Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries

The China Quarterly recently released it’s top ten most downloaded articles for free. Over the next few weeks I’ll summarize and comment on a few of these great articles (and save you 20+ pages of reading).

Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries
By: Yang Kuisong (link to full text)

Tom’s Summary:

Yang begins his article with the assertion that, “Power seized by violence must be maintained by violence.” The first example of this violence came just one year later with the start of the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries. The program was aimed at consolidating the Party’s power over the country that was continuing to struggle with actual counterrevolutionaries (these were actual KMT agents acting to disrupt Party control).

There were wide spread reports of arson and in Sichuan alone there were an estimated 60,000 “bandits.” These groups were seen as a threat to the Party’s control. In an effort to limit the actions of former KMT soldiers, they were required to register with the Ministry of Public Security, in exchange for leniency. By 1950 though Peng Zhen was concerned that this had become “leniency without bounds,” and that the Party should adopt a more draconian policy, like the one being used in Taiwan at the time.

Mao did not immediately take to this idea, out of fear that any act to suppress the malcontents may spark wider opposition to the Party’s rule. However, when China entered the Korean War in October 1950, Mao saw it as a chance to enact the campaign while most would be focused on the battle against the Americans. Initially, Mao agreed with Liu Shaoqi that it should be a targeted campaign, or else the masses may view the Party as “homicidal.”

By January 1951 though Mao was pushing for a much larger campaign then had been initially envisioned. It was at this time that he began directly contacting city governments and setting targets for executions. In one telegram he said that “It’s very good that you have already killed more than 3,700 (in Guangdong),” and that “The target for this year’s executions should be eight or nine thousand.” He believed this campaign was a “necessary step” and was worried that the peaceful transfer of land from landlords to peasants may allow certain “evils” to persist.

Still unsatisfied with the initial response, Mao urged local leaders to contact him directly, which served to encourage executions at all levels of gov’t. He also issued edicts allowing prefecture level gov’ts to order executions, which was a power formerly held by the provincial level governments. Mao explicitly stated in August of 1951 that a total of .1% of the population should be executed in order to rid the state of the worst class enemies. He believed that this was a reasonable target, and would not risking the killing of innocents.

Mao’s secondary motive in this campaign was to “mobilize the masses,” in a way that would  secure the Party’s power. He believed that if they only executed enemies of the state, this goal would not be achieved, and so the definition of “counterrevolutionary” was expanded to include enemies of the masses, e.g. landlords and local tyrants. It was after this change that people began supporting the campaign in mass. There were numerous reports of crowds cheering executions and mutilating the bodies afterward.

This meant that the campaign had became a means of exacting revenge on neighbors. Even by Party estimates 10% of the charges were complete fabrications, and later 79% of those convicted were exonerated.

By mid 1951, the Party was beginning to realize that once the campaign had begun it was increasingly difficult to control. Mao re-consolidated the power of execution under the central gov’t and reduced the punishment of many crimes to re-education through labor. These actions seemed to have little effect, and Mao was complicit in the idea that these executions were necessary to satisfy the rage of the masses. His efforts simply meant that fewer executions were publicized.

By the end of 1953 over 712,000 people had been officially executed, which was .124% of China’s total population (500 million at the time). Most of these happened in rural areas, which should have contained fewer class enemies than the urban areas. It had also exceeded Mao’s target of .1%. In Fujian province, roughly .25% of the population was executed during this time.

Nevertheless the Party considered the campaign a success. It had mobilized the masses and eliminated all signs of dissent. This also laid the foundations for further “class enemy” campaigns, and introduced the idea of quantifying the scale of suppression through quotas.

Tom’s Reaction:

This article left me a bit shaken. I had hoped that there were at least a few years under Mao that not been total tragedies, or that perhaps his ambitions were pure but that they had been lost somewhere in the line of command. However it is abundantly clear that from at least 1950, Mao had completely disregarded the value of human life in his pursuit of consolidated power.

To put this into perspective; China currently executes about 2,000 prisoners per year, which is more than the rest of the world combined. It would take more than 350 years for them to match what was done in the first three years of Mao’s reign.

