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Terrible Honeymoon

May 1, 2010

Terrible Honeymoon: Struggling with the Problem of Terror in Early 1950s China

Jeremy Brown (2004)

What is the value of human life? Is terror ever justifiable? Scholars who study the first four years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) cannot avoid these fundamental questions. Since the 1950s, Western scholarship on the early years of the PRC has asserted that terror, public executions, and coercion were central to the new regime’s consolidation of power. But a close reading of how academics treat the issue of terror suggests that we actually know quite little about the human costs and repercussions of state violence in early 1950s China. It also reveals that scholars have trouble dealing with the question of terror.

In 1955, Yale University Press published Richard L. Walker’s China Under Communism: The First Five Years. The militantly anti-communist book portrays China as a repressive totalitarian society and tackles the problem of state brutality head-on in chapter nine, entitled “Terror.” Walker is especially damning of events in 1951, the year of the “campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries.” In his typically blunt tone, Walker characterizes 1951 as a “calculated year of violence which spread terror over the Chinese mainland, laid the basis for subsequent consolidation of control, and did much to cripple any will which the Chinese people might have to resist” (215).

Walker leaves no doubt about where he stands. But few other scholars put terror on center stage in their discussions of China’s early 1950s. Some authors even call the early 1950s the “honeymoon years of the People’s Republic” (Cheng and Selden 1994, 646; see also Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden 1991, chapter 5). How can we reconcile the distance between “terror” and “honeymoon”? How to label the early 1950s and how much emphasis to place on terror are charged issues with significant historiographical implications. This essay will first discuss what we think we know about terror in the early 1950s. I will then examine gaps in our knowledge and will explore how and why such authors as Richard Walker, C.K Yang, Maurice Meisner, and Julia Strauss arrived at their conclusions about terror.

The Scale of Terror: What We Think We Know

Scholars are in general agreement that significant numbers of Chinese people were executed in the early 1950s during land reform and the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries. They also agree that even larger numbers were arrested and sentenced to “labor reform” (laodong gaizao), and that the purpose of the killings and arrests was to terrorize the Chinese population. All scholars base their numerical estimates on public statements by Chinese leaders and press reports of public executions. The German scholar Jurgen Domes estimates that, based on remarks by Luo Ruiqing and Bo Yibo, over 3,000,000 people were executed in the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries (1973, 52). Maurice Meisner accepts an estimate of 2,000,000 people executed during the first three years of the PRC, while Julia Strauss mentions a possible low figure of 700,000-800,000 and a high of more than 2,000,000 (Meisner 1999, 72; Strauss 2002, 87). Not surprisingly, Richard Walker provides a high figure of 14,000,000 deaths (219).

Whichever figure we accept, the toll is staggering. By its own admission, the new Chinese regime was responsible for extinguishing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of human lives. Although none of the authors under review in this essay cite Mao’s personal role in ordering executions, we now know from his manuscripts that the impetus for terror came from the very top. “Kill all who should be killed” (ying sha zhe, jun sha zhi), Mao wrote in his remarks on a work report in early February 1951; the next week he defended killing “bandit leaders and habitual bandits,” “bullies,” and “important spies” as necessary for the consolidation of power (Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao 1988, 2: 112, 124).

Domes, Strauss, and Walker would all agree with Meisner’s statement that state violence succeeded in creating a “public climate of fear and terror” in the early 1950s (72). While the above authors rely on second-hand figures and statements to discuss terror in macro terms, C.K. Yang comes to similar conclusions based on first-hand observations in a Guangdong village. Yang and his team of researchers conducted fieldwork in Nanjing, a village five miles from Guangzhou, from 1948-1951. In his A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition, Yang cites at least three instances in which Communist soldiers arrested and tortured people suspected of opposing the new regime (1959, 138, 140, 163). In one case, soldiers seized the wife and children of a man who fled the village because he was suspected of hiding weapons. “Severe physical torture was repeatedly applied” to the man’s wife until she finally admitted that guns were buried in the family’s front yard (140).

