The Peoples Republic of China

Backgrounds and history of China



Cover design:
Bas Scheffers,

Art Collective Voko-Lichen



For my bachelorstudy Chinese languages and Cultures at the University of Leiden I conducted research about the worldwide economic embargoes and trade restrictions that were implemented against China early in the fifties and were maintained for more than 20 years. What were their effects on China and its people?

Worldwide trade embargoes and other trade restrictions against China

Searching for my roots, I started reading Wild Swans written by Jung Chang. The historic novel was published in 1992, shortly after the Tiananmen incident, which paved the way for biographic literature in which personal hardships under the Cultural Revolution and communist rule were told. Wild Swans sold more than ten million copies. After reading it I stopped searching for my Chinese background. I didn’t need to know more than the fact Chang told. According to her China’s former leader Mao Zedong would have caused the death of 70 million Chinese, more than Hitler or Stalin did. More than half of them would have died because of a silly economic strategy that Mao adopted from 1958 and 1960, the great leap forward.

Everyday life for common Chinese

Later I found out that the things she wrote and said are not based on reality. In an interview I confronted her with my findings. The interview was part of a radiodocumentary I made for the VPRO about my search for China’s modern history. To write my thesis I researched the causes of the famines during the great leap forward. The findings were quite shocking because things weren’t what they seemed to be.
In Holland there's only one university where one can study sinology, the university of Leiden. There I learned a lot about China's high traditional culture, the Confucian culture with it’s rites and philosophy. But how was everyday life for common Chinese? Studying sinology I searched for information about the accomplishments of the communist government. And I digged it out of the depths of the sinological library. It was a World Bank Country study published in 1983.  For the first time in my life I found out who the Chinese were. When the communist came to power in 1949, about 90 percent of the population was a landless labourer or small peasant-farmer. Landproperty was the main source of income but most Chinese were landless labourers or almost landless labourers. The rent to lease a piece of land amounted up to 90 percent of the main crops. Small peasants were forced to pay taxes to a thief who called himself general and to a second and third person and sometimes they had to pay twenty years in advance.

Extreme poverty in China

Field-studies in the thirties of the twentieth century showed that in all parts of China, large numbers off landless labourers lived in tremendous poverty. And their situation had not changed since 1500. Most Chinese were landless labourers or almost landless farmers. The labourers could hardly keep themselves alive as a porter or farmhand. None of them could afford a marriage and they all died unnoticed, after a short and miserable life. The World Bank wrote that in 1949 the average life expectancy is 36 years.  Small farmers were better of they had a small piece of land which they tilted with their family, but they often had to sell their children to prevent them from starving. Since there was a large abundance of cheap labour, landlords didn’t mechanize the farmwork. They even hardly invested in cattle. The salary they paid a day labourer was less than the food for a donkey costed and the animal had to be put in a stable while a labourer could be sent away when there wasn’t any work to do.

Landreforms, schooling, literacy rate

Beyond doubt this situation needed a change. When the Chinese communist party united the country in 1949 one of their goals was to banish the worst forms of poverty. Early in the fifties the Chinese communist conducted landreforms. Peasants took the farmland from  “landlords” themselves. Forty percent of the farmland was redistributed among the poorest peasants. According to Spence, sixty percent of the Chinese population must have profited from this campaign. He wrote that it gave the Chinese who lived in extreme poverty, a chance to survive.
I discovered stunning facts in the world bank study. In 1949 average life expectancy was 36 years.  Thirty years later it had already risen to 64 years.  I was amazed that in such a short periode the Chinese government had raised life expectancy with 28 years. And there was more to come. I learned that when the communist came to power at least eight out of ten people could not read and write .
Maoïst policy started huge schooling programmes to tackle the mass illiteracy. This has taken enormous efforts also because to learn read and write Chinese, one needs to learn around 2000 characters by heart. For this cause in 1954 and 1964 the government gave order to simplify the 2500 most used characters , characters that had been the same for 2000 years.
The efforts were rewarded. In 1949 less than two out of ten Chinese could read and write, in 1979 already 6.6 were literate. Chinese were literate. But more amazement was still to come. I have never heard this information during Chinese history colleges nor read it in collegebooks. These facts are hard to find on the internet.

