[Photo story] The establishment of the People’s Republic of China

“The Chinese people have stood up.” These famous words uttered by Mao Zedong were a declaration to the world. But the establishment of the People’s Republic of China was by no means straightforward. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao takes us through the twists and turns of a civil war between the Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Party, with their very different ideas of what China should be.
On 1 October 1949, from atop the Tiananmen city wall in Beijing, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Mao Zedong led the ceremony establishing the People’s Republic of China. And at the First Plenary Session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), he declared: “The Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up.”
On 1 October 1949, from atop the Tiananmen city wall in Beijing, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Mao Zedong led the ceremony establishing the People’s Republic of China. And at the First Plenary Session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), he declared: “The Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up.”

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao.)

On 1 October 1949, from atop the Tiananmen city wall in Beijing, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong led the ceremony establishing the People’s Republic of China. At the First Plenary Session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Chairman Mao declared: “The Chinese people, comprising one quarter of humanity, have now stood up.” From that point, China was known as “New China” — before that, it was “Old China”. What was the difference between new and old? And what did Chairman Mao mean by “the Chinese people have stood up”?

When World War II ended, the US and Soviet Union immediately entered a global power competition. China’s Nationalist government, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), was close to the US in terms of ideology and geopolitics, but at this point, the CCP was much stronger than it was during the Second Sino-Japanese War eight years earlier, with over one million armed troops and control of northwest and northern China, as well as some rural areas in eastern China. In the last stages of WWII, Soviet troops occupied northeast China, and covered CCP troops as they entered the northeast. The Soviets also handed over to the CCP troops the weapons from about 600,000 Japanese troops, strengthening the CCP army exponentially practically overnight.

After winning the war, US military vessels started to dock at Shanghai. The photo shows US officers going on shore in Shanghai, with the city and its people. After WWII, China went through a period of comparing the Chinese lifestyle with that of people from other countries.

With the active intervention and help of the US, the KMT government responded by pushing for cooperation with the CCP to build a widely representative democratic government and nationalising the army, In November 1945, US President Harry S. Truman sent General George C. Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff during WWII, as special envoy to China to mediate military matters between the KMT and CCP.

A civil war breaks out

In May 1946, the KMT government moved the capital from Chongqing back to Nanjing. The CCP delegation also set up an office in the Meiyuan district, near the Presidential Palace, to facilitate discussions between both parties.

While on the surface, people from both parties were working towards peace and cooperating to build the country together, in fact, the friction between the KMT and CCP troops was intensifying by the day. In particular, in the northeast China theatre, the KMT and CCP armies were entering into large-scale fighting.

In early 1947, General Marshall acknowledged the failure of the mediation efforts, and the KMT government ordered the CCP delegation to leave Nanjing immediately. Soon after, the KMT army in Shaanxi launched an offensive on CCP headquarters in Yan’an, and full-scale civil war was inevitable.

On 5 May 1946, after a victorious end to the civil war, the Kuomintang government held a ceremony to commemorate returning to the capital. Chairman Chiang Kai-shek gave a speech from the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing, where he honoured the memory of China’s late founding father, and revealed that he would drive China’s development in line with the Three Principles of the People.
September 1945: Chinese officers inspecting the Japanese POW camp in Wuhu and explaining the policies of the Chinese government to the rows of Japanese POWs.

Not only did the KMT and CCP compete for power, they were also poles apart in terms of ideology. The KMT respected ownership of land and property, and sought to establish Western-style representative politics. Even though at this point the KMT was some distance away from a mature democracy, a constitutional democracy was the KMT’s clear aim. On the other hand, the CCP advocated collective ownership of land and property. In line with Karl Marx’s communist ideas of class struggle, the CCP wanted an armed revolution to overthrow bourgeois rule to establish communist party leadership, with proletariat workers as the main political power to establish an equal and perfect society without exploitation.

