The Significance Of Mao’s Social Policies In China

Historians have argued the significance of Mao’s social policies for years. We can measure the significance of Mao’s social, communist ideologies by their remarkability, resonance and impact through time, also weighing up other events which may weaken or strengthen their overall significance.

In 1949 the CCP not only wished to reform China’s economy and industrialise, but also to modernise Chinese society and bring about a communist way of life, via a series of social policies. With the Communist Party of China (set up in 1921 and then reformed by Mao at the end of the Civil War) remaining as the sole governing party within mainland China to this day, outlasting the Soviet Union, and bringing China to the largest GDP of any country, it is of no doubt that overall, Mao’s policies were very significant and successful in creating a base for a socially stable economic powerhouse. I will look at the most crucial individual policies and their importance before concluding with the policies’ overall significance.

One of the most ground-breaking reforms Mao made were his social changes for women. In 1949 traditional views and customs dominated China like The Three Guiding Principles. Estimates suggest 5-10% of female babies died of neglect in 1949 as they were seen as a burden. Mao, ‘a firm believer in women’s rights’, aimed to modernise Chinese society’s attitudes with a series of social reforms. In 1950, the Marriage Reform was passed. This policy outlawed forced marriage, legalised divorce for women, forbid concubines and dowries, outlawed child marriage, and gave women the same legal status as their husband. This was a very significant first step to gender equality - it went against the stigma of the country. Next was the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (1954). This codified gender equality: Article 86 stated all citizens over 18 had the right to vote and stand for election, irrespective of gender. Subsequently, Article 96 declared women could enjoy equal political, economic, cultural and social rights as men. It gave provisions for maternity leave and made childcare more accessible for women. These were huge, ground-breaking changes, affecting a large amount of people - maternity leave came 20 years earlier than in Europe, and women in China could get a divorce easier than in Britain. The level and speed of development in Chinese Society was outstanding. In the next 15years female infanticide would drop from 10-2%, and child marriages by 85%. However, the policy was vastly undermined by events at the time. In 1954, 1. 1million divorces were reported; officials became tired of granting so many divorces. This resulted in divorce becoming more difficult. Many women in rural areas were also still in the grip of patriarchal traditions, and at the time China was 86. 7% rural. Men remained in the highest payed jobs and historians Lily Lee and Sue Wiles argue Chinese women were still excluded from the all-male party hierarchy ; less than 13% of CCP officials were women from 1949-1965.

Furthermore, the significance of these reforms would be greatly overshadowed by the Great Leap Forward (1958), causing the Great famine and 40million deaths. During this, women lost their property rights, wives were sold as slaves and prostitutes for food, and the traditional family was broken down, undermining motherhood. However, to conclude, I believe Mao’s social policies for women were significant, and huge steps in the right direction. Whilst undermined at the time by perhaps more significant events and because changing the views of a strongly patriarchal generation is difficult, in the future women would face a more equal world in China. At present, women enjoy a version of the same marriage system, political and economic rights. There is a huge contrast in gender equality between before 1949 and after Mao’s reforms. Therefore these are dramatic, significant reforms for women. It was one of Mao’s contentions that China would see a major sweep of education among the people and a sharp decrease in illiteracy. Before 1949, traditional education had been elitist; most peasants were barely literate. Only approximately 20% of the population was literate, with 2% of women having gone to school and 45% of men. This went against a lot of Marxist principals. Mao believed an educated work force could drive economic growth, and his ideas could spread quicker.

In 1958, to unite Chinese dialects under one language, the CCP introduced Pinyin. This meant national textbooks could be published to help with teaching literacy, and heavily contributed toward a national network of primary schools. Propaganda drove education forwards, resulting in a literacy rate rise from 20% (1949), to 70% (1976). The impact of this policy was therefore very significant – it resulted in widespread, effective change which was remarkable for the time – national education in Britain similarly only began in around 1947. Pinyin is still used today in the most wide spoken language in the world, and colleges grew from 200 (1949) to 1289 (1961). However, education had to battle for funding, which during the Great Leap Forward was scarce. Parents had to pay for textbooks as well as contributing to teachers’ salaries, whilst trying to provide food for the family. This resulted in widespread dropouts. The standard of education was also poor – in 1982 a survey found only 25% of the working force had been to school beyond the age of 12, and only 1% had a degree.

Next the Cultural Revolution had devastating impacts on Chinese education; the majority of universities and middle schools closed, disrupting around 130million students’ education. Then Jiang Qing giving orders to destroy textbooks produced before 1966; the new textbooks praised Mao’s thoughts rather than teaching literacy. However I still believe this was a significant social policy as although initially it had a weak yet widespread impact and the Cultural Revolution was a major setback, China progressed hugely in relation to basic literacy in the past, and for a developing country had high levels of literacy by 1976. At present China’s literacy rate is 96. 4%, with the third highest average IQ worldwide. Therefore Mao’s social policies for education were very significant in setting up a base for a country with extremely high national education standards, impacting such a huge population positively, which emphasises the influence of these significant reforms.

