8.4D: The Spread of Communism in China

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AP Theme

Economic Systems

Learning Objective 8D

Explain the causes and consequences of China’s adoption of communism.

Historical Development 1

As a result of internal tension and Japanese aggression, Chinese communists seized power. These changes in China eventually led to communist revolution.

Historical Development 2

In communist China, the government controlled the national economy through the Great Leap Forward, often implementing repressive policies, with negative repercussions for the population.


Causes for the Rise and Spread of Communism in China

Starting around 1910, a series of events resulted in the expansion of communism within China.

The Collapse of the Qing dynasty

By 1900, the Chinese Self-Strengthening movement had failed. China was weak, with vast portions of its trade and economic resources under foreign control. Groups outside of the Qing royal dynasty continued to believe that modernization of the country’s political, economic, and social systems could save China. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution ended Qing rule and brought the Nationalist government to power.

The Nationalists: Revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen became the first president of the Republic of China. Educated in the west, Sun Yat-sen attempted to establish a new Chinese government based on Chinese nationalism, democracy, and economic development. However, China proved challenging to govern, and president Sun resigned after just a few months in office. He turned over power to a powerful general, Yuan Shikai. President Shikai quickly ended democracy in China. Within a few years, civil war broke out in China. While the Nationalist Party technically ruled China, authority fragmented, with most power held by regional warlords.

The May 4th Movement: China had joined the side of the Allies in World War II. They hoped that following the defeat of Germany, the Allies would return Chinese territories held by Germany to China. When the post-war treaties gave these territories to Japan, angry demonstrations broke out across China. As a result, many young Chinese students and intellectuals rejected the Nationalists and their vision for China. Many turned to the ideas of Vladimir Lenin and communism.

The creation of the Chinese Communist Party

Founded by a group of new revolutionaries in Beijing in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) offered a new vision for Chinese leadership and governance.

  • One of the organization’s founding members was Mao Zedong, who later became the first president of the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949.
  • Mao developed his own version of communism, different from Lenin’s in Russia. Mao believed that a communist revolution could happen outside of an industrialized society like Russia in an agrarian society like China.
  • As a result, Mao worked to organize agricultural peasants in the rural countryside.
  • During the two decades Chinese Civil War, these rural areas became the power base of the Chinese Communist Party.

The failures of the Nationalist government

The Chinese Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-Shek was disliked and not supported by many Chinese people. The following factors weakened the Nationalist government.

  • Corruption: Incompetent and corrupt officials resulted in an ineffective government that failed to provide essential government services. Officials stole vast sums of government money collected by tax collectors who used aggressive tactics to collect money that people knew would steal or misuse.
  • Ignoring the needs of the people: Decades of civil war against the communist diverted money away from the economic reconstruction of China. Officials used vast sums of money to fight instead of investing in infrastructure, education, and other social programs to help the masses.
  • Economic discontent: Heavy taxes, corrupt governance, and lack of government services resulted in the outbreak of strikes and protests against the Nationalist government. Chiang’s government increased censorship, mass arrests, and beatings as discontent increased.
  • Lack of focus on rural populations: Most of China’s population was rural and worked in agriculture during this period. However, Chiang’s government focused its attention on urban and business interests. Additionally, rural peasants suffered from a lack of land ownership and high rents on land owned by wealthy landlords. Poor agricultural workers viewed Chiang’s government as only supporting the property-owning class.
  • Poor military leadership: Chiang’s military was large, but its soldiers were poorly trained and not well managed. Corruption led to shortages of necessary materials like food for troops. Few people volunteered to fight in the Nationalist army. The government drafted many soldiers, often against their will, which resulted in poor morale and undisciplined fighters.

The civil war between the Nationalist government and Communist Party

In 1919, Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen again took leadership of the Nationalist government. Angry with the lack of western support for the Chinese government, Sun Yat-sen built an alliance with the emerging Chinese Communist Party. Together, Sun believed that the Nationalists and the Communists might be able to begin reestablishing control of areas lost to warlords. Their combined forces successfully reestablished control over most of China.

