Mao’s Hidden Massacres

About nine years ago, when I was doing work related to the Beijing Olympics, I learned a lesson I should have been smart enough to know in advance. I should have known that Chinese people don’t like it when a foreigner criticizes their government in general and Mao in particular. I was talking to a colleague over lunch when something led us to the topic of Mao, and I expressed a belief I’ve written about countless times on this blog: that Mao was a mass murderer who led China to the brink of destruction and who brought the Chinese people nothing but pain and misery. The young lady, who was one of my dearest friends in China, was college educated and spent years studying in Canada. I made the mistake of assuming that someone so urbane and well schooled would know just how bad Mao was for China. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Mao did so much good for China.” She went on to defend him, tears in her eyes, and I did not argue back. I just nodded and said, “I understand.” I had been thoughtless; I should have remembered that I, too, have gotten defensive when Chinese friends criticized my own government.

I have read countless articles, essays, blog posts and books about what Mao has meant for China. I believe more than ever that he did incalculable harm, that he sent the country into a near-death spiral, that he had the blood of millions on his hands and that the Chinese people deserve to know the truth about the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I know better than to lecture my Chinese friends about this, but I have no problem writing how I feel on my own blog.

Mao has been on my mind for the past several days thanks to a recent book review by Ian Johnson, arguably the most level-headed and knowledgeable of all China hands, on a side of the Cultural Revolution I was largely unaware of, namely the massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocent Chinese people in the country’s far-flung rural areas. These killings were not isolated incidents; they were systematic and widespread. Johnson’s article deals in particular with the massacre of some 9,000 Chinese citizens in Dao County in south Hunan province. People who had the bad luck of being the child of a traffic policeman, for example, were labeled “black elements” and rounded up as Mao tightened the notches of propaganda warning that these “enemies” were plotting a counterrevolution. In response, local authorities decided it was best to act pre-emptively and exterminate the enemies. (Johnson writes that records show between 400,000 and 1.5 million men, women and children were murdered in such incidents throughout rural China.)

Johnson describes one of the many massacres carried out in Dao County, in which the “black elements” were marched to a killing field:

A self-proclaimed “Supreme People’s Court of the Poor and Lower-Middle Peasants” was formed out of the mob and immediately issued a death sentence to the entire group. The adults were clubbed in the head with a hoe and kicked into a limestone pit. Mrs. Zhou’s children wailed, running from adult to adult, promising to be good. Instead, the adults tossed them into the pit too.

Some fell down twenty feet to a ledge. Mrs. Zhou and one of her children landed alive on a pile of corpses on a higher ledge. When the gang heard their cries and sobs they tossed big rocks at the ledge until it collapsed, sending them down onto the others. Miraculously, all the family members survived. But as the days passed each of them died, until Mrs. Zhou was the last person in the pit with thirty-one corpses around her.

For many of these “undesirables,” the killings were the culmination of years of living as second-class citizens: “The state had stripped them of their property. It had assigned them bad jobs with low pay or rocky plots of land to farm. And it had inundated China with a barrage of propaganda intended to convince many that black elements were dangerous, violent criminals who were barely human.” Blame for the hysteria that led to these acts of genocide can be traced directly to Zhongnanhai. I wonder, would there have been a Cultural Revolution without Mao? Would there have been a Holocaust without Hitler? The answer to both of these questions, I believe, is no.

The book Johnson reviews is The Killing Wind: A Chinese County’s Descent into Madness During the Cultural Revolution, which was originally published in Hong Kong and has just been translated into English. The review makes for engrossing reading, and portrays the Cultural Revolution as even more appalling and frightening than I had imagined, if such is possible. Accompanying the review is an interview Johnson conducted with the book’s author, Tan Hecheng. When Hu Yaobang was in power Tan and other officials were assigned to research the Dao County massacre, but by the time he was finished with his interviews and research the political winds in China had shifted and the government had no interest in shining a spotlight on itself. For anyone with even a passing interest in the Cultural Revolution, both the review and the interview are indispensable.

