The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (10 page)

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
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Many of the women were sent to a re-education camp. Here, as elsewhere in the country, they were made to follow a strict penal schedule, spending much of their time in study sessions denouncing the mistreatment they had suffered under the old regime. But few conformed to the image of the contrite prostitute projected by propaganda. A fair number were restive and quarrelsome, while a few insulted or physically assaulted the cadres in charge of their re-education. They denounced the manual labour they were forced to perform as a new form of exploitation, apparently unhappy to spend their days locked away, sewing olive-green shirts for the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army. Cao Manzhi, one of the cadres in charge of the whole operation, later admitted that even those inmates who came from low-class brothels did not like being interned and missed their life as prostitutes. But most settled down once they realised that resistance was futile. The majority were sent back to inland areas. Brothels that had managed to survive were finally raided on 25 November 1951. Even at that stage some of the women attacked the cadres in charge of the arrests.

Prostitution was soon proclaimed to be an evil of the past. But in Beijing alone 350 women, some of them only recently released from re-education camps, were soon plying their trade again. Only a handful did so because they could not make a living otherwise. Some pretended to be students or housewives, accompanied by small children and mothers-in-law for cover. A few even wore party uniforms and carried badges. They stood in the doorways openly soliciting customers: ‘Come in for a cup of tea!’ In other cities too, prostitution went underground. As hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees fled the countryside after liberation, women continued to sell sex in the cities. In Shanghai hundreds of them were arrested in 1952, the women becoming more adept at hiding their activities with every new sweep. In the following years the authorities would adopt much more draconian measures to stamp out vice.

If disposing of vagrants and prostitutes was a challenge, handling the several million refugees, disbanded soldiers and unemployed in the cities represented an even bigger task. In batch after batch, they too were sent back to the countryside, which became the great dumping ground for all undesirable elements. But few wanted to leave the cities where they had rebuilt their lives, however precarious. In Shanghai only one in ten agreed to be repatriated to a village.

In Nanjing an even smaller fraction co-operated. Some steadfastly refused to be resettled, and objected to the military approach used in the dispersal plan. But despite all their objections, a third of a million people – equivalent to a quarter of the population – were sent away from the old regime’s capital. The majority were dispatched to Shandong, Anhui and northern Jiangsu, but some ended up working on reclamation projects. More than 14,000 undesirables, mainly beggars, were destined for ‘production training camps’.

According to the party line, people were supposed to have a home village, but in reality many had been away for decades and had no relatives or friends left. The idea was that they could till the land, but all too often they were discriminated against as outsiders and given tiny plots of unfertile land that no local farmers wanted. A few missed out on land reform altogether and became local outcasts. Many clandestinely tried to make their way back to the cities.

Hundreds of thousands of demobilised soldiers, petty thieves, beggars, vagrants and prostitutes were also sent to help develop and occupy the resource-rich, politically strategic north-west, a region bordering India, Mongolia and the Soviet Union. From Beijing alone, by the end of 1949, close to 16,000 people were sent to Xinjiang and Gansu. Many objected. One beggar refused to join a work team, arguing that ‘Beijing is my hometown. How can I go to the north-west and reclaim wasteland?’ In one case a group of disbanded soldiers rebelled before being sent out to the frontier regions. They took control of the re-education camp where they had been confined and ran away in groups. So summary were the decisions made about relocation that in one case eighty-seven individuals, all classified as elderly or invalided, were sent to Ningxia to reclaim wasteland.

Many of those who arrived in the north-west were forced to live in holes in the ground and made to do hard labour all day long, levelling sand dunes, planting trees and digging irrigation ditches. One woman remembered how she was lured to the region with tales of hot water and electricity in every house. After she and other migrants arrived they were told: ‘Comrades, you must prepare to bury your bones in Xinjiang.’

On paper the plan was straightforward: empty the cities of undesirables, reform all parasites and create employment. But it was a huge task, made no easier by a deep ideological suspicion of cities overall (‘Shanghai is a non-productive city. It is a parasitic city,’ complained one newspaper in 1949).
The problem was that for every batch of people the authorities shipped away, another group covertly managed to find their way back to the city. In October 1950, up to 2 million refugees were on the road after floods caused havoc in Anhui province. In Nanjing alone 340 people arrived every day from the countryside. Whether young or old, many had to beg and steal to survive. In Shanghai the refugees slept, cooked and relieved themselves on the streets as every available camp, prison or reformatory built by the authorities since 1949 was already overcrowded.


The situation was compounded by steady increases in unemployment in the first couple of years of the takeover, notwithstanding extravagant promises made to workers during the heady days of liberation, when they were heralded as ‘masters of the country’ ready to ‘take charge’.
Entrepreneurs and industrialists, on the other hand, were also deceived by the new regime’s rhetoric of inclusion in the name of New Democracy, a slogan that promised co-operation with all except the most hardened enemies of the regime. As part of this window-dressing, a small number of non-communist parties like the Democratic League were co-opted and allowed to take part in a Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body that met at the same time as the National People’s Congress.

