China (1949-76) - Topic 1: Establishing Communist Rule, 1949-57


Topic 1: Establishing Communist Rule, 1949-57:

Mao formally declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1 October 1949. After four years of Civil War against the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek preceded by years of war against the Japanese, the people of China hoped that a new, brighter, more peaceful and prosperous future was dawning.

They were to be sadly disillusioned as the new government quickly resorted to terror and oppression. 

  • China in 1949:

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in October 1949, but inherited a devastated country, ravaged by four years of Civil War against Chiang Kaishek’s nationalists (Guomindang) and over a decade of warfare against the Japanese.

Continuity from before October 1949: 

- The economy was peasant-dominated

- The country’s industry was devastated

- China was large & difficult to rule

Aspects of change from October 1949:

- Government pursued communist ideas

- New government promoted land reform

- Nationalists regarded as spies/traitors

Key developments, actions and campaigns:

- Mao officially declared the formation of the PRC from the Forbidden City, Beijing, Oct. 1949

- In 1949 at the time of the Communist victory, 80% of the population was still peasants

- In December 1949, the Guomindang under Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan but they had the intention to reconquer China. Nationalist Chinese were regarded as traitors and spies.

- The upheaval of the 1920s and 1930s had led to chaos and warlordism; in 1949 it was very difficult for central government to establish control over a large country with many dialects

- The majority were Han Chinese, but there were over 50 ethnic & religious groups in China

- The CCP had not been elected to power but gained power through military victory.

- 1 million bandits roamed the country as law broke down; many skilled personnel fled to Taiwan Civil War caused hyperinflation – in 1949 carts were seen transporting worthless banknotes

- In 1949 factory output was 44% below 1937 levels; food production was at subsistence levels

- Transport was difficult; an estimated half of the railway network had been destroyed by war

- Most communist soldiers were peasant farmers, poorly equipped to run cities like Beijing & Shanghai. An anecdote spoke of peasant soldiers using porcelain toilets to wash rice!

  • The New Power Structure:

The CCP had gained power via military force & lacked democratic legitimacy. Faced with huge challenges, the CCP initially sought to rule through a mixture of force, democratic methods & legal processes, but force soon became the essential ingredient.

Continuity during 1949-57:

- Theory of government = democratic centralism

- Reality of government = Mao dictates policy

- Tripartite government = Party, State & Army

Change during 1949-57: 

- ‘Democratic’ elements reduced

- Role of Party increased & strengthened

- PLA role increased; also modernised

Key developments, actions and campaigns: 

- In 1949 Mao expressed a commitment to rule as part of a ‘united front’ with the people.

- In


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