” (Satya par. 17). His target was to bypass the capitalist development phase. However, the implementation contradicted the envisaged forward leap. In fact, the initiative reversed the developments achieved through the 1949 revolution.

By the end of the 1950s, the Great Leap had recorded some measure of success. Increased output and such other traits attested to this success. However, the success was short lived. Time proved that the Great Leap Forward initiative was a great failure. It translated to substantial costs shouldered by the Chinese population (Tarpley 68).

Eventually, the great expectations placed on communes overwhelmed them. In addition, political beliefs and correctness took root. The government punished the communes or individual members who failed to achieve tasks assigned to them. Some people regarded some of the communes as going against the regime and frustrating progress, thus punishing them.

The weather favored agriculture in 1958. However, this was not the case in 1959. Droughts in some parts of the country and floods in other areas contributed to reduced production of grains. The reduction was a major setback to the initiative. For instance, Thaxton claims, “grain production in the country decreased by 15% in 1959, and by 1960 had fallen by 15.6%” (p. 380).

The subsequent famine, commonly referred to as “Mao’s Great Famine”, claimed the lives of many Chinese citizens. Many Chinese who lived through the Famine of the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1961 regard it as the most devastating incident in their life. Perhaps the survivors of the famine better understood the anguish of the drought. For instance, “the famine is estimated to have caused between 15 and 45 million deaths” (Dikotter 359). Some of the citizens even resorted to cannibalism. Furthermore, Dikotter claims “cases of Linxia and other regions show some people were actually cannibals who killed to eat. Most, however, were scavengers who turned to eating cadavers in order to extend their survival” (p. 323).

By 1959, the failure of the Great Leap Forward initiative became open. Ultimately, Mao Zedong openly admitted the failure and called upon other CCP members to share the responsibility with him. Because of the failure, Mao had to resign as the Head of State. However, he retained his position as the Party Chairman. The position still afforded him considerable power over the party and, ultimately, over the country.

Women Liberation in Maoist China

In spite of the disastrous experience during the Great Leap Forward, the surviving Chinese women emerged with some degree of freedom. Before the Great Leap Forward initiative, women assumed a very low profile in the Chinese community. The major role of women until then had been to look after their families. Even during the early 1920s- 1940s, CCP leaders had advocated for the importance of motherhood. They termed it as very essential to the projected socialist state. Zhou Enlai, for instance, argued that, “due to their natural predisposition towards bearing and caring for children, women had the particular responsibility of minding the overall welfare of the home” (Barlow 340). The position clearly indicated that the role of women in the society was merely domestic. Apparently, even the leaders anticipating the socialist state did not plan to alter this perception.

Fifteen years later, both the Women’s Federation and the key party still stressed on the importance of family and women during the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward presented an opportunity for women to manifest their usefulness in the society, other than in the family circles. The Women’s Federation leadership saw the opportunity for women liberation and exploited it fully.

In early 1958, CCP called upon rural women to work. The women were to assume increased responsibility in terms of cultivating the crops. By doing so, “men would be free to join other major construction projects and massive irrigation projects throughout the country” (Manning 580). The call counted on the women to work for many hours outside their homes. In some instances, the women were away from their home for days.

To make sure more women were free to work, the CCP implemented socialized housework. The initiative freed more women from their household chores and gave them more time to work. Collective sewing circles, childcare, and dining halls eased the responsibilities of women. Eventually, Mao gave direction on the issue of family and the place of women during the Great Leap Forward. He instructed the society to abolish the patriarchal traditional family. He advocated for homes conducive for the progression of men, women, young, and old people in the society. The homes built required the separation of the family when work intensified.

In 1959, Cai Chang, quoting Lenin, advanced that, “for thorough emancipation of women, and realization of women equality with men, a public economy was needed with participation of women in labor” (Barlow 348). The government felt that offering women paid work would free them from a continuous cycle of dependency, whereby they relied on men.

During the Great Leap Forward, women leaders noted that the government was essentially addressing women issues. On their part, the women supported the government through their involvement in production activities. The women also improved their skills and knowledge. Their ideological development greatly contributed to the society.

Despite the involvement of women in what they termed as “productive labor” during the Maoist era and popular support, the viewpoint, twenty years earlier, was different. The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) had by then expressed support for and praised the initiative, a standpoint echoed by the CCP. At the end of the reforms, however, both the CCP and ACWF denounced the Great Leap Forward as a major disaster. In 1980, ACWF leadership particularly denounced involvement of women in the initiative. The organization argued that, “(the) Great Leap Forward compromised both the health of women and children” (Chien 72). In fact, they condemned the reforms as one of the darkest eras in the history of the young federation. The reforms were disastrous to women, children, and the Federation itself.

The Cultural Revolution

Although Mao Zedong tenure as head of state had ended with the failure of the Great Leap Forward, his influence in China and the CCP had far to go. Between 1965 and 1968, he embarked on reasserting his beliefs in China through the Cultural Revolution. In essence, he presented himself as advocating for a classless society in the country. Apparently, the 1949 revolution and subsequent developments in China had led to social classes in the society. Managers, scientists, engineers and other professionals emerged in the Chinese society. Mao argued that these individuals did not identify themselves with the normal Chinese lifestyle, hence his desire to harmonize the society.

In actual sense, however, Mao was deliberately garnering support and popularity for himself. In addition, the revolution would suppress those opposed to him by criticizing them. Chief among his rivals was Liu Shao-chi and those associated with him. The growing factions within the CCP had began surfacing, expressing their disbelief in Marxism. Hence, his major agenda in the revolution was to protect his position as CCP Chairman and his power.

