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China's Wild Ride
The early years of Mao's new republic were exhilarating and disastrous. Deng Xiaoping brought the country back from the brink

I was 20 years old and full of youthful dreams when I entered the prestigious Qinghua University. A year earlier, in 1946, the Japanese Imperial Army had surrendered to the allies, and China had emerged as one of the victorious nations. But we soon found ourselves embroiled once again in civil war, accompanied by rampant inflation and endemic corruption. Students like me quickly became the government's most articulate opposition.

Sun Chau Books & Antique Co. Ltd. (Hong Kong)

I came from a well-to-do family--my father was a professor at another university--but soaring prices were reducing us to virtual poverty. By the time Mao Zedong and the People's Liberation Army routed the Kuomintang (KMT), everyone was ready for a change of government. Hardly anyone regretted this turn of events.

Political strife and turmoil were entirely new to me. Before I went to Qinghua, I had been educated at a missionary school in the city of Tianjin and shielded from politics. At first I tried to steer clear of it all, keeping to my classroom and library routine. But as civil war intensified and my own family's finances dwindled, I found it difficult to avoid my more belligerent fellow students. Since I had always been interested in theater, I joined student drama groups to support the cause. We primarily performed "living newspaper" propaganda on topical anti-government themes. Once I became involved, there was no turning back. I soon identified myself with the student movement, and with the side of Mao and the P.L.A. in the civil war.

China's Amazing Half Century
Navigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made

China's Wild Ride
The early years of Mao's new republic were exhilarating and disastrous. Deng Xiaoping brought the country back from the brink

Essay: Happy Birthday to Me!
A Beijing writer recalls what he was doing when the People's Republic celebrated some earlier birthdays

50 years of the People's Republic
presented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune

Quest for Dignity
The success of the Communist revolution climaxed a century-long drive by the Chinese to reclaim their historical greatness

By the summer of 1949, the outcome of the standoff could be foretold even by someone as politically naive as I was. Most of the mainland had already been "liberated" by communist forces. The revolution was ready to set up its central authority. When news came that Beijing had been chosen as the new capital, I was overjoyed. I had been born in that city, I loved it and I resented the fact that the KMT had established its capital in Nanjing and arbitrarily changed the name of my birthplace to Peiping, literally Northern Peace, or the Pacified North.

Mao's decision to make Beijing the future capital of the People's Republic seemed to be the culmination of everything that I and thousands of others from my generation had fought for. On the day of the great celebration, we awoke at 4 a.m. As there were few buses, we trekked from the campus to Tiananmen Square. It had been 38 years since the fall of the Manchu court, and the square was in poor shape. It was also much smaller than it is now. As we arrived, we noticed only one new landmark to note the occasion: a flagpole had been erected, ready to hoist the new national banner.

The ceremonies did not start until 4 p.m.; organizers were fearful of air raids from the KMT forces still holding out in the south. The civil war had been won, but it had not yet ended. So we were left standing for hours in the dusty Beijing wind. No one seemed to mind, though, and eventually the parade began, under a cloudy, hazy sky--not at all like the sunny bright firmament depicted later in commemorative posters.

What impressed us most was the military hardware on display. Most of it was American-made, not Japanese or Soviet. As far as the eye could see, there were rows and rows of U.S.-made tanks, anti-tank gunships, heavy artillery, General Motors trucks and vehicles of every description. The equipment had been supplied by the U.S. to try to bolster the moribund KMT regime. Now some propaganda genius had displayed it all to refute KMT claims that the communists had sold out China to the Russians. The military parade was met with thunderous applause from the hundreds of thousands of spectators. It reached a climax when a formation of P-51 and B-25 aircraft, all of them American, flew over the square in formation. They were piloted, we later learned, by ex-KMT personnel who had defected to the side of the "people."

By the time we filed past the rostrum where Mao and the other leaders stood, it was already dark. For the first time in my life, I joined in shouting "Long Live Chairman Mao!" to which Mao's gracious rejoinder was: "Long Live Fellow Students from Qinghua!" I was impressed. I remember telling a classmate at the time, "This is the beginning of a new dynasty."

Today, half a century later, I stand by that statement. In retrospect, China has had its ups and downs, and there has been no shortage of personal tragedy and suffering. Yet on Oct. 1, 1949, following a century of defeat and humiliation, China finally stood on its feet, an equal among nations of the world. China had earned the right to commit mistakes and to correct them on its own.

