China 1949: What about the workers?

Submitted by AWL on 16 November, 2021 - 7:19 Author: Paul Hampton
Mao Zedong, 1949

The year 1949 is pivotal in modern Chinese history. The military victories of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, who for brevity I will describe as the “Communists”, although in my view they were not communists in any sense used before the 1930s) and the foundation of the People’s Republic of China constitute key components in the “creation myth” of today’s China. The events furnish the current regime with its legitimacy. Many aspects of the Communist seizure of power in 1949 form part of the “furniture” of Chinese politics today.

Graham Hutchings’ book, China 1949: Year of Revolution (2021), brings welcome clarity to the events of this history. The book clearly shows how Mao Zedong’s Stalinist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) established its own state, without any active role by the working class as an independent class force. China after 1949 was Stalinist, not a workers’ state. The foundation of today’s exploitation and oppression were laid in 1949 and despite important developments, particularly after 1978, clarity about its origins is vital for today’s working-class socialists.


During 1948, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gained the upper hand in its civil war against the nationalist Guomindang after two decades of conflict. Since 1928, the CCP had formed a peasant-based Stalinist army and won control of territory. By the beginning of 1949, the CCP’s forces were ready to conquer the cities and seize state power throughout China.

On 8 April 1948, Mao drafted a telegram to the headquarters of the Luoyang front, instructing on urban policy: “do not confiscate all the industrial and commercial enterprises run by Guomindang members… do not lightly advance slogans of raising wages and reducing working hours… do not be in a hurry to organise the people of the city to struggle for democratic reforms and improvements in livelihood.”

On 22 August 1948, Zhou Enlai issued a blunt CCP central committee directive, entitled “Cool-Headedness and Flexible Tactics — Requirements of the Struggle in Areas Under the Chiang Regime”, which stated, “it is out of the question to promote unsupported armed uprisings of workers and other inhabitants in Guomindang cities”.

Takeover of the cities

The CCP’s takeover of the cities varied according to the degree of resistance by the Guomindang. The PLA took the cities of Changchun and Shenyang by long and bloody siege. It conquered Tianjin by storm. It subjected Beijing to “a form of calibrated suffocation that finally persuaded its defenders to surrender and accept ‘peaceful liberation’”. Nanjing would be taken by “vacant possession”. But whatever form the takeover of cities took, Hutchings is clear that “In none of them was the urban working class large or well organised enough to overthrow the old political and economic order. They had to be conquered from the ‘outside’ by peasant armies…”

The port of Tianjin was a major commercial and trade hub for whole of north China. On 14 January 1949, the PLA launched a fierce assault on the city centre, which fell in just over twenty-four hours. “We have all passed through a very hectic time’, wrote Mary Layton, a young missionary with the Salvation Army, after a month of what she described as “day and night bombardments”. “All day on 14 January from early morning the din was terrific and continued non-stop for 24 hours. The southwest corner of the city was razed to the ground.”


Beijing was handed over to the Communists in bizarre circumstances. The Guomindang commander Fu Zuoyi’s position was compromised by the fact that his daughter and her fiancé were Communist Party members, and his own command had been infiltrated: the Communists were listening in to his military communications. On 1 January 1949 the CCP announced the formation of a “shadow government” — the Beijing Military Control Commission.

Although the CCP underground had been active for some time, “the Party had neither the intention nor the capacity to foster an uprising among Beijing’s relatively small, poorly organised proletariat. Neither did it promise that property would be transferred to them once the city was ‘liberated’. It was thinking along different lines. Mao wanted to gain control over Beijing intact rather than in a state of insurrection”.

On 31 January, PLA troops marched into the city. Time magazine reported that normal life resumed as rapidly as possible: “A few days later, 20,000 smartly uniformed Communist troops marched in, with two brass bands. They had left their Russian trucks outside the city, displaying only the US ones, which they had captured from Chiang’s armies. Picked Nationalist soldiers grimly guarded the Reds’ line of march. Beneath pictures of Communist boss Mao Zedong (none of Joseph Stalin), sound trucks blared: ‘Long live the liberation’. Crowds watched the Reds in silence.”

Doak Barnett, a young US scholar who witnessed the takeover, found the imagery to capture events. Beijing had been “plucked like a piece of ripe fruit”, he wrote. The old regime had been “placed in receivership. The Military Control Commission acted as receiver and was the supreme local authority during bankruptcy proceedings”. Its job was to “take possession of the Nationalist’s assets and then pass them on to the Beijing People’s Government”.


Nanjing had been the Guomindang capital city for two decades. It too fell with little resistance and without working class intervention. “In the streets and squares of Nanjing, the Communists were orderly”, reported Time (2 May 1949). “They sang or listened to harangues from their officers. They looked no different from their Nationalist brothers, except they were fresher, more soldierly… people grouped around them and, with unaffected curiosity, stared at the invaders from the north.”