Mao called for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He saw it as an opportunity to implement his ideas on China again. He gained support from the youth by urging them to take the responsibility of revolutionizing the country’s culture. He made the youth to believe that the bourgeois in the society posed a threat to communism and to the entire community. Thus, the removal of this class, even if violently, would be for the better of society.

The Great Cultural Revolution, like the preceding revolutions under Mao’s influence, signified a substantial cost on the Chinese society. In response to the call for revolution, the Chinese youth formed the Red Guards group in 1966. Some of them, as quoted by Chong, were very loyal to Mao. The loyalty was especially evident in the various pronouncements made by their leader, who once said,

“Chairman Mao has defined our future as an armed revolutionary youth organization…So if Chairman Mao is our Red-Commander-in-Chief and we are his Red soldiers, who can stop us? First we will make China red from inside out and then we will help the working people of other countries make the world red…And then the whole universe” (Chong 105).

The Red Guards had disastrous impacts on China. Every social class faced their unfettered wrath. By 1967, violence was very rampant in China. Schools closed down, production slowed down, and foreign nations withdrew from the country. The economy started heaving under the strain. Even the various factions in Red Guards turned against each other.

Eventually, the cost of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution was a generation that lacked in education. It also led to several years of social disintegration. In addition, the political career of Mao came to an active end. Although he declared that the revolution ended in 1969, it took longer for the remnants to die. Mao died in 1976 and new groups and individuals, such as Deng Xiaoping, rose to power.

Impacts of Post-Mao Economic, Political, and Social Reforms in China

Despite his passing on in 1976, Mao Zedong’s revolutionary impact in all sectors of the Chinese society persisted for a long period. For instance, historical transformation within China (from Mao’s era to Deng Xiaoping’s era from 1977) took a very different direction. The national objectives of China (from economic development and political agenda to ideological convictions) assumed a different direction.

During the era of Mao Zedong, “socialism, irrespective of the successes and failures therein, was a major and unique experiment in the country” (Satya par. 12). He intended to skip capitalism to create a socialist transformation. The transformation was not only in the consciousness of the populace, but also in their conscience. The approach employed by Mao Zedong defied all the political and conventional norms established over time by other economies.

The subsequent era of Deng established market socialism in China. Contrary to the preceding era, “the approach to social, political, and economic transformation took a different and better dimension” (Chien 77). The new leader embarked on a modernization process with two major emphases. The first included embracing capital practices within the country’s economy. The second involved ushering the country into the rest of the global community system.

Deng’s approach to transforming China had far better results than revolutionary approaches of Mao Zedong. Under his leadership, China shifted her focus to other concerns. Deng’s leadership, “focused towards a more pragmatic concern” (Xing 88). The steps needed to realize objectives needed flowcharting. In fact, this pragmatic approach gave Deng Xiaoping more prominence.

Under this new approach, the country placed more emphasis on innovation of highly advanced technologies. The technologies improved efficiency in industries, agriculture, research and development, and military. Such achievements were more important than the achievement of social objectives associated with Mao’s era.

Deng viewed economic planning as an essential part of socialism and capitalism. However, he did not view market economy as essential to capitalism since socialist countries could also have market economies. The main intention of socialism, according to Deng entailed, “emancipating and developing the productive forces, destroying exploitation, eliminating polarization and ultimate attainment of common prosperity” (Satya par. 18).

The leaderships that came after Mao’s era have made tremendous achievements in the country despite the problems inherited from that era. The leadership has transformed the economy from a command and control phenomenon to a market driven economy.


Thanks to the open-door policy, China is experiencing outstanding economic developments. The country’s opening up to the world has attracted massive foreign direct investments. It has also increased access to world markets and technology spillover among other benefits. Although the country is the most populous in the world, the rate of poverty alleviation is impressive. It is a fact that the benefits of the social, political, and economic transformation are unevenly distributed. However, the country has immense potential as an emerging economy.

China has achieved a lot within the last couple of decades considering its humble beginnings. Despite the costs incurred during the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, the country has achieved a lot. Among the achievements is the development of control mechanisms to prevent the repeat of similar man-made disasters. Although no society deserves such experiences, perhaps the lesson meant preparation for the future for future.

Works Cited

Barlow, Tani. The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.

Cheek, Timothy. Mao Zedong and China’s Revolutions-A Brief History with Documents, Boston: Belfort, 2002. Print.

Chien, Shiuh-Shen. “Economic Freedom and Political Control in Post-Mao China: A Perspective of Upward Accountability and Asymmetric Decentralization.” Asian Journal of Political Science 18.1 (2010): 69-89. Print.

Chung, Yen-lin. “The CEO of the Utopian Project: Deng Xiaoping’s Roles and Activities in the Great Leap Forward.” China Journal 69.1 (2013): 154-173. Print.

Dikotter, Frank. The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, London: Bloomsbury, 2010. Print.

Karl, Rebecca. Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Knight, Nick. “Working Class Power and State Formation in Mao Zedong’s Thought, 1931-1934.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 32.1 (2008): 29-46. Print.

Manning, Kimberly. “Making a Great Leap Forward? The Politics of Women’s Liberation in Maoist China.” Gender & History 18.3 (2006): 574-593. Print.

Satya, Gabriel 2013, Capitalism, Socialism, and the 1949 Chinese Revolution: What Was the Cold War All About? Satya Gabriel’s Online Papers: China Essay Series. Web.

Tarpley, Kathryn. Tears from Iron: Cultural Response to Famine in Nineteenth Century China, Berkeley: University Press of California, 2002. Print.

Thaxton, Ralph. Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.

Xing, Li. “The Transformation of Ideology from Mao to Deng: Impact on China’s Social Welfare Outcome.” International Journal of Social Welfare 8.1 (1999): 86-89. Print.

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