Another of Mao’s social policies was to improve healthcare and make it available to all. Access to healthcare was extremely limited for the majority of people; healthcare was very expensive and China, recovering from war, would find it extremely difficult to nationalise a high standard of healthcare. Therefore the CCP introduced pragmatic measures to offer basic medical treatment to as many people as possible. In 1949 to provide healthcare for peasants, barefoot doctors were introduced. These were better educated peasants, given basic medical training. They travelled around villages giving advice on hygiene to prevent the spread of disease, advice on children, cures for common illnesses and vaccinations. In 1965 there were approximately 250, 000 barefoot doctors, which rose to 1million after the Cultural Revolution. Patriotic health movements supported the doctors’ work, emphasising the connection between dirt and disease, and the need for good sanitation. This helped people avoid dysentery and malaria. By 1976, 85% of the rural population had access to a doctor. More than 800 modern hospitals were created from 1949-1970 and 100, 000 qualified doctors produced between 1949 and 1960. This was very remarkable as China’s healthcare system went from non-existent (but to a small percentage of rich citizens), to the best healthcare system of all developing nations. It resulted in widespread change, and the mortality rate dropped from 20 per 1, 000 (1949) to 7 per 1, 000 (1976). Cholera, plague and smallpox were eradicated. Therefore, life expectancy rose from 36-66 (1949-76), with 25, 000 doctors being trained per year. However, the significance was undermined; Mao failed to reach his aim of equality between rural and urban areas. At the end of the Great Leap Forward, economic resources were shifted back to urban areas and rural healthcare deteriorated. Mao labelled China’s healthcare as the ‘Ministry of Urban Gentleman’s Health’. Party officials also received better treatment than citizens. During the Cultural Revolution, trained doctors were despised and made to mop hospital floors, reducing the standard of medical care in China. Therefore although the significance was weakened by events at the time, in the short term, compared with the past, the expansion of availability of basic healthcare was remarkable and affected an immense amount of people. Future to that, the policy set up a backbone for healthcare in China, which did not change until 2008. Now almost all citizens enjoy basic health insurance, with urban healthcare meeting developed countries’ standards.

As Marxists, the CCP considered religious beliefs as superstitions that throughout history were created to supress the masses. Mao compared religion to Nazism; it was ‘poison’. Immediately after Mao took power, attacks on religion began. Religion now had to be replaced by worship and loyalty to the state. Churches were closed, their property seized or destroyed. Clergy were denounced and abused, with nuns and priests expelled from China. The main religions were denounced, and forbidden to be practised, with places of worship destroyed and their owners imprisoned. This targeted the masses (peasants) who were most religious, and also most desired as worshippers for the communist state. To give the appearance of toleration, Patriotic Churches were set up; Churches could stay if they didn’t ‘endanger the security of the state’. At the time this was very significant as society shifted from free thinking to like a dictatorship. The policy attempted to restrict the public’s views, impacting a huge amount of people. Initially Confucianism was practically removed, Buddhism heavily damaged, Muslims’ leaders forced to eat pork, ancestor worship destroyed and Christianity immensely restricted. However at the time, religious worship went underground and undermined the laws, resulting in there being no less Catholics from 1949-1976. Ancestor worship returned stronger, following Mao’s death in 1976, as millions of peasants worshipped him. Islam survived, and Buddhism was still the biggest religion in China. Furthermore, some may argue that even the CCP saw this policy as irrational - in 1970 the state recognised the 5 major religions in China and allowed their worship. However in the long term I still believe this reform was very significant – 73. 56% of China’s population is atheist and roughly half the atheists in the world are Chinese. Therefore this reform was immensely remarkable in turning a previously religious country into a predominantly atheist nation.

To conclude I believe Mao’s social policies were extremely significant in shaping China into the successful country it is today. There has been a remarkable shift in society from 1949 onwards due to Mao’s reforms. The policies socially achieved what the Great Leap Forward failed to do economically – they modernised Chinese society. While at the time the impact of the policies was questioned due to other events such as the massive loss of life in the Great Famine, China rebounded. The policies, still influential, provided a secure base and catalyst that sparked the development of a third world country into arguably a superpower. Although socially it still has issues: its human rights are constantly criticised by the UN, and it still has not had a female president, this mirrors the position of the USA, “the land of the free”. I believe the significance of Mao’s social policies far outweighs the impact lost by undermining events at the time, as gender equality caught up with that of the West, education was nationalised and is now one of the finest systems in the world, healthcare became the best of any developing country and religion transformed into a loyalty to the state that many governments could never achieve. At present, women enjoy much more equality and freedom thanks to, in my opinion, Mao’s most significant policy.

18 May 2020
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