As the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary, Yvonne Gill charts a century of suppression, oppression and genocide
Communist party regimes around the world have been classic examples of modern dictatorships, often competing in ruthlessness with fascists and religious fanatics. Ironically, these regimes claim allegiance to Marx’s ideal of a society free of all forms of exploitation and subjugation, where equality and universal human values are upheld; where no master-servant, employee-employer relations exist; where freedom is not fettered by powerful wealthy oligarchs or a political elite; free of race, ethnicity or nations, hedged by imaginary geographical boundaries.
Founded in July 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ruled China with a blood-spattered iron fist since 1949. But even when it was not in power, deceit, suppression and oppression have been the hallmarks of its century-long existence.
The 100th anniversary of the CCP, celebrated with fanatical pomp by the Xi Jinping regime, conveniently glosses overthe ugly trail of death, destruction and genocide, perpetrated on a scale neverwitnessed by humankind – all in the name of establishing a ‘communist heaven on earth’.Even afterrestoration ofstate-directed capitalismin the 1980s, a coterie of CCP leaders and their families have accumulated incredible wealth, taking advantage of economic ‘reforms’ while denying civic rights and freedoms to the Chinese people.
Mao Zedong, one of the CCP’s founding members, emerged as the most powerful and ruthless communist dictator of the 20th century, after Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union. As he proceeded with the‘annihilation’ of class enemies (wealthy farmers and landlords), he also brutally supressed any challenge to his leadership from within the CCP. The overwhelming number of those who suffered or perished were Chinese – the citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Mao’s campaigns rarely hurt people beyond the PRC’s borders.
Anywhere between 49 million and 78 million Chinese are estimated to have died of starvation or in reckless countrywide campaigns launched by Mao between 1949 and 1976. China stood mute witness to purges of ‘anti-communist elements’ from the party and society, the killing and jailing of ‘spies,’ intellectuals, pro-democracy students, religious leaders and non-Han ethnic minorities.
Mao Zedong’s paranoia about stifling dissent and taking on rivals goes back to the 1930s. As the leader of the CCP’s Southwest Jiangxi Provincial Soviet, he ordered the purging of thousands of Red Army and CCP cadres, accusing them of being stooges of the nationalist Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek, China’s ruling party at the time. The mass carnage, in the form of summary executions, lasted almost a year. Three-quarters of party leaders/cadre who did not agree with Mao’s opportunist tactics were either killed or forced to flee for their lives. Mao was thus able to consolidate his grip on the party. Over the coming decades, however, he aligned with that same Kuomintang, on and off, to finally take control of China.
Having created many enemies within the armed party ranks, Mao, who was proclaimed Chairman, was always alert to any challenge to his leadership. In 1942, he called for ‘ideological rectification’ of the party from his base in Yan’an, a mountainous region of Shaanxi Province. Senior party leaders and thousands of party cadre were tortured and killed. Even their family member, including children,were branded as spies and bourgeois lackeys, and attacked.
The CCP took control of China with the massive backing of the poor peasantry in 1949. The pro-landlord KMT leaders fled to the island of Taiwan, as Mao issued a call to the peasant masses to violently seize land and other assets from well-off farmers and landlords. Hundreds of thousands, including many with small holdings, were killed in these state-backed armed insurrections that stalked the vast Chinese countryside.The hapless victims were tortured to make them reveal their hidden assets like cash, gold and jewellery, then shot or beaten to death. Many of the survivors were maimed for life.
Initially, the Soviet Union sent in thousands of engineers and workers to help build industrial and power plants across China. Soviet technology and aid made it possible for backward China to produce electricity, machinery, planes, tanks and ships. Moscow even provided Beijing with nuclear-weapons technology, which later enabled it to test the atom and hydrogen bombs. But following Stalin’s death in 1953, relations between the two communist neighbours gradually soured. The CCP denounced the Soviet leadership under Nikita Khrushchev, which had partly dismantled the tyrannical Stalinist persecution machine, as ‘revisionist traitors’ in 1961.
