China Under the Soviet Model: A Clash of Socio-Economic Conditions and Underlying Ideology
China’s modern history, once inspired by the story of the Soviet Union, is a chronicle of “revisionist” degeneracy. Once upholding the ideological, structural, social and political nature of the Soviet-style of development, China later turned against it, promoting a more Maoist vision that attempted to stay true to the tenants of Marx’s socialism. However, the ambiguous correspondence between China and the Soviet Union continued, providing a clear assertion of the contrast between the two revolutionary regimes and the disparities between the conditions necessary for development to occur.
This essay will explore this critical juncture by first contextualising China’s condition and the First Five Year Plan, becoming the foundation for a structural and ideological comparison between Mao and Stalin, China and the Soviet Union, that will be the core of this essay. It will also outline the distinctions that diverged Mao away from Stalin’s methodology. Finally, this essay will touch on the implications of China adopting the Soviet model, which stayed well and truly alive to become the prerequisites for the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Contextualising the First Five Year Plan: China’s Conditions
The establishment of the People’s Republic of China was not an easy feat. Post-1949 civil war, China faced economic and political challenges in rebuilding its economy. China was nowhere close to its goal of socialism, but unlike their Soviet counterparts, the revolution served as a reaffirmation to socialist and communist goals (Meisner., 1986). It was a time of great optimism and hope that rendered more favourable social conditions for a revolutionary victory than the Soviet experience (Meisner., 1986).
But relative to the great social fever, China’s material backwardness overshadowed the population’s enthusiasm. The Communist Party of China (CPC) inherited a state overflowing with corruption, extreme poverty and unemployment limiting their economic existence. Agricultural output per capita in China, was only 20% of what had been in the Soviet Union, implying a far smaller potential for extracting capital to finance industrialisation (Meisner., 1986). China’s conditions were far less developed than the Soviet Union’s economy, but the very absence of these conditions gave the CPC “even greater determination to overcome it” (Meisner., 1986).
Looking at its communist counterpart, China adopted the First Five Year Plan, directed at urgent industrialisation with the framework of a “big push” policy that placed priority on the heavy industry over the light industry and agriculture (Kraus., 1982). There was little to no difference to the plans adopted by the CPC and the Soviet 5-year plans of Stalin’s era (Kraus., 1982). For example, China emphasised on the heavy industry at the expense of the agricultural sector, like Soviet Russia. China was particularly advantageous in the number of people it had and the size of its lands; securing a means of financing industrialisation. Structural changes to land through collectivisation hoped to forge large-scale production of agriculture that would generate maximised surplus to supply the industry with new materials while also feeding the population (Kraus., 1982).
A heavy focus on industrial production also involved two additional elements: centralised planning and the transformation of urban life caused by the conception of a new elite. Heavy industrial production is an urban phenomenon that required a high level of bureaucratic efficiency, and the Soviet blueprint established just that. The State Planning Committee was formed to organise the allocation of resources and to design the cityscape to see the plan through (Kraus., 1982). The creation of a bureaucratic class would also see the emergence of a new urban elite whose existence would benefit “from all kinds of advantages … dosed out according to their rank” (Bianco and Horko., 2018., p.183). In comparison to the workers, both in the city factories and the country farms, whose conditions of life and work were increasingly repressive, only increasing the visibility of inequality (Meisner., 1986).
As China’s plan was closely modelled to the Soviet blueprint, similar rates of growth in industrial output were anticipated (Meisner., 1986). And although there are no official numbers reported, the Soviet model proved to be a swifter and quicker move towards development for China, providing China with a stable and modern industrial base which was 97% financed from the Chinese people themselves (Meisner., 1986). While it was a remarkable feat, it cannot disguise the exploitation and the ideological contradictions to Mao’s vision.
The principles and practices of the First Five Year Plan proved to be in significant contrast to Mao’s ideals. The preeminence of material values, the distinction between classes, and the widening gap between the rich and poor, between the urban and the countryside, were concepts required for the Soviet blueprint, but the antithesis to Mao’s revolution (Bianco and Horko., 2018).
The ideology behind an intense focus on the heavy industry was to enable the creation of more machinery, and hence a faster route towards a developed nation. This obsession over the production of heavy goods over the light industry neglected the agricultural sector, whose lack of funding to develop farm tools and fertilisers created a bottleneck situation. Limited advancements in agricultural efficiency slowed down the capacity of the production chain, relying on a tough and forced working culture on the peasants to produce the required quota.
The light industry represents a crucial role “to satisfy the multi-faceted requirements of the people for everyday life, and to raise the material and cultural standard of living” (Trifonov., 1958., p.40). Hence, despite the structural success of the First Five Year Plan, China bore extreme social costs with over 500,000,000 peasants from the countryside exploited without an increase in living conditions, and this stagnation was magnified with the transformation of the urban cities.