It all started well enough. Years of destruction, inflation and corruption had severely disrupted the economy. Communication networks were badly damaged, and the railway tracks were in disarray. Areas where local power stations had been bombed or coal stocks were low lacked electricity. So the most immediate task in the cities was salvage rather than construction. In Beijing, Tianjin, Wuhan and Shanghai, the barricades erected by the fleeing nationalists were removed from the streets. Shell-damaged sites were cleared, burned-out houses pulled down, concrete fortifications and pillboxes levelled. Building debris was used to fill bomb craters. In Changchun and other besieged cities tens of thousands of bodies were thrown into collective pits. The streets were disinfected. Everywhere telephone lines went up – sometimes a military network running side by side with the restored civil installations. Sunken ships that blocked rivers and harbours were removed. Where generators had been damaged, technicians were helped by the army to repair the machines and mend cables. Railway lines were double-tracked and bridges repaired.

Inflation, though never fully curbed, was at least brought under control. The People’s Republic issued its own People’s Dollar, called the
, and made it the only medium of exchange. Trade in its rivals – greenbacks, silver dollars and gold – was tolerated for a few months, but then the money-changers were forced to close their doors. In Shanghai a massive rally of half a million people denounced gold dealers and other traders as so many speculators. Thousands of students were mobilised to harangue the population against hoarding silver dollars. They kept watch on the bazaars and policed the pavements where foreign coins used to change hands.

Soon the hand of the state started to curb other economic activities. Giant state trading corporations controlled raw materials, severely circumscribing the scope of private enterprise. Organised on a regional basis, these corporations entered into barter agreements to transfer goods from surplus areas to places of scarcity. In one example, the North China Trading Company exchanged cloth, yarn, kerosene, gasoline, caustic soda and glass for cotton, peanut oil and tobacco from the Central China Trading Company. Many of them also ran state shops and co-operatives, designed to check speculative price increases in a whole range of commodities, from foodstuffs, cloth, farming tools, household equipment, hardware, soap, matches and sugar to stationery.

In many ways the regime merely extended to the rest of the country the way it ran its economy in the regions it controlled before liberation, but this trend was further accelerated by the very effective blockade of the ports imposed by Chiang Kai-shek. Cities such as Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou depended on maritime trade. They could no longer obtain the coal, cotton, steel or oil for their factories or the spare parts for their machines. And as they could not buy from abroad, neither could they sell abroad. All of Shanghai’s trade had to be switched from foreign markets to the interior of the country.

But even without the blockade the economy would have been paralysed. The regime had made no secret of its hostility to foreign governments, with the exception of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Foreign trade was now in the hands of government agencies, and the rate of the
was artificially high, meaning that exports were not very attractive on the international market. Even with open ports, the complex and sophisticated industries along the coast were starved of capital. Shanghai’s industry, which represented more than half of the country’s production, was operating only partially. As one foreign observer noted, ‘Cotton spinning mills are working three days a week and have only six months’ stock in hand in spite of a big effort to replace American by Chinese cotton transported in junks from the interior. Manchurian industry, which in 1945 was the victim of Russian requisitions, is producing, according to the most reliable sources, 30 per cent of its output under the Japanese.’ But the communists were firmly set against all recourse to foreign capital, symbol of imperialist exploitation, and without adequate capital everything soon ground to a halt. They were forced to seek a massive loan from the Soviet Union.

Instead of receiving the material incentives promised by the party, workers were exhorted to produce more. But the workers, ironically, were the most restive group among the population. Hoping to stand at the forefront of the revolution, they demanded increased wages and better working conditions. They became so vocal that the communists introduced a new labour decree making strikes illegal. Their employers, on the other hand, protested that under the slogan of New Democracy they had been promised protection and assured that they could continue to run their enterprises on a private basis. But soon they were compelled to accept wage increases that vastly inflated the costs of labour on their balance sheets.

Heavy, variable and unpredictable taxes on everyone followed, as the regime was desperate for cash. In Beijing, where they were calculated in terms of millet, 31,400 tonnes were raised in 1946, down to 21,000 tons in 1947 and only 10,000 tonnes the following year. Within the first year of liberation the people of Beijing were asked to hand over the equivalent of 53,000 tonnes of millet. Everybody complained, from small shopkeepers driven out of business to ordinary workers unable to feed their families. In Changsha, the once thriving capital of Mao’s home province of Hunan, the average tax imposed on all 420,000 residents was 250 kilos of grain per person a year, far above the limit of 80 kilos the regime had mandated for a city of that size. In the case of private enterprise, some of the taxes were retroactive, with little reference to their income during those years. Soon the finance minister Bo Yibo himself admitted that punitive taxes, chaotically and randomly collected by cadres, had damaged commerce. A 120 per cent tax had ruined the tobacco industry.

The cadres themselves were part of the problem. They were attuned to the rigours of guerrilla warfare rather than to the intricacies of international banking and finance that were the daily routine in Shanghai, the greatest commercial centre in Asia. The metropolis was half as big again as Moscow, with a larger foreign population than any other city except New York. Before liberation it had more foreign investment than London or Paris. At first the cadres allowed the city to continue to operate independently as far as possible, but soon the very distance they cultivated from the people became a problem. They checked every bit of advice they were given for fear of error, and in any event lacked the required financial expertise to evaluate the matters brought to their attention.


They were reticent, reserved, remote. They were unreasonably cautious and suspicious and would not mix with the people. They were not gregarious, neither were they open and communicative. They were coldly correct in their official dealings, but did not want to be enlightened on the problems they were confronted with, even refusing to discuss the problems . . . They would brook no interference and encourage no suggestion. A word of counsel was considered meddling, an offer of help, officiousness. Everybody was under a stigma of doubt, even of guilt.

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
3.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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