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Mao’s divided legacy » The Peking Duck

Mao’s divided legacy

I know, we’ve talked this subject to death, and everyone knows where I stand: I see Mao as having being nothing but bad for China, notwithstanding the few golden years of the pre-GLF 1950s when it looked like he was going to be a true reformer. I respect the rights of Chinese people to view Mao however they choose, and I understand why many of them see him as a hero, even if I disagree.

The NYT takes a look today at this question and notes why Chinese citizens on the “right” see Mao as a Machiavellian killer while those on the “left” see him as a liberator and the man who brought stability to China. It’s good to see that these topics are at least debatable, and to see there are a lot of Chinese “netizens” who aren’t toeing the party line. And this story includes an interesting twist.

…45 years ago, on May 16, 1966, this same man began the Cultural Revolution, an orgy of political violence that killed perhaps two million Chinese.

Mao’s preeminence in China is linked to his role in founding the People’s Republic in 1949. Yet his controversial political legacy, of which the Cultural Revolution is just one example, is growing more, not less, disputed, with time.

At stake is nothing less than long-stalled political reform, say some Chinese analysts and retired Communist Party officials.

“An honest, earnest, serious assessment of Mao based on facts” is “necessary,” Yawei Liu, director of the Carter Center’s China Program in Atlanta, said in an e-mail.

Mao’s legacy overshadows China to this day, so “without such a thorough verdict, it would be hard for China to launch meaningful political reform,” Mr. Liu said.

In China, the debate over Mao’s legacy is growing increasingly heated, conducted via Web sites, articles and books.

Here’s the “news”part of the article. Is the CCP really considering writing Mao out of the government’s policies and documents?

A recent essay by the liberal economist Mao Yushi, “Returning Mao Zedong to his Original Person,” has highlighted the controversy.

Mr. Mao, who is no relation to Mao Zedong, accused the former leader of hypocrisy and unusual cruelty.

The Cultural Revolution was merely a ploy to destroy his many critics after the disaster of the Great Leap Forward famine, which killed around 30 million people, Mr. Mao wrote.

Evidence of cruelty is found, for example, in Mao’s indifference to the fate of friends he drove to suicide, wrote the economist, and that of President Liu Shaoqi, whom Mao first attacked, then pretended to save, only to have Mr. Liu expelled from the party on his 70th birthday, before dying, untended, in jail in 1969.

A document circulating online purporting to detail a proposal by top Communist Party officials to remove Mao Zedong Thought from party work, documents and policies, has also sharpened debate.

The supposed Politburo document, No. 179, dated Dec. 28, 2010, is said to have been proposed by Xi Jinping, the man expected to become China’s next president, and Wu Bangguo, the head of the National People’s Congress.

No one knows if it’s real or fake (I presume it’s fake), but it has ignited the issue again. And I see that as a good thing. I think the more people look hard at all that Mao actually did they’ll have no choice but to see he was far from 70 percent good. And I have no illusions; people won’t let go of their opinions easily, and Mao’s legacy is one of those burning issues that inspire extreme opinions (and a lot of irrationality). At least now more people will be discussing it.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 64 Comments

@FOARP to have some knowledge of what Mao read is relevant. If anyone ever reads books about what happened of ruling in Ming dynasty, I believe it can help to understand Mao. Or assuming if Mao were interested in learning how to build up economy for a country after 1949, then Chinese history would be very different.

” That’s why he attacked the Soviet Union and India, distanced himself from even North Korea, Yugoslavia, Pakistan, and even, eventually, Albania.”

My knowledge about China with Soviet Union in 1950s, 60s is that Soviet Union tried to put China under his control and Mao refused. China was always close to North Korea under Mao’s days as I was there and witnessed it. It was said China lost Soviet Union support (their experts not sure financially) in early 60s. It has been educated in China that this is one factor causing the starvation besides the natural disasters. It has been revealed what happend in China in 1950s like Great Leap etc which wasted lots of resource and less efforts in agriculture.

