The People’s Republic of China Was Born in Chains

The Communist Party calls 1949 a liberation. But China was far freer beforehand.

A landlord is executed near Fukang, Xinjiang, circa 1949.
A landlord is executed near Fukang, Xinjiang, circa 1949. Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On Oct. 1, 2019, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, an event referred to by the government as a liberation. It was a liberation that plunged the country into decades of Maoist cruelty and chaos.

On Oct. 1, 2019, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, an event referred to by the government as a liberation. It was a liberation that plunged the country into decades of Maoist cruelty and chaos.

China today, for any visitor who remembers the country from 20 or 30 years ago, seems hardly recognizable. One of the government’s greatest accomplishments is to have distanced itself so successfully from the Mao era that it seems almost erased. Instead of collective poverty and marching Red Guards, there are skyscrapers, new airports, highways, railway stations, and bullet trains. Yet scratch the glimmering surface and the iron underpinnings of the one-party state become apparent. They have barely changed since 1949, despite all the talk about “reform and opening up.” The legacy of liberation is a country still in chains.

Just what was China liberated from in 1949? It wasn’t the Japanese, defeated four years earlier by the Allies, including the Nationalists and their leader, Chiang Kai-shek. It wasn’t colonialism—all the foreign concessions in the country had been dissolved, some as early as 1929. The Republic of China was a sovereign state and a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Nor was it tyranny. In 1912, when China became Asia’s first republic, it had an electorate of 40 million people, or 10 percent of the population, a level of popular representation not reached by Japan until 1928 and India until 1935. Participatory politics, despite many setbacks, continued to thrive over the following decades. When the National Assembly met in May 1948, upwards of 1,400 delegates from all parts of China adopted a constitution that contained an elaborate bill of rights.

In many parts of Asia, the Republic of China was seen as a beacon of democracy, not least because of its sustained efforts to separate powers and establish an independent judicial system and promote the rule of law. Freedom of speech may have been curtailed by local strongmen, but Ta Kung Pao, China’s most important newspaper before 1949, regularly lambasted Chiang. Freedom of association was vigorously defended and led to a thriving civil society, with endless associations set up independently from the government, from imposing chambers of commerce to student unions.

China, before 1949, was more closely integrated into the global community than it is now. Several bilingual lawyers became judges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, while educated professionals were able to match their foreign peers in many other fields, ranging from avionics to zoology. But ordinary people, too, were familiar with the world beyond their community, as illustrated magazines and radio programs disseminated information about every aspect of the modern world, whether new agricultural techniques or the fluctuating price of silk on the international market. Freedom of religion was taken for granted.

The term “liberation” brings to mind cheering crowds celebrating newly won freedoms, but what happened in 1949 was the result of a long and bloody military conquest. After 1945, the Americans abandoned their wartime ally Chiang and the Nationalists, while Joseph Stalin occupied Manchuria and helped Mao Zedong turn his ragtag army of guerrilla fighters into a formidable war machine.

By 1948, the Communists began to lay siege to one city after another, starving them into surrender. Changchun, in the middle of the vast Manchurian plain north of the Great Wall of China, was blockaded for five months in 1948. The city fell after 160,000 civilians died of hunger. Unwilling to undergo the same fate, other cities capitulated soon afterward. By the end of 1949, the red flag was raised over the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Over the following years, a newly conquered public had to turn themselves into what the Communists called “New People.” They went to reeducation centers to learn the right answers, the right ideas, and the right slogans. Many of those deemed beyond redemption were slaughtered in an initial Great Terror that claimed some 2 million lives between 1949 and 1952, as victims were shot in public rallies held in stadiums or executed far away from the public eye, along rivers and ravines. In a meticulously drafted report preserved in the vaults of the Communist Party archives, Public Security Minister Luo Ruiqing proudly announced in August 1952 to Mao that 301,800 people had been executed in one year in a mere six provinces.

All organizations operating outside of the party—religious communities, charitable organizations, study societies, independent chambers of commerce, civil associations—were eliminated within a few years. By 1956, all private enterprises had been expropriated. In the countryside, the land was collectivized, while villagers lost their freedom of movement and were obliged to sell the grain to the state at government-mandated prices.