In 1946, Aisin Gioro Pu Yi was escorted by a Red Army general to give evidence at a war crimes tribunal in Tokyo, where he admitted that Manchukuo was a puppet of the Japanese empire. A few years later, Pu Yi was transferred by the Soviets to the government of the People’s Republic of China, serving ten years in prison. In 1987, Hollywood produced the film The Last Emperor based on his life.
On 22 January 1946, Soong Mei-ling arrived in Changchun to visit the Red Army troops. On the right is Marshal Rodion Yakovlevich Malinovsky, commander of the Soviet Army in northeast China. This imposing, straight-talking Red Army general was a hero of the Soviet Union who made his name as he fought bravely in the Battle of Stalingrad.

So, for the CCP, it was not just about pursuing political power, but a complete change of the social system and its underlying ideology. As for the method of revolution, Vladimir Lenin had set up the Bolshevik party-military system to recruit workers, to first gain revolutionary victories in the cities before sweeping the entire country. But Mao looked at China and felt it was still a backward traditional agricultural society that had not yet established modern capitalist industries, and the main social conflict was the extremely unequal distribution of land for farming and tools for production. A few major land owners rented land to the vast number of farmers, and enjoyed the results of exploiting these dirt-poor farmers who were unable to make ends meet.

Farmers and farm youth answered the call to arms

So, the revolution in China should call on the farmers to use armed force as the main method to force a redistribution of land. The CCP imitated the Soviet Union in setting up a strict party organisation and taking in the elite. It held frequent group meetings and removed "poisonous" capitalist ideas of selfish enjoyment through self-criticism, and built a proletariat world view of selfless service for the people.

Such a rite of mental self-reform carried shades of religious cleansing, and built a strong sense of bonding and dedication between CCP members. Within three years from 1942, Mao’s Yan’an Rectification Movement had “educated” and homogenised the thinking of party cadres, and those who wavered had been removed, while Mao had established absolute power as the CCP’s paramount leader.

After the war, the CCP’s rigorous thinking and organisation immediately showed astonishing power in mobilising people. They fought land owners in farming villages and forced the distribution of land, tools and food to the farmers, then called on the children of farmers to join the CCP army to protect their newly gained benefits.

These troops made up of farmers’ children held frequent sessions to “recall their suffering”, where recruits recounted how they were oppressed by land owners, stirring up hatred towards capitalist enemies. Those in literature and the arts also drew on the farmers’ resistance to oppression by land owners to create many plays and artistic works, to raise the morale of the CCP troops.

...the CCP formed a war machine with the party, leaders, army and the people as one, a complete political force never seen before in China.

1947: CCP troops holding a session to “recall suffering”, where soldiers with a farming background recounted sad stories of families being persecuted by landowners, in order to stir up class hatred. Such military education was very effective in inspiring the fighting morale of the CCP troops.
CCP troops advancing in northeast China, 1946. While they initially faced strong attacks by the KMT troops, the CCP army was flexible and quickly turned a losing situation into a deadlock.
In June 1946, KMT general Sun Li-jen inspected the defences outside Changchun city in northeast China. General Sun dealt heavy defeats to the CCP army in the early part of the civil war, and was an outstanding general on the Allied side in the Burma campaign.

With the radical policy of distributing land, the CCP received the wide support of farmers, who joined the CCP army and contributed food and reported on enemy movements. To put it simply, the CCP resolved the three issues of manpower, food and intelligence at the same time.

And, once in battle, the CCP showed no fear of death. So, even though initially the CCP troops were fewer and less well equipped, they were quick to mobilise and were good fighters, and frequently won against superior numbers. In northern and eastern China, and the farming villages it held in the northeast, the CCP formed a war machine with the party, leaders, army and the people as one, a complete political force never seen before in China.

October 1948: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launching an overall offensive on Jinzhou in northeast China. At this time, the KMT troops were trapped in Jinzhou, Shenyang, and Changchun, and the PLA launched a strategic attack.
1948: As the PLA passed through farming areas, they won people over by cleaning up the areas.
1948: The PLA showed a lot of discipline as they passed through farming areas, while the farmers provided food and water.

