The Underground Party’s Destiny in Communist China

桂发(1983)45号 [A]
中国共产党广西壮族自治区委员关于为广西地下党遭受迫害问题的平反决定
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Guoqing Song


The “underground party” (dixiadang 地下党) refers to a communist underground group that engaged in secret work – such as in collecting various kinds of intelligence, propagating communist ideology, and recruiting new members – in the fight against the Guomindang (GMD) government in the years 1921-1949.

Organizationally, the underground party belonged to and was led by the Communist Chinese Party (CCP). However, because it generally operated in GMD-controlled cities, its members possessed a certain degree of independence vis-a-vis the rural-based CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Moreover, in contrast to both the CCP and the PLA, in which the majority of members were poor peasants, a large number of underground party members came from relatively well-off families.Some have noted that their motivation to rebel was the reality of an unjust society and a corrupt government, as well as the attraction of the communist ideology. [1]
Many underground party members decided to become insurgents despite the fact that they held decent jobs. Others were students in middle schools or universities and thus could be categorized as young intelligentsia or petty bourgeoisie. To some extent, after the victory of the CCP, these family origins sealed their later fates.

The document presented here is a reversal decision issued by the Guangxi party committee in 1983. The document not only announces the reversal of the underground party’s earlier verdict, it also lists a number of ways in which members had suffered after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The regional underground party’s first ordeal came during the early days after communist victory, when the new authorities in Guangxi slandered the organization as a “bandit party” and labeled its subordinated guerrilla fighters as a bandit force.

The second setback came in the summer of 1957 following the brief Hundred Flowers campaign. The communist leadership in Beijing called upon all people to voice their opinions; underground party members were subsequently attacked during the Anti-Rightist Movement. A a number of cadres who had been the original leaders of the Guangxi underground party were accused of undermining the party’s management of the region’s various ethnic group. They were said to have alienated ethnic minority groups through unsound advice on ethnic policy and economic development. Ultimately, these members were expelled from the party, with some demoted or even dismissed from their administrative positions.

According to the document presented here, the most miserable days for the former Guangxi underground party members were during the Cultural Revolution. Seventy-four of eighty-two counties set up special case groups to investigate their problems. After these investigations, many were classified as traitors, class enemies or agents, leading some to be imprisoned while others went insane or even died.

The case of Guangxi is not unique in this respect. In fact, nearly every local underground party experienced a similar fate. As suggested by the Maoist Legacy Project’s preliminary collected data, Guangxi revised the verdicts of more than 3,300 former underground party members. In Zhejiang, by 1984 as many as 20,729 former underground party members had their cases investigated, of which 12,281 had their earlier verdicts reversed. In many other provinces – such as Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Guizhou, Fujian, Yunnan, Hunan, Sichuan and Guangdong – many cases related to the underground party were reviewed and revised after the Cultural Revolution.

How did the underground party become such a popular target? A very brief explanation is given to us in the Guangxi document. It suggests that Lin Biao and Jiang Qing attempted to use the underground party issue as a weapon to bring down Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

However, this argument is obviously untenable because the underground party had suffered for three decades. In fact, the fate of the underground party was sealed as early as 1949 when the CCP first issued guidelines for how to deal with its members. The “Sixteen Character Guideline,” personally drafted by Mao Zedong and circulated only among some of the CCP’s senior cadres,  laid out a policy to demote underground party members, employ them under control, absorb them into local bureaucracy, and gradually phase them out. [2]

One illustrative example is what happened to the underground party in Nanjing, the former capital of the GMD government.

The PLA captured Nanjing with the cooperation of the underground party in April 1949. Shortly thereafter, however, contradictions grew between the so-called southbound cadres (who were sent down from the CCP and PLA base areas in the north) and the underground party. What were initially minor issues related to  discrepancies in lifestyle and work methods quickly developed into so-called “contribution issues” (gonglao wenti 功劳问题).