The first years of the People's Republic were exciting. Corruption, that ancient Chinese curse, suddenly seemed to have been wiped out by Mao's 1951 "mass movement" against the "three evils": corruption, waste and bureaucracy. There were other such movements, which many of us initially felt were just the weapon the People's Republic needed to end the social injustices it had inherited. These campaigns would continue for more than two decades, before Deng Xiaoping terminated them.

China's great achievements in the 1950s seemed to justify the harsh measures. The country's first tractors, trucks, even limousines rolled off the assembly lines. Harvests were good, steel production rose, new machine-tool plants were built. China seemed to be on the road to modernization, a dream nurtured for several generations before mine.

My grandfather, Sir Vincentius Ying, had been one of the dreamers. After joining the 1898 Reform Movement, he was hounded by the Qing rulers and forced to flee from Beijing to escape further persecution. But he didn't give up. He set up Ta Kung Pao in 1902, the first modern newspaper in north China, and co-founded Furen University in Beijing in 1924, after the Qing dynasty had fallen and China became a republic. His friend Yan Fu, the first man to translate the likes of Adam Smith and Montesquieu into Chinese, wrote a poem dedicated to my grandfather, ending it with a bitterness shared by many of his contemporaries: "Naught was achieved by compiling volumes with words/ The once youthful scholar is now hoary-headed, all in vain." Had we finally broken the curse of history with the founding of the People's Republic? Had we paid our dues?

It took us a long time to realize how steep a price we still had to pay. China had limited natural resources, and there were few generous benefactors out there to contribute to the nation's investment needs. China did not own colonies, trade routes or other means of basic wealth accumulation. What it had was a vast population, especially in the rural areas. This powerful human force was sufficient to defeat the KMT's well-equipped modern armies. Could we repeat the experience in peacetime? To tap dormant human potential in the countryside, the communists sought, successfully at first, to win over the peasantry through land reform. As it happened, however, the bad times for China's rural population were just beginning.

After graduating from Qinghua, I joined the newly founded Beijing People's Art Theater as a professional actor. Officials had decided, we were told, that the company should open up its repertory to include classical pieces by Shakespeare, Chekhov and our own playwrights from before liberation. We opened a new theater, with state-of-the-art facilities, and even imported a Russian expert as our resident artistic director. He helped us produce Maxim Gorky's Igor Bulichev and Others.

But after these early, heady days, china's intellectuals were about to embark on a terrifying roller-coaster. Our leaders initially exhorted us to speak our minds in 1956, even criticize officialdom. Then, almost overnight, the leadership counter-attacked. Those who had made the most scathing comments were singled out and labeled "rightists." During the nationwide movement, at least 300,000 people suffered this disgrace. My brother, Ying Ruocong, was among them. Scientists, technicians, teachers, artists and others who were targeted were demoted in rank, forbidden to practice their professions and typically sent to the countryside to do manual labor. Many of them, like my brother, were rehabilitated only after two decades or more. They were given apologies for having been "mislabeled."

The whole affair shocked China's intellectuals and muzzled most of the malcontents. It also created the necessary political atmosphere for the next big movement: the Great Leap Forward. This campaign began in 1958 with the peasants, who were told to raise production quotas by 100%, 200%, more. The theory was that once certain ideological barriers could be breached, the working masses were capable of achieving miracles. The quotas were excessive, the leaders realized, but it was an article of faith that the masses should never be doubted or discouraged. Soon the media caught up with this strategy, and in due course, there were endless reports of miraculous harvests. Factories in the cities picked up on the fever. Steel production quotas were doubled. Light industry targets soared. The entire countryside was collectivized: production teams were upgraded to become brigades; brigades became people's communes, in which the collectives shared the work and the spoils. Family kitchens were abolished; everyone ate in communal canteens free of charge. It seemed that, overnight, China's problems were going to be solved.

It wasn't to happen. amid glowing reports about the Great Leap Forward's success, we in the theater company were totally unaware of what was truly happening in the countryside. We went on blithely performing every evening and rehearsing new plays during the day. Then suddenly we noticed a surge of peasants on the streets of Beijing, some of them begging for food door-to-door. At first we thought this was due to natural disasters in isolated areas. But as the days went by, the number of what the newspapers called "vagrants" showed no signs of abating. We knew something must have gone wrong. Edible goods began to disappear from grocery-store counters; rules for buying grain products with coupons became more strictly enforced. The so-called "three difficult years" had set in.

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