Nationalist government in chaos

In comparison, the KMT troops were more numerous and better equipped, but leadership was not focused and coordination was messy, which made it difficult to flexibly organise troops, and they were frequently defeated by the relatively superior CCP troops. Also, besides the elite troops under the direct command of the central government, many local troops were of uneven calibre, and there were frequent reports of inappropriate incidents of harassing the public.

Traditional bureaucracy was rife in government agencies, with frequent news of corruption, leading to unhappiness among the people. Compared to the strict CCP, the KMT started to go downhill politically and militarily.

Panhandlers on a Shanghai street, 1947. These women mostly came to big cities from poor villages in neighbouring provinces; poverty was a major challenge for China.
An elderly Japanese woman selling cigarettes in a city in northeast China, 1946. After Japan lost the war, Japanese residents went instantly from first-class residents to the poverty-stricken people of a defeated country, waiting for the Allies to repatriate them.
June 1947: Amid the civil war, the people of Changchun were in poverty. The war brought great suffering to the people.

In 1947, the KMT army lost more battles than it won, and scaled back its nationwide offensive. The CCP occupied more rural areas and their troop strength grew, and the KMT and CCP entered a deadlock. In July of that year, the CCP army was officially named the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In line with Mao’s plan of encircling the cities from the rural areas (农村包围城市), 1948 was a key period of development for both sides.

In May 1947, university students in Nanjing held a protest march “against civil war, against hunger”. Intellectuals throughout the country stood unanimously against the civil war.
May 1947: University students against the civil war writing slogans. Subsequently, it was revealed that this student movement was secretly initiated by the CCP’s underground organisation.
1948: Young village girls in Nanjing living in run-down tents. The civil war raged in northeast and northern China, leading to many refugees fleeing to the cities.

In the spring of 1948, in the absence of the CCP, the KMT government passed the new constitution drawn up by various camps. Representatives were chosen for the National Assembly, who then chose the president and vice-president; in May, Chiang Kai-shek and Li Tsung-jen (Li Zongren) were installed as the first president and vice-president.

During the election process, the various factions within the KMT openly attacked one another, and the continual conflict led to deepening grudges. After the presidential election, instead of becoming more united, the KMT became even more fractured, and its image suffered rather than improved.

On 21 May 1948, the new constitution was passed, and the Republic of China chose Chiang Kai-shek and Li Tsung-jen as the first president and vice-president. After their inauguration, they went to pay their respects at the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, to convey to founding father Sun Yat-sen that they had fulfilled their mission of enacting the constitution.
On 20 May 1948, the National Assembly held an inauguration ceremony for the president and vice-president. The photo shows Chiang Kai-shek and Li Tsung-jen walking together to the hall. The ceremony was solemn and grand, with about 3,000 National Assembly representatives, Legislative Yuan members, Control Yuan members, agency heads, and diplomats in attendance.
President Chiang Kai-shek speaking at his inauguration, 20 May 1948. While initial constitutional democracy was established, the civil war was becoming more intense.

CCP shows it is a party for the people

The KMT government had planned to increase its political credibility by establishing a constitutional democracy — the exact opposite happened. During the election process, the various factions within the KMT openly attacked one another, and the continual conflict led to deepening grudges. After the presidential election, instead of becoming more united, the KMT became even more fractured, and its image suffered rather than improved.

In August, the KMT government introduced the Chinese gold yuan (金圆券) as a financial reform, intending to clean up the messy currency situation. However, it actually led to hyperinflation, and the currency value plunged while the people lamented in their fury. The KMT government lost the support of the middle-income group; now, it was not just the villages that welcomed the PLA, but even those living in the city also started to look forward to the PLA coming to help restore order and normal life.