Several points are noteworthy about Yang’s account. First, Communist soldiers and cadres did not hesitate to apply violence just because a team of academic researchers were in the area. Second, Yang mentions no instances of execution, but concludes that arrest, torture, and the threat of death were sufficient to scare villagers into submitting to the new government. “Villagers were well aware,” he writes, “that the violation of Communist law could cost a man his life” (163-4).

It should now be clear that many scholars accept the notion that the new Communist government killed, arrested, punished, and otherwise terrorized millions of Chinese people in the years immediately following 1949. Even authors who characterize the early years of the PRC as a “honeymoon” for “most Chinese villagers” do not dispute the Chinese Communist Party’s capacity for terror (Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden 1991, 133). Before the “Honeymoon” chapter in their Chinese Village, Socialist State, Friedman, Pickowicz, and Selden explicitly use the term “terror” to describe radical class struggle in rural north China in 1947.

Therefore, while scholars agree that terror should be part of our conceptual vocabulary for the early years of Communist rule, regional variation and differences in timing complicate the picture. “Honeymoon” might be an appropriate label for north Chinese villages in 1950-51. However, “terror” is probably a better descriptor for the same period in large cities and other areas that had recently come under Communist control like south China, where C.K. Yang conducted his study. The differences in interpretation and labeling that emerge when scholars move beyond vague death counts and get specific about place and time reveal significant gaps in our knowledge about the early 1950s period.

Unknowns: Costs and Consequences of Terror

In a sense, the very willingness of Chinese Communist leaders to offer broad numerical estimates and openly speak of the necessity of exterminating “enemies of the people” has impeded scholars’ understanding of terror in the early 1950s. Mind-boggling national death estimates obscure the impact of public executions and mass arrests at the local level. We lack knowledge about the spatial and temporal dimensions of terror in the early 1950s. In addition, the tendency of some scholars to agree with Communist leaders that terror and state killing are unavoidable, if unpleasant, byproducts of revolution has limited our understanding of the human consequences of terror in the early 1950s. This section will discuss how different assumptions and frameworks have shaped and ultimately constrained discussions of terror.

Broadly speaking, we can divide authors who explicitly address early 1950s terror into three conceptual paradigms: totalitarianism, modernization, and comparative revolution. Richard L. Walker claims that China’s wholesale importation of Stalinist totalitarian methods caused an evil “recrudescence of oriental despotism” (328). Severe moral contempt for terror and a clear ideological bias are built into Walker’s argument. C.K. Yang’s work is characteristic of the modernization paradigm, which declines to pass moral judgment on the violence that might accompany state-led modernization. Maurice Meisner and Julia Strauss’s discussions of terror are couched in terms of comparative revolution. This framework holds that violence and terror will inevitably follow a revolutionary government’s assumption of power.

Walker’s passionate tone differs from the more detached analyses of Yang, Meisner, and Strauss. While Yang, Meisner, and Strauss certainly deplore murder and state-sanctioned violence, their frameworks prohibit them from doing so unconditionally. Thus, although Walker’s totalitarian model has been thoroughly discredited, his moral clarity is somewhat refreshing. Readers of China Under Communism can have no doubt that Walker loathes public executions and labor reform. However, his mission to save the free world from an international communist conspiracy prevents him from noticing societal complexity, local variation, and human stories. While his polemical contention that “China’s masters are not concerned about the price of their plans in human terms” seems eerily accurate given the hindsight of the Great Leap famine, in the end his contribution is extremely limited (x). We learn from Walker that terror existed in early 1950s China and that it was evil, but the local and human dimensions of terror remain unexplored.

Unlike Walker, C.K. Yang brings readers much closer to people at the grassroots level. Yang’s mentions of torture and fear fit into his larger discussion of Communist efforts to destroy the traditional kinship system and local power networks. Yang concludes that such efforts were a necessary part of the modernization process. The traditional economy “failed to provide minimum security” for peasants, Yang writes, and something had to change (131). Thus, while Yang shows no fondness for soldiers and cadres’ harsh methods, in a way the larger goal of modernization justifies terror. Never mind that the families broken up and destroyed by state terror would be unable to reap the benefits of modernization. Yang’s local approach and specific mention of torture cases provide preliminary answers to the questions of where and when terror reigned in early 1950s China. However, as a sociologist committed to exploring the inexorable transition from traditional to modern society, Yang’s disciplinary and analytical concerns obscure the long-term implications and repercussions that might arise when modernizing political leaders resort to terror to achieve their goals.

