Chapter 13: Killing Campaigns

This is the next installment of my book, The Cultural Revolution: Then and Mao.
To read the previous installment, click this link.
To start at the beginning, click this link.


Chapter 13
Killing Campaigns

Propaganda poster from 1951, showing the arrest of a counterrevolutionary.

Next on the docket, after the landlords, were “counterrevolutionaries,” in the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries. These included former Kuomintang officials, businessmen, and many intellectuals.

Some really were counterrevolutionaries. They resisted the new regime by conducting sabotage operations, spying, and fomenting armed rebellion. During 1950, there were over 800 counterrevolutionary riots nationwide. Tens of thousands of Communists were murdered, and many more buildings were burned.

These counterrevolutionaries hoped to undermine the Communist government enough to spark a new civil war, or to encourage Chiang Kai-shek to return from Taiwan and continue the old civil war. So Mao wanted them rounded up and executed. And he established execution quotas for cities to meet, throughout China.

For example, in a telegram he sent to Party officials in Shanghai on January 21, 1951, he instructed: “In a big city like Shanghai, probably it will take one to two thousand executions this year to solve the problem.”

The next day he sent a telegram to Guangdong Province, with the instructions: “It is very good that you have already killed more than 3,700. Another three to four thousand should be killed . . . the target for this year’s executions may be eight or nine thousand.”

Some areas didn’t have enough counterrevolutionaries to meet Mao’s quota, so many people were arrested based on assumptions, and often the charges against them were vague and without evidence. It was common for people to be executed simply on the basis of having been accused. It was also common for local officials to settle old scores with their adversaries, just by accusing and then executing them.

The Chinese government estimates that 712,000 accused counterrevolutionaries were executed during this campaign, but scholars put that figure much higher, at somewhere in the millions.

Human life was an expendable commodity to Mao, and in China he had a lot of lives he could spend. In October 1950, he involved the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the Korean War, where at least 180,000 Chinese troops would die. And when it seemed China might go to war against a nuclear USSR, he told Khrushchev that it wouldn’t matter if China lost 300 million people in a nuclear war, as the other half of the population would survive and emerge victorious.

Mao came up with another way to inspire terror and death, in 1951 and 1952, when he launched the Three-anti and Five-anti campaigns. The Three-anti campaign was waged against government bureaucrats, to weed out corruption, waste, and bureaucracy. The Five-anti campaign was waged against capitalists who owned businesses, to weed out bribery, theft, tax evasion, cheating, and spying.

They were very divisive campaigns. Workers were encouraged to denounce their employers, spouses turned against each other, and children informed on their parents. Most victims of the anti campaigns were humiliated and threatened, although some thousands were executed. But hundreds of thousands committed suicide, rather than endure the Struggle Sessions that would be inflicted upon them by accusers.

In fact, suicide was a strategy of Mao’s. Sometimes he instructed his security chief to avoid killing anyone, but rather to terrorize the accused to the point where they would take their own lives. This strategy worked well. In Shanghai at one point, so many people were jumping off of tall buildings that residents had to avoid walking near skyscrapers, as a safety precaution.

Mao was treacherous in his cruelty. He knew how to lay a beautiful carpet, then pull it out from beneath the feet of his prey. In 1956 he launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign, targeted at intellectuals. It was inspiring in theory, and sounded grand.

In this campaign, he encouraged citizens to speak their thoughts openly, and express their opinion of the Communist government. As he put it, “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.”

But in practice, Mao was trying to identify his critics. It was a treachery that hearkened back to the Futian Incident of 1931. This campaign began a pattern in China, where free thought would be promoted and then suppressed, periodically.

In July 1957, Mao ended the Hundred Flowers Campaign, and soon followed it with the Anti-Rightist Campaign. Having now identified his critics, he began to persecute them as Rightists and counterrevolutionaries.

At least 550,000 intellectuals were targeted. Some were merely criticized and beaten, in Struggle Sessions. Some lost their jobs. Some were sentenced to hard labor, and some were executed.


Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 14: The Great Leap Off a Cliff.

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