by Roderick MacFarquhar, Harvard University

In the early 1950s, there were very few Western political scientists, indeed few scholars in any discipline, who were studying the new regime in mainland China.  The economic historian Walter Rostow and a few colleagues wrote The Prospects for Communist China in 1954, but there was just one scholar, hitherto a historian of ancient China, who decided to examine in detail the activities of the Chinese Communist Party in power: Richard L. (“Dixie”) Walker, whose China under Communism: The First Five Years was published in 1955. 

Walker faced a number of difficulties.  Unlike most scholars today, he had no access to China.  Moreover, Beijing allowed very few of its domestic publications to be exported.  The CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) and the BBC Monitoring Service provided broadcast material in translation.  The US Consulate General in Hong Kong was translating Xinhua releases and People’s Daily articles for its Survey of China Mainland Press, but it was not till the mid-1950s, that the consulate was able to publish Extracts (later Selections) from China Mainland Magazines, signaling that smuggled material was now reaching Hong Kong in sufficient quantities for a new title to be launched.  Perhaps, Walker obtained materials from the KMT on Taiwan.

Also unlike today, there were no grants for the study of contemporary China, and Walker had no groups of colleagues researching the same field.  He was pretty much a lone wolf, though he would have found a kindred spirit in Father Ladany who started publishing China News Analysis in Hong Kong in 1953.  There were also a few China scholars at the University of Washington, Seattle, whose anti-communist views jibed with Walker’s. [1]  But most American Sinologists, whatever their domestic political attitudes, had been disgusted by the corruption and incompetence displayed by the KMT, as reported by American journalists, during its wartime and postwar rule on the mainland, and seemed prepared at least to withhold judgment on the Communist regime.  So the publication of Walker’s book was not welcomed as the first book to discuss the new Communist regime in detail! [2]

American social science research on China in the universities did not really get going until after the Soviet launch of their first sputnik in 1957.  Thereafter, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 authorized federal spending for, among other subjects, the study of the Soviet Union and China and their languages.  Naturally, some of the first books on China based on the PhD research facilitated by the new funding dealt with the recent past. [3] Fortunately, in the mid-1950s Beijing started permitting the publication of considerable official material, though this would be seriously curtailed during the grim famine years of the early 1960s. [4] The material included government reports to the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress, inaugurated in 1954; all the speeches at the 8th CCP Congress in 1956 and the main speeches to its second session in 1958; Mao’s speeches on collectivization (1955) and on contradictions among the people (1957); reports on the anti-Rightist Campaign (1957); and on the Great Leap Forward and the anti-Right Opportunist Campaign (1958-59).

 More material became available during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.  Red Guards who found transcripts of in camera Mao speeches in the desks of officials they had harried out of their offices felt obligated immediately to circulate the unedited words of the Chairman. [5] Thus the original version of the contradictions speech and many other hitherto unknown texts became available. [6]   

 During the reform era, an avalanche of new material, both official and unofficial, has descended upon China watchers: nianpu and collected speeches of major leaders, as well as biographies and reminiscences about them and many other lesser figures in the party; autobiographies by senior leaders, some published in Hong Kong because they were written without official permission; chronologies; documentary collections; statistical compendia; innumerable books about significant incidents in the Maoist period; directories and handbooks from ministries and other organizations; county gazeteers and local histories of various kinds; and in some parts of some provinces, persistent scholars have managed to get access to archives.

As historians of modern China tiptoe into the Maoist period, how are they to gain control of this mass of material? Fortunately for them, a distinguished group of seven Chinese-American historians and librarians, aided by colleagues in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland, have labored mightily over the past 16 years, collecting enormous quantities of data on what they have delineated as the key characteristic of Maoist politics: the campaign, what Walker called the drive, the movements designed to mobilize the Chinese people incessantly in the quest for one target or another.  Ultimately, whatever the official goal, the objective of every campaign was political, a weeding out from the “broad masses” of  loyal, activist, or simply obedient Chinese of the notional five percent of citizens who were recalcitrant in some way, which might indicate, according often to the whim of the officiating cadre, disloyalty or even counter-revolutionary tendencies. 

