The first three years of the Peoples Republic of China were a time of momentous change that seemed to confirm that the intentions of the regime and aspirations of the mainly peasant population.
Mao started by introducing a 5 year plan to help turn China around, and help its industry recover from the long war that had affected it for so long. Mao focused on heavy industry, mainly steel and coal, as these would be the main materials needed to rebuild the areas destroyed by years of fighting. As a result, light industry was neglected, and towns and cities began to expand at a very fast rate. The first 5 year plan proved a great success for China.
In April 1950, Mao introduced a marriage law, ending some of the worst aspects of a woman’s life;
* Arranged Marriage
* The Marriage of children
* The killing of unwanted female babies
* Ownership of property became equal
* Divorce by mutual consent
For the first time in Chinas history, men and women were both treated as equals.
In June 1950 the “Agrarian reform law” was introduced. This meant that the rebuilding of “liberated” areas which had been bombed previously, and also the sharing of land which was taken from the old “landlords” and shared out between the peasants. Peasants were encouraged to join lower-stage cooperatives, where around 30 to 50 families shared all the tools and resources they had with everyone else, and the land they were given was on permanent loan to the cooperative. In more built up areas, people were encouraged to join higher stage cooperatives, where 200 to 300 families shared all they had with each other. The main difference from the lower stage cooperatives was that the higher stage cooperatives didn’t own the land they worked on, but instead they were paid a wage. By the end of 1956, 95 out of every 100 peasant families had joined a higher stage coop, and this meant that once again, the landed were now landless again.
By this stage, the communists had started to lose their early popularity, and as a result Mao proposed that the only way forward was to allow the people to have free speech and discussion; ‘A hundred flowers bloom’ to quote ancient Chinese philosophy. As the people had free speech, some revolutionists started to speak out against Mao and the communists, and it all started to hit too close to home. Some revolutionaries and critics were arrested and sent for “thought reform”, while others were sacked from their jobs.
Following the great success of the first 5 year plan Mao introduced a second known as “The Great Leap Forward”. This would see China surpass Britain and the US economically and this would be achieved “through the power of the masses who could accomplish any task whatsoever”.
To harness this potential the population would be organised into communes. These varied in size, but on average contained around 5000 families. As part of a Commune you gave up all your land, animals and equipment to common ownership. Communes were organised so that nothing could distract the people from their work. Communal eating halls were set up while children were put into nurseries and schools.
Communes controlled every aspect of a persons’ life, it was a unit of local government with party members and soldiers running schools, clinics, nurseries, eating halls, entertainments and other public services, while a party committee made sure that the commune followed all the parties’ decisions. This was then followed by a whole horde of party propaganda. Posters, slogans and newspaper articles urged the Chinese to work long hours, whatever the weather conditions.
The backyard steel campaign was of particular importance and seemed to highlight the success of the regime as production exceeded 11 million tonnes after 1958. Other industries also showed dramatic increases in their production. Coal, timber, cement and bumper harvests in cotton and grain were recorded.
However, this was a false dawn. Chaos began to reign ‘on a grand scale’. The backyard steel campaign in particular proved to be a complete disaster. The quality of the steel proved to be impure, fit only for scrap. Worse still, one in ten people were employed in the industry, which meant that there were not enough workers to man the fields resulting in failing harvests. Matters became even worse in 1959 – 60 when bad weather decimated the crops, resulting in the mass starvation of 9 million peasants in 1960 alone. Rationing was introduced, but it was too late. The Great Leap Forward was a huge disaster, responsible in no small part for the deaths of 20 million peasants between 1959 to 1963.
In conclusion, Mao began with all the right intentions for China, freeing its people from the harsh taxes and conditions of the KMT, but eventually he realised freeing the people and giving them the freedom of speech would have its repercussions. As a result, he became extremely controlling and eventually doing more ham than good to the people of China.