China and Inner Asia
University of Oxford, United Kingdom
When class enemy labels were removed en masse in 1979, there were still millions of “landlords” and “rich peasants” in China. The majority of these stigmatizing labels, which affected between five and ten percent of rural households, were assigned some thirty years earlier during land reform, and, according to contemporary regulations, were supposed to be subject to removal following three to five years of law-abiding, politically obedient behaviour. Existing scholarship has noted this tension, and has usually explained it by suggesting that the Party’s initial promise was soon abandoned, and that as a result, it was virtually impossible to have such labels removed until the post-Mao transition.
This paper argues that, while class enemy labels did become a form of permanent stigma, this process was more gradual and less complete than prior scholarship has assumed. I rely primarily on internal documents from the central to the grassroots levels, particularly from the public security system, to show that landlord and rich peasant labels were removed in significant numbers during collectivization in 1956 and, in smaller numbers, at various points thereafter, and that the ultimate objective of policy towards those designated as class enemies was always conceived of as their transformation into members of the People. I also argue, however, that the ideal of reform was premised on highly problematic assumptions about its targets, and that even this problematic ideal was greatly weakened by the essentialized understanding of class categories that came to predominate following the failure of the Great Leap Forward.