These seven scholars of the Maoist trove started with the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” the mother of all movements in its length, 10 years, and the massive disruption it caused in China.  Their aim, as survivors of the Cultural Revolution, was to supply western scholars with additional data for researching it.  But as Song Yongyi explains in his preface, conscience and a sense of duty compelled them to chronicle previous movements.  The Chinese Anti-Rightist Campaign Database, 1957- followed in 2010; The Chinese Great Leap Forward Great Famine Database, 1958-1962 followed in 2013; and their work concludes with this latest Database of Chinese Political Campaigns from Land Reform to State-Private Joint Ownership, 1949-1956.  In total, the four databases comprise over 30,000 documents.  For scholars and PhD students of modern China, these databases provide a magnificent starting block which Richard Walker would have envied, and the field owes a considerable debt of gratitude to Dr. Song and his colleague.

The years 1949-1956, covered in the latest database, are seen by many Chinese historians as a golden era when the Communist party took over the country and initiated its programs to change China.  Mao had two basic aims: to transform the country socially and to rebuild it economically.  The first aim involved changing China from a nation of private businesses and peasant family farming into, ultimately, a state in which industry and commerce were owned and operated by the government and all peasants were members of collective farms.  The second aim was to be achieved by series of Soviet-style Five-Year Plans; the first plan started in 1953 although its details were not finalized and announced until 1955.

There was little disagreement among Mao’s colleagues over this latter aim.  Ideologically, the CCP had decided to “lean to one side” in the Cold War, the Soviet side, and since the Soviet Communist party under Stalin had transformed Russia from an underdeveloped rural state into the world’s second super power, it made sense in Beijing to follow Moscow’s lead.  But in the area of socialist transformation, Mao’s senior colleagues Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai found themselves outflanked on the left by the Chairman.  In 1940, at a time when the Communists were under severe pressure from the KMT, Mao had felt the need to solicit support from the “third force,” politicians and intellectuals of independent standing, many of whom were members of small parties.  He outlined a theory of “New Democracy” which he promised would be the way the CCP would govern if it came to power.  The essence of the theory was that, since the CCP lacked expertise in agriculture, industry and commerce, the party would for the foreseeable future allow the private economy to continue in existence. 

In the early years of the new regime, senior leaders, notably Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, promoted this New Democratic Line, only gradually realizing that Mao had abandoned it.  In power, the ever-restless Chairman was not prepared to defer his dream of a modernized, socialist China.  He proclaimed the General Line for the Transition Period according to which the CCP would complete socialist transformation and industrialization in some 10 to 15 years.  In a speech to the Politburo on June 15, 1953, included in this new dataset, Mao attacked the rightist deviation of anonymous colleagues who “fail to recognize there is a change in the character of the revolution and they go on pushing their ‘New Democracy.’”  Liu, Zhou and their colleagues fell into line, but the episode sparks a “what if” thought: if Mao had stuck to New Democracy, could China’s economic miracle have started decades earlier?

One certain consequence of Mao’s abandonment of New Democracy was the proliferation of campaigns.  Of course, campaigning did not start with Mao’s speech in June 1953.  A brief honeymoon period in the immediate aftermath of the proclamation of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949, ended with the start of the Korean War in June 1950 and especially after the entry of the “Chinese People’s Volunteers” into the Korean peninsula in October that year.  It prompted a ‘Support Korea, Resist America’ campaign.  Land reform had started in Communist-controlled areas even before victory and it continued.  There was a “three antis” campaign against cadre corruption in newly captured urban environments and a “five antis” campaign against the businessmen who might tempt cadres with “the sugar-coated bullets of the bourgeoisie.”  Intellectuals, especially those who had studied in or been influenced by the West, had their thinking remolded.  Nor were party intellectuals exempted as the campaign against Hu Feng underlined.  Former KMT officials, their families, and anyone who could be stigmatized as a sympathizer were targeted in two campaigns against counter-revolutionaries, the zhen fan and the su fan.  The final campaigns of the period covered by this new database were a renewed drive for rural collectivization urged on by Mao--who compared skeptical colleagues to tottering old ladies with bound feet--and following on its success, a movement to enroll all businessmen in joint state-private enterprises, a way station to total nationalization.  There was resistance as the documents show, but within a brief seven years, the CCP was able to proclaim China a basically socialist state, and without the massive upheavals the process had entailed in the Soviet Union.