I regret the tears shed by my colleague, caused by my unintentionally hurtful comments. But my visceral loathing of Mao remains unchanged, and after reading Johnson’s articles it only becomes worse. Mao’s rein was nothing less than one long, brutal crime against humanity, and I wish more of today’s young Chinese understood that. As America steps closer to authoritarianism with Trump’s inauguration tomorrow, it is time for all of us to learn from the past.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

One of my favorite passages from Slavoj Zizek:

“The Chinese Cultural Revolution serves as a lesson here: destroying old monuments proved not to be a true negation of the past. Rather it was an impotent … acting out which bore witness to the failure to get rid of the past. There is a kind of poetic justice in the fact that the final result of Mao’s Cultural Revolution is the current unmatched explosion of capitalist dynamics in China. A profound structural homology exists between Maoist permanent self-revolutionizing, the permanent struggle against the ossification of state structures, and the inherent dynamics of capitalism. One is tempted to paraphrase Brecht here: ‘What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?’ What were the violent and destructive outbursts of the Red Guardist caught in the Cultural Revolution compared to the true Cultural Revolution, the permanent dissolution of all life-forms which capitalist reproduction dictates?” (Zizek, Violence, pg. 209)

January 20, 2017 @ 3:12 pm | Comment

A few years ago, I had a similar experience to you after I made a critical comment about Mao when talking outside of class to a professor originally from China. The professor said that she agreed with Chinese leaders’ assessment that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. She claimed that Mao cared about the people, although she admitted that he (unlike George Washington) was too attached to power because he never stepped down as China’s leader. She mentioned that when the Nationalist soldiers came through her grandparents’ village, they were disorderly and engaged in looting. When the Communist soldiers came, by contrast, they were very orderly. From her perspective, current Chinese political leaders were so corrupt that when they spoke harshly of Mao it was not fair for them to do so. I didn’t get the sense that she was upset or offended at all, but she was defensive of Mao.

January 20, 2017 @ 3:28 pm | Comment

” I made the mistake of assuming that someone so urbane and well schooled would know just how bad Mao was for China. “You don’t understand,” she said. “Mao did so much good for China.” She went on to defend him, tears in her eyes, and I did not argue back. “

The tears are what gets you on this – it shows, not a conscious belief based on facts, but an emotional conviction instilled through indoctrination and brain-washing (a term that Mao’s CCP coined as something that was good FFS).

The details of the massacres Mao brought about are perfectly horrid, but they are of the same kind as seen in other communist countries. Stalin’s NKVD went through the phone-book looking for people with Polish-sounding names to make up their quota of executions of “Polish spies”, in Soviet-occupied Lithuania speakers of Esperanto and collectors of stamps were the target, in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language was enough to get you killed.

The belief that whole classes of people are enemies to be destroyed is integral to communism. It is part of it. As a communist himself, Mao acted on this.

January 20, 2017 @ 11:20 pm | Comment

What is amazing is not the depth of the depravity, but how quickly humans can reach that depth.

January 21, 2017 @ 12:38 pm | Comment

Sorry, can’t get the link to the interview. Has the post been removed?

January 21, 2017 @ 9:35 pm | Comment

Tanks – China: 0. USA: 149.
Vehicles: China 0: USA 3800 (1 per 4 soldiers)
Armored vehicles – China: 0 . USA 35.
Artillery: China 66. USA: 300.
Mobile rocket launchers: China: 27. USA: 550.

When a weak nation is invaded by a stronger one, that the weak can resist with all its might until the last breath is already an heroic feat. For a weak nation to challenge a strong one by going outside of her own borders, that had never been tried before.

When Man Anying, his son, was killed on the battlefield in Korea. Mao himself, upon being delivered the news, said famously: “Hundreds of thousands gave their lives on that battlefield, we can’t dwell on just one person. What happened happened, let’s move on. I’m the leader of the nation, I’m the one who decided to send our troops to Korea. If my son doesn’t go, how can I convince the nation to support this war? He’s Mao Zedong’s son, there can be no other way.’

When Mao shook hand with the mother of Huang Jiguang, another PLA soldier who gave his life in Korea, we saw no sadness on the mother’s face, only smiles.

Why? Because she knew. She knew that of the arsenal of heroes who were forever resting on that battlefield, her son was among them, but so was Mao Zedong’s. The person now shaking her hands and sending his condolenscnes, was also a family of the war hero.

From this mother we saw a spirit larger than life, a spirit of fearlessness, a spirit of sacrifice, a spirit of idealism, a spirit of a hero, a spirit of a mother.

Those are also the spirits of Mao.

Mao belongs to China, but he also belongs to the world. He is of the Chinese people, but also of the world’s people.

[ Huang Jiguang’s mother shaking hands with Mao, 1954 ]

January 21, 2017 @ 10:35 pm | Comment

The link to the interview is now fixed.

Lao Qiu, that sounds nice. Mao was inspirational; he inspired the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which you fail to mention. He did indeed bring the country together, through indoctrination and propaganda and lies. Then he nearly destroyed the country, twice. I appreciate how the mother of the fallen soldier was inspired. That doesn’t erase Mao’s terrible sins. A certain dictator in Germany also inspired his people and gave them an illusion of grandeur. We all know how that turned out.

