Rethinking Mao’s Role in the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries

What are the origins of state terror? How do we disentangle the consolidation of Mao’s personalism and the consolidation of the general power of the CCP? How do we treat statistics? And as to the apparent differences between execution, imprisonment, and controls – do such distinctions (or the lack thereof at the time) actually have a larger and more lasting impact than we might imagine, particularly when looking at local manifestations and excesses of the campaign?

Yet more questions thus arise: Did Mao actively lead the campaign? Are its excesses his fault? Scholar Yang Kuisong points out the vague nature of Mao’s orders; officials wanted to please the Chairman, leading to exceeding targets. But we have to ask ourselves if Mao’s suggestions for percentages of guilty was a stimulant (fuel) or a retardant (i.e., a suppressant) to the pure violence of counter-revolutionary suppression.

Propaganda was surely used in galvanizing doses by the regime to persuade people to accept terror – Yang thus calls it ‘normative.’ The benefits the regime brought to a society badly in need of stabilization in the early 1950s are confusedly mixed in; Strauss terms this ‘paternalism,’ the stirring the masses from below. Here the problem of inner-family strife, disassociating with ‘guilty’ family members, is often raised, but can never really be resolved. What happens when a family has benefitted manifestly from the revolution, but a family member then is seen as threatening the revolution itself? Choices need to be made quickly, and new norms established. The state has a certain magnetism, in part because unlike parents or relatives, it has a surplus of violence at its disposal.

The Korean War, while not by any means wholly orchestrated by Mao, was the perfect backdrop of the Suppress Counterrevolutionaries campaign, and external warfare in Korea surely helped to normalize the hunt for subversives and any subsequent executions within the PRC. This certainly follows along what Yang Kuisong says about the Korean War, i.e., that it was vital to legitimizing the turn from leniency to terror. To say that ‘The Korean War may not have been the catalyst for the campaign, but it had a massive effect on it’ would be very much correct.

The embrace of regionalism in analyzing any phenomenon in China is usually wise.  During the campaign in 1950-51, the southwest was in many ways the most violent. Regions had various means of dealing with subversives both real and perceived. The Northeast was comparatively more peaceful than most regions, which is paradoxical, given that the Korean War was boiling just over the river.  At this point, the CCP was not a fully omniscient central organization; due to problems of communication, the central government was getting written reports sometimes late. Not only this, but regions had different experiences and depth of penetration of KMT governance and complicity, so once the Suppress the Counterrevolutionaries campaign accelerated in 1951, regions like that have to ‘catch up’. We will see more deleterious effects of such local variation when it comes to the Great Leap Forward in Sichuan.

Finally, Yang Kuisong very much interprets the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries as a foundation for future political violence. Yang sees Mao as somewhat less interested in propaganda than violence, perhaps, whereas Strauss sees terror and propaganda as complementary – extending control through fear, consolidating control through paternalism. The high number of deaths brought by the campaign means that there is no way around the fact that the consolidation was indeed and inherently violent, and the CCP itself does not try to argue otherwise, in spite of its ongoing use of the word ‘liberation.’


Julia Strauss, “Paternalist Terror: The Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries and Regime Consolidation in the PRC, 1950-1953,” Comparative studies in society and history., Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan. 2002), pp. 80-105.

Yang Kuisong, “Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries,” The China Quarterly., 193 (March 2008), pp.102-121.

Mao Zedong, “The Party’s Mass Line Must Be Followed in Suppressing Counter-revolutionaries,” Selected works of Mao Tse-Tung., Volume 5, May 1951 [ ]

Mao Zedong, “Strike Surely, Accurately, and Relentlessly in Suppressing Counter-Revolutionaries,” Selected works of Mao Tse-Tung., Volume 5, September 1950 – January 1951 [ ]


  1. OT. Excellent/concise interview on BBC last night, Adam.
    Perhaps include it on your site as a sound file.

    There are no factions. Purged, purged and purged again.
    I guess there is no room for any Game of Thrones plotting
    You don’t simply disappear and get to return in Season Four.

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