The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (9 page)

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
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The communists had little choice but to ask former government servants and puppet policemen to stay on. In each department – the post office, the city hall, the police headquarters – some of the top officials of the old regime slipped away while a few new faces appeared. These were the party cadres, charged with overseeing the takeover:


The typical bureaucrat of the regime in his blue or khaki uniform, like a soldier’s, topped by a cloth cap which he often wears even in the office, resembles a Soviet Commissar much more than a Chinese official. He lives frugally . . . He is a poor man and is clothed, fed and housed by the party. His tobacco and his soap are given to him on the official ration, and he hardly earns enough in a month to buy himself a pair of shoddy sandals. He sleeps on the floor, and in requisitioned European buildings he rejects the soft mattresses that would prevent him from sleeping. He is distant with strangers and, apart from those few men who are appointed to deal with ‘foreign relations’, he is inaccessible. He insists that other Chinese speak to him in the Peking tongue, now more than ever the official language of the whole country, and not in the local dialect of Shanghai or elsewhere.


Former employees of the old government continued to perform most of the daily routines. In 1945 the nationalist police had begun registering households and handing out identity cards in the cities under their control. A household was not just a family: it could include any collective unit like a factory dormitory or a hospital department. The new regime now took over the system of household registration, initially decried by the communists as ‘fascist’, but gave it a new twist. Food-ration cards were entrusted to the head of each household – a family head, a factory manager or a temple’s abbot – and that person was now made responsible for reporting all changes in the constitution of the household. The rationing and distribution of food on the basis of the registration system entailed a staggering amount of paperwork, as each police station had to issue ration coupons several times a month. But it ensured that the state could reach into each and every household as never before.

On top of household registration, every individual was given a class label (
), including his or her ‘family background’, ‘occupation’ and ‘individual status’. There were roughly sixty of these labels, which were further divided into broader class categories. These, in turn, were ranked as ‘good’, ‘middle’ and ‘bad’ on the basis of their presumed loyalty towards the revolution:


Good classes:

Revolutionary cadres

Revolutionary soldiers

Revolutionary martyrs

Industrial workers

Poor and lower-middle peasants


Middle classes:

The petty bourgeoisie

Middle peasants

Intellectuals and professionals


Bad classes:


Rich peasants



These class designations would soon be simplified into two opposites: red or black, friend or foe. They would determine a person’s fate for decades to come, as children inherited the status of the head of the household.

The police first arrested the regime’s most obvious enemies – presumed war criminals, heads of secret societies, prominent leaders of the old regime who had not yet absconded. But soon those belonging to ‘bad classes’ became suspects, as the communists tried to hunt down hidden enemies of the revolution, undercover agents and enemy spies. China, after all, remained at war. Despite all the victory parades, the last parts of the mainland were not liberated until the end of 1950. The nationalists controlled most of the country’s territorial waters, and imposed a blockade on all ports from the summer of 1949 onwards. They used their air force to bomb thousands of junks and sampans assembled along south China’s coast for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, and carried out bombing raids against cities along the coast, from Shanghai all the way to Guangzhou, causing hundreds of casualties even though their targets were supposed to be military and industrial in nature. Arms, ammunition, food and other vital supplies were flown to guerrilla troops operating in Guangxi and other parts of the country. Secret agents seemed to be working ceaselessly, even though they were often captured, while special forces from Taiwan carried out commando raids along the coast, fuelling popular rumours of an impending invasion by Chiang Kai-shek.

A curfew was imposed in the cities. In Shanghai, cars and other vehicles were banned from the streets after 9 p.m. and pedestrians after 11 p.m. Sentinels were stationed at every street corner with rifles and bayonets.
Newspapers and radio relentlessly publicised the underground activities of the dreaded enemy, while propaganda posters exhorted the population to vigilance. The enemy seemed to be everywhere. In Tianjin a common slogan was ‘Liberate the Entire Country and Capture the People’s Enemy Chiang Kai-shek Alive’.

People were encouraged to write to the police or the newspapers. Neighbours and friends denounced each other, often in the hope of reward. Almost overnight half the population seemed to have become communist. ‘Everybody claimed to be a guerrilla, a soaking-red partisan,’ noted a foreign observer in Shanghai, as people scrambled to prove their allegiance to the new regime.
Those belonging to ‘bad classes’ were visited by the police, interrogated about their past, quizzed about their links with foreigners and sometimes subjected to house searches in the hunt for suspect documents or concealed weapons. Soon even possession of an innocuous radio began to seem suspicious. In Shanghai alone, thousands of sets were confiscated, as well as guns and ammunition.

There were no mass executions: these would come later. But behind the scenes, the new regime’s most dangerous enemies were quietly gaoled or executed. Others were registered, interrogated and kept under surveillance. In Shanghai, several hundred so-called ‘counter-revolutionaries’ – spies, underground agents, criminal bosses – were shot in the months after December 1949. In Hebei province, away from the inquisitive gaze of onlookers, more than 20,000 suspects were executed in the first year of liberation. Soon, the killing rate would rocket everywhere.

Yet for the time being even people with dubious backgrounds, from the regime’s point of view, remained largely undisturbed. Most of the professionals – professors, clerks, bankers, lawyers, managers, doctors, engineers – were too vital to a regime trying to establish its authority and build up the economy. But the time for laughter and song was over. All of them were sent to schools to learn the new orthodoxy. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, people were being ‘re-educated’, poring over official pamphlets, magazines, newspapers and textbooks and learning the new doctrine. ‘Everyone is learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans.’ It was called ‘brainwashing’ (
). From Beijing to Guangzhou, cities became giant adult-education centres. Banks, big shops and commercial offices had their own dedicated libraries. People were asked to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’.

