Revisiting Mao’s Role in the ‘Three-Anti’ Campaign

If there is one thing that appears certain about contemporary China and Chinese historical studies, it is that Mao’s role in sparking and sustaining violence during the period of his rule (1949-1976) will invariably provoke controversy and contention.

On this blog, we have  previously delved into Mao’s interactions with the ultra-hardline Tao Zhu in Guangxi in the early 1950s, and made reference to Frank Dikotter’s work in the context of ostensible brutality in the countryside.

I’m currently at work on a project which looks at Mao’s role in stimulating killing, torture, and psychological pressure on merchants as well as local officials in a particular county in China during the Three Anti and Five Anti campaigns of 1951-52.

Thus far, the best article I’ve been able to find anywhere near this topic is by Michael Sheng, whose work I first got to know when studying Cold War history in Ohio in the early 2000s. Sheng’s work is always extremely well-anchored in published CCP Party documents, and he has a kind of combative streak as a writer which gives the prose more than a bit of life and propulsion. Mao comes across as a living, breathing, human being in Sheng’s work, enmeshed in almost arbitrary schemes and ideologies.

In this 2006 article, Dr. Sheng seeks to turn the image of Mao during the Three Anti campaign away from the notion of consensus-building and collective leadership, and more towards an image of a leader without proper checks and balances, pitting region vs. region and provincial leaders against one another — in addition to pitting essentially every Party organization against itself.

According to Sheng, Three Anti was ‘the brainchild of Mao, who dictated the decision process and managed, or mismanaged, the campaign single-handedly’ (p. 57) even as he pulled Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and other top cadre into its irrational managerial orbit.  (On p. 58, Sheng says ‘Mao compelled his subordinates onto a deadly path of witch-hunting.’)

A poster from the Three-Anti, Five-Anti period in China advises a tall ’embezzler’ and a portly ‘traitor merchant’ to come clean about their anti-Party corruption. Or, as the large caption says, ‘Only by confessing is there a way out.’ Source: Southern Daily  

But even when Mao is being painted as a central mastermind of the movement, Sheng notes the Party structure and debate among the top cadre helped to set the table, if not the violent agenda, of the movement. In May 1951, Gao Gang, the maestro of the critical, industrial, and Korean war-bordered Northeast region, initiated a movement to ‘increase production and reduce expenditure / ‘ (p. 58). Gao Gang’s report to the Central Committee of 1 November 1951, almost precisely a year to the day of China’s immense military involvement in the Korean War, called out ’embezzlement and degeneration /退‘  among the bureaucracy. For a Party that had been in power in the whole of the Northeast for just over three years, and over most of China for just over two years, these were serious accusations.

Sheng notes the absence of the precise ‘Three Anti’ phraseology in the Northeast during 1951, but indicates that Mao coined the term in his comments on Gao’s 1 November report, which he forwarded to the Central Committee on 20 November 1951, by lining up the task as follows:

…you will carry out the anti-corruption, anti-waste, and anti-bureaucratism struggle in the nationwide campaign to increase production and reduce expenditure. (Jianguo yilai Mao Zedong Wengao, vol. 2, pp. 513-514)

This is how policy is shifted even today in the CCP: One has to be alert for the regional campaigns, the test-run slogans, and who is running them and where, and then be on the lookout for the grafting of new language onto these directives or slogans.

But the test is in significance; most bureaucratic prose does not end up sparking major new nationwide campaigns. Sheng makes a big claim here, stating that Mao’s coining of the the three antis amid support for the ‘increase production and reduce expenditure’ movement therefore means that :

…there is no evidence of a collective leadership, nor a policy deliberation process that defined the nature and targets of the movement. Instead, Mao came to identify himself as the Party Central Committee and he wrote in the name of the Center without any discussion with the leadership…[F]rom Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and on down into the lower ranks, no one ever tried to resist Mao’s dominance. (Sheng, pp. 59-60).

Perhaps that is because most of these leaders were also of the mind that corruption among cadre relatively newly installed in China’s urban centers — and this was an absolutely urban campaign at the outset — was a problem that had to be rooted out?  It would of course take quite a bit of piecing together of Gao Gang’s 1951 itinerary and documentary trail to see just how much leeway he had, or to what extent the ‘increase production and reduce expenditure’ / zengchan jieyue movement had emerged out of a matrix of local experimentation and debate.