Improved standard of living

In the radiodocumentary I made this year I stressed that the Chinese leadership improved the standard of living of the majority of the population. I discussed the documentary with journalists, sinologists and sinology students. Most of them reacted by neglecting the facts I presented and hammered home communist misdeeds. Nobody actually seemed to care that communist policies raised the average life expectancy of Chinese with 28 years and learned at least 300 million people to read and write, and taught them the national language. I was annoyed because I discovered that in the image of communist China there was only space for incidents: the great leap forward, the cultural revolution, the Tian-anmen-incident. In between it’s blank. It is only about the clashing of the capitalist and communist system, about intellectuals and the elite. In all kinds of sources from mass media, internet sources to English academic writings the terribly poor majority is hardly mentioned, as if they have never existed.  

The great leap forward

Accepting and acknowledging the good things that happened is difficult. On the internet, and in English academic writings I am slammed with crimes and disasters directly ascribed to communist rule. A major one is the great leap forward strategy that I have researched for one and a half year.
The academic view is that China focused too much of it’s resources and labour force on an irrational industrialization programme. The masses would have been urged to produce a lot of iron in backyard blast furnaces, that turned out to be of inferior quality. Wrong farm methods in the communes, would have caused a drop of the grainproduction which was the main farmproduct in China. The food availability for peasants declined because too much grain would have gone to the urban population, and would have been exported to buy capital goods. When nature turned nasty in 1959 and 1960 with major droughts, tyfoons and flooding, China encountered a famine. It is estimated that 15 till 30 million people died. In academic writing nature isn’t considered as the main cause, but the great leap policies are.
Famines were actually a common phenomena in China. Once every two years a large famine occured. Between 1877-1878 it is estimated that between 9 and 13 million died, In 1907 and 1937 again large famines occurred. The main reason was that people lived in such poverty that a little wrinkle in the sea of life could drown them.

Death toll during great leap forward

Estimates of millions of deaths caused by the Great Leap policies are calculated using Chinese populations figures, that show an increase of 130 million people between the assumption in 1950 and the population census of 1957. The census of 1957  wasn’t a formal census. At a UN meeting in november 1950 the Chinese representative Wu Xiuquan said that the government of the Peoples Republic of China represents a population of 470 million people.
In current official records the Chinese population of 1950 exists of 541 million people, 71 million more than Wu Xiuquan spoke of. The official record in 1957, just before the Great Leap Forward counted a population of 600 million Chinese people (including 17 million Taiwanese residents). This census was just before the Great Leap forward.
The figure of 600 million is far too high according to the renown Chinese demographer Chen Ta. Estimates of millions of death during the great leap are the result of using the highest unreliable population figures. According to the late Dutch professor Wim F. Wertheim the tens of millions of deaths during the Great Leap Forward probably have actually never existed.
This would explain why in 1962 after the famine years mortality dropped enormously while the average food consumption in the Chinese countryside had hardly increased. The countryside was said to be hit hardest by the famines.

Worldwide economic embargoes against communist China

If it wasn’t for a China expert, who told me years ago that there existed a worldwide trade embargo against China, l would still not know by now. The economic warfare against China and the communist block is hardly mentioned nowadays, just as if it has never happened. In academic researches for the causes of the Great Leap Famine, the embargo’s and trade restrictions are not mentioned or said to be of no influence. Is that the case?
In 1950 China fought alongside North Korea against allied UN forces under the leadership of the US. The United States implemented a complete embargo that forbade all financial transaction with communist China. After the Korean war, the embargo was not lifted. In 1950 Nato countries and Japan, adopted the cocom embargo ( coördinating committee) aimed against communist countries against China. At the height of the Korean war, the cocom-embargo against communist countries already forbade the export to communist countries of products from more than 400 product categories. But under American pressure in 1952 these richest industrialized countries implemented an even stricter embargo against China, which is called the China embargo. For implementing and maintaining this embargo the coördinating committee set up a special China committee (chincom).
Untill the seventies western governments have closed their markets for Chinese products by levying importduties that were five, ten times higher than duties for friendly countries. There was also a American policy to push the communist China in a diplomatic isolation. Until 1972 the nationalist government of Taiwan held the Chinese seat in the UN general council and also in the UN security council, while the communist government on the mainland was reconstruting the war torn country, fighting the mass poverty and trying hard to feed it's people.

