Immediately after coming to power, the Chinese Communist Party mobilized political campaigns to purge “enemy classes” and fortify a “dictatorship of the proletariat” modeled after Stalin’s Soviet Union. During the 1950s, there were several attempts at land reforms, as well as a series of movements to eliminate counterrevolutionaries and institute collectives. In addition, there were the “Anti-Rightist Struggle,” and the “Great Leap Forward.” These mass campaigns involved beating, torture, and execution, and were responsible for as many as 15 million deaths. One million “rightists” were punished for up to twenty years in internal exile or labor camps. The “Great Leap Forward” alone caused an estimated thirty million famine deaths, the highest number ever recorded in famine history.
The famine was the direct outcome of government policies, official cover-ups, and media censorship by the CCP. By 1957, land had been collectivized and peasants were organized into communes.
The ailing economy nearly collapsed. In the commune kitchens, food reserves were depleted. Local officials, fearing reprisal and competing for favor, systematically covered up their failures, reporting fabricated statistics of harvests instead. Leaders who spoke candidly, such as Marshal Peng Dehuai, and who tried to convince Mao to reverse the policy, were denounced and purged.
Encouraged by dazzling, but false, statistics, the government allocated food to cities and generously agreed to export the surplus to “socialist brother” countries. When local officials could not produce the food in the quantities that the false production statistics led them to expect, they accused peasants of concealing or stealing food. They tortured and killed thousands to extract confessions of hidden supplies.
The peasants, however, were starving. In some regions, after people had consumed all the mice, insects, and tree bark available, some resorted to cannibalism. The elderly and children especially suffered, starving to death in large numbers. Even more died from malnutrition in the years that followed. In 1957 half of all deaths were under the age of 18; in 1963 half were under the age of 10.
The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s tactic to secure his power. He encouraged his Red Guards—students who had pledged personal loyalty to Mao—to challenge local Communist authorities. This quickly led to violent conflicts and anarchy. Historians estimate that a total of seven million were killed during the decade of the Cultural Revolution.
The Red Guards were joined by workers and civil servants, but the different factions clashed, often violently. “Counterrevolutionaries” and other “bad elements,” including prominent intellectuals and artists, were paraded in shame before the public, beaten, detained, or executed without any trial or judicial procedure. Looting was widespread, homes were searched, books were burned, and religious sites and ancient artifacts were destroyed. Many were sent to labor camps; some committed suicide or went insane. In many cities, Red Guards took control of the administrative authority. Lawlessness and anarchy ruled for months. In some areas, the rampage against “class enemies” degenerated into the worst possible atrocities, including mass cannibalism.
On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army, under order from Deng and Premier Li Peng, opened fire on pro-democracy protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The protest movement actually began on April 15, when students converged on Tiananmen to commemorate the death of Hu, who had been purged for sympathizing with earlier student protests in 1986.
Hardliners within the Politburo, such as Li and President Yang Shangkun, with backing from Deng, rejected the students’ request for “dialogue.” Instead, they imposed martial law and labeled the demonstrations “counterrevolutionary.” Zhao and other moderates were willing to reach out to students, but they were overruled by the hardliners in the government. When demonstrators refused to leave Tiananmen Square, Deng and Li ordered the military to “clean up.”
For days, the troops had been blocked from entering the square by Beijing’s citizens. When the final order came, on the evening of June 3, soldiers advanced toward the Square along Chang-an Avenue, forcing their way through the crowds and firing automatic weapons at civilians. In shock and disbelief, the crowds charged back and skirmished with soldiers, which led to many deaths. Tanks and armored vehicles rolled to the square, and troops cleared the area of demonstrators in the early morning of June 4. Shootings and arrests continued in the surrounding streets, where citizens tried to rescue the wounded and hide the “counterrevolutionary rioters.”
The immediate civilian death toll in Beijing was estimated to be around 2,600. The actual death total may never be known, and an unknown number of protesters died in other cities. The troops reportedly burnt many bodies. In Beijing, between 7,000 and 10,000 were wounded. In the aftermath, the government convicted and executed dozens of protesters, mostly workers. A nationwide manhunt began for other participants in the rally. Hundreds were arrested and sentenced to jail or sent to labor camps. Many more were forced to confess, demoted, or fired from their jobs. A few prominent leaders went into hiding and were eventually smuggled out of the country.
Since 1989, activists of pro-democracy organizations such as the Democratic Party, independent union organizers, liberal intellectuals broaching sensitive subjects, and religious groups have been relentlessly persecuted. Human rights organizations have documented the torture and arbitrary detention of hundreds of political prisoners who have been incarcerated without trial under harsh prison conditions, including forced labor in “re-education camps.” It is impossible to estimate the general population that by 2004 was in Chinese prisons, labor camps, and local detention centers. In the early twenty-first century Tibetan Buddhists, Muslims in Xingjiang, and Catholics loyal to Rome continued to be subjected to persecution. In the crackdown on the quasi-Buddhist sect, Falun Gong, many practitioners were arrested, detained, persecuted, and tortured, and some died in police custody.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
DO THESE CONSTITUTE WAR CRIMES OR CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY?
SHOULD ANYONE BE PROSECUTED FOR THEM?
IF SO, WHO?