When the Chinese Communist Party took power 70 years ago, Ma Jianguo’s family members were so excited they named him in honor of what they hoped would be the beginning of a new era.
Literally, Jianguo means to “build a country.”
“The name seems tacky to me, but there were plenty of people called Jianguo at the time,” Ma told CNN. “It was about growth, and individuals growing alongside the nation.”
Tuesday marks 70 years since Communist Party leader Mao Zedong announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate on October 1, 1949.
The date marked the beginning of one of the most tumultuous periods in modern Chinese history, which would take China from a weak and impoverished nation to one of the most powerful in the world.
Chinese citizens who are turning 70 with the Communist State on Tuesday have witnessed famine, political chaos, rapid economic change and now unprecedented wealth.
CNN spoke to three of them ahead of the Communist Party’s big day – businessman and comic book enthusiast Ma Jianguo, farmer Wu Shiying and former state-owned enterprise employee Xiao Jianwen. All were born in 1949.
The three men may have all lived through the same events, shaped by the same political decisions in the one-party state. But despite their shared experiences, their views on the past differ markedly – especially regarding the country’s controversial founder, Chairman Mao Zedong.
“Mao Zedong’s era was a great era,” farmer Wu said. “Although Mao’s later life caused some chaos to China, his contribution is undeniable.”
But Ma, on the other hand, said when he thought of Mao, he thought only of the Great Famine and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
The Chinese people were bloodied and bruised when Mao announced the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The country had been in a near-perpetual state of conflict for more than 20 years, starting with the outbreak of civil war between the nationalists and the communists in 1927 and later, in 1937 with the Japanese.
The promise of peace and stability was therefore widely embraced. But new campaigns launched by the fledgling Communist government almost immediately led to more bloodshed. As the Communist Party undertook reform to return land to poor farmers, an estimated 2 million “landlords” were executed across the country.
But for Xiao Jianwen, his memories of the early days of the People’s Republic are almost idyllic.
From a relatively wealthy family, labeled “petty bourgeoisie” by the Communist Party, Xiao’s house was in the Chinese capital’s Dongcheng district, just a few blocks from Tiananmen Square.
He grew up in a big courtyard of about 14 families in a Beijing hutong, traditional alleyways that had formed part of the city center for centuries.
“We were just like a big family. The doors were always open and you could enter without invitation. Our children played together like brothers and sisters,” Xiao said, reminiscing about long afternoons of ping pong and Chinese chess.
Xiao even remembers some of the earliest National Day parades on October 1, smaller versions of the mass celebration which has shut down Beijing for weeks in 2019.
“The parade went near our hutong to Chang’an Avenue. I remember it was a really big scene, and I felt happy when people touched my head and looked at me,” he said.
On the opposite side of the capital, Ma and his family lived in a very different area. He was part of the minority Hui community and was raised in Niujie, an ethnically diverse neighborhood in the city’s southwest.
Ma grew up without both his parents – his father died of tuberculosis and his mother left to remarry. But still, the businessman remembers finding joy in his childhood.
“The absence of my parents allowed me to be naughty, and the schools in the past were less strict and assigned less homework. A bunch of kids from the hutong went to school together and hung out after school, playing marbles,” he said.
But above their heads, the Communist Party was planning a new campaign which would plunge the country into one of its worst famines in history and change all of their lives.
By the late 1950s, Mao starting making plans to radically change his still-new regime with an aim of catching up quickly with the world’s industrialized nations. This collection of radical policies broadly became known as the Great Leap Forward.
In a speech to Soviet leaders in 1957, Mao claimed in 15 years that “we may have caught up with or overtaken Great Britain.”
But the results would be devastating. China was plunged into a mass famine which would eventually kill an estimated tens of millions of Chinese people.
In 1958, the Chinese government tried to rapidly advance the country’s industrial and agricultural production by eliminating private farms and creating huge collectives.
But instead, the radical and swift changes caused grain output to plummet.
Still living in his Beijing neighborhood of Niujie at the time, Ma remembers making a game of going to look for food with his classmates every day after school.
“We went to take edible wild herbs from the farmland. There were all sorts of different edible wild herbs … Life was tough during that period of time, but we didn’t feel that way when we were young,” he said.
Even families from wealthier backgrounds weren’t immune. In the center of the capital, Xiao watched as both of his grandparents died – deaths he believes were related to the famine.
His previously comfortable family mostly survived on bean curd residue, a byproduct which was usually fed to pigs, and he remembers his clothes became increasingly ragged.
“We ate in a big canteen in the neighborhood. In the three-year period, there wasn’t enough grain, let alone meat,” he said.
“(The government) told the people that the famine was attributed to the debts to the Soviet Union, as well as natural disasters. So people accepted it and decided to go through this difficulty with our nation.”
Wu grew up in a poor, rural village near Shiyan City in Hubei province. He came from eight generations of farmers and witnessed the effects of the Great Leap Forward first hand.
He said he can still remember the recipes shared in his village during the famine, which often used leaves and sprouts instead of the usual staples. In some parts of the country, people ate grass and bark to survive.
“The Chinese Communist Party didn’t want to starve people. But lots of people still died of starvation,” he said.
Eventually the industrial and agricultural policies were stopped and Mao quietly had his grip on the levers of power loosened by his fellow Communist Party leaders. But afraid of losing his sway, Mao soon embarked on one of his most radical policies yet – the Cultural Revolution.
By building a fanatical personality cult around him and his ideas, Mao planned to cling to power. But the result was a country thrown into chaos as rival bands of young Mao supporters, known as Red Guards, tore China apart with their leader’s blessing.