Nationalist betrayal of the communists:  The alliance ended when Sun Yat-sen’s successor Chiang Kai-shek stabbed the communists in the back and murdered communist leaders and influential union members in Shanghai in 1927. The Nationalists repeated this massacre in other cities. What remained of the Chinese Communist Party regrouped and fought back against the Nationalists. This civil war lasted until 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party defeated the Nationalists who escaped and established the country of Taiwan on the island of Formosa.

Effects of Communism in China

Communism in China has reshaped the Chinese national more than any other force in the last 100 years.

Mao's version of communism (Maoism)

Different communist leaders and revolutions produced unique versions of communist ideology. Unlike Marxists-Leninism in the Soviet Union, which focused on the industrial working classes, Mao focused on agricultural people and issues since 80% of China’s people lived in rural areas.

Land reform (the Agrarian Reform Law of 1950): When Mao and the communists came to power, ten percent of rural landlords owned 70% of rural land. Mao took landlords’ land and redistributed it to landless peasants. The communist government killed over 1 million landlords for resisting the land reforms.  

Agricultural collectives: Later in the 1950s, Mao “collectivized” the Chinese farms by forcing Chinese peasants to join collective farms. On these collective farms, Chinese peasant families lived in groups of 200-300 families. These families also worked together and produced agriculture for the state.

State ownership of large businesses and industry: Like Soviet communism, Chinese communist leaders also placed private business and industry under government control. Mao’s government also began using Soviet-style five-year plans to map out economic goals and production targets. By the late 1950s, Chinese production of coal, steel, cement, and electricity, all necessary for expanding Chinese industrial production, had increased. Industrial production increased at an average annual rate of 19 percent between 1952 and 1957, and national income grew at 9 percent a year.

The Great Leap Forward

By the late 1950s, Mao became upset with China’s slow pace of change. In 1958, he proclaimed that China would take a “Great Leap Forward.” Mao’s great leap led to the following:

  1. The Chinese government created new and larger collective farms that often spanned 15,000 acres with 25,000 workers. Families lived, worked, and raised their children on these farms together in communal spaces. 
  1. Families were encouraged to start backyard and home businesses that contributed to the growth of state resources. For example, people were encouraged to set up furnaces in their backyards that could smelt steel and help China achieve its goal of being one of the world’s largest steel producers.

The failure of the Great Leap Forward: The Great Leap Forward failed and led to a severe economic crisis.

  • In 1959 and 1960, the gross value of agricultural output fell by 14 percent and 13 percent, respectively, and in 1961 it dropped a further 2 percent to reach the lowest point since 1952.
  • Widespread famine occurred, especially in rural areas. From 1958 to 1961, over 14 million people died of starvation, and the number of reported births was about 23 million fewer than under normal conditions.
  • Excessive overworking of workers, the effects of the agricultural crisis, and the lack of economic coordination within China caused industrial output to plummet by 38 percent in 1961 and by a further 16 percent in 1962.

The Cultural Revolution

Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward, other communist leaders took a more active role in creating government policy and managing the Chinese state. In rural areas, families were allowed to live in their own homes away from collective farms. They could also grow their own agriculture production on individual plots of land and sell it for profit. Workers in cities began to compete for wage increases and promotions within factory and service jobs.

Mao’s role in the cultural revolution: By the early 1960s, Mao believed new Chinese government policies had moved too far from the founding ideals of communist China. In 1966, he began the Chinese Cultural Revolution by encouraging millions of young Chinese to start a new Chinese revolution. Young people left school and joined militia groups known as “Red Guards” and worked towards establishing China as an equal and classless society.

  • Government propaganda turned peasants who worked with their hands into heroes—intellectuals and artists who worked with their minds into enemies of the state. Gangs of Red Guard youth harassed scholars and artists labeled as class enemies.
  • The state forced members of these groups to move to rural villages doing hard labor to “reeducate” and “purify” their minds toward communist goals.
  • Chinese authorities and Red Guard gangs executed thousands throughout the Cultural Revolution.

The end of the Cultural Revolution: The Cultural Revolution resulted in chaos in rural and urban areas as Red Guard gangs roamed and harassed Chinese communities across the country. Chinese leadership called in the military to restore order and destroy the Red Guard gangs. The chaos and failure of the Cultural Revolution resulted in the further reduction of Mao’s power and influence in the Chinese government.