Yes, it was over 10 years after two wars in China. By then, I am not sure anywhere in China there were any big scale agriculture relying on machines or even tractors were popular or any greenhouse concept or any resource financially to be able to get help from oversea. There are some of piece of information how much treasure JiangKaiShi 蒋介石 took out of China in 1949 or before. The food supply hugely relied on massive labour and what nature brought. Thinking of the chinese population in 1960s, I donot know if ‘most definitely after the food supply in China had been stabilised’ is only an assumption.

Chinese peasants were never fairly treated because normally the government policy robs them more even nowadays. In old days, they had to 交公粮 (submit what they got from their harvest to government). It has been revealed some countryside people are so poor they barely have anything after 交公粮.

“ just look across the Taiwan strait at the free, prosperous, and relatively just society found there.”
Economic prosperous is not everything. If trying to get anyone on street now in China and ask them whether they are happy or not. Taiwan has experienced its own learning curve. JiangKaiShi was not a democratic leader. Taiwan was not a free country before Jiang died. But I believe Chinese work on to make better country and society for themselves.

‘Mao unleashed lawlessness on the country. His policy was to give license to people to beat, torture, and kill their neighbours. In fact, it required them to do so, since those who would not came under suspicion.‘
There are quite few books there written by people who did violence on others even their parents and who also were victim at some stage during CR. I think their reflection and thoughts make more sense to me.

May 11, 2011 @ 6:58 am | Comment

Richard, thanks for your message. I donot feel hurt for words ‘your classic egomaniacal dictator and an atrocious leader’, because of YOUR.

May 11, 2011 @ 7:00 am | Comment

From what I have read, lots of death during starvation in 1960s in China happened in countryside especially lots of remote areas and area with poor soil. My parents told me those days in Shanghai which I am from, they were ok and survived though it was not a easy period. For me the strange thing here is people who produced food experienced harder time than those who lived in cities, I guess especially like city SH.

Chinese peasants are never fairly treated, even in this Chinese modernization period.

May 11, 2011 @ 7:39 am | Comment

“Why is it so hard to write these stories?” It is so easy and casual for this man to say this! Tombstone: An Account of Chinese Famine in the 1960s,a book by journalist Yang Jisheng whose father starved to death, includes many of these stories. “It is a tombstone for my father who died of hunger in 1959, for the 36 million Chinese who also died of hunger, for the system that caused their death, and perhaps for myself for writing this book,” writes the author in the opening paragraph.

May 11, 2011 @ 12:27 pm | Comment

Dee, my calling Mao an atrocious leader is NOT an ad hominem. An ad hominem is when you attack someone personally for holding views that are different from your own. For example, if you now called me “stupid” for disagreeing with you, that is an ad hominem. My criticisms of Mao are not personal in nature. As to your claims that peasants are always mistreated and often starve, I would suggest this ignores the enormous, unprecedented scope of “the three difficult years,” as the government euphemistically referred to the GLF, the most lethal famine in all history and one that was to a large extent unnecessary. unnecessary.By saying peasants often starve you are trivializing the horrors of Mao’s famine.

Readthru, thanks for that comment.

May 11, 2011 @ 1:11 pm | Comment

To Dee,

it appears to me that you are suggesting that rural peasants have always had it bad, and that things may not necessarily have been that much worse during the worst years of Mao. As for neighbours unleashing fury on neighbours, it seems that you would only lay the blame on those individuals who actually pursued violence.

However, along with the perks of being a leader comes responsibility. So while rural peasants getting shafted before Mao should not be on his ledger, those who suffered during his reign most definitely reflect on him. And neighbours behaving badly are on Mao’s tab as well, particularly since he encouraged it, and didn’t do much to stop it.

I agree that it’s not that informative to randomly throw out percentages when it comes to the good and the bad wrt Mao. But since he was the leader, the buck stops with him, good and bad.

May 11, 2011 @ 2:52 pm | Comment

Richard, please understand that I donot have any ill feeling towards you even your opinions on Mao. I think I like open discussion in a civil way, I even donot like to use ‘stupid’ and any words like that to convey my thoughts and feelings. As I said the word is ‘YOUR’ not anything else. Is it different when replacing ‘YOUR’ with ‘THE’ or any other neutral word?

