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Under Mao, CCP made tall promises to women in China but none found place in 1956 Politburo

A century of invasion, war and political instability had left Chinese society in disarray. Disease was rife, and healthcare all but non-existent.

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Anyone who works for the party or state at any level may be called a ‘cadre’, gànbù. Cadres are divided into hierarchical classes that determine their privileges and rights. Despite an official ethos of egalitarianism, from the start status was precisely defined, and determined everything from access to special provisions of food and the quality of one’s ‘Mao suit’ to the size and placement of photos published in the press.

The national party, congressional and advisory bodies, as well as national federations, such as of writers or women, have equivalents at regional levels. The centre dictates, the regions follow – in theory, at least. As a popular saying goes, ‘Above they have policies, below they have ways of getting around policies.’ (A traditional version of this is ‘Heaven is high and the emperor far away.’ )

A century of invasion, war and political instability had left Chinese society in disarray. Disease was rife, and healthcare all but non-existent. Even in the capital, sanitation was rudimentary. Eight out of ten people were functionally illiterate.

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Within its first three years in power, the party-state built new public schools, began simplifying the writing system and increased the number of medical clinics on the mainland from 800 to almost 30,000, doubling hospital beds over the same period to 160,300.6 It launched campaigns to eradicate smallpox, plague, cholera and STDs. Drug addicts went to rehabilitation, dealers to the execution grounds. Prostitutes were rounded up and retrained, in some cases as nurses, while pimps were shot.

With Mao’s 1942 speech on the function of art and literature as a guide, the CCP mobilised artists, writers, actors and filmmakers to propagate its policies. Film and stage were considered key to communicating the CCP’s message to a semiliterate population. Later, there would be established systems for cultural supervision and censorship, but in 1951, a lack of clarity about what the CCP expected saw a dozen new films no sooner completed than banned.

Before 1949, film audiences were small and urban. Now mobile film projection teams took screens into even the smallest villages. Troupes of actors and entertainers spread the CCP’s message beyond the cities. Popular works included Lao She’s Dragon Beard Ditch, about the socialist transformation of a poor Beijing neighbourhood – a work that earned its author the honorific ‘the people’s artist’.

The CCP assigned all citizens a ‘class status’ based on occupation, political history and family background. To be classified a ‘poor peasant’, ‘revolutionary cadre’ or ‘family of a revolutionary martyr’ brought benefits, including assumed political reliability. The worst categories included ‘landowner’, ‘capitalist’ and ‘historical counterrevolutionary’. Between 1950 and 1953, the state executed up to two million accused ‘counterrevolutionaries’, including remnant KMT supporters.

Class status determined all, from access to higher education to marriage prospects. It was inscribed in a person’s dàng’àn, the secret dossier that followed them throughout life, containing reports by schoolteachers, employers and even informers. There was some flexibility: capitalists could become ‘red capitalists’, for instance, by donating significant assets – factories or businesses – to the state. Less cooperative business owners had their property confiscated. By 1956, the state would wholly or partly own all mainland enterprises and businesses.

Banking was also nationalised. The new national currency was the People’s Currency, rénmínbì 人民币 (RMB). Its basic unit was the yuan, made up of 100 fēn.

The PRC launched its first Soviet-style economic Five-Year Plan in 1953. That year, according to the first major post-1949 census, 89 per cent of the mainland’s population of 583 million lived in the countryside, where the second stage of Land Reform, collectivisation, was underway, consolidating the land distributed to the peasants into agricultural cooperatives of 200–300 rural households each. Between 1954 and 1958, the size of the collectives grew to become People’s Communes. Mao scoffed that anyone worried about the speed of change was like an old woman with bound feet, ‘tottering along’ and complaining that others were going too fast.

Agriculture collectives were responsible for water conservation, irrigation, education, healthcare and social welfare. They paid wages, including in collective-run factories, according to a system of ‘work points’, each of which was worth about twenty to twenty-five fēn.11 Government and party cadres were paid according to their rank. In 1952, annual per capita gross domestic product was RMB119, the equivalent of US$54; by 1956, it was RMB166.

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At first, men earned more than women for the same jobs. Following collectivisation in Little Fort Village in Guizhou, few of the village’s twenty-three women bothered coming out to work. The head of women’s affairs in the village, Yì Huáxiān, explained to the male chief that with men earning seven points a day and women 2.5, women had little incentive to do so. After equal pay was instituted, all the women went to work, and productivity increased three-fold. Learning of this in 1955, Mao ordered that all counties and collectives implement equal pay, adding: ‘Women hold up half the sky.

The CCP banned footbinding, concubinage and arranged marriages, and promised women economic, social, educational and political equality. Yet the CCP’s Eighth Politburo, elected by the Central Committee in September 1956, didn’t include one woman among its twenty-three members and alternative members.

This excerpt from The Shortest History of  China by Linda Jaivin has been republished with permission from Picador India.

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