Chinese Communism: A Saga of Evolution and History

Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Standing before a crowd of 300,000 in Tiananmen square, Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Today, seven decades later, that founding creed has evolved into a “Chinese Communism” that has transformed the nation from a war-ravaged wasteland to an increasingly dominant political, economic, and diplomatic force. This first installment of the “Chinese Communism” series will examine those seven decades—the saga of political and historical struggle that backdrops modern-day China.

The Chinese who rallied before Mao in October 1949, bearing celebratory banners and chanting patriotic verse, represented a populace scarred by decades of World and Civil War. The everyday Chinaman welcomed Mao’s words as a declaration of national rebirth and a promise of ideological, cultural, and economic advancement. Mao’s philosophy, which championed the people’s equality and collective prosperity, seemed to align with such national sentiments. 

But Mao’s tenure (1949-1976) would only produce more scars as the nation’s first decades spiraled into turmoil. Less than a year after Mao’s 1949 proclamation, China-backed North Korean forces entered the Korean War (1950-1953) against US-backed South-Korean forces. Though the war ended in an impasse, Chinese party officials deemed it a swaggering show of the Chinese people’s resolve against a technologically superior US military. Yet, between propaganda and praise, Mao began to pursue a rapid industrial modernization to eradicate China’s technological deficiencies. In 1958, such efforts culminated in The Great Leap Forward (1958-1961): communist leaders urged the nation to “surpass Britain and rival America” in steel production for military equipment use. As Chinese communities turned full-time to erecting backyard furnaces and melting pots, pans, and other essentials to fulfill national quotas, crops and fields were left to spoil. Local communist officials, pressured to maintain the guise of prosperity, collected nonexistent crop surpluses and inflated reports of agricultural and steel production. Official projections soared as the quality of life plummeted. Strapped for food and lacking everyday essentials, communities filled cart after cart with scrap metal—and were rewarded with empty stomachs. In just three years, 36 million Chinese would starve in the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961); the Great Leap Forward fizzled to an end in the 1960s, leaving party leadership with an impoverished and starved Chinese populace.

Throughout the 1960s, growing numbers of destitute Chinese fueled public hatred towards the bourgeoisie and elite. Mao rallied the Communist Party behind this hatred: in 1966, communist rhetoric shifted to champion the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which denounced capitalist ideology and all but the penniless proletariat. The bourgeois was labeled as capitalists at odds with China’s vision of communist prosperity—countless were paraded through the streets, demeaned by proletariat crowds, and often beaten to death in broad daylight. Between 1966 and 1968, the Red Guards, fervent youth followers of Maoist ideology, ransacked the homes and offices of capitalists, scholars, and party officials, seeking evidence of anti-communist inclinations. Any remnant of the pre-1949 “old society” was deemed incriminating; suspected anti-communists were tortured and often murdered for everything from antique jewelry to Confucian texts. 

What began as a movement against capitalism extended to a loathing for traditional arts and scholarship and the wanton destruction of cultural property. The Red Guards took sledgehammers to irreplaceable religious artifacts, pillaged libraries and universities, and all but quashed academic and creative output as scholars and students were exiled to the countryside for ideological “cleansing.” Under the omnipresent threat of public persecution, family members were driven to report each other’s “anti-revolutionary crimes” to communist authorities—effectively a death sentence for the reported—in attempts to reduce personal punishment. Defamed and disheartened, countless who were not killed were driven to suicide. Under the guise of strengthening communist ideology, Mao rid the Party of potential dissenters and strengthened his stranglehold on the Party at the expense of centuries of cultural heritage and millions of lives. Only upon Mao’s death in 1976 did the Chinese Communist Party emerge from the Cultural Revolution—with a crippled populace and blood on its hands.

The wounded nation found a healer in former Communist leader Deng Xiaoping, a party official who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution but returned to power following Mao’s death. Under Deng, both Party and nation turned towards economic and political reform—what Deng termed “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The 1970s and 1980s brought a dramatic flourishing of economic and ideological freedom as the nation experimented with an economy driven by private companies and foreign investment. Continued lip-service to the Party’s communist ideology—a remnant of the nation’s Mao-era roots—accompanied the emergence of critical discourse surrounding the nation’s developmental trajectory; a previous death-grip on public rhetoric gave way to the diversification of literary, cinematographic, and artistic output. The Chinese Communist Party of 1985 bore a remarkable resemblance to a pseudo-capitalist creature hiding under a communist hide; freedoms of thought and expression enjoyed unprecedented heights.

Yet, in June 1989, less than fifteen years into Deng’s tenure, the Tiananmen Massacre plunged the nation back into ideological restraint. On June 4, 1989, students calling for the further rollback of censorship and expansion of freedom of speech were met with tanks and martial law in Tiananmen square, where Mao declared the nation’s founding less than four decades earlier. Estimates of massacre casualties ranged from 200 to 10,000, an ambiguity that attests to the immediate tightening of ideological rhetoric that followed the June 4 events. To this day, the massacre remains taboo in mainland China; 1989 marked the decisive end of the Chinese Communist Party’s experiments with unregulated speech. The rhetoric surrounding ideological reform deflated as economic reform boomed—Deng continued to champion free-market policies well into the 1990s as the nation saw steady increases to its overall quality of life. 

The twenty-first century has seen the Chinese Chinese Party redouble its efforts to maintain a pseudo-capitalist economic framework alongside a Deng-era “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Yet, as the Chinese economy booms—the nation has retained the world’s second-largest economy since 2010—the country strays further from its founding ideals of collective equality. Indeed, since President Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, the nation has only leaned into the income inequality and capitalist penchants that appalled Mao and the 1949 Communist Party. Xi, whose family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, nonetheless presents himself as an ardent admirer of Mao, though his political undertakings have largely run antithetical to the nation’s first president. Seven decades after Mao declared the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China, the republic’s political philosophy bears little resemblance to his founding vision. Indeed, the “Chinese Communism” has evolved into a unique amalgam that is a product of its tumultuous history; the upcoming installments will explore domestic and international manifestations of that amalgam.

Photo from Unsplash.