In 1949, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won control of China and declared the formation of a new socialist nation. China was not easily conquered, however, and dealing with opposition became an important priority in the first years of the People’s Republic.
Sources of opposition
Not everyone in China welcomed its new rulers in October 1949. The new regime faced plenty of opposition from different corners, including defeated Nationalist soldiers, former backers of the Guomindang, landlords and capitalist businessmen, political moderates and democrats, warlords and provincial leaders, ethnic minorities, Christians and foreigners.
The 1950s was a critical decade for identifying and suppressing opposition and resistance. It began with ‘Speaking Bitterness‘ hearings against rural landlords in 1950 and ended with Mao’s attacks against critics and dissenters at the Lushan plenum in 1959.
In between, Mao and the CCP launched several campaigns to identify, suppress, ‘re-educate’ or eliminate their perceived enemies.
The first significant action was the Suppression of Counter-Revolutionaries campaign (or zhen fan). It was launched in March 1950, six months after the formation of the People’s Republic.
As the name suggests, this campaign sought to identify and wipe out remaining opposition to the CCP, including remnants of the Nationalist army and supporters of the Guomindang.
The suppression campaign was focused mainly on southern and eastern cities, where citizens had little experience of the communists and no reason to support them.
Focus on Chongqing
The zhen fan campaign began with the introduction of martial law in Chongqing, Sichuan province. Chongqing had served as Jiang Jieshi’s capital during World War II. Because of this, it housed many former Nationalists, soldiers and officials.
By the end of 1949, some of them had formed an insurgency and were attempting to sabotage CCP control of Chongqing by encouraging strikes and lawlessness. Party commanders in the city responded by seizing weapons, jailing 7,400 former Nationalists and executing 361 insurgents.
By the end of 1950, most opposition in Chongqing had been suppressed and order had been restored in the city.
The campaign extended
Drawing on the successes in Chongqing, Mao Zedong ordered the suppression campaign be extended to other cities. Mao urged CCP cadres to be less brutal than in Chongqing, as he believed the skills and cooperation of industrialists, business owners and urban middle classes were still needed.
Rather than using coercion, Mao bombarded the cities with propaganda that urged citizens to reject counter-revolutionary groups and ideas. Former Nationalists were demonised, depicted as ghoulish, fedora-wearing conmen, eager to steal and exploit.
The CCP government also banned dozens of political, religious and semi-religious organisations, including the Guomindang, Christian churches, Buddhist temples, Shanghai’s Green Gang and folk religions like Tongshanshe and Yiguandao. The leaders of these groups were exiled, imprisoned or executed.
The government also formed the People’s Tribunals in July 1950. Though ostensibly created to assist with land reform, the Tribunals also had the authority to deal with “despots, native bandits, special agents, counter-revolutionaries and criminals”, as well as those who “plot sabotage activities and undermine social security”.
Mass hearings and punishments
After its relatively lukewarm start, the Suppression of Counter-revolutionaries campaign escalated quickly at the end of 1951. This escalation was driven by CCP cadres, government propaganda and popular action.
One of the features of the Suppression campaign in 1951 were huge mass meetings, held in public spaces or stadiums and attended by thousands of people.
These meetings were urban versions of rural ‘Speak Bitterness’ hearings but tended to be deadlier for those who stood accused. Suspects were paraded, accused of counter-revolutionary activities or sympathies, intimidated into self-criticism then subjected to humiliation, beatings or execution. At some mass meetings, more than 200 people were shot.
According to Mao, 700,000 “class enemies” were executed during the Suppression campaign. Some historians consider this figure a significant underestimation of the death toll.
According to human rights activist Zhou Jingwen, around half a million Chinese people committed suicide, many driven by shame, humiliation or coercion. More than one million people were also imprisoned or held in forced labour camps.
The Suppression of Counter-revolutionaries campaign was slowed in 1952 and eventually brought to a halt in July 1953.
As well as eliminating external threats and opposition, the CCP also moved against dissent and factionalism inside the party.
In autumn 1951, party leader Gao Gang launched a campaign against ‘bureaucratism’ in the northern province of Manchuria. Gao alleged that many CCP cadres were heavily involved in corruption, embezzlement and graft, accusing them of stealing large amounts of money from the state.