In mid-1949, the PLA entered Shanghai. They slept on the streets and did not intrude on the people, showing themselves as highly disciplined military troops who could rough it.

When the PLA entered farming villages, they helped on the farms and paid for their meals, and returned things that they borrowed. And when they entered the cities, the troops did not intrude into residences, but would sleep on the streets. Any soldier who did not obey the rules faced strict military punishment.

In July 1948, the PLA gathered its troops for an offensive on Jinan in Shandong, the first major city captured by the PLA. Mao’s initial strategy was defensive, and after a strategic deadlock, he was now ready to enter the final stage of counterattack.

A last showdown

The KMT and CCP gathered millions of elite troops in northern and northeast China. The PLA held a wide expanse of farming villages and small to medium cities, and were gradually tightening their circle, while the KMT troops were trapped in a few large cities.

Between September 1948 and January 1949, the KMT and CCP engaged in the “Three Major Campaigns”, where the PLA won decisive victories in the Liaoshen (Liaoning–Shenyang), Huaihai, and Pingjin campaigns — the whole of northern and northeast China fell under CCP control. The PLA was at its peak in terms of equipment, manpower, and combat ability; in contrast, the KMT lost its best troops, and internally it was a divided mess. On the surface, it still held territory south of the Yangtze River, with more than one million troops; in fact, the morale of its soldiers was low.

November 1948: The PLA captured Shenyang, and with it the whole of northeast China. At the victory parade, they held up large slogans and giant portraits of Mao Zedong (centre), Zhu De (left), and Lin Biao (right).

Under internal and external pressures, President Chiang announced that he was stepping down, and peace talks resumed between the KMT and CCP. However, the CCP representatives at the negotiation table no longer adopted a subservient stance as they did two and a half years earlier — they called for the KMT government to immediately lay down arms and surrender, and submit to reorganisation.

The arrival of New China

At the same time, Mao divided the PLA into four groups, in preparation to occupy the entire country. After months of logistical organisation, in April 1949 millions of PLA troops crossed the Yangtze River on a southward offensive. On 23 April, the PLA captured Nanjing, the capital of the KMT government, continuing to Shanghai, Wuhan, and southern and central China. Within about six months, the PLA had captured most of China, and the CCP had won the civil war.

Early 1949: Injured KMT soldiers retreating from northern China to the outskirts of Nanjing, representing the military defeat of the KMT.
On 24 April 1949, the PLA entered Nanjing and ascended to the roof of the Presidential Palace, where they took down the flag of the Republic of China, symbolising the CCP’s complete victory in the civil war.
On 25 April 1949, CCP chairman Mao Zedong read out a report on the liberation of Nanjing. In the 22 years of revolution since the KMT/CCP split in March 1927, the CCP had suffered countless sacrifices, defeated its strong opponent, and established a new political, economic, and social system.
17 May 1949: Soong Mei-ling — Madame Chiang Kai-shek — paying respects at the grave of Chiang ancestor Jiang Cheng, a Marquis of the Eastern Han dynasty, in Yixing, Jiangsu.

On 1 October 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established at a ceremony in Beijing. After 28 years of struggle, from a dozen people at its first National Congress in 1921, the CCP had faced ups and downs and even near-demise. In the end, with extraordinary determination, it had overcome challenges before finally winning the ultimate victory to establish a strong party, army, and government.

And what kind of China would it be? The future was undoubtedly a huge test. With its firm belief and strict organisation, the CCP built a strong military machine and was seemingly invincible on the battlefield, but in times of peace, what kind of life would the people have with highly militarised social governance and a collective economy?

The Soviet Union in the 1930s under Stalin had given a preview of the collective economy, but how was a communist society to be established through Marxist ideas of collective ownership and class struggle? The progress of New China led a revolutionary experiment in human social structure, even as it evolved over the following century.

Chairman Mao’s declaration that “the Chinese people have stood up” made a huge impact — it brought challenges and change, not just to China, but the whole world.

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