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The People's Republic, Transformation of the Economy and Society

struggle sessions, Wealthy landowners, imperial China, grain market, land reform

During the first few years of Communist leadership, the new government reorganized nearly all aspects of Chinese life. To revive the economy, which had been disrupted by decades of warfare, the CCP adopted measures to curb inflation, restore communications, and reestablish the domestic order necessary for economic development. The government also orchestrated campaigns and struggle sessions to mobilize mass revolutionary enthusiasm and remove from power those likely to obstruct the new government. In the 1951 campaign against individuals who had been affiliated with KMT organizations or had served in its army, tens of thousands were executed and many more sent to labor reform camps.

The CCP made fundamental changes to society. New marriage laws that prohibited men from taking more than one wife and interference with remarriage by widows assured women of a more equal position in society. Women also received equal rights with respect to divorce, employment, and ownership of property. The CCP made every effort to control the spread of ideas. Through the press and through schools, the government directed youth to look to the party and the state rather than to their families for leadership and security. The CCP assumed strict control over religion, forcing foreign missionaries to leave the country and installing Chinese clerics willing to cooperate with the Communists in positions of authority over Christian churches. Intellectuals were made to undergo specialized programs of thought reform directed toward eradicating anti-Communist ideas.

Government takeover of businesses undermined the power of the urban-based capitalists who had gained influence under the KMT. To make use of their expertise, however, the government often enlisted previous business owners to manage companies. The government’s first five-year plan, initiated in 1953 and carried out with Soviet assistance, emphasized the expansion of heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods.

Through the progressive socialization of Chinese agriculture (making ownership of land collective, not individual or family), the landowning elite was eliminated, the source of its income and influence abolished. As the CCP took control of new areas, it taught the peasants in those areas that social and economic inequalities were not natural but rather a perversion caused by the institution of private property. Wealthy landowners were not people of high moral standards but were exploiters.

To create a new communal order where all would work together unselfishly for common goals, the Communists first redistributed property. Their usual method was to send a small team of cadres (party administrators) and students to a village to cultivate relations with the poor, organize a peasant association, identify potential leaders, compile lists of grievances, and organize struggle sessions. Eventually the inhabitants would be classified into five categories: landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, poor peasants, and hired hands. The government then would confiscate the holdings of landowners, and sometimes land owned by rich and middle peasants, and redistribute it more evenly. The wealthy also endured struggle sessions, which sometimes led to executions of landlords. This stage of land reform resulted in the creation of a castelike system in the countryside. The lowest caste was composed of the descendants of those labeled landlords, while the descendants of former poor and lower-middle peasants became a new privileged class.

Agricultural collectivization followed land reform in several stages. First, farmers were encouraged to join mutual-aid teams of usually less than 10 families. Next, they were instructed to set up cooperatives, consisting of 40 or 50 families. From 1954 to 1956 the Communists created higher-level collectives (also called production teams) that united cooperatives. At this point, economic inequality within villages had been virtually eliminated. The state took over the grain market, and peasants were no longer allowed to market their crops.

The reorganization of the countryside created a new elite of rural party cadres. Illiterate peasants who kept the peace among villagers and exceeded state production targets had opportunities to rise in the party hierarchy. This created social mobility far beyond anything that had existed in imperial China, which had only provided advancement opportunities to educated peasants. Another byproduct of the reorganization of the countryside was the extension of social services, because collectives throughout the country coordinated basic health care and primary education for their members.

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