Part of Mao Zedong’s land reform during the late phase of the Chinese Civil War and the early People’s Republic of China was a campaign of mass killings of landlords in order to redistribute land to the peasant class and landless workers which resulted in millions of deaths. Those killed were targeted on the basis of class rather than ethnicity, therefore terming the campaign “genocide” is incorrect and the neologism “classicide” is more accurate. Class-motivated mass killings continued almost throughout the 30 years of social and economic transformation in Maoist China, resulting in the deaths of 90% to 95% of the what used to be 15 million members of the landlord class in China according to Harry Wu.
Initial classicide (1947–1951)
The idea of a violent campaign against the landlord class was already drawn up by 1947 by Kang Sheng, an expert on terror tactics. Ren Bishi, a member of the party’s Central Committee, likewise stated in a 1948 speech that “30,000,000 landlords and rich peasants would have to be destroyed.” Shortly after the founding of the PRC, land reform, according to Mao biographer Philip Short, “lurched violently to the left” with Mao laying down new guidelines for “not correcting excesses prematurely.” Beatings, while not officially promoted by the party, were not prohibited either. While landlords had no protection, those branded as “rich peasants” received moderate protections from violence and those on the lower end were fully protected.
Mao in this vein insisted that the people themselves, not the security organs, should become involved in killing landlords who had oppressed them. This was quite different from the Soviet practice, in which the NKVD would arrest counterrevolutionaries and then have them secretly executed and often buried before sunrise. Mao thought that peasants who killed landlords with their bare hands would become permanently linked to the revolutionary process in a way that passive spectators could not be. Those condemned as landlords were buried alive, dismembered, strangled and shot. The killing eventually gave rise to the saying “dou di zhu”, or “fight the landlord” which was used by Mao to build support for the party.
Death toll of the 1947–1951 killings
The actual number of people killed in the land reform campaign is believed to be lower than Ren Bishi’s estimate, but it still runs into the millions, because there was a policy which required the selection of “at least one landlord, and usually several, in virtually every village for public execution”.
Historian Walter Scheidel notes that the violence of the land reform campaign had a significant impact on economic inequality. He gives as an example the village of Zhangzhuangcun, made famous by Hinton’s book Fanshen:
In Zhangzhuangcun, in the more thoroughly reformed north of the country, most “landlords” and “rich peasants” had lost all their land and often their lives or had fled. All formerly landless workers had received land, which eliminated this category altogether. As a result, “middling peasants,” who now accounted for 90 percent of the village population, owned 90.8 percent of the land, as close to perfect equality as one could possibly hope for.
Great Leap Forward (1958–1962)
The Great Leap Forward was an economic and social campaign by the Communist Party of China (CPC) from 1958 to 1962. The campaign was led by Chairman Mao Zedong and aimed to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. However, it is widely considered to have caused the Great Chinese Famine. 20 to 43 million people perished from starvation during the Great Leap Forward. Not all deaths during the Great Leap Forward were due to starvation. Frank Dikötter estimates that at least 2.5 million people were beaten or tortured to death and an additional 1 to 3 million people committed suicide. The Great Leap Forward also led to the greatest destruction of real estate in human history, outstripping any of the bombing campaigns during World War II. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of all houses were demolished. Frank Dikötter states that “homes were pulled down to make fertilizer, to build canteens, to relocate villagers, to straighten roads, to make place for a better future beckoning ahead or simply to punish their owners.”
Great Leap Forward as classicide
Edwin Daniel Jacob made the case that the Great Leap Forward was a genocidal campaign along class lines: “The Great Leap Forward constituted genocide, as Mao employed all of Stanton’s “Eight Steps of Genocide” against his Chinese compatriots in his unsuccessful effort to launch China into a sterling model of communism. Mao classified the Chinese agrarians according to economic lines, labeling them peasants and wealthy peasants.”
Cultural Revolution (1966–1976)
The Cultural Revolution, formally the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, was a sociopolitical movement that took place in China from 1966 until 1976. Set into motion by Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, its stated goal was to preserve ‘true’ Communist ideology in the country by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society, and to re-establish Maoist thought as the dominant ideology within the Party. At least 400,000 to by some estimates 10,000,000 people perished during the Cultural Revolution as the result of communal massacres and starvation for the sake of these inter-party struggles.
Class motivations in the Cultural Revolution
By the time the Cultural Revolution broke out, the landlord class had all but faded away, so factions of the Chinese Communist Party used class terms as a means to purge each other under the guise of fighting the bourgeoisie.