Breakdown of communist China

High American government sources have admitted that the objective of the economic warfare was aimed at causing a breakdown of Communist China. Problems in the Chinese economy could reduce the support of the people. To cause the collapse of the communist Republic, the U.S. also tried to pose a constant military threat on the PRC from out of Asia. It supported the Chinese nationalists on Taiwan with the most advanced weapons and placed their missiles on the island. Already on mainland China in the 1920’s, the nationalist main objective was to eliminate the Chinese communists.
Steel was needed for farm implements, and agricultural mechanization which was very urgent because of the great population pressure on the land of which only one fifth is fit to be used for farming. So China focused on producing steel, because capitalist countries all maintained an embargo on steel and other industrial products against China.
The steel was produced in large plants, in medium large plants and it was also done by simple, indigenous methods.The Sovjet Union sold China plants to build up it’s heavy industry, provided the technology, technical experts and some small longterm loans. Because of three very strict embargo’s that World Organisations maintained against China, the Soviet Union got a monopoly on trade with China. The UN, the Coördinating Committee and the China Committee, held embargo’s on trade with China.
Although all the embargo’s and trade restrictions existed, the general academic view is that China didn’t want to trade with capitalist countries because it strived for selfreliance. This wasn’t the case. In the 1950’s China constantly pressed the US to lift the embargo It increased trade with western-europe enormously since 1955 till 1958 when restrictions were eased.

Effects of worldwide economic war

The general view in the western academics is  that the embargo’s and trade restrictions hardly influenced the Chinese economy because it is a large country and thereforeself-sufficient. China could get all it needed from other communist countries. That was also not the case. The whole communist block ran short of major industrial raw materials like rubber and copper. Copper was needed to produce electricity. China was in want of longterm credits which only the Soviet Union provided until 1954. The Chinese could only buy capital by exporting grain, the only product that they could export on some scale. In the fifties huge subsidized western farm surpluses, caused a drop of he world grain price. After China received Taiwan’s seat in the United Nations in 1972, many countries established diplomatic relations with China. But it was not until the US resumed it's diplomatic and trade relations with the Peoples Republic that China’s trade volume increased enormously in 1973. Trade with its major trading partners, Japan, Macao and Hong Kong doubled. Chinese imports of industrial products doubled and tripled in that year. There was a shortage of a lot of goods.
It wasn’t stupid that China started to rely on the will and enthusiasm of uneducated masses to industrialize, it ran short of capital, technology, foreign credits and raw materials. The huge production of iron with simple methods in small furnaces was an expression of this. China exported grain because it could hardly get foreign credits. During the Great Leap Forward China was affected tremendously by natural disasters, just like it was in it’s history which caused China to be called the land of famine.

The great leap forward and trade restrictions

When the Chinese leadership was aware of the scale of the famines they stopped the great leap forward, cut investments in the industry, imported millions of tons of wheat. But worldwide trade restrictions and embargo’s against the country in need were not eased. The western economic warfare against the Peoples Republic of China was aimed at causing problems in its economy, hoping for a collapse of communist China. Indeed China faced economic problems, the famines. Although facts and figures show that the capitalist economic warfare caused China tremendous hardships, the embargoes and trade restrictions are nowadays not known of, and their effects denied. Anyhow, by waging the economic warfare against China, the west also turned their backs to one fifth of world population, those who already were almost drowning. A realistic view on China needs the acknowledgement of the role of the capitalist world.

B. Huong