Gao filed a report about this with Mao Zedong, who later blamed this internal corruption on the “sugar-coated bullets” of the bourgeoisie.
In November 1951, Mao formally launched the Three Antis Campaign (san fan). Its purpose was to eradicate three specific ‘evils’: corruption, waste and bureaucracy. The main targets were members of the CCP, particularly urban officials who had direct contact with financial and business interests and were therefore susceptible to corruption.
Party cadres were encouraged to identify and criticise CCP officials who had taken bribes, shown leniency or favouritism towards business interests, or were deriving excessive benefit from their position.
Corrupt party members were dubbed “tigers” and the groups who sought them were “tiger-hunting teams”. “Cleanse away the filth and poison left over in our country from the old society”, Mao urged his followers.
The Three Antis came to an end in October 1952 but not before it had claimed some prominent victims. In November 1951, Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan, high-ranking CCP secretaries in the northern prefecture of Tianjin, were arrested with Mao’s approval.
Liu and Zhang were accused of embezzling state funds (the amounts reported vary between 1.7 million and 1.5 billion yuan) set aside for flood mitigation, shipbuilding and the construction of an airport. They were also accused of conspiring with wealthy businessmen to inflate the cost of state contracts.
In addition, Liu and Zhang were indicted for living an extravagant bourgeois lifestyle rather than lives of austerity. The strength of the case against them was uncertain but they were found guilty and executed in February 1952. Their treatment became an example to other party members who stole from the state or took bribes and backhanders.
Five Antis Campaign
A second campaign, the Five Antis (or wu fan), was launched in early 1952, almost concurrently with san fan. The five ‘evils’ nominated by Mao were bribery, tax evasion, theft of state property, cheating on government contracts and stealing economic information.
This time, the targets were businessmen and capitalists. Corruption, Mao argued, was a product of capitalism and the greed it nurtured, so the answer was to target capitalists.
Many corrupt capitalists had already been identified during the Three Antis (the two campaigns were closely connected). Five Antis cadres sought the help of ordinary people, enlisting thousands of spies and informants to monitor suspect individuals and businesses. State propaganda encouraged workers to inform the government of suspicious activity.
Impact on business
The Five Antis campaign had a profound effect on Chinese business. The campaign’s culture of secret denunciations saw many business owners falsely accused by rivals or cadres.
By 1953, around 450,000 private businesses had been charged with one of the ‘five evils’ and around 340,000 were found guilty. Thousands more were intimidated or terrorised into liquidating their business or surrendering it to the state.
Some were dragged to public meetings and subjected to accusations and humiliation, before being fined and having their businesses seized. Many committed suicide after losing their property and livelihood.
The Five Antis not only enriched the coffers of the government, it also contributed to an intensifying climate of fear, particularly among capitalists and small businessmen. According to a reporter in Hong Kong in 1951, “those who come out of communist China with an astonishing unanimity refer to… this constant haunting fear… The arms of the party are far-reaching. They extend… to each individual and affect the words and thoughts of all.”
A historian’s view:
“The campaigns created an unprecedented political storm against the bourgeoisie. Under extreme political heat, entrepreneurs moved quickly, if reluctantly, to comply. Noncompliance meant humiliation, trial and even betrayal by their own families. Most private entrepreneurs were found guilty, one way or another. The timing of the Three and Five Antis campaigns revealed the growing impatience of the new regime…”
1. When Mao Zedong and the CCP seized control of China in October 1949 they faced considerable opposition and resistance from former Nationalists and others.
2. The CCP’s first response was the Suppression of Counter-revolutionaries campaign, launched in 1950, which sought to identify and eliminate opposition, particularly in the cities.
3. Launched in 1951, the Three Antis campaign targeted corruption, waste and ‘bureaucratism’ among party officials. It was followed by the Five Antis campaign in early 1952, which targeted corrupt capitalists and businessmen.
4. These campaigns were driven by government propaganda, CCP cadres and urban mass meetings, where suspected persons were subject to self-criticism, accusation and humiliation.
5. The death toll from these campaigns is unknown but is probably close to one million people. Together these campaigns generated a climate of fear, forcing those who disagreed with CCP policies into compliance and obedience.