The southbound cadres misconstrued the underground party’s behavior and accused its members of intentionally exaggerating their own contributions in order to gain senior positions in the new regime. For example, when Chen Xiuliang, a former leader of the Nanjing underground party, emphasized that the objective of underground work was to prevent the PLA from sustaining heavy losses, some southbound cadres perceived this statement as proof of his arrogance. They interpreted his words as claiming that the underground party had alone and without the help of the PLA liberated Nanjing. Ke Qingshi, a senior southbound cadre who later became Shanghai’s first CCP secretary, mocked the underground party’s attitude:

“Previously, the comrades of the underground party put forward the slogan ‘if you keep the factory well, then you will be manager (after the victory of the revolution)’, so does this mean that you would become the president if you protect the presidential palace well?”[3]

Other southbound cadres, like Deng Xiaoping, showed the same dismissive attitude toward the communist underground. Following the issuance of a policy document concerning the underground party, transmitted by the central leadership in Beijing after Nanjing’s request, Deng Xiaoping convened a mass meeting of four thousand in Nanjing. At this meeting, he responded to the dispute in the following manner:

“The revolutionary victory lies first in the leadership of the CCP center and Chairman Mao; second, it depends on the PLA; the underground party’s contribution is only in third place, if any.”

The meeting was followed by a rectification campaign directed against the underground party, during which its organization was claimed to be “seriously impure.”[4]

From this perspective, the fact that Guangxi’s underground party was denounced soon after the establishment of the new regime seems to fit the pattern. In every region where they were present, former members of the communist underground went through the same three major ordeals as those in Guangxi.

Because the policy intended to deal with former underground party members was issued locally, it only affected those in the local bureaucracy. Those who had already become members of the CCP’s central leadership were thus not constrained by this policy. For instance, the sixty underground party members accused of being part of a fictional group of “Sixty-One Traitors” during the Cultural Revolution had been untouched by early attempts to counter the underground’s influence because they had held senior CCP positions immediately following the communist victory.

In conclusion, after the takeover of the CCP the underground party’s destiny was more or less equally miserable nationwide. There are many explanations for this, but the fundamental one, in my opinion, lies with the CCP’s discriminatory policy toward former underground members. The ideological roots of this policy comes from the CCP’s concept of class struggle. As mentioned above, both the CCP and the PLA were mainly composed of poor peasants, whereas the underground party was largely young intellectuals. According to the norms instituted by the CCP after the victory, many of the young intellectuals were considered from undesirable families. Under the common goal of overturning the GMD, the two groups managed to cooperate fairly well; moreover, the CCP had made certain promises about socialist democracy that appealed to young, urban intelligentsia. But once the GMD had been defeated, the CCP not only failed to institute socialist democracy, political discrimination against the underground party also gradually increased. Beginning with the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957, class struggle was stressed again and again, and the party placed strong emphasis on family origin when enlisting soldiers, workers and students, and when inspecting cadres. In this context, the former members of the underground party, although they had contributed to the establishment of the new regime, became one of the political pariahs of China under Mao.


[1]Please see Liquan fuqin Fu Zuoyi qiyi de Fu Dongju (Fu Dongju Who strongly persuaded his father Fu Zuoyi to revolt). Published in Qingnian Cankao (Youth Reference), Accessible at website:http://news.163.com/09/0929/16/5KD3RGA3000120GR.html

[2] Yan Ling, Hongyan Ernü (The Children of Hongyan). Hong Kong, Zhenxiang chubanshe, 2012,  p170. Also, Yang Kuisong, Zhonghua renmin gongheguo yanjiu (A Study of Making the People’s Republic of China), pp 400-404.

[3] Chen Xiuliang, Jujue nuxing—— Chenxiuliang zhuan (Rejecting Servility ——the Biography of Chenxiuliang). Hong Kong, Xianggang zhonghe chuban youxian gongsi, 2012, pp 270-271.

[4] Fu Guoyong, Ling yige xianwei renzhi de shiliuzi fangzhen (Another Sixteen Character Guideline Less Well Known to People). Accessible at Gongshi wang: http://www.21ccom.net/articles/lsjd/lccz/article_2011041933883.html.