The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (39 page)

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
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Gao Gang was not named, but the message was unmistakable. Gao broke out in a sweat. Earlier that day, Moscow had announced that Beria and six of his henchmen had been executed after a six-day trial. One of Beria’s six accomplices was Sergei Goglidze, who had been chief of security in the Far East. Years later, at the Lushan plenum in September 1959, Mao revealed that Moscow had betrayed a promise not to spy on China by sending Goglidze to collude with Gao Gang.

Gao Gang was purged for ‘treachery’ and ‘splitting the party’. At a tense meeting in February 1954, Zhou Enlai was put in charge of his prosecution in the Chairman’s absence. Military security was strengthened around the residences of leaders who might have sided with Gao, while armed guards stood on alert in the conference hall. A tea boy who was allowed into the room was taken aback when he saw Zhou’s face ‘contorted into a picture of ferocity’ as he dressed down Gao. Two days later Gao tried to kill himself with a gun taken from his bodyguard, but in a brief struggle between the two men the bullet missed its target. Half a year later, despite round-the-clock surveillance, he managed to swallow enough sleeping pills to commit suicide. Rao Shushi, for good measure, was also accused of forming an ‘anti-party clique’ and was locked away. A witch-hunt followed, as other leaders were denounced and packed off to the gulag for scheming against the party.

Mao was the only one who benefited from the whole affair. Gao’s purge sent a signal to the Russians that the Chairman would not tolerate any further Soviet meddling in Chinese affairs. Gao had also served the Chairman well as an attack dog against Liu Shaoqi. Liu himself was finally reinstated, but not before grovelling in a lengthy confession at a party convention at which he threw his weight enthusiastically behind the drive to collectivise the country. The road was paved for a Socialist High Tide.


On 15 June 1953 the Chairman had announced that agriculture, commerce and industry would be fully socialised ‘in ten to fifteen years’, a position he called the General Line. But even as farmers were herded into co-operatives and ever greater amounts of food requisitioned under a grain monopoly introduced later that year, he wanted to whip up the pace of collectivisation. Under the co-operatives, farmers could still hide the grain they were supposed to sell to the state or pretend that the harvest had been a failure. They still owned the land and were in charge of their own working schedules. What Mao wanted was socialism. And socialism meant agricultural collectives in which the grain went straight from the fields into the granaries, all of it under the control of the state. Stalin had accomplished this in the Russian countryside in the early 1930s, and that was what the Chairman wished to achieve: ‘This road travelled by the Soviet Union is our very model.’

It was not the road favoured by most villagers. As we saw in the preceding chapter, the state took more food in 1954 than ever before, in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the overall crop. Famine gripped large parts of the countryside, made worse by a series of devastating floods. In the autumn of 1954, farmers were once again destroying their tools, felling trees and slaughtering their livestock. Some openly rebelled, as pitched battles were fought between villages and the security forces. In the early months of 1955, Deng Zihui, the man who had calculated that on average farmers had a third less food than before liberation, started allowing some co-operatives to disband. He did so as the head of a committee on agriculture, but not before obtaining Mao’s full consent. Mao approved some small adjustments, but he changed his mind in April, as he travelled south and saw flourishing fields by the side of the railway from the window of his personal train. In Shanghai he met with the mayor, a tall man with a bouffant hairstyle who lived in awe of Mao. Ke Qingshi told the Chairman how Deng Zihui had dampened enthusiasm for collectivisation among his men. Back in Beijing Mao warned Deng to be careful with the dissolution of co-operatives, ‘otherwise you will have to make a self-criticism’.

Over the following weeks Mao continued to attack ‘negative attitudes’ towards collectivisation. On 17 May 1955, in a meeting with provincial leaders in Hangzhou, he suggested that provinces should emulate each other in the number of new co-operatives they set up. He dismissed concerns about excessive grain requisitions: ‘When it comes to the problem of grain, there is a trend inside and outside the party that says that the situation is not right. That is wrong. The way I see it, the situation is right, it’s just that there are a few hiccups.’ In the margin of a report on co-operatives in Guangxi province, he scribbled that ‘Middle peasant claims of hardship are all fake.’ When news of forced procurements in a village in Guangdong landed on his desk, he wrote: ‘Two households who refused to sell their grain have been detained. The co-operatives are very good.’