Diminishing Soviet aid resulted in serious economic crisis. But, despite growing disenchantment with his leadership and anti-Soviet stance, Mao – never short of revolutionary slogans–launched the Great Leap Forward programme in 1958: a four-year campaign that sought to push steel production from 5 million to 100 million tonnes,and built thousands of dams for irrigation and double agricultural yield.
Soviet-style farm collectivisation was accelerated. Peasants were forced to give up their land, which was then vested in collective farms. Everyone worked in communes, often living with their families in dormitories and eating in mass kitchens. Peasants were ordered to build and operate backyard furnaces to make steel, and counties ordered to build dams using manual labour, leaving the farming sector severely neglected.
To make matters worse, Mao launched the Four Pests’ Campaign to eradicate mosquitoes, flies, rats and sparrows, which ‘eat the grains produced by farmers’ and ‘make people sick’. People across China were mobilised in this campaign and awarded for their efforts. Hordes banged pans and drums to frighten away the birds, which flew in flocks till they dropped dead from exhaustion. With no birds, the insect population exploded, infesting farms. Locust swarms destroyed standing crops, dramatically decreasing the yield – most of which was taken away by the state to feed people in towns and cities, and for exports.
Backyard furnaces cropped up everywhere, resulting in a huge spike in pollution, with little increase in production. Unplanned damming of rivers resulting in catastrophic droughts, floods and famine. Official estimates say 15 million people died of starvation between 1959 and 1961. Starving peasants turned to wild animals, grass, bark and even kaolinite, a clay mineral, for food. Extreme hunger also drove many to cannibalism. As many as 45 million people died during the Great Leap Forward, according to historian Frank Dikötter, a Dutch historian and author of Mao’s Great Famine.
The Great Leap’s failure badly dented Mao’s image. In 1959, he was forced to resign as President of China, though he retained chairmanship of the Party. By 1966, there was widespread resentment against Mao’s policies, with rebellion bubbling within the party as well. To divert attention from his colossal failures, Mao come up with what he termed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, exhorting young people to ‘bombard the headquarters’ because the party has become ‘corrupt’ and leaders were becoming ‘capitalists’.
Mao declared that ‘to rebel is justified’. His rivals within the CCP, in factories, the government, educational and other institutions, were publicly denounced and humiliated as ‘revisionists and capitalist roaders’ who need to be removed through ‘violent class struggle’. Inspired by the Chairman’s call, overzealous youth and urban workers struck back by forming Red Guards and ‘rebel groups’ that seized power from local governments and CCP branches, and established ‘revolutionary committees’.
These young brigands unleashed a reign of terror, with mass killings to eradicate the ‘Four Olds’: old customs, culture, habits, and ideas. Those purged included leaders like Chinese president Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Peng Dehuai, He Long and Hu Yaobang. Millions of leaders, officials and party workers suffered public humiliation, beatings, imprisonment, torture and seizure of property
Intellectuals, scholars and scientists were killed. Schools, colleges and universities were closed. Over 10 million urban college students were sent to the countryside to work as farm labourers, as per the Down to the Countryside Movement. Some of the worst massacres happened in Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Guangdong, Yunnan and Hunan. People were beheaded, buried alive, hanged, disembowelled, branded with iron rods and had their tongues removed.
Many historical sites were demolished. Libraries full of historical and foreign texts were destroyed; books were burned. Temples, churches, mosques, monasteries and cemeteries were closed down and sometimes converted to other uses, or looted and destroyed. Minorities were targeted. China plunged into the worst chaos and its economy was devastated.
Ye Jianying, then Vice Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, reported at a working conference of the Central Committee of the CCP on December 13, 1978 that ‘20 million people died, 100 million people were persecuted, and 80 billion RMB was wasted’during the decade-long Cultural Revolution.
Although, after Mao’s death in 1976, the CCP tried to bring about reforms by introducing the concept of collective leadership, returning farms to peasants and allowing street vendors to sell goods, its kneejerk policy initiatives continued. In 1979, the regime launched the ‘one-child policy’, which allowed married couples to have only one child, in order to curb population growth. Women underwent forced abortions and sterilisations. Fearing persecution, people also committed infanticide. The one-child policy was discontinued in 2013, allowing for two children. This year, on May 31, the government, worried about China’s ageing population, has allowed couples to have three children.
