China’s ‘five-anti’ campaign of 1952

Society & Culture

The tactics employed in the movement, which ostensibly targeted corruption among business owners, foreshadowed the Chinese Communist Party's dark excesses in the decades to come.

This Week in China’s History: January 5, 1952

“There are some things that the bourgeoisie may do, and other things they may not do,” explained Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来, reporting to the Standing Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on January 5, 1952. Among these things, the government identified five for particular attention: bribery, theft of state property, tax evasion, cheating on government contracts, and stealing state economic intelligence. Opposition to these five crimes, lumped together in a “five-anti” campaign, was a critical phase of the transformation of the People’s Republic.

The start of a new year is a good moment to reflect on how we mark the passing of time. Important dates are often seen as dividing lines, separating one era from another. But in the same way that late December 2021 and early January 2022 are not so very different from one another, historical eras — even ones seemingly opposite — rarely changed so neatly or abruptly. One example of this is the founding of the People’s Republic. Whether it’s “liberation” or “the loss of China,” it’s often perceived as a watershed moment that sharply separated what came before and what came after. But of course, it’s not.

After its near-extermination in the 1930s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recovered and then came to power using a rural base. Agrarian reforms had been its foundation, leveraging Máo Zédōng’s 毛泽东 deviation from orthodox Marxism by suggesting that the peasants, rather than an urban proletariat, could be the foundation of a communist revolution.

But victory in the civil war meant that the Party now controlled not just the countryside, but dozens of major cities, where “capitalist” businesses continued to operate across the 1949 divide. Some of these were foreign-owned and/or operated, but even more were not. The CCP’s ability to achieve its ideological goals, and implement a socialist command economy, would depend in large part on how it could handle these urban businesses, which were both centers of capitalism and engines for China’s economy.

Given the enormous challenges facing the Party in rebuilding a country that had been almost constantly at war for nearly a century, it’s perhaps predictable that addressing the role of Chinese business owners was not the top priority; in a place like Shanghai, the imposition of a communist government saw many immediate changes, but commerce did not shut down immediately. Many foreign businesses continued to operate through 1949 and into 1950.

But changes occurred rapidly after China’s entry into the Korean War. Foreign business assets were frozen in December 1950 and many companies were compelled to sell what they could to settle debts and tax bills. Although many thousands of foreigners were in China when the People’s Republic was founded, by 1951, few remained.

But while removing foreigners from China was a vital part of the CCP’s program, their numbers were tiny compared to how many Chinese might potentially be “capitalists” or part of the “bourgeoisie.” More insidious, in the party’s framing, than the foreigners who had been profiting off China were the Chinese who had worked with the foreigners before the Communist takeover, and now presented themselves as loyal to the People’s Republic.

The Five-anti campaign is almost always discussed in conjunction with the Three-anti campaign, which launched a few months earlier. Both campaigns targeted corruption and economic malfeasance, with the three antis aimed at misconduct among government officials. (There is reason to think that the Five-anti campaign was at least partially provoked by embarrassment over the high number of Party officials who were found to be corrupt by the Three-anti campaign.)

In major cities like Tianjin and Shanghai, teams set out to investigate, and tens of thousands of Party workers and cadres began laying the foundation for the campaign by evaluating the practices of Shanghai businesses. While some workers’ organizations sought out tax evasion and price manipulation, others began to develop a propaganda network that could both spread and reinforce the campaign. The movement was to be a “counter-offensive to repel the ferocious attacks of the bourgeoisie,” whose “sugar-coated bullets” were taking aim at China’s democracy.

In their 1953 Pacific Affairs article on the movement, scholars Theodore Hsi-En Chen and Wen-Hui C. Chen described the tactics the Party employed, foreshadowing the Cultural Revolution: “The air was filled with accusations and threats; no one felt safe or knew who the next victim might be. Accusation meetings and denunciations assumed epidemic proportions until no one could be sure that his name had not been mentioned in one of them. Cadres visited homes and spent hours ‘persuading’ the victims to confess. Public-address systems installed on city streets blared the names of individuals who had not yet confessed, together with accusations of specific ‘crimes’ and warnings that attempts at concealment were useless.”

The combination of specific accusations with the suggestion that more information remained to be revealed left people scrambling to confess without knowing what they were being accused of. Promises of leniency to those who came forward voluntarily led many people to reveal “crimes” that were far beyond what state investigators had discovered. At the same time, those who had not confessed — in many cases because they had done nothing wrong — were hounded to reveal something they had done.

The campaign was particularly effective — or malicious — because of the breadth of the categories being investigated and the vague definitions of what constituted a crime. Any successful business could be accused of making excess profits, which, in circular fashion, led almost inevitably to charges of fraud and tax evasion. The patriotic fervor that accompanied China’s entry into the Korean War opened up new avenues for persecution: businesses that supplied the military often faced charges of either shoddy supplies or profiteering, both at the expense of those fighting against the United States.

This last method was especially important when the Party incited rallies and mass mobilization, calling on workers to publicly denounce their employers and their crimes. At the height of the movement in Shanghai, more than 50,000 cadres were working to promote the campaign. In February alone, some 3,000 meetings took place in the city, involving hundreds of thousands of workers who took part in parades and denunciation meetings.

Predictably, the campaign was declared a success, revealing a grave threat that the Party had foiled. Vice premier Bó Yībō 薄一波 (one the the CCP’s “eight immortals” and father of Bó Xīlái 薄熙来) reported in the People’s Daily that 450,000 capitalists had been investigated in seven of China’s largest cities. Of those, 76% were found guilty of one or more of the “five evils.” In Shanghai, where associations with foreign capital were strongest, the figure was 90%.

Neither the Three- nor the Five-anti campaigns receive the attention of other mass movements like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. That is understandable, given that neither of them have the toll, in lives or livelihoods, of those cataclysms. Yet, the mass campaigns of the early 1950s ought not be underappreciated, for they reveal both the fundamental weakness and unexpected strengths of the Party in ways that moved it toward the extremes in the decades that followed.

For one thing, the levels of corruption revealed in, especially, the Three-anti campaign caught the leadership by surprise. In a government that was just a few years old, and had been built on promises to lead China out of the corruption that had plagued the Republic, this was worrisome news, and news that seemed to call for stricter discipline and harsher punishments to enforce ideology purity.

The success of the movements, together with the unexpected — and unexpectedly effective — fight against the Americans in Korea, bolstered the leadership’s confidence in its ability to mobilize China’s population. Rather than a more moderate path toward economic growth and broad political participation, the Party instead doubled down on ideological extremism, culminating in the dark excesses of the Great Leap.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.