In 1958, people in the countryside were herded into huge collectives called “people’s communes,” modeled on the army with collective canteens and collective dormitories. Mao was convinced that by turning every villager into a foot soldier in one giant army, to be deployed day and night to transform the economy, he could catapult his country into the future. His experiment was called the Great Leap Forward, but it was a disaster as tens of millions of people, reduced to the status of bonded servants, were worked, beaten, and starved to death.

The catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward undermined Mao’s standing among his colleagues. His answer was to launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966, unleashing the Red Guards on all those suspected of harboring doubts about his leadership. Ten years of chaos ensued, with endless campaigns in which people were forced to denounce family, friends, and colleagues.

By the time Mao died in 1976, living standards for the population were lower than in 1949.

Hundreds of millions of people, it has often been claimed, were lifted out of poverty by the Chinese Communist Party after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1979. But it is the people who lifted themselves out of poverty after having been stripped of their land and property, deprived of their most basic freedoms, impoverished, beaten, and starved during three decades of forced collectivization. The Cultural Revolution severely battered the ranks of the Communist Party, and villagers everywhere used the opportunity to quietly reconnect with the past, as they opened black markets, shared out collective assets, took back the land, and opened underground factories. Well before Deng came to power, large parts of the countryside had already abandoned the planned economy.

But the limited economic freedoms wrenched from the state by ordinary villagers came without significant political reform. After the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the party became more determined than ever not to give up its monopoly on power. The separation of powers was explicitly ruled out by Deng, including the idea of free elections.

The party used economic growth to rebuild itself. Over the next couple of decades, relative economic freedoms came hand in hand with a determined suppression of every basic political aspiration. The institutions on which the party has relied to impose its will since 1949 have been spruced up over the decades. There is the massive Propaganda Department, which has not changed its Chinese name or its mission since 1949, although it is now conveniently translated into English as the “Publicity Department.” There is the Ministry of Public Security, which concentrates on repressing the public, and the Ministry of State Security, which concentrates on controlling party members, two behemoths that reach all the way down to every household. There is the National Bureau of Statistics, which told the world about the miracle of the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and continues to produce the numbers required by the party. And then, of course, there is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Like most organizations in the People’s Republic that invoke the people, the PLA is the exclusive instrument of the party.

In the first years of the People’s Republic, Mao successfully eliminated all organizations outside of the party’s umbrella, making sure the Chinese Communist Party was the unrivaled master of all of the country’s resources. That situation has not substantially changed, as the party remains in a position of exclusive power to extract wealth from its population. The land belongs to the state, the banks belong to the state, industry belongs to the state, and most large enterprises and companies belong to the state or are controlled indirectly by the state.

Since there is no separation of powers, there is no independent judiciary capable of protecting private property. According to the constitution, so-called “socialist public property” is “inviolable,” unlike private property. Even billionaires are unable to protect their assets, except by shipping them out of the country, as we saw a few years ago before capital controls were reinforced. Occasionally one or two billionaires disappear from view, such as the financier Xiao Jianhua two years ago, while the others scramble to prove their loyalty to the party.

During the past 40 years, ideas, goods, and people have been allowed to flow out of China in endless quantities but apparently not the other way around. “Reform and opening up,” it turns out, is more like a screen or a turnstile used to insulate the country from the outside world. Take, for instance, the number of foreigners who reside in China. A hundred years ago, there were some 350,000 of them, or close to 0.1 percent of the overall population. The number today is closer to 0.05 percent. By comparison, it is 0.2 percent in North Korea.

A one-party state is good at giving the appearance of stability during periods of economic crisis. But the government appears unable, or unwilling, to grant its promises of equality, justice, and freedom that it proclaimed—although never fulfilled—70 years ago on Oct. 1, 1949. It seems to know only one standard response to a whole range of political aspirations from its huge and very diverse population, namely repression. As it swats left, right, and center, it looks increasingly as if it has reached a dead end.

Frank Dikötter is the author of People’s Trilogy, a series of books that document the impact of communism on the lives of ordinary people in China on the basis of new archival material. He is also the chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong.