Socialist Revolution without Class Struggle? Forging a United Front on the Ethnocultural Borderlands of Early-Maoist China

By Benno Weiner

Can a socialist revolution be carried out without class struggle? For a short period of time and in a particular ethnopolitical setting, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong seemed to think so.

When in 1949 soldiers and cadres of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) marched into ethnocultural borderlands such as Tibet and Xinjiang—areas of Inner Asia that had been incorporated into the defunct Qing Empire (1936-1912) but never integrated into the nascent Chinese nation-state—they faced a daunting task that demanded Party leaders balance the dual imperatives of nation making and socialist transformation. To put it another way, the CCP needed to devise a way to transform what had been loosely governed and relatively disconnected populations of imperial subjects into an integrated, socialist, political community—one now divided into a Han Chinese majority and multiple minorities.

In my book, The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier, I explore the CCP’s efforts to resolve this dilemma in one area of the former Qing Empire, the vast region known to Tibetan speakers as Amdo. Amdo is one of three major ethnolinguistic areas that constitute what is often referred to as “greater,” “cultural,” or “ethnic” Tibet. But it is also an ethnocultural frontier that is home to a variety of Tibetan, Chinese, Mongol, and Turkic-speaking communities.[1] Party leaders then, as now, were insistent that China was a single inseparable, historical, multinational state that included all of the lands and peoples of the Qing.[2] Yet in the 1950s they also understood that empirical conditions on the ground often ran counter to this expansive vision of the Chinese nation. Early reports out of Amdo took conspicuous note of the mutual hostility that existed between and within the region’s various ethnocultural communities and especially of their distrust for the Han Chinese. Rather than launch accusations of ethno-separatism, as they might today, Party leaders insisted that this rift was the result of the long-term discrimination and exploitation committed by the Han majority against non-Han peoples, what borrowing from the Soviets they termed “Great Han chauvinism” (da Hanzu zhuyi).[3] If the overwhelmingly-Han CCP wanted to gain the support of so-called “minority nationalities,” its leadership concluded that the cause of the animosity must first be eliminated, which it repeatedly and unequivocally identified as Han chauvinism.[4]

Book cover of The Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier by Benno Weiner.

To do so, Party leaders employed a strategy referred to as the United Front (tongyi zhanxian). The United Front has a long, winding history in China that dates almost to the birth of the CCP. By 1949 it had become the theoretical justification and bureaucratic method for bringing non-Party and nonproletarian elements into the political process in preparation for the final transition to socialism.[5] In 1950s Amdo, the United Front referred to a transitional period of indeterminate length during which class struggle would be deemphasized or even eliminated in favor of forming alliances with the region’s pre-existing religious and secular leadership. By harnessing the charismatic authority of these local elites in support of programs that promised autonomy, equality, respect, and material prosperity, Party leaders argued that class awareness and a pan-ethnic patriotic consciousness would slowly rise. Eventually both the masses and their traditional leaders would come to understand that the old system was exploitative and demand what the Party called “democratic reforms” (i.e., full political integration) and socialist transformation (i.e., collectivization), and the period of the United Front would come to its peaceful conclusion. Through this admittedly under-explicated process, Party leaders in Amdo insisted that the region would be “gradually,” “voluntarily” and “organically” absorbed into socialist China.[6]

Knowing what would come later, it is easy to conclude that the United Front in areas like Amdo was little more than a cynical ploy meant to mollify local elites until the Party was in position to forcibly implement its agenda. Yet, contemporary internal communications simply do not support that premise. In 1950s Amdo, the United Front was considered a progressive alternative to the treatment of minorities in the capitalist west and a “social reform that fit the special characteristics [that exist] among [minority] nationalities.”[7] What it instead reveals, however, are severe power imbalances embedded in a system that combined centralized political power with demands for meaningful popular participation. These imbalances ensured that both decision making and coercive capacities were always in the hands of Han Party elites—never in those of the Tibetan (or other non-Han) masses, who were given neither a true voice nor a genuine choice in any of this. Moreover, within the Party United Front gradualism existed in constant tension with a revolutionary impatience that was deeply suspicious of practices that eschewed class struggle in favor of allying with members of Amdo’s “feudal” leadership. As the decade wore on, class exploitation rather than nationality exploitation increasingly became identified as the primary impediment to economic development and national unity. Along with it, the drumbeat demanding “democratic reforms” and collectivization grew progressively louder—calls that were made on behalf of the masses but did not necessarily originate from the masses. 

Finally, at the outset of the Great Leap Forward in 1958,[8] proscriptions on Han chauvinism were eliminated. Propaganda outlets instead now described the proposition that some minority areas might not be ready for socialist transformation as an expression of class capitulation.[9] The path was thus cleared for rapid, coerced collectivization. Within months Amdo was engulfed in rebellion. The state responded with a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. Tens of thousands were arrested, many thousands were killed. Among them were most members of Amdo’s pre-1949 leadership, the same people who had been so central to the Party’s efforts at peaceful and voluntary transformation. With few exceptions, traditional religious and secular elites were deposed, incarcerated, struggled against at “Speaking Bitterness” (suku) meetings, dispossessed of their wealth, and in some cases physically assaulted or even killed. State-media outlets boasted that Amdo had “reached the sky in a single step.”[10] Nation-making was violently interrupted. Socialism was achieved but at the cost of national unity. 