But the slowdown continued. Some provinces ignored the Chairman’s instructions of 17 May and continued to take their cue from Deng Zihui. On 11 July Mao met with Deng and several other senior managers, trying to push for a target of 40 per cent of all villages to be turned into co-operatives by 1957. Deng would not yield. Mao spoke sarcastically: ‘You consider yourself to be familiar with peasants but you are also very obstinate!’ The meeting lasted for five hours. Still Deng refused to change his views. After the meeting, Mao confided to a colleague that Deng Zihui’s ideas ‘are so stubborn that they should be bombed by artillery’.

A warning shot across Deng’s bows came three weeks later. On 31 July 1955 Mao called for a new campaign to accelerate the transition to socialism, which would now take no more than three years. ‘A hurricane in the new socialist mass movement will soon sweep across the villages throughout the country,’ the Chairman announced. He added an ominous comment. ‘Some of our comrades are tottering along like a woman with bound feet, constantly complaining about the others: too fast, too fast! They think that excessive quibbling, unwarranted complaints, endless worries and countless precepts are the correct policy for guiding the socialist mass movement in the rural areas. No! This is not the correct policy, it is a wrong policy.’

The tone was set. A few weeks later, in the version circulated to a larger audience of party members, the term ‘hurricane’ was changed to ‘high tide’. The chief opponent to the Socialist High Tide, Mao determined, was Deng Zihui, soon to be cast aside as a ‘rightist opportunist’. Mao effectively terminated his career when speaking before the assembled heads of all provinces and large cities on 15 August. He condemned Deng’s order to slow down the pace of collectivisation as a ‘breach of party discipline’, as he had issued orders ‘without passing through the Centre, which is inappropriate’. ‘Zihui has spoken,’ Mao asked rhetorically, ‘so is his personal decision binding or the one reached by the collective leadership?’ The Chairman made clear his views on the road to socialism. ‘A tottering pace in collectivisation suits the rich peasants, it conforms to the capitalist road [they want to take].’ ‘Socialism’, he continued, ‘must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it . . . This is a war: we are opening fire on peasants with private property. Socialism by half is half a war. This is a war that takes place among a population of 500 million people, it is a war led by the communist party.’ Those landlords and rich peasants who sabotaged the co-operatives were counter-revolutionaries who should be sent to labour camps. Intellectuals like Liang Shuming, who had been branded a reactionary three years earlier for writing a letter describing the countryside as the ninth level of hell, were also counter-revolutionaries. In fact, all ‘those who complain about the state of the countryside are peasants with excess grain: Liang Shuming, Peng Yihu – there are also those inside the party’.


A high tide rose up and swept away most of the small, privately owned farms in the villages of China. The changes were dramatic. In July 1955 only about 14 per cent of the 120 million families in the countryside were members of a co-operative. Less than a year later, by May 1956, more than 90 per cent belonged to a co-operative. The majority of these were collectives. In the elementary co-operatives, launched in 1953, each farmer nominally shared his patch of land with other members, not unlike a shareholder in a corporation. Sometimes months could be spent trying to evaluate the value of the land and its potential production. Livestock, fishponds, tools and even trees were all assigned a value before being entered into a co-operative. Endless conflicts over these evaluations arose not only between cadres and the farmers, but also between villagers with different class labels. Everywhere, it seemed, poor peasants were discriminated against by those with more assets, as the dispossessed had little to contribute and everything to gain from the co-operatives. In some places bans were passed on blind people joining co-operatives. All these issues were solved by transforming the co-operatives into collectives resembling the farms in the Soviet Union. The collectives took the land from the farmers. They transformed the farmers into agricultural workers who received work points for their labour, which had to be carried out under the orders of a local cadre. This was the last stage of collectivisation. Farmers were now bonded labourers at the beck and call of the state.

More restrictions on private property appeared in March 1956. Farmers who had been enrolled in the collectives had retained the right to cultivate a small plot for their own needs, in their spare time. Now the party reduced these parcels to 5 per cent or less of the overall surface.

The effects of collectivisation on the economy were devastating. The total cropping area for food was reduced by 3 to 4 million hectares. Grain output failed to keep up with population growth. Slaughter of farm animals, which had been a continuous problem in the countryside since liberation, took on unprecedented proportions. And just as in the cities a campaign against counter-revolutionaries unfolded after the arrest of Hu Feng in June 1955, so in the countryside the High Tide unleashed a wave of terror, as local cadres arrested people by the hundreds of thousands. As Mao had made clear over the summer, it was a war on ‘peasants with private property’.