January 22, 2017 @ 1:11 am | Comment

“A certain dictator in Germany also inspired his people and gave them an illusion of grandeur. We all know how that turned out.”

Right after world war one, Deutschland suffered a tremendous blow at the hands domestic enemies – Soviet lines on the Eastern Front were retreating, the shelling was about to hit Paris, and yet the great Germanic people were forced into a shameful surrender.

Then came the shackles of Versailles – resulting in the dissolution of the Reichswehr, dismantling of industries, insolvency of economy, and the total misery of the people.

Out of distress and ruin emerged the great patriot ‘Little Beard’. Against all tides and odds, he accomplished the impossible and forged a new, united Deutschland. Liberating the Germanic people in the process. A new Propitious Epoch arrived in the form of the Messerschmitt Me 262, the Volkswagen, and the Bundesautobahn on which it runs.

January 22, 2017 @ 2:43 am | Comment

“Right after world war one, Deutschland suffered a tremendous blow at the hands domestic enemies – Soviet lines on the Eastern Front were retreating, the shelling was about to hit Paris, and yet the great Germanic people were forced into a shameful surrender.”

Umm. Nice Dolchstosslegende you’ve got there.

In reality, the German armies were in retreat and had been for a hundred days previous to that, their allies had all surrendered leaving Germany’s entire southern flank exposed and vulnerable to an invasion that Germany had no reserves to meet.

You know, I think I’ve seen this kind of weirdness and admiration for fascism before on this blog. It was Mongol Warrior/Wayne Lo.

January 22, 2017 @ 5:47 am | Comment


You make a very good point when you draw comparisons between Maoist massacres and the atrocities that occurred in other communist countries. However, I respectfully disagree with you if you are claiming that communism is inherently murderous.

I am a communist and I do not support the injury of people or material goods. Capitalism can and should be abolished without anyone being murdered. I would like to see the creation of non-capitalist societies where free speech and freedom of the press exist. It is vital that communists acknowledge the grotesque oppression that took place under communist regimes during the 20th century, so as to learn from these tragedies and create a non-oppressive form of communism. I would not want Mao as the leader of a country where I lived – or any country whatsoever. If I had kids, I would not want Mao to babysit them. However, communism does not have to take the horrific forms it took under dictators such as Mao and Stalin.

January 22, 2017 @ 1:34 pm | Comment

If I remember correctly, LaoQiu’s first post on this thread is copied and pasted from a post by Math. Math himself used to repost essays he had already written. I wonder whether there is a kind of creativity to Math’s repetition of essays, similar to the repetitive piping of the mouse Josephine in Kafka’s short story ‘Josephine the Singer’.

January 22, 2017 @ 1:45 pm | Comment

Cuttlefish, thanks for your observation — I’m not sure if Lao Qiu is Math, but his comment is a word-for-word cut and paste from this Reddit thread. And FOARP, I think you are onto something; Lao Qiu may well Mongol Warrior. Lao Qiu, can you tell us why you cut and pasted? Are you here to play games? Are you Mongol Warrior? Curious to hear what you have to say. (For readers unfamiliar with Mongol Warrior, he is a dangerous troll who has hijacked several threads here in years past. He is a vicious anti-Semite — he called me an “oven dodger” — and took delight in sending incredibly hateful emails to commenters here.)

FOARP, I realize the reason for her tears was the indoctrination, but I had naively hoped that after living and studying abroad for years she would be more inclined toward critical thinking. Such a bright and thoughtful person, totally fluent in English and so well educated. I wasn’t ready for her emotional, tearful reaction.

January 23, 2017 @ 12:28 pm | Comment

Well, all of the crusty old and disillusioned newer expats and look at the mess a rising China has made of the world with its accidental/engineered virus.

Let’s not forget that 30 years ago, the West started piling money, expertise and tech into this supposedly great replacement for the US. So many expats were willing and eager to sell out for money, tail, China fame, promise of future business opportunities, etc. Be known that law enforcement across the 5 eyes is taking an in-depth look at the extent to which so many were willing to steal from their employers and governments while living an awesome expat life in China that they didn’t deserve. China didn’t get itself to this point alone, rampant, reckless offshoring and dirty, filthy expats helped plenty along the way.

So how are you all enjoying quarantine thanks to the most awesomest government and country on the planet? Still fantasizing about the vast potential of the Chinese market? You may have discovered that your years of english teaching, China consulting and language mastery gets you nowhere back in your home country.

gan bei yang gui zi men!

April 12, 2020 @ 2:29 am | Comment

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