Secondly, it reminds me of a quote from Fei Xiaotong, that sticks out regularly in my mind, “The party would be willing to sacrifice the nation for their own gain (referring to political parties in China in general).” I worry that these campaigns are still viewed as “successful” in that they were able to consolidate the Party’s power, and we see more recent examples of this in their response to Tian’anmen square, and the crackdown on certain religious groups that undermine the Party.

23 responses to “Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries”

  1. sinostand says:

    “It’s very good that you have already killed more than 3,700 (in Guangdong).” “The target for this year’s executions should be eight or nine thousand.”
    So nonchalantly throws out an arbitrary number of senseless murders with a thousand person margin of error. But hey, he unified China. 70% right 30% wrong. Am I right folks?!

    • Tom says:

      It’s terrifying to fully grasp how methodical Mao was in this plan. Kill too many and you might really upset people, kill too few and you risk loosing power…so .1% should get rid of the worst offenders.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I agree to a certain extent that this is terrifying, Tom. I’m going to suggest a different language, though, in light of the facts as presented in your post. In fact, Mao was not methodical at all. The nature of these campaigns was not like, for example, mass extermination campaigns in WWII Germany. What I find frightening is the degree to which the simple publication of what are no doubt arbitrarily arrived at percentages could be followed to their logical conclusion in such a vicious manner. In some ways, this reminds one more of Rwanda than Germany. The way these things played out betrays a contradiction in Mao’s thinking (and revolutionary thinking in general). He seemed to have a view of human nature that saw them as machine-like slaves to their class interests. Yet he always seemed unaware or caught off guard by the power of the forces he liked to unleash. On the other hand, arguing against myself as I like to, we might conclude the Mao was far too aware (and correct) about the destructive power of class contradictions.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        “I agree to a certain extent that this is terrifying” Make that “I agree to a certain extent with your analysis to the extent that it is terrifying.”

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Look. I’m digging a keyboard-stutter induced hole here. “I agree that this is terrifying, but not with your reasons why.” Not great, but hopefully more clear.

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    By the way, another interesting historical comparison is with extrajudicial executions in post WWII France. See the ever-reliable Wikipedia:

    • Tom says:

      Sorry Lorin, I took the time to read the wikipedia entry, and while it was not handled in accordance with the the law, what happened in France seems worlds apart from what happened under Mao. Most notably that there was no quota system established, and that legal order was established fairly shortly after the wave of violence. Perhaps the Soviet Union’s Red Terror campaign is a better comparison, and it seems that Mao was directly inspired by it (

      • Chopstik says:

        Or, perhaps a better comparison would be the French Revolution. Sorry, too lazy at the moment to go find the all-knowing Wikipedia entry for it.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        We don’t need to have an exact match on every point to make the comparison valid. At this point I’m wondering if only comparisons to other historical communist/socialist states will be considered worthwhile. It seems to me the more important point in this is the limits of state sanctioned murder and impunity. On either of these questions, all of these examples are relevant. Finally, my unequivocal position on murder and impunity is that it matters not if the criminals act on behalf of democratic or totalitarian states.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    And my final comment upon reading the article.

    “This is a matter about the entire strategy in suppressing counterrevolutionaries. If our cadres do not have a clear idea about this and stick strictly to it, opportunities will be created for counterrevolutionaries, democratic personages will become discontent, and the people will not support us.” (p. 106).

    Doesn’t this sound a lot like more recently heard talk of “terrorists,” “insurgents,” and “hearts and minds”?

    • mrchopstik says:


      I just want to clarify something because your posts occasionally leave me wondering. Are you suggesting that the things done by the Party unto its citizens are excusable since it seems evident to you that the same things are done in democratic nations (which is, in and of itself, something of a fallacy since things like this done in democratic nations at least have a hope of being redressed – something that will never occur in China so long as the Party maintains power)?