My post was not intend to suggest peasants often starve or any idea like ‘rural peasants have always had it bad, that things may not necessarily have been that much worse during the worst years of Mao’ (#56). I would like to see a full accuracy image of what really happened through my reading and the discussion here. It has been revealed that the Great Leap Year was responsible for 60s starvation, no question about this.

@S.K. Cheung
‘As for neighbours unleashing fury on neighbours, it seems that you would only lay the blame on those individuals who actually pursued violence.’
I think each individual who executes violence on another person in their own willingness, even under the influence but not under full forcement, should share the responsibility for what they have done. If we donot have this reflection about CR, I donot know if we can prevent anything like CR from happening again. However by saying this, I donot try to imply anything to say Mao had less responsibility for what he caused.

Chinese director ChengKaiGe (陈凯歌)wrote this in his memoir about CR ‘无论什么样的社会的或政治的灾难过后,总是有太多原来跪着的人站起来说:我控诉!太少的人跪下去说:我忏悔。当灾难重来时,总是有太多的人跪下去说:我忏悔。而太少的人站起来说:我控诉!——“文革”以后也正是如此。打开地狱,找到的只是受难的群佛,那么,灾难是从哪儿来的呢?——打碎了神灯的和尚诅咒庙宇,因为他就是从那儿来的。问到个人的责任,人们总是谈到政治的压力,盲目的信仰,集体的决定等等。当所有的人都是无辜者,真正的无辜者就永远沉沦了。“

I am not strongly interested in which view point about Mao is right/wrong or agreed/disagreed, but interested in revealing an accurary image of the history, or stories from both sides.

May 11, 2011 @ 8:07 pm | Comment

“My knowledge about China with Soviet Union in 1950s, 60s is that Soviet Union tried to put China under his control and Mao refused.”

Yet this control was only claimed after the Soviets denounced Stalin, and after the USSR’s “revisionist” policies were introduced. I’m afraid it seems more likely that Mao turned on the USSR because their relatively liberal policies (both under Khruschev and even Brezhnev) would not have allowed the degree of control he wanted to exercise over the Chinese populace. Mao wanted Stalinism, but close relations with the USSR required de-Stalinisation.

“China was always close to North Korea under Mao’s days as I was there and witnessed it.”

Yet during the Cultural Revolution trade relations were broken off, Jiang Qing’s people denounced Kim Jong Il as a “fat revisionist”, and the Red Guards also attacked North Korea’s policies. Here is an interesting piece from Time magazine written in 1970 about the affect of the Cultural Revolution on China’s foreign policy:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,878284,00.html

However, I am fascinated to hear that you were in North Korea at this time and would love to hear more about it.

“Thinking of the chinese population in 1960s, I donot know if ‘most definitely after the food supply in China had been stabilised’ is only an assumption.”

It is, according to the sources, a pretty solid one. It also matches the conditions in other countries which had undergone similar upheaval such as the USSR, Japan, Yugoslavia, and Germany.

I remember going to dinner one day that was cooked by the father of someone I was doing a little bit of business with in Nanjing. He was a retired Nanjing city policeman, but was originally from the countryside of Anhui. He talked about how during the early 60’s he would occasionally catch a small fish, strap it to his belly, take the train into Nanjing, and sell it for a few mao. Afterwards his son tried to apologise to me about his father talking about old times, he seemed very embarrassed about his father mentioning the past, it was obviously a taboo subject. I told him that I had found it very interesting, but he didn’t believe me even though it was the truth.

“My parents told me those days in Shanghai which I am from, they were ok and survived though it was not a easy period. For me the strange thing here is people who produced food experienced harder time than those who lived in cities, I guess especially like city SH.”

The reason for this seems to have been that the food was seized from the peasants by force to keep the cities fed, and the peasants were left to starve as a result. The same thing happened in the Ukraine during the famines under Stalin.

May 12, 2011 @ 3:15 am | Comment

I guess it’s also worth saying: Yes, the people who turned on their neighbours deserve punishment for what they did. How many of them have been punished? It seems it has been more convenient for people to simply forget.

Just look at the records of the present politburo, none of whom admit to having been Red Guards, even though all of them would have been in their youth during that time. I have a hard time believing that this is the truth.

