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)
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.
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.