Maurice Meisner and Julia Strauss are more vexed than Yang by the troubling precedent set by terror, but their comparative revolution framework views terror as unavoidable. Meisner’s seven-page analysis of early 1950s terror in Mao’s China and After (first published as Mao’s China in 1977) offers a particularly sensitive treatment of the issue. Throughout the book Meisner draws comparisons between revolutionary Russia and China. In his discussion of terror, Meisner places Chinese revolutionary terror in perspective by noting that larger proportions of the population were killed in reigns of terror after the French and Russian revolutions (72). He adds that “uncounted millions” died every year from famine in China before 1949 and that Chiang Kai-shek’s regime was not averse to employing state terror (72-73).

Meisner has difficulty reconciling the human toll of terror with the requirements of revolution. As a supporter of the Chinese Communist revolution and a Marxist expert on comparative revolution, he cannot unconditionally criticize the killings. But he is equally unable to defend state terror with the alacrity of Mao or Peng Zhen, who in 1951 stated that there was nothing wrong with using “shock and panic” (zhendong konghuang) tactics against counterrevolutionary targets (Jianguo yilai zhongyao wenxian xuanbian 1992, 2: 51). Meisner writes, “In most revolutionary situations, the choice is not between terror and its absence but rather between revolutionary terror or counterrevolutionary terror” (73). Because the latter had been so destructive in China before 1949, Meisner argues, “one should not be too quick to levy moral condemnations on the former” (73). For Meisner, the promise that a revolutionary future would be an improvement over the violent past justifies short reigns of terror. But problems arise, he notes, when revolutionaries fail to live up to their promises.

Julia Strauss is less idealistic than Meisner. Meisner sees the terror of the 1950s as an inevitable and possibly justifiable part of the quest toward utopian society. Only Mao and his colleagues’ mistakes and miscalculations threw the process off track. For Strauss, the legacy of early 1950s terror was simply more and more terror. In a 2002 article, she agrees with Meisner that the “deployment of terror against enemies of the revolutionary state” was a natural outcome of revolution in France in the 1790s, the Soviet Union after 1917, and China in the early 1950s (Strauss 2002, 98). But Strauss concludes that “paternalist terror” (caring welfare offered to the “people” coupled with harsh terror unleashed against “non-people”) was “built into the foundations of the revolutionary regime” in China and “remained at the core” of the PRC “as it moved through ever-widening circles of targets, enemies, and counter-revolutionaries over the next generation” (99). Widespread terror immediately following the Communist victory was to be expected, Strauss holds, but it established a terrible pattern from which China’s leaders were unable – or unwilling – to deviate. Strauss herself does not mention the anti-rightist movement of 1957 or the Cultural Revolution, but we can assume that she views these events not as excesses or aberrations but as outgrowths of the pattern of paternalist terror established in the early 1950s.

Strauss’s vision of a persistent pattern of terror differs from Meisner’s view of revolutionary violence as a distasteful means toward a better future. However, at a basic level Meisner and Strauss both suggest that state terror in the early 1950s had drastic and sustained costs not only for individuals and families, but for China as a whole. The two authors would agree that further research remains to be done on how terror between 1949 and 1953 shaped later developments in China. The final section of this essay will review how the evolution of the field of PRC studies has shaped differing scholarly conceptions and will propose directions for new research.

C.K. Yang’s detached social science prose conveys a distressing lack of discomfort with the torture and terror he encountered firsthand. Of all of the scholars under discussion, Yang’s sources are the richest and arguably the most reliable. Yet because his framework is devoted to celebrating modernization, the local color gets washed out. The theoretical concerns of the sociology field in the 1950s prevented Yang from taking a principled stand against terror, which ends up looking like a regrettable byproduct of progress.

