The Response of the Chinese Intellectuals to Thought Reform by Chinese Communists: 1949-1955

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On October 1, 1949, the newly established People’s Republic of China faced the challenge of consolidating its power over a vast mainland and implementing the socialist policies it advocated. Of hindrance to the process of organizational and ideological remolding of China was the ambivalent ideological nature of China’s intellectuals. Special action had to be taken by the Communist regime to address the explicit and latent issue of non-Marxian thought and bourgeois ideals among its most talented educated class. The campaigns of the Communists to transform the intelligentsia were not spurred by vehemence towards a former ruling class, but by the Communist appeal for a united ideological front. The behavior of the intellectuals and the Chinese government from the founding of the People’s Republic to just before the Hundred Flowers Bloom era in 1956 were marked by a tendency for the intellectual class to divide, rather than unify, as a result of the actions of the Communists. In early 1949 the common stance of the intellectuals toward the imminent political change was one of reserved support. The Chinese Communists were making headway in their conquest of the country, and the general feeling was that the incumbent Nationalist government was doomed to lose the Chinese Civil War. When the intellectuals realized that the Nationalist government they once supported was a lost cause the majority became willing to support the Communists as the lesser of two evils. Official policy of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), and, essentially, the Chinese government, during the period immediately following the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China was marked by caution and restraint. The Communists did not want to alarm the masses with ideological discussion and party politics. The people were more interested in peace and the cessation of civil strife. Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong spoke of the creation of a strong state power and the economic revamping of the nation as the first goals to be attained. Other official declarations during this period promised to protect private property and private enterprise. The peasants were given land and private ownership of the land they tilled. The regime said little about socialism and Communism; these were distant dreams to be realized later.The era of moderation did not last long, though. The first two years of the People’s Republic of China would be something of a honeymoon for the intellectuals. When the new Chinese regime decided to play a major role in the Korean War, the Communists needed a unified front. In 1949, the Chinese intelligentsia was a diverse and divided group highly influenced by Western politics and culture. The Chinese term “intelligentsia” does not have the same connotation as it does in the West. In China, and much of East Asia, the term applies to all who have graduated from primary school or anybody that has received some schooling. The intelligentsia of China included teachers, writers, artists, musicians, engineers, scientists, and academics. Chinese intellectuals were considered to be part of a distinct group with common characteristics, political leanings, ways of thought and action, and social standing. This was due chiefly to the existence and tradition of a formally recognized scholar-official class that had existed within China since antiquity. China’s examination system and hierarchical culture had separated from the masses a distinct class of intelligentsia well before the Communists identified them as a priority. There were of course distinctions within the group, and these distinctions were evident both to those within the intelligentsia and those without. Distinctions made among the intelligentsia by the Communists in the first years of the People’s Republic of China included age, class background, educational background, political learning, and ability. Of these distinctions, age is a crucial factor in understanding how the Communist Party...
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