Mao was faithful to the revolutionary values and fever represented by the peasants. Mao described the force of the peasantry as the “raging winds and driving rain” that carried the dominant power of the Chinese revolution (Gillin., 1963). This confidence in the peasantry was in contrast to the elitist Soviet model of superintendence over the people (Bhattacharya., 1994). His faith in the people “regarded hundreds of poor and illiterate millions not a liability for revolutionary transformation but a great asset to be mobilised… as their mind is like a “clean sheet of paper” on which can be drawn “the newest and most beautiful pictures”’ (Bhattacharya., 1994., p.16).
Mao’s distinguishable perception of the peasantry influenced his efforts to deplore any signs of inequality or class distinction. . Despite this, the Party perpetuated them in the First Five Year Plan (Bianco and Horko., 2018). Industrialisation was an urban phenomenon that required central planning by a new bureaucratic elite. These high ranking officials “benefitted from all kinds of advantages, both symbolic and substantial” such as admittance to the Beijing Hospital, reservations at elite schools for their children, and front row theatre seats (Bianco and Horko., 2018). A new urban class also arose, whose possession of technical and administrative know-how was valued and paid more. Not only was the inequality made rampant and the distinction between classes made apparent, but the intrinsic economic worth of the people diminished Mao’s emphasis on personal will; the noble trait of self sacrifice for building a better future.
Considering these factors and Mao’s cynical perception of China’s history of practising foreign techniques, it seems strange for China to have uncritically accepted the Soviet model (Meisner., 1986). Yet despite the ideological contradictions, the CPC had few reservations of the postrevolutionary strategy of development (Meisner., 1986). Stalin had provided the only historical model for industrialising an economically backward country, and it was further encouraged by their economic and technological aid (Meisner., 1986). In a global stage where communism was a threat, it was imminent for the two states to come together. The danger of the outside world was deemed to be a more significant threat than ideological clashes.
The succeeding years: overcoming the impact of the First Five Year Plan
The Marxist warnings of economic underdevelopment did not haunt the CPC, for the Soviet experience had demonstrated that it was possible to industrialise towards a socialist state despite economic backwardness (Meisner., 1986). Yet, Soviet blueprint left a significant mark on the ideological and political structures of the CPC, leading to several campaigns to shake the party out of its Soviet inclinations.
While breaking out of the Soviet economic model was relatively easy, disassociation from their ideas and political structures had proven to be more difficult (Goldman., 1980). Periodically, Mao would make an effort to break out of the Soviet planning, and production mould, to what he had hoped would be a new direction (Goldman., 1980). Bureaucratic tendencies were a particular concern for Mao as their vested interests in preserving the social order was opposed to radical change and tolerated capitalist ideologies (Meisner., 1986). This new elite class, while administering and distributing resources in the best interests of the society, would make decisions at their own level to privilege themselves (Bianco and Horko., 2018). It is a betrayal to the revolutionary spirit of Mao’s highly regarded peasantry class because a position in the bureaucratic elite was synonymous to the opportunity to exploit; essentially considered as a functional bourgeoisie. It is not easy to decipher whether the CPC had purposely caused this. However, it is a plausible outcome for China “had to administer a large rural population with an even greater population density that was more illiterate and more glued to the village universe” (Bianco and Horko., 2018., p.169). Hence, “they immediately resolved not only to administer but to overturn and transform society by controlling it very tightly” (Bianco and Horko., 2018., p.169).
The campaigns and political movements succeeding the First Five Year Plan were strategies to overcome the ideological marks left on the Party. These attempts employed Mao’s populist standing by mobilising support from outside the Party. This includes the Hundred Flowers Campaign, where intellectuals were encouraged to discuss the nervously developed country to promote new forms of art and new cultural institutions. Mao, however, also used this as an opportunity to promote socialism as the dominant ideology over capitalism. Efforts continued with the Cultural Revolution after widespread corruption amongst local cadres demanded economic and political revival. The impact of bureaucratism from the Soviet model proves to be a continuous force that Mao attempts to eradicate. It is a long-lasting impact; so much so that it becomes a notable feature in China’s modern history. While Soviet Russia embraced it, Mao continuously fought against it.
The outcomes of the First Five Year Plan in Soviet Russia and China were the result of the social and historical conditions the two nations were bound by, and development was only to proceed within the limited contextual boundaries of each nation. It is no surprise that Mao diverged away from Stalin’s leadership, as the underlying principles were too jarring for a complete communist copy. And although Soviet Russia provided the CPC with an economic blueprint and technological aid, perhaps the consciousness of the ideological differences would have set a different path for China’s succeeding years.
Considering the outcomes of the First Five Year Plan, it is crucial to comprehend why Mao and the CPC were inclined to the Soviet model. Naiveness of the Party is too simplistic and shallow of an explanation. Instead, understanding the global context of the two rising nations and the antithetical democratic structures that stood against communism provides a more plausible account. China needed to catch up with the world, and provided there was no other guidance that ensured their success despite the material backwardness, Stalin’s leadership and the Soviet model was the optimum answer.
Whether China’s expansion through the First Five Year Plan was seen as progress, depends on one’s criteria. Economically, China proved to work against its material backwardness but at the cost of social progress and equality. Mao’s belief in the people, however, proved to be a continued legacy.
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