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Revolution & Reform in China After WWII

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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Following World War II, China's industrialization and Communist Party mandates led to substantial economic prosperity. Discover the impact of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and improvements from Deng Xiaoping. Updated: 11/03/2021

Consolidation by Communists

In 1945, the Japanese had been beaten in China, but the war in that country was far from over. For more than a decade, the Communists under Mao Zedong and Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek had an uneasy ceasefire, agreeing to focus instead on defeating foreign invaders before destroying each other. By 1945, that was effectively just an agreement to stay out of each other's way.

Despite American attempts to broker an agreement the following year, both Chiang and Mao insisted on supremacy, leading to a revival of hostilities. Both the Americans and the Soviets supported their respective allies, but by 1949, it was clear that the Communists had the upper hand. Late in 1949, the Nationalists were forced into exile in Taiwan, while Mao declared the People's Republic of China.

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  • 0:01 Consolidation by Communists
  • 0:53 Great Leap Forward
  • 2:24 Cultural Revolution
  • 3:25 Deng to the Rescue
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Great Leap Forward

Already popular, but faced with a country that had been ravaged by war for decades, Mao worked to implement his Communist vision for China. In the first Five Year Plan, Mao was able to bring tangible economic results to China. By the late 1950s, he was ready to offer another solution, one designed to press China ahead of the United Kingdom and United States in terms of economic potential.

He offered his Great Leap Forward as a solution. Under this plan, land would be taken over by the state and worked in a series of agricultural communes. This was, after all, central to the Communist ideal. Additionally, increased manufacturing would be a vital target. However, Mao treated people largely as widgets, easily replaceable no matter the role. As a result, farmers ended up being told to build factories, while engineers and industrial designers were forced to grow rice. Perhaps the most embarrassing of these were the implementation of backyard furnaces, which tried to produce industrial-quality steel in kilns that could fit in someone's backyard.

When both groups failed, it was viewed as a lack of devotion to the movement, not a lack of required skills. The resulting famine killed tens of millions people, a sizable chunk of China's population. By the end of the Great Leap Forward, China had little to show for it. Mao was disciplined, but privately within the confines of the party.

Cultural Revolution

China inched towards capitalization, but Mao saw that this threatened his idea of Communism in China. Proclaiming that all who opposed his methods were capitalists and therefore subversive, he launched the Cultural Revolution.

If the Great Leap Forward effectively paralyzed economic growth, the Cultural Revolution threatened the very heart of Chinese culture. Intellectuals were persecuted, with offenders either executed or sent to 're-education camps' where they were brainwashed. The same mistakes of the Great Leap Forward were repeated, but this time with a heavier dose of secret police and not-so-secret military units enforcing order.

Mao finally died in 1976, causing an end to the Cultural Revolution. In the words of his opponent and successor, Deng Xiaoping, Mao was 'seven parts right and three parts wrong.' Deng would soon have the opportunity to prove himself.

Deng to the Rescue

Deng had opposed Mao during the Cultural Revolution and was ready to seize the chance to take power and implement his own plans. Deng had a very different idea of Communism in China, and due to the divide between the USSR and the Chinese, he now had the power to make it happen.

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