With a gradual opening up of the economy and expansion of technical and higher education by the post-Mao leadership (Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Hu Qili, etc), young educated people began to seek political freedom. But their dreams were soon cut short.
In April 1989, university students had gatheredin Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of reformist former Chinese leader Hu Yaobang. Hu, a comrade of Deng, had been removed as party general secretary in 1987 for being tolerant of ‘bourgeois liberalisation’.
The students staged an indefinite sit-in, demanding curbs on runaway inflation, expansion of higher education, action against corrupt officials, a free press and freedom of speech. Over the next several days, as the crowds swelled, this transformed into the largest protest by citizens the regime had ever seen. The agitation, sit-ins and hunger strikes also spread to other parts of China, often turning violent.
Alarmed, Deng Xiaoping, then Chairman of the Central Military Commission, decided to crack down. On the evening of June 3, PLA tanks rolled into the city and surrounded Tiananmen Square. Thousands of protesters and bystanders were killed or injured after being crushed by tanks or shot by soldiers in the square and other parts of the city. Disorganised and with dissenters among their ranks, the students could not withstand the armed onslaught. Many soldiers and policemen were also killed or wounded in the clashes, and their vehicles gutted. No official estimates of deaths have been given to date.
The Tiananmen protests resulted in the purge of liberal leaders like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili. However, Deng still believed in developing an open-market economy, under strict state and party control. While dissent within and outside the party was vehemently crushed by Deng, who voluntarily stepped down in November 1989, the doors remained opened to large scale foreign investment and capitalist development. Big money and the latest technology rushed into China from the developed world, to profit from the availability of cheap skilled labour and the country’s vast natural resources. Consequently, China witnessed unprecedented growth. With no public accountability, officials and party bosses have been reaping the financial benefits ever since.
Reforms apart, the CCP’s iron grip has only got tighter. Religious cults and ethnic minorities, in particular, have been targets of ruthless suppression. In 1999, the Chinese government cracked down on practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual exercise that includes slow meditation and adherence to ancient moral values. Millions who practised it were sacked from jobs, expelled from schools and colleges, and jailed.
Wary of ethnic minorities creating problems, the CPP has been settling Han Chinese in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia on a large scale, and imposing Chinese culture and language on minority communities. Hundreds of thousands have been sent to re-education camps in Xinjiang and Tibet, or have been forced to quit their traditional professions to work in far-off Chinese towns and cities. Hundreds of Tibetans protesting against CCP’s bid to eradicate their culture and religion were killed in 2008. More than 150 Tibetans are reported to have self-immolated in protest against the CCP’s persecution. The Party has been accused of committing genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, including imprisoning one million people in secretive ‘political re-education’ camps.
The Xi Jinping regime uses a widespread surveillance system to monitor ethnic groups, Tibetan monasteries and mosques. But it is not just minorities. Biometric data on all Chinese citizens is used by the huge state surveillance machinery to keep an eye on almost everyone.
Xi has amassed enormous powers as head of government, party general secretary and chairman of the military commission, upturning Deng’s concept of collective leadership and separation of powers. Having been declared president for life by the CCP, he is firmly on Mao’s path to rule China as the Supreme Leader. Purges and jailing of dissenters continue, even as party leaders make billions for themselves, milking the opaque system where accountability is difficult to impose. Of late, the country’s capitalist icons like Jack Ma of Alibaba and digital giants like Tencent and DiDi have been targeted. Party bosses fear that these people have become too big for their boots.
Though prosperity booms, the 100-year-old Maoist dictatorship has reduced China’s 1.4 billion people to living robots, who can work, consume and procreate (limited to three children, of course), but cannot express their inner feelings or raise their voices against injustice. No one knows when these human robots may rise in revolt at Tiananmen Square and other parts of China, dealing a coup de grace to Mao’s deadly legacy, the CCP.
Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London