      And trying to argue Mao’s intent (something I’ve occasionally been guilty of myself) is not helpful since it is almost impossible to know the intent of a given individual and you are merely arguing facts often taken out of context – in other words, it’s easy to view Mao’s actions as right or wrong after the fact when history has shown how they worked out. Trying to picture what he hoped to accomplish before he set his plans in motion is far more difficult. Though the fact that he failed to learn from (or change) his actions based on previous experiences suggests he either deliberately was either stupid (which seems hard to believe) or indifferent to (or enjoyed) the suffering of those who were subjected to his actions or perhaps that he viewed his goal for the nation as higher than that of any other individual – save himself. (See, now I’ve gone and done the exact same thing! I must be stupid, too.)

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I’ll try to clarify without going on for too long.

        First, no, I’m not trying to excuse anything. I’m trying to understand better what went on in the past. I would think that I don’t need to explain that I find indiscriminate killing a happy thing. The comparison to the France after WWII I find interesting because it is reasonably close in time to the campaign to which the article refers. There was a degree of “revolutionary” fervour in the anti-collaborator campaign the followed liberation and the degree of deaths was not trivial. I’m also making a parallel with the kind of killing that can go on at the urging of governments. As far as I know, those killings have never been seriously redressed, but I’m no expert on French history. I mentioned Rwanda because the horror that went on in that case were incited through extant social tensions. As to the crimes of George W., for the most part those occurred on foreign soil, which means, I suppose, we’ll not ever see those redressed.

        In terms of Mao’s intent, I’m not trying to read his mind any more than is the author of the article to which Tom refers. I really just wanted to point out how Mao was far from “methodical” in picking and choosing how people should die and how. That is the essence of the article, which is unambiguous about Mao’s lack of a role in the actual killing. Indeed, imagining blood dripping from Mao’s mouth doesn’t help us to understand how leaders like him manage to get others to do the hands on dirty work of revolution and governance. Of course it is easy to see that Mao was wrong or incompetent or criminally negligent after the fact. As to his goals, we don’t have to guess at that. He really did want to crush counterrevolutionaries. As the article discusses, he was even more interested in the pedagogical effect of “making revolution” and its usefulness in in uniting the nation. That he used this method again and again speaks to his belief in it. Unfortunately, it probably also speaks to the effectiveness of this method in the maintenance of power.

      • Chopstik says:

        Sorry, was reading my email backwards and saw your first response last. *sigh*

        I didn’t mean to imply that you found indiscriminate killing a happy or positive thing. My question was directed more to the tendency to point out similar events in “democratic” nations which would then imply an excuse of similar behavior in China or by the Party, etc. Honestly, I don’t think that is your intention but I have found that to be my first reaction at times reading some of your posts. But I also understand how easy it is to do that as I’ve been known to do it myself. However, I think that we would both agree that such things are wrong regardless of where it occurs or who would perpetrate such actions.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Good lord. Never write a post on your way out of the office. “…I find indiscriminate killing an UNhappy thing.”

      • Chopstik says:

        I can relate to that, Lorin. 🙂

        And I figured that was the case but sometimes it’s easy to miss something using this medium.

  4. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  5. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout…About TomAbout Yaxue CaoAbout CaseyComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China中文 ← Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries […]

  6. Miller says:

    Thanks for the summary, Tom. I hadn’t heard about the difficulties with the KMT before. Obviously, it eventually had about as much to do with some of what was done as terrorists did with America’s invasion of Iraq, but it provides a different perspective from traditional narratives that usually don’t touch on the continued effort to consolidate power and authority after the end of the Chinese civil war.

  7. Sascha says:

    thanks for the essay and the heads up tom, I will also write about some of these as well. if you like, send me a PM and let me know which ones you are doing and I’ll do others?

  8. Harland says:

    Hopefully OWS will do the same thing to the 1%…

  9. […] Part of a continuing series of journal article summaries. You can also read my summaries on The regulation of religion in China and Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counter-revolutionaries.   […]

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  11. […] Many of the interviewees knew other believers who were executed by blood thirsty mobs and government officials trying to fill execution quotas. They endured harsh physical labor and public scorn for a God they had only recently come to know. […]

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