For Maurice Meisner and Julia Strauss, revolution, not modernization, gives rise to unfortunate episodes of terror. But we should not underestimate the distance between Meisner and Strauss’s views. Meisner’s focus on revolution stems from his ideological support of the concept and the fact that he was writing in the 1970s before Mao and the Chinese revolution died. Julia Strauss belongs to a new generation of scholars interested not in revolution for its own sake but for the light it sheds on the state building process. Strauss, a political scientist, wrote her first book on state building in Republican China (1998). Moreover, her conclusion that terror was “built into” the “core” of China’s revolutionary regime indicates a tendency to view revolution as an unhealthy deviation from a normal state building path. This view can be understood in the context of the 1990s, when the Chinese government embraced market development and repudiated revolution.

One could counter Strauss’s point that terror was an inherent part of the Chinese regime under Mao by noting that increasing inequality and corruption seem to be “built into” the current Chinese political system. But we should first question her and Meisner’s assumption that terror must follow revolution if a new revolutionary state hopes to survive. To be sure, the French, Russian, Chinese, and Cuban cases support the case that terror and the liquidation of sworn enemies follow on the heels of revolutionary victory (in Cuba, most of Castro’s enemies fled to Miami instead of staying behind to face arrest, or worse). In addition, the vulnerability of the self-styled “Bolivarian revolutionary” government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela suggests that Chavez’s unwillingness to resort to coercion, violence, and terror against powerful entrenched interests may lead to his downfall.

Nonetheless, Meisner and Strauss’s acceptance of revolutionary terror as a given is troubling. Do populists fighting for social change have no alternative to mass executions? Is it possible to attack inequality and exploitation without devaluing human life? Mao would have responded with a firm “no” and probably would have criticized my questions for their “bourgeois humanism.” It is, of course, important to strive for historical accuracy, as Meisner reminds us. We must understand the violent atmosphere that shaped and constrained historical actors in China at mid-century. China’s new government faced powerful armed foes both foreign and domestic during the first years of the People’s Republic. And it is beyond question that decisive efforts to quell resistance succeeded in unifying China and allowed the revolution to continue. However, that Chinese leaders chose terror and used it effectively in the early 1950s should not overwhelm our horror at the massive and violent loss of human life. To ignore our sense of horror and to suppress moral outrage at mass killings is to deny our common humanity.

For this reason, more research is required on the human dimension of China’s early 1950s terror. Currently available sources will allow us to pin down when and where terror reigned most severely in the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries. For example, scholars could follow in the impressive footsteps of Yang Su, who draws upon data from hundreds of county gazetteers in his article on mass killings in rural China during the Cultural Revolution (2003). The main contribution of Su’s piece is to specify the spatial and temporal dimensions of terror. Many gazetteers have similar sections that openly present data on how many counterrevolutionaries were killed in the early 1950s. But historians must go a step further than quantifying executions and pinpointing regional patterns. After a survey of gazetteer data identifies parts of China where the toll of terror was especially high, we need in-depth local studies of those areas based on oral history and county archives. Only then can we truly begin to grasp the human costs and consequences of terror in early 1950s China.


Cheng, Tiejun, and Mark Selden. “The Origins and Consequences of China’s Hukou System.” China Quarterly 139 (Sep 1994): 644-668.

Domes, Jurgen. The Internal Politics of China, 1949-1972. Translated by Rudiger Machetzki. New York, Praeger, 1973.

Friedman, Edward, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong wengao (Mao Zedong’s manuscripts since the founding of the People’s Republic of China). Vol. 2. Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian, 1988.

Jianguo yilai zhongyao wenxian xuanbian (Selected important documents since the founding of the People’s Republic of China). Vol. 2. Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian, 1992.

Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After. Third edition. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Strauss, Julia C. “Paternalist Terror: The Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries and Regime Consolidation in the People’s Republic of China, 1950-1953.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44 (Jan 2002): 80-105.

Strauss, Julia C. Strong Institutions in Weak Polities: State Building in Republican China, 1927-1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Su, Yang. “State Sponsorship or State Failure?: Mass Killings in Rural China, 1967-68.” Paper presented at the UCSD-Stanford Cultural Revolution Seminar, June 8-9, 2003.

Walker, Richard L. China Under Communism: The First Five Years. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955.

Yang, C.K. A Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1959.

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