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.


Mao’s famine

I can’t add much more to this devastating article on the horrors of the Great Leap forward. I’ve never read anything about it that was quite this brutal, and suggest you read the whole thing.

For those who argue it was a natural famine the government couldn’t control, it will be particularly enlightening.

In the summer of 1962, for instance, the head of the Public Security Bureau in Sichuan sent a long handwritten list of casualties to the local boss, Li Jingquan, informing him that 10.6 million people had died in his province from 1958 to 1961. In many other cases, local party committees investigated the scale of death in the immediate aftermath of the famine, leaving detailed computations of the scale of the horror.

In all, the records I studied suggest that the Great Leap Forward was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.

Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten; sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement.

One report dated Nov. 30, 1960, and circulated to the top leadership — most likely including Mao — tells how a man named Wang Ziyou had one of his ears chopped off, his legs tied up with iron wire and a 10-kilo stone dropped on his back before he was branded with a sizzling tool. His crime: digging up a potato.

When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, the local boss, Xiong Dechang, forced his father to bury his son alive on the spot.

And it gets worse. Really. And please don’t say Mao didn’t know.

Mao was sent many reports about what was happening in the countryside, some of them scribbled in longhand. He knew about the horror, but pushed for even greater extractions of food.

At a secret meeting in Shanghai on March 25, 1959, he ordered the party to procure up to one-third of all the available grain — much more than ever before. The minutes of the meeting reveal a chairman insensitive to human loss: “When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”

I applaud China’s post-Mao leaders for ending most aspects of Maoism and seeing that starvation in China came to an end. Thank God Deng won the day. But isn’t it time to let the Chinese people know the truth? As the column says, the government has unclassified huge vaults of documents on the period and many Chinese scholars and researchers know the truth. But alas, their books and reports can only be published in Hong Kong.


A Great Leap Forward

Richard McGregor’s book The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, is yet another must-read book on contemporary China and probably the single best book on the CCP you can find.

I can’t say there was anything truly shocking to be found in its pages, but maybe that’s because there’s nothing the CCP can do that would shock me anymore. What McGregor does beautifully is demystify the CCP and its “relevant organs” through a masterful combination of anecdote and analysis that keeps the book taut, even exciting. His now-famous description of the “red phones” that sit atop the desks of 50 or so ueber-elite Chinese executives, and all that the phones represent – secrecy, privilege, control – is a great example of why this book is so entertaining, even when it’s scary.

I love the way McGregor writes.

China under Mao Zedong had much in common with other totalitarian systems. To borrow the oft-used phrase, terror was the system for extended periods of Mao’s rule. In the last three decades, the Communist Party has turned that formula around. Terror is just a side effect these days, used relatively sparingly and, in large part, reluctantly. In modern China, the system runs on seduction rather than suppression. It aims to co-opt, not coerce, the population. But even so, terror remains essential to the system’s survival and is deployed without embarrassment when required….[This resorting to terror] is evidence that behind the Party’s boisterous, boasting exterior lies a regime with a profound appreciation of its limited legitimacy and fragile mandate.

The book is rich in examples and clear-headed analysis of an array of (relatively) recent phenomena – the San Lu cover-up, the institutionalized corruption, SARS, the harassment of lawyers, the hyper-paranoia over public perception of the party. And it is remarkably balanced. McGregor never portrays the Party as evil, though it is certainly something to fear.

I’m not formally reviewing this book because there are many excellent reviews out there and I can’t add much to them. I did want to focus briefly, however, on one chapter that captivated me, titled Tombstone, about a book of that name written by a former Xinhua journalist, and one who was particularly high up, Yang Jisheng. For me, this was by far the most intense chapter in this whole intense book.

One of the most popular fenqing arguments, and one I’ve heard from Western friends as well, is that the estimated 30-40 million Chinese who died in the famine during the Great Leap Forward was a number pulled out of thin air by CCP-hating Westerners, and that the number bears little correlation to the facts. Sometimes I wondered myself; I had read that the estimate of 35 million dead was from Chinese sources, but it wasn’t until I read this chapter that I fully understood where the number came from and how it was arrived at.

This chapter tells a story of incredible bravery, and also one of hope. What Yang did would have been a capital offense under Mao, and probably under Deng. He performed more than a decade of research and meticulously chronicled the deaths from the famine, and he did something that in China can be dangerous in the extreme: he told the truth about history and challenged the Party narrative. McGregor spells out the risks:

On events such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the suppression pf the Tibet uprising in 1959, the pro-democracy protests in 1989 and so on, the Party simply announced it verdict after intense deliberations. Party officials are bound by these pronouncements on history, whatever they think as individuals…You either support the decision wholeheartedly or you are out. The Party’s verdict then, in theory, becomes the collective opinion of the entire country and its 1.3 billion people. Chinese who wish to agitate publicly for an alternative view do so at their own risk.

And yet Yang wrote and published Tombstone (in Hong Kong – two volumes, more than 1,000 pages) and he was not punished. Needless to say you won’t find many copies of it for sale in the Mainland, but Yang was never arrested or even harassed. China simply doesn’t do that anymore, McGregor explains. If you aren’t directly threatening today’s CCP with threats,real or perceived, that might undermine its power, you can pretty much say what you want (and I know, there are some egregious exceptions).

The descriptions of what the peasants endured during the GLF, familiar as they are, are still heartbreaking. And forget about the line that it was simply another naturally occurring famine. No, not at all. It was a man-made event, and had it not been for Mao and his ego and his dogma it wouldn’t have happened.

I wrote in the margins of every page in this chapter. It was a scene of mayhem and death and cannibalism the likes of which we can never imagine. I had read about Tombstone last year, but never knew the full story behind it. Its publication highlights the Party’s increasing toleration. But always, of course, within limits.

I meant for this to be a very short post and seem to have wandered all over the place. Bottom line: Buy the book if you want to really understand how the Party manages to keep on going, and how its mind works, complex and secretive, yet almost always predictable.

One last quote:

China has long known something that many in developed countries are only now beginning to grasp, that the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders have never wanted to be the west when they grow up. For the foreseeable future, it looks as though their wish, to bestride the world as a colossus on their own implacable terms, will come true.

That should get each of us thinking. Like it or not, China continues more than ever to shake the world.


Why did the Chinese starve to death in the ’50s without protest?

Please, go read these two posts by one of my very favorite writers right now. She knows whereof she speaks.

I remember reading how the Georgian peasants were convinced Stalin was unaware of their plight as they starved to death in the 1930s, and if there was only some way they could alert him…. But alas, millions and millions died. And Mao knew, and Stalin knew. No, I don’t believe Mao wanted the peasants to die and there’s evidence he was horrified when he learned what the peasants were eating to survive. (Stalin, on the other hand, ever the “man of steel,” showed no such concerns.) But Mao was too wrapped up in his own ideology to admit his Great Leap Forward was anything but. And the result is one of the tragedies so immense, so incomprehensible, like the Holocaust, that the more we read about it the less we can comprehend it. Xujin’s wonderful posts help us comprehend it, but they don’t