The effect of all these campaigns, whatever the disruption they caused, was that by 1956, no Chinese citizen could have been in any doubt that the CCP was firmly in charge of the country and that it was very unwise to disobey party cadres implementing the policies of the Chairman and his colleagues.  A principal factor in this realization by individual Chinese and their families was the violence which accompanied every campaign.  There can be no final calculation of the total human cost of the campaigns of the first half of the 1950s until the central party archives are opened to independent researchers. In his 1957 contradictions speech, Mao mentioned a figure of over 700,000 executions, but in private communications Chinese historians have suggested that this was only a partial estimate.  If so, it seems possible that, in what the CCP looks back on as a golden era of nation-building before the leftist catastrophes starting with the Great Leap Forward in 1958, more people were executed or committed suicide because of political persecution than at any other period in the Maoist era, including the Cultural Revolution.  But of course, whatever the final toll, it pales in comparison with the tens of millions who perished during the Great Leap famine.  

In order to guide researchers, the scholars have divided the latest database into several segments covering, for instance, Mao’s speeches; other leaders’ speeches; major documents and directives; social unrest.  Arranged in this way might seem difficult for historians to figure out the chronology, but it makes perfect sense.  To have had all the nearly 8,000 documents arranged in chronological order would have been overwhelming.  Perhaps the best approach to the database would be to construct a timeline, probably based on the segment on Mao speeches, and then slot in relevant material from other segments, but scholars will develop their own strategies for combing these materials.  Historians should be reassured that the dates given in the title of each database are not rigid.  The editors have been careful to include appropriate material from before and after the main period covered.  Thus though there seems to be a gap in the coverage between 1962 and 1966, in fact there is not because the Cultural Revolution database starts well before 1966. 


[1] They included Karl August Wittfogel, Franz Michael, and George Taylor.
[2] See for instance the review of Walker’s book by the distinguished Qing historian, Mary C. Wright, in the February 1956 issue of the Far Eastern Quarterly.  On a personal note, the present author wrote what he considered a balanced review of the book for the London Daily Telegraph which was unexpectedly published as an op ed.  Unbeknownst to him in advance, the op ed page editor titled the review “China’s Black Record.”  Many years later he speculated with Walker as to whether this was the reason the Chinese legation in London never got a reply from Beijing about his visa application.
[3] See for instance, John Wilson Lewis, Leadership in Communist China, 1963; Franz Schurmann, Ideology and Organization in Communist China, 1966; Merle Goldman, Literary Dissent in Communist China, 1967; Jerome Cohen, The Criminal Process of the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1963, 1968; William L. Parish and Martin K. Whyte, Village and Family in Contemporary China, 1978; Frederick C. Teiwes, Politics and Purges in China: Rectification and the Decline of Party Norms, 1950-1965, 1979; Kenneth Lieberthal, Revolution and Tradition in Tientsin, 1949-1952, 1980.
[4] Despite the official blackout on the impact of the Great Leap Forward, Richard Walker managed to shed light on the resulting famine in two pamphlets: Letters from the Communes (1959) and Hunger in China (1960), both published by the New Leader.
[5] See Timothy Cheek, “Textually Speaking: An assessment of newly available Mao texts,” in MacFarquhar, Wu and Cheek, The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao, pp. 75-103.
[6] See Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tung Unrehearsed.
[7] See for instance, Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, and Frank Dikotter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962; also Ye Wa and Joseph Esherick, Chinese Archives: an introductory guide.
[8] An example of historians moving into the early PRC years is Jeremy Brown & Paul G. Pickowicz (eds), Dilemmas of Victory: The Early years of the PRC.
[9] For attempts to grapple with this problem, see Walker, China under Communism, op.cit., and Frank Dikotter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-1957.