But the High Tide was not confined to the countryside alone. In 1956 most of industry and commerce were nationalised. This, too, was accomplished in the midst of terror. Among the party leaders toppled in the wake of the Gao Gang affair was Pan Hannian, the powerful deputy mayor of Shanghai. He and Yang Fan, the chief of security in Shanghai, were arrested in May 1955. Their purge sent shivers through the business community. ‘If officials who had been as powerful as he and Yang Fan were unable to command security in the new regime, what chance had we?’ wondered Robert Loh. It was well known in the business community that Pan Hannian and other senior officials who vanished overnight had been very close to industrialists like Rong Yiren and Guo Dihuo. They visited each other. They held parties at which musicians were hired, singing along to old tunes of Beijing opera. Pan, ‘always well dressed and well mannered’, played bridge with Rong. His wife came from a family of bankers closely linked to Guo. All this took place after Mao’s attack on the bourgeoisie in 1952, when Rong had been reduced to tears on a public stage, forced to proclaim his shame over his family’s exploitative past.

With Pan Hannian and Yang Fan removed, Rong could no longer rely for security on his friendship with high officials. His hand shaking, he went through a photo album taking out every photo that included Pan and burning it. Many others like him were affected, in one way or another, by the removal of hundreds of thousands of people declared in 1955 to be ‘counter-revolutionaries’. Just outside the city of Shanghai, in Jiangsu province, over 30,000 people were arrested and a further 15,000 purged for listening to short-wave radios, spreading rumours, hiding weapons, sabotaging work in factories or pasting counter-revolutionary slogans on walls. From top to bottom of the social scale, terror once again gripped the cities.

The time had come for Rong Yiren and others to hand over the keys of their enterprises to the state. But the Chairman wanted them to do so voluntarily. So later in October 1955 he invited representatives of trade and commerce to a meeting in the Yihetang Hall in Zhongnanhai, soliciting their advice. He listened carefully, occasionally expressing concern, as Rong and others begged for a Socialist High Tide in industry. Rong gave a long speech, reviewing the history of his own textile mills, which would have been doomed had it not been for liberation. Whatever reservations he and others had harboured against state intervention in the following years had been completely misplaced. Rong was full of hope for the future of the People’s Republic under the correct guidance of the Communist Party of China. There was only one snag. Rong felt frustrated by his inability to contribute more to the cause of socialism. ‘Although my enterprise is already under joint private–state ownership, I am not satisfied. I want to go further on the road to ownership by the whole people . . . We want to walk towards communism.’ More speeches by other captains of industry followed. Mao smiled. The occasion was followed by a dinner.

Back in Shanghai, Rong, who was one of the leaders of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, prepared his fellow industrialists for nationalisation. When they were ready, the Chairman came through Shanghai. To mark the occasion, Rong offered his Shenxin Number Nine Mill to the Chairman. Mao was delighted. Then came a meeting with eighty leading businessmen at the Sino-Soviet Friendship Hall, the gleaming new structure towering above all other buildings in Shanghai. This occasion, too, was full of gravitas, as the doors swung open and the Chairman slowly walked into the hall, his face beaming with a benevolent smile. The audience gasped, stiffening with surprise. ‘He smiles often, and his expression is usually friendly and mild. He gives the impression of being a kindly, simple, honest peasant.’ The Chairman puffed occasionally on his cigarette. The entrepreneurs were nervous, but Mao put them at their ease. ‘Why don’t you smoke?’ he asked them calmly. ‘It won’t hurt you. Churchill has smoked throughout his long life and he is in good health. In fact, the only man I know who doesn’t smoke but has lived long is Chiang Kai-shek.’ They all laughed. The tension dissipated. ‘Now I have come from Beijing to seek your advice,’ he went on. Many businessmen, he said, had been requesting that the socialist transformation of private enterprise should be hastened, lest the national bourgeoisie lag behind in progress towards socialism. Robert Loh, who was in the audience, describes what happened next: ‘One by one, responding to the cues of the Chairman, the leading industrialists asked that socialism be introduced with the least delay possible. They vied to outdo each other in flattery. Mao listened for two hours.’

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
12.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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