This is hard to do without having read a big book about land reform in the CCP-controlled Northeast from 1946-1948, and attitudes and policies toward peasants, particularly in eastern Manchuria, in the few years thereafter. But does such a book exist? (If you, dear reader, have any suggestions apart from Harold Tanner’s rather bruising military history of the Liao-Shen campaign, or Steven Levine’s classic Anvil of Victory, please say so in the comments or via Twitter.)

Gao Gang, extreme right, on Tiananmen Gate with (from left) Ye Jianying, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, Mao Zedong, Zhu De, and an unidentified leader on 1 May 1953.

Or, we could be ruthlessly presentist about Sheng’s take on Mao’s power grab: He is just making a statement about Mao within the eternal theme of leadership and nascent personality cults in Chinese politics.

More recently, Jeff Wasserstrom and Jay Carter have reminded us that some apparently peculiar aspects of Xi Jinping’s drive toward personal power and state revival are in fact more strongly rooted in the Republican era than any CCP Party history.

(Besides being cleverly anchored in a great co-authored text, Thunder over China, Wasserstrom and Carter’s co-authored tack has the added advantage of moving us away from the suffocating emphasis on Mao, and the notion that any move toward centralization or autocracy in China by the CCP must by rights be compared to the Hunanese Helmsman.)

Kerry Brown, now head of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, recently had a very useful point of view on the question of seeing personalist power grabs at work in interpreting CCP actions, rather than interpreting policy as having emerging out of tensions, dialogue, and inner-Party debate. Writing for The Diplomat, Brown argued:

One less noted side effect of this fixation on succession is just how much attention it draws away from discussion of policy and competing political ideas within China. It serves as the ultimate distraction. Because, at the end of the day, despite not being a multiparty democracy, ideas still have a role to play in domestic politics in China. It is not all about personalities and factions. There are, for instance, arguments for and against marketization, with the vast spectrum of opinion in between. This fault line has been there since the 1980s when figures like the hardline leftist Deng Liqun slogged it out with Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun. The issue has evidently never really been resolved.

To return to the purely historical, it perhaps would be glib to riposte to Sheng that ‘it’s still too early to tell’ or that the jury is still out on the generation of the Three Anti campaign or Gao Gang’s precise role in generating it. But to have made such a broad claim without at least acknowledging that it is damn near impossible to figure out the precise roots of the campaign without prying open Gao Gang’s semi-taboo, often censored, history and the problem of Gao’s character assassination seems to me to be a bit overly confident.

But that is what historians are supposed to do, and Sheng should in no way be taken to task (least of all in a blog entry) for not having had enough data at his disposal when writing this up in 2004-05. Indeed, Sheng managed to make significant headway into Gao’s career a few years later, publishing ‘Mao and Chinese Elite Politics in the 1950s: The Gao Gang Affair Revisited‘ in Twentieth-Century China in 2011. Being overly slow, I have yet to read this piece or to see if Sheng goes back to answer the question I’ve raised — well, raised in his own work — above, so again would welcome reader comments.

This blog entry has been an interesting experiment, one which shows a pattern which I imagine to be common among China historians. One starts with the intent of asking a very specific question about specifically local aspects of a political campaign in the Mao era, and one is dragged back as if by physical force to the question of Mao’s personality. Not only that, but one is forced to confront debates about Mao’s role in sparking and managing the campaign, the question of what his colleagues were supposed to have done about it in some noble counterfactual past, and the old buzzsaw of ‘what we know and how we know it.’ And I’ve not even got into the ingots of data published in the Mao Nianpu in December 2013, whose six dense paper volumes Maura Cunningham led me to in Shanghai not long thereafter. There are still limitations to writing the history of the Three Antis, but progress is being made anyway.

Citation: Michael Sheng, ‘Mao Zedong and the Three-Anti Campaign (November 1951 to April 1952): A Revised Interpretation,’ Twentieth-Century China, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 56-80.

Image: A criticism and public denunciation scene, possibly with connection to South Central Bureau. Via a remarkable collection of anti-corruption Party history photos on a Chinese BBS, posted on 10 October 2014. 

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