Could the United Front have worked? Could a Maoist socialist revolution have been achieved without resorting to traditional class struggle? We likely will never know. Regardless, the CCP’s repudiation of class struggle at the start of the so-called Reform era left it with an aporia of its own making. The violence that accompanied the integration of the Qing’s Inner Asian borderlands into the Chinese state—well within living memory—not only destroyed countless lives but also severed its logic of national unity. In response, the post-Mao leadership has experimented with a succession of approaches to the “nationality question,” from relatively accommodationist cultural policies in the 1980s, to massive state-directed economic integration in the 1990s and 2000s, and a more recent turn to rhetoric and actions notable for their starkly authoritarian Han-centric ethnonationalism. As evidenced by intermittent but ongoing and perhaps intensifying interethnic strife and state-society conflict in many parts of China’s vast Inner Asian borderlands—including the Tibetan Plateau,Xinjiang, and most recently Inner Mongolia—none of these strategies has succeeded. After seven decades of rule, it seems clear that the CCP continues to struggle either to articulate a narrative or implement policies that convincingly explain to many non-Han communities of their stake in a Han-dominated nation.

Benno Weiner is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. He is author of the Chinese Revolution on the Tibetan Frontier (Cornell University Press) and co-editor of Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History under Mao Retold (Brill Publishing). His research revolves around China’s contested and perhaps incomplete transition from empire to nation-state and in particular the processes and problematics of twentieth-century state and nation building within China’s ethnic minority regions. Before joining CMU, he taught at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

Title Image: “On August 6, 1952, Qinwang Trashi Tséring welcomes the Henan Mongol Banner Work Committee.” Detail from painting “Thangka of the Mongol History South of the Yellow River” © Ute Wallenböck 2019.

Further Readings:

Barnett, Robert, Benno Weiner, and Françoise Robin, eds. Conflicting Memories: Tibetan History under Mao Retold. Leiden: Brill, 2020.

Demick, Barbara. Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town. New York: Random House, 2020.

Lama Jabb. Oral and Literary Continuities in Modern Tibetan Literature: The Inescapable Nation. Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 2015.

Naktsang Nulo. My Tibetan Childhood: When Ice Shattered Stone. Translated by Angus Cargill and Sonam Lhamo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

Roberts, Sean R. War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Woeser, Tsering. Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolations against Chinese Rule. Translated by Kevin Carrico. London: Verso, 2013.


[1] Most of Amdo lies in present-day Qinghai province with the remainder spilling into southern Gansu and northern Sichuan.

[2] The principle exception was the former Qing dependency of Outer Mongolia, then the Mongolian People’s Republic, which under the auspices of the Soviet Union had established its independence.

[3] On “Great Russian chauvinism, see Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca NY, Cornell University Press, 2001), especially 156-59.

[4] See, for example, the statement issued by the CCP’s Northwest Bureau in Zhonggong Qinghai shengwei dangshi Ziliao Zhengji Weiyuanhui and Zhonggong Renmin Jiefangjun Qinghai Sheng Junqu Zhengzhibu, eds., Jiefang Qinghai shiliao xuanbian (Xining: Qinghai Xinhua chubanshe, 1990), 307.

[5] Laura Di Giorgi, “United Front,” in Afterlives of Chinese Communism, eds. Christian Sorace, Ivan Franceschini, and Nicholas Loubere (Canberra: ANU Press, 2019), 303-8.

[6] Zhou Renshan, “Jixu kaizhan minzu quyu zizhi yundong: Zhou Renshan tongzhi yu yijiuwu’er nian liu yue qi ri zai muyequ gongzuo huiyi shang de fayan tigang,” in Minzu zongjiao gongzuo wenjian huiji, ed. Zhonggong Qinghai shengwei tongzhanbu (Xining: n.p., 1959), 637–56.

[7] Zhou, “Jixu kaizhan huiyi,”649.

[8] The Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) was a campaign of rapid collectivization and social transformation meant to remake China into an advanced, industrial, socialist nation. Mistakes and coverups made during agricultural collectivization resulted in a massive famine that killed an estimated 15 to 43 million people. See Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

[9] Xie Fumin, “Ba fandui minzuzhuyi de douzheng jinxing daodi,” in Fandui difangzhuyi xuexi ziliao, ed. Gansu sheng minzu shiwu weiyuanhui (Lanzhou: n.p., 1958), 38–50.

[10] Nie Jingde, “Jianjue ba Qinghai muqu shehuizhuyi geming jingxing daodi,” in Minzu tuanjie, no. 3 (March 1959): 5-7.

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