by Yongyi Song

In 1998 seven Chinese-American scholars, together with several scholars from Taiwan and Mainland China, embarked on an archival series project entitled Database of Contemporary Chinese Political Campaigns, 1949‒1976. After sixteen years of ongoing efforts, with the publication of the final database in the series entitled the Database of Chinese Political Campaigns: From Land Reform to State-Private Joint Ownership, this monumental historical project has finally been completed. To date, the database series contains a total of 32,000 original archival documents, consisting approximately 107,460,000 Chinese characters. CCP Party and internal documents account for about 40 percent of the materials in the database.  Readers can review the following chart to understand the evolution in the creation of the database:

Database Title

Publication Dates

Current Edition

No. of Original Documents

The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database: 1966‒1976

2002 (first edition)‒2014



The Chinese Anti-Rightist Campaign Database, 1957

2010 (first edition)‒2013



The Chinese Great Leap Forward Great Famine Database, 19581962

2013 (first edition)‒2014



Database of Chinese Political Campaigns: From Land Reform to
State-Private Joint Ownership, 1949

December 2014



This historical series represents the world’s first and largest database on the history of political movements during the Mao Zedong era. It is completely electronic, making full use of the latest library and information science technologies. As such, new sources are added on a monthly basis and substantial updates will be issued annually.

Unlike traditional print publications, the databases in the series are searchable in both Chinese and English by subject, date, author, title, and keyword as well as by place or organization.  It also allows for easy toggling between Chinese and English. With the development of e-books and cell-phone technology, we are currently collaborating with Mirror Publishing House to produce hundreds of e-books as part of a Series on the History of the People’s Republic of China so as to allow “national history” to be accessible to more people, especially the younger generations.

The initial impetus for embarking on this historic project was our desire to facilitate research on the Cultural Revolution among the academic community outside of China. As participants in the field of China studies and library circles, the editors were well aware of the lack of original sources to study the Cultural Revolution. This was due in part to the Chinese government’s stranglehold over sensitive archival documents and in part to the paucity of scholars outside of China committed to such research.  As survivors of the Cultural Revolution who later pursued advanced education in the United States, many then entering the field of librarianship, we felt a calling to take up such project. The first database, The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database: 1966‒1976 was thus published in 2002. We then felt compelled by a sense of duty and conscience to expand the project to the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward-Great Famine, and Land Reform and the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries.

In the process of selecting and compiling nearly 7,000 original documents for the database on the Cultural Revolution, we were astounded by the vicious repetitiveness and consistency of  political movements in China throughout the Mao Zedong decades. For instance, in the files on the massacre of so-called “landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, and bad elements” in Guangxi and Dao county of Hunan province, we found the massacre reminiscent, in both form and content, of Land Reform practices in the early years of the PRC. The frightening “Highest Court of Poor and Lower-Middle Peasants” during the Cultural Revolution strongly resembled the “People’s Court” during the Land Reform period—“on-site execution” rallies, followed by the announcement of the verdicts and the brutal execution of the victims.

It is worth noting that before being executed, the executioners during the Cultural Revolution would often force their victims, after providing them with false information, to hand over their “portable property.”  This practice is consistent with the “Land Reform policy” of turning in one’s money in order to save one’s life. Similarly, after slaughtering their victims, the perpetrators did not abandon the Land Reform tradition of dividing up all such “portable property,” including the young females from these families. If there is any difference between the Cultural Revolution and Land Reform, it is the fact that the perpetrators during the Cultural Revolution no longer received any land from their victims because all land had already been nationalized as part of the “agricultural cooperativization.” These findings led us to the realization that by limiting our project only to the Cultural Revolution, we would miss important information about the interconnections among these various historical events and consequently would fail to illustrate the consistency among political movements in contemporary Chinese history.