Those with a suspect past had to write confessions, admitting all their personal faults and past mistakes. Sometimes a simple admission of wrongdoing could suffice, while more serious public recantations appeared in the newspapers controlled by the party. A few were summoned to appear before large audiences where they were forced to recount their sins and express contrition for them for hours on end. Another weapon was discussion. Recalcitrant individuals were worn down by interminable debates. Some were locked up in their offices and visited by a steady stream of cadres and political instructors determined to break down all resistance and win the argument. In every case the admission of guilt was added to the person’s dossier, which would follow him for the rest of his life.


More vulnerable were classes of people the regime perceived as threats to social order and drains on its resources. They were called ‘lumpenproletariat’ in Marxist parlance, but ‘parasites’ and ‘trash’ by the cadres who had to deal with them: paupers, beggars, pickpockets and prostitutes, but also the millions of refugees and the unemployed who had come to seek shelter in the cities during the civil war. Many urban residents, who craved a return to social order after the chaotic years of civil war, welcomed these measures. Some, however, feared that the cities might be emptied.

In Beijing, the communist troops charged with taking over the prisons found most of them empty. To save food and heat, the municipal authorities had ordered the large-scale release of inmates a few months earlier. On the streets of the capital, some beggars thought that they were quite literally ‘liberated’: they roved the streets killing dogs, smashing windows and blackmailing shopowners, with some of them managing to make the equivalent of 8 to 10 kilos of grain a day. Rickshaw pullers, on the other hand, took ‘liberation’ as a licence to flout the traffic regulations, causing mayhem on the streets. Thousands of them were rounded up and confined in makeshift camps on the outskirts of the city. By the end of 1949, some 4,600 vagrants languished in re-education centres and government reformatories.

Like everybody else, they were asked to reflect on their sins, study the new orthodoxy and learn a different trade. Many made the best of their internment, but others sank into depression, despite all the propaganda about their ‘liberation’. As one report noted, ‘because they feel so miserable and unhappy they feign madness, act crazy and attempt to run away. There are even some small children who cry all the time, begging to be allowed to go home.’ A few refused to be re-educated. Liu Guoliao, enrolled in a training course for vagrants, was a proud man, stubbornly proclaiming, ‘My head is made of steel, bones and cement. It is beyond reform.’

Conditions in the reformatories were often dreadful. Abuse was rife. In the western suburbs of Beijing, guards stole food and clothing and regularly beat the people they were meant to reform. As a detailed investigation brought to light, some of the children in detention were sodomised. The nurses could be careless, sometimes even brutal, particularly when using syringes. People died every month, the death rate being especially high among the elderly.

In Shanghai too, thousands of thieves, vagrants and rickshaw pullers were arrested and sent to labour camps. Arrests came in waves. In a mere three days in December 1949 more than 5,000 beggars and pickpockets were arrested and deported to custody centres. Many were selected for re-education and sent to training units, but large numbers also ended up in prison. In Tilanqiao, as Ward Road Gaol was now known, by May 1951 over 3,000 undesirable elements had been imprisoned or sent to labour camps in the countryside. Several dozen were executed or died in custody.

People who eked out a living as pedlars and hawkers were also cleared from the streets. In republican China, all manner of goods were delivered to the door, usually carried in baskets, swung from shoulder poles or carted on wheelbarrows, occasionally in donkey panniers. Each hawker had his own peculiar chant or mechanical rattle to advertise his wares. Vendors and itinerant traders also stood on pavement corners, offering every possible item from local fruit and vegetables, cloth, crockery, baskets, coal, meat, toys, sweets and nuts to soap, socks, handkerchiefs and towels.

Within months they were rounded up, questioned and sent back to their home villages. A few were allowed to remain, but prohibited from roaming the streets. Open-air markets were organised where they were assigned stalls to sell their wares. One such market in Tianjin was on a tract of wasteland. A vast marquee built with bamboo went up in two days, and in another day the whole place was walled and roofed with matting. Pitches were marked out and tables and benches appeared. A funfair was organised to attract buyers, as jugglers, tightrope walkers, actors and singers kept the market packed. But the sights and sounds of hawkers trading their goods from door to door largely belonged to the past.

Brothels were closed. In Beijing they were raided by 2,400 police officers on 21 November 1949. Over a thousand women and several hundred owners, procurers and pimps were arrested at a stroke. The re-education camps were already so crowded that the women were locked up in a cluster of decommissioned brothels on Hanjiatan, in the very heart of the city’s erstwhile red-light district. They too were put to work and made to attend study sessions examining the evils of feudalism as well as vocational training classes. In order to make a clean break with the past, they were taken to large assembly halls where they had to denounce their former employers, who were often standing on the platform wearing shackles.

Similar scenarios were enacted elsewhere. Between October 1949 and January 1950, Suzhou, Bengbu, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Tianjin, among other cities, stamped out prostitution. In Shanghai a more gradual approach was adopted: the brothels were slowly starved of customers by increasingly stringent regulations. First banquets, gambling, soliciting and rowdy behaviour were prohibited, then all past contracts between the women and the owners were declared void. The police applied relentless pressure, using an inventory compiled by the previous regime listing the address and registration number of each known brothel. Every time one of the 930 or so establishments closed, the address was struck from the list. Several brothel keepers were executed as a warning to others. News of their execution was printed in bold with black borders. Many owners voluntarily handed over the premises, often for lack of customers. Some returned to their home villages, others became tailors, cigarette sellers or even freight hauliers.

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
6.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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