The Cultural Revolution began in 1966 when all three men were just 17 years old. Wu said he gladly joined the Red Guards as he believed they were performing a patriotic service to the people and the country.
Meanwhile in Beijing, Xiao said he initially took part in the movement, painting posters and joining rallies, but slowly he noticed the old communities begin to break down under the mass movement.
He even saw his own father interrogated every day, wrongly accused of being a Japanese translator. “Everything started to change and become chaotic after the Cultural Revolution,” he said.
Ma was more obsessed with protecting his precious “lianhuanhua” comic books from roving bands of Red Guards. Part of their mission was to destroy the “Four Olds,” basically anything from before the Communist victory, and Ma’s treasured comic books fell into that category.
“The most significant impression I had from the Cultural Revolution was the destruction of books,” he said.
Ma ultimately handed over hundreds of the now-valuable comics for destruction, fearing retribution against his family. However, he hid some of his most precious collections under his bed in a plastic bag, despite knowing that if they were discovered they’d be burned or torn apart and he’d be punished.
Mao’s death in 1976 ended the Cultural Revolution. It was so destructive and divisive that it has become one of the few controversial elements of Mao’s rule that are officially labeled his mistakes.
Despite the horror of those years, Wu said some good came of it. “The Cultural Revolution was certainly needed, and Mao used it to raise the next generation of leaders,” he said.
“This movement fostered and educated President Xi Jinping.”
Rich and happy
There was a brief power struggle after Mao’s death which ultimately led to the rise of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978. His vision would move China to embrace market reforms and capitalism, under the title of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Thanks in part to Deng’s reforms, China rose quickly from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution to be the world’s second-largest economy in the space of four decades.
Ma took advantage of the changes with relish. Realizing that the comic books he’d so carefully saved during the Cultural Revolution were actually quite valuable in the post-Mao era, he began to sell them.
He is now a self-made businessman with a successful comic book store in downtown Beijing. Ma said that among all the leaders in China, he believes Deng was “the wisest and the most brilliant one.”
“The experiences I had with (Mao) were the great famine and the Cultural Revolution, and none of my family’s life had improved. Deng released the potential of individuals,” he said.
All three men remember being astonished by the quick changes that came about in China. It started with small changes, like allowing farmers to keep and sell their excess produce, but progressed to skyscrapers, stock markets and unprecedented wealth.
Now living in a new apartment in Beijing, Xiao saw life around him rapidly change as people could suddenly afford consumer goods that had seemed like luxuries before.
“In the 1990s, when life started to get better, the goal was those few main home appliances – fridge, color TV, washing machine and air conditioner. With those, life started to get modernized. Later, people took it to another level – buying apartments and cars. I bought an apartment and a car too. Then, life was really better,” he said.
For Xiao, the greatest joy came when he was finally able to take the restarted “gaokao” university entrance exam, which had been stalled, along with his education, by the Cultural Revolution.
Although “gaokao” is now the infamous exam that terrifies hundreds of thousands of Chinese students ever year, for Xiao it was a chance at a new life.
“Who is not willing to change the destiny? All of us knew that going to university will change our fates,” he said.
Although he was aged in his 30s, Xiao passed the exam and graduated with an economics degree from the Beijing Institute of Economics. He found a well-paid job at the state-run National Offshore Oil Group, where he worked until he retired.
All three men had children in China’s post-Mao era and say their children’s concerns are very different from theirs at the same age. “He lives from paycheck to paycheck. The emphasis is on living in the moment,” Xiao said of his son.
Looking back, Xiao said that his former classmates and friends from school were all divided on Mao’s legacy for China, much like the rest of the country.
He said Mao made mistakes – but former leader’s contribution to China far outstripped any flaws. “Mao’s business was not simple,” Xiao said.
Still living a modest life on his farm in Hubei, Wu has long since retired from the fields. His children and grandchildren live in the city, although they come back to visit when they can.
Living through 70 years of change hasn’t shaken Wu’s faith in Mao or the Communist Party. He speaks glowingly of President Xi and his administration, and the work they’re doing across the country.
“All my family members up to eight generations were illiterate, and I was the first one who can read and write,” he said.
Thanks to China’s growing economic wealth, Wu can now travel abroad to embrace his love of amateur astronomy.
“Many people couldn’t observe a total solar eclipse for their whole life, but I’ve seen it nine times from prime locations, so I’m a happy person,” he said.
Ma Jianguo can’t retire, he’s too busy with his comic book store. Rather than “building the nation,” he is far more concerned about preserving Chinese traditional culture, especially “lianhuanhua” comics, for the next generation.
“I have so many ‘lianhuanhua’ at my house, but my son grew up with cartoons from Japan and Korea, and he was deeply influenced by them,” he said.
The lessons of the past 70 years weigh heavily on him and he is reluctant to discuss modern-day politics, saying only that he hoped Xi continues his push to preserve traditional Chinese culture. “I think the very existence of a country depends on its culture,” he added.
Years after his family was declared “petty bourgeoisie,” Xiao is once again living a moderately affluent life in Beijing, retired from his job in a state-owned company and spending time with his children.
In many ways, his family has come full circle in the People’s Republic of China.
Xiao is now living comfortably in Beijing, his children’s futures provided for, and sees no reason to complain about the Communist Party or its leaders. In fact, for Xiao, any move towards an election-based political system would possibly lead to a breakdown of unity and the splintering of the country.
“Suddenly over 100, over 1,000 political parties will emerge, and people will vote for the party that pays them the most,” Xiao said.
“China will be in chaos if real democracy is implemented.”