Li Keqiang, for example, was declared an “Outstanding Individual in the Study of Mao Zedong Thought” during the cultural revolution, yet he was not a Red Guard? This does not seem conceivable. Perhaps someone can see something that I have missed here?

May 12, 2011 @ 3:32 am | Comment

To Dee:
“I think each individual who executes violence on another person in their own willingness, even under the influence but not under full forcement, should share the responsibility for what they have done. If we donot have this reflection about CR, I donot know if we can prevent anything like CR from happening again.”
—agreed. So then the question becomes, were those attackers prosecuted to the full extent of the law? Were they held responsible for their actions? If not, why not? Could it be that the government under Mao didn’t necessarily deplore those types of acts? Besides, when it is said that Mao is responsible for the deaths during the CR, no one is suggesting that he personally off’ed millions of people. But he certainly created the environment and the “influence” under which such events could have taken place. As the head of state, the buck stops with him.

It is certainly informative to reflect upon human nature, and the instincts of survival and self-preservation, to understand what happened during those times. But human nature and instincts are what they are. So it is even more informative to reflect on the behaviour of Mao to ensure that future “leaders” don’t foment the type of environment and “influence” that he did.

May 12, 2011 @ 5:05 am | Comment

If Mao had died in 1946, nothing would have come of his dreams. If he had died in 1956, he would undoubtedly be remembered as simulatneously the “Last Emperor” and the first true representative of a Chinese republic–the greatest ruler in Chinese history, perhaps. If he had died in 1966, he would have been remembered as a great but flawed dictator. But alas, he died in 1976…

May 12, 2011 @ 6:56 am | Comment

Sorry, completely O/T remark:

Just read a report that uncovered instances as recent as 2005, where the family planning ministry would apprehend children from families who were allegedly in violation of the one child policy. Those children were allegedly then adopted off for profit, with some of those profits reportedly trickling back down to the same ministry officials who did the apprehending in the first place.

May 12, 2011 @ 12:04 pm | Comment

@S.K.Cheung
Sigh…Another example of how out dear cadres can suddenly become creative when it comes to squeezing profit out of every little bit of authority.
As far as I know,there’s no telling of whether the kids are properly adopted or just sell off to organ farms.
Disturbing,to say the least.

May 12, 2011 @ 2:39 pm | Comment

Well, having checked a bit more, Li Keqiang finished high school in 1974, so he would have been 12 in 1968 – a bit too young for the Red Guards, even though they did start out as a middle-school group. Xin Jinping was born in 1953, and would have been 15 in 1968, so he would have been in just the right age-range. All the other members of the standing commitee of the present politburo, were born in the 1940’s and would have been in their mid-20’s between 1966 and 1968.

However, it seems unlikely that none of these people took part in “struggle sessions”, or other activites involving the torture and killing of “enemies” during the 1966-1976 period. I know that, given their backgrounds, they are also likely to have been the victims of these sessions, but it was a common feaure of the Cultural Revolution that those who denounced others were themselves denounced. Victimhood neither excuses nor dispproves guilt, if such guilt exists.

@Richard – Of course, against any sign that Mao retained a modicum of human feeling towards the consequences of his actions, must be placed his pronouncements to the contrary:

“This man Hitler was even more ferocious. The more ferocious the better, don’t you think? The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are.”

I hardly think it is going too far to draw comparisons between Mao and similar dictators when he himself approvingly drew the same kind of comparisons.

@t_co –

“If Mao had died in 1946, nothing would have come of his dreams. If he had died in 1956, he would undoubtedly be remembered as simulatneously the “Last Emperor” and the first true representative of a Chinese republic–the greatest ruler in Chinese history, perhaps.”

I doubt this. Mao’s government had seen significant set-backs already by 1956 – Taiwan and the Korean stalemate being two important examples, and others might like to include Mongolia in this.

It is hard to make definitive statements about known facts in history, let alone counter factuals, but had Mao died in 1946, I think it’s a safe bet than both the world and China would have been much the better for it. His “dreams” turned out to be pretty horrific nightmares.

May 12, 2011 @ 8:04 pm | Comment

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