Hutchings describes the ease with which Communist forces occupied the capital. It was “matched by the competent way in which they took over the established organs of power and influence, rapidly ‘re-casting’ them so they could fulfil the new regime’s revolutionary purpose”. This was the work of the Nanjing Military Control Committee, dominated by the PLA. It was tasked with suppressing resistance, maintaining order and generally running things until a new “civil” administration could take on the job.

In addition to assuming the main functions of government, the Military Control Committee was quick to bring to heel the leading financial institutions. They became property of the Communist authorities. The Nanjing police force, some of whose leaders fled with other senior Nationalists officials, was promptly reorganised, though many of those who had elected to remain behind were retained.

One of the new municipal government’s first moves was to introduce a curfew with a view, as the Nanjing Daily put it, “to restore normal conditions and order, to maintain public peace and to avert destructive activities of the remnants of the reactionary KMT in the city”.


The capture of Shanghai was the single most important “symbolic” episode in the rise of “Red” China, given its status as a citadel of capitalist enterprise. The general advance was launched on 23 May 1949. Troops responsible for taking over the city centre were forbidden to deploy artillery or explosives so as not to damage buildings and so on. The PLA quickly overwhelmed the city’s two main airports. The next day the PLA breached the city’s unimpressive defensive perimeter.

In the early hours of 25 May, Communist soldiers in green fatigues penetrated to the city centre. Their entry was largely uncontested. Most of those in authority under the departing regime handed over responsibility to the new regime. The smooth takeover of the police force was particularly striking. Troops who lacked maps were assisted by 50 postal workers in uniform.

“The changeover was like nothing that had been imagined”, wrote Randall Gould, editor of the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury. “We had feared days or lawless disorder. Nothing of the sort occurred. One day the Nationalists, next day the Communists, while our erstwhile defenders rode down the Yangtze River and over to Formosa. It was as simple as that.”

The CCP’s New China News Agency reported that half of Shanghai’s privately owned factories were operating by 9 June and that all of them were expected to do so by the end of the month. Mayor Chen Yi held a series of meetings with senior business leaders, promising to assist them and reminding them of the difficulties they faced under Nationalist rule. The Shanghai Military Control Committee quickly took over public enterprises, including many schools and leading universities.


Guangzhou (then known as Canton) was the major city in south China. Lester Knox Little, the Inspector General of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service described the familiar pattern: “After all the talk and boasts, not a shot was fired by the ‘defenders’ of the city, who skedaddled as fast as they could — after needlessly blowing up the great Pearl River Bridge. Like a spoiled child who destroys a child’s sand castle just to be nasty.”

A section of the municipal police remained on duty, “having been warned by underground cells to continue their services”, according to The New York Times (14 October 1949). Time magazine (24 October 1949) adopted a breezier tone: “With scarcely more than a quiet sigh, Guangzhou last week passed under Communist rule. There was no resistance in the city that had given refuge to China’s dying Nationalist government… A million Chinese carried on impassively while the Red underground among them emerged for jubilant street parades”.

Labour and capital

The conquerors spelt out the roles of capital and labour in the New China. Mao insisted: “Our present policy is to restrict capitalism and not to eliminate it.” Visiting Tianjin in the spring of 1949, Liu Shaoqi upbraided local party leaders for their heavy-handed treatment of commercial activity in the city. His remarks, “eased some of the anxieties of business leaders across the country. On the other hand, they did not offer much comfort to the country’s proletariat in whose name the CCP had seized power”.

As early as April 1949, the Central Committee complained about spontaneous strikes in cities. The party urged owners and workers across the country to end labour unrest under the slogan, “private and public interests, labour and capital must both benefit”.

Li Lisan told the WFTU Trade Union Conference, November 1949: “The special feature of the Chinese revolution is not the occupation of the cities through the uprising of the urban workers, but the seizure of the cities after the extermination of enemy forces by the People’s Liberation Army… However, the demands of the workers were sometimes too high. Their actions and forms of struggle were in some cases inordinate... we carried out education… so as to correct the ‘Left’ deviation of excess…”

Mao’s Stalinist state

The new government at first exercised a form of military rule. No clear separation was made between party and state in the new polity: Mao was chairman of both the Central People’s Government and the Party, Liu Shaoqi was vice-chair of the government, while Zhou Enlai was premier and foreign minister. From the first, the party was what mattered in the People’s Republic.

Every urban centre underwent household registration, undertaken by the municipal police, renamed the Public Security Bureau. Local committees were organised for strict control. Before long, every urban citizen acquired a personal dossier on entering the workforce that would stay with them for the rest of their lives. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions ensured production and civil peace in the factories.

Hutchings describes the takeover in 1949, using a wide range of Chinese and English-language sources. The book combines careful research with a highly readable narrative. It does not delve into why the CCP won, nor does it tackle the social nature of the new regime. However it makes clear that the takeover was not carried out by the Chinese working class. The CCP may have claimed to speak in the name of the Chinese proletariat, but workers were never the self-conscious agents of change in this revolution.

The totalitarian tyranny established by the Maoists from the beginning was the opposite of socialism. This book provides a service to activists trying to understand the roots of modern China and why Maoism was never a model for authentic working-class militants.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.