Indeed, the history of contemporary China is a history of political movements. Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party utilized unending political movements as the primary form and means to rule and manage the country. On the one hand, the regime attempted to achieve short-term efficiency in order to govern the country by eschewing legal institutions and due process of the law. On the other hand, operationally the regime used the absolute power and authority of its leader and the Party Central Committee to launch top-down, large-scale violent mass movements, often with limited and short-term effectiveness but causing chronic disruptions of social order. For instance, Mao Zedong launched the Three Antis Movement in early 1952 in order to address the increasingly serious problems of corruption within the Party. This widespread mass movement succeeded in hunting down several million big or small “tigers” and led to public executions of nearly 50 senior Party officials. Although some forms of corruption within the Party to a certain extent were reined in, other forms began to emerge. Consequently, Mao launched the “New ThreeAntis Movement” in early 1953 in another attempt to prevent the spread of corruption.

Likewise, we found frequent reoccurrences of political movements with the same name. From 1950 until the late Cultural Revolution (i.e., the Campaign against Lin Biao and Confucius), the “rectification campaign” was an ongoing campaign despite the fact that the quality and public image of the Party was progressively deteriorating as the campaign continued. As another example, at least three rounds of the “Three Antis Movement” and two rounds of the “Five Antis Movement” were launched after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In addition to the aforementioned “Three Antis Movement” and the “New Three Antis Movement” in 1952‒53, in early 1960 Mao Zedong launched yet another “Three Antis Movement” that was identical to the earlier movements (anti-corruption, anti-waste, and anti-bureaucratism), although it eventually tapered off without having much of an impact.

The two rounds of the 1952 “Five Antis Movement,” referring to the campaign against “bribery, tax evasion, theft of state property, cheating on government contracts, and stealing of state economic information,” targeted the national bourgeoisie. The nationwide March 1963 “Five Antis Movement” refers to the campaign against “embezzlement and theft, speculation, extravagance and waste, decentralization, and bureaucratism.” However, these continual and repetitive political movements never truly addressed the rampant corruption and factionalism within the Party. Instead, they were predestined to lead the country in the direction of ever larger and more comprehensive and radical campaigns, such as the Four Clean-ups Campaign and the Cultural Revolution.

The sheer enormity of the number of political movements as well as their amazing frequency and unprecedented cruelty that resulted in widespread humanitarian disasters is yet another reason why we decided to continue beyond the Cultural Revolution Database to include archival materials on all political movements during the Mao period.  For instance, Mao Zedong and the Party Central Committee launched over forty political campaigns  between 1949 and 1956 during the initial period after the founding of the PRC, including campaigns on grain requisitions, rent reductions, bandit eradication,  local tyrants, Land Reform, Resisting America and Aiding Korea, suppression of counterrevolutionaries, ideological remolding, the Three Antis, criticism of the “The Life of Wu Xun,” the unified purchase and sale of grain, and agricultural cooperativization.

Thus, in the first six years of the People’s Republic, an average of six to seven political campaigns took place per year. Although many of these campaigns occurred in economic and non-political arenas, in fact every aspect of life became politicized during this period, and thus they were all carried out in the form of stormy political campaigns.

The over 30,000 archival documents included in this database series serve as a reminder of the historical truth that has long been forgotten. For instance, Land Reform is widely viewed as the first political campaign after the CCP took over power in rural China. But in reality the “Grain requisition movement” in the “newly liberated areas” was actually the first political campaign in rural China. From 1949 to early 1950, the CCP launched a large-scale “Grain requisition movement” that affected nearly two-thirds of the rural areas. Ignoring the fact that the previous Kuomintang regime had already levied an entire year of grain tax in these areas, the new regime forced peasants to provide an extra year of public grain. The grain tax for well-to-do peasants and so-called “big households” was increased by as much as 200 to 300 percent.

In the three provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the government adopted the drastic approach of “armed grain requisitions” to deal with public discontent, resulting in a serious famine. Such oppressive government measures triggered large-scale incidents of resistance. Even some former members of the Kuomintang military who had already defected to the Communist side participated in this resistance movement. Although some Party documents reveal attempts to correct these drastic measures, members of the public who participated in this movement were treated as “counterrevolutionaries” and were persecuted, either in the wake of their resistance or during the subsequent campaigns to “eradicate bandits” and to “crack down on local tyrants.” The nearly 100 original documents on the “grain requisition movement” in this database reflect the failure of the CCP’s rural policy even before Land Reform rather than during the periods of the People’s Communes and agricultural cooperativization.

Notwithstanding the tens of millions of victims of the myriad political movements, the Chinese Communist Party has consistently been secretive about the specific numbers of victims. For example, the general public has a rough idea from currently published historical documents that the percentage of the population that Mao Zedong designated for execution during the 1951‒53 “Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries” represented one-thousandth of the total population, or between 450,000 and 500,000 people. However, CCP leaders have accepted that the actual number of people executed was about 700,000, or over 200,000 more people than is generally accepted.  On July 1, 1955, a Ministry of Public Security document entitled “Outline of the Plan for Arresting Counterrevolutionary Elements and Criminals of all Kinds Across the Country between 1955 and 1958” acknowledges the following: “During the three-year Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, a total of 3,585,432 people were arrested and 753,275 people were executed.” Also, by noting the following, “the total number of people executed was 765,761 people by the end of the first quarter of 1955,” the document acknowledges that the campaign did not end in 1953.

In a top-secret telegram, entitled “Instructions on the Ratio of Killings,” that Mao dispatched to the heads of the major districts on April 20, 1951 it is revealed that the actual rate of executions had increased to two-thousandths of the population.  Based on an estimated Chinese population in the early years of the PRC of between 450,000,000 and 500,000,000, approximately 900,000 to 1,000,000 “counterrevolutionaries” were executed.
It should be noted that these nearly one million victims were formally tried and executed by the public security agencies. This figure does not include those who were tortured to death while in detention or those who were killed extrajudicially or who committed suicide during the mass movements. According to statistics in the July 21, 1951 “Report of the Southwest Public Security Bureau on the Basic Situation Concerning the Suppression of Counterrevolutionaries in the Southwest Eight Months After the Fourth National Public Security Conference and Suggestions for the Future,” 23,000 people were executed. However, the same document notes that “the number of those who were previously targeted but not arrested and then died due to disease or suicide totaled approximately 25,000.” In other words, in many places the number of unnatural deaths was actually much higher than the number of official executions.  Thus, the total number of victims of the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries might have been as high as two million.

For over a decade, with mixed feelings of anguish, horror, and disbelief, the editors of this database compiled, studied and selected tens of thousands of archival documents. These documents record the ordeals that the Chinese people endured during the political movements in the PRC: myriad persecutions, suicides, murders, as well as spouses, and children and parents, turning on one another. In addition to causing innumerable incarcerations and deaths, these political movements were also responsible for the “Great Famine,” an unprecedented disaster in Chinese history that forced tens of millions of peasants to sell their children, flee their hometowns, resort to cannibalism, and perish from hunger, littering the fields with their corpses. No matter how incomprehensible these “movements” appear from the perspective of today, our conscience as scholars of Chinese descent compelled us to objectively preserve these historical documents through this database series so as to provide an opportunity for people of today, and of future generations, to learn from this historical tragedy.  As such, the significance of this database series is elevated from simply benefiting academic research to preserving the collective memory and revealing the historical truth. The Mao Zedong period was the most disastrous era in Chinese history. Although it occurred half a century ago, it is not that far behind us. At a time when Mao Zedong is still hailed as a hero by those in power in China today, it is not out of the realm of possibility that such a historical tragedy might be repeated.

It is our sincere hope that this database will make a contribution to the study of contemporary Chinese history, preserve the collective national memory, and draw important lessons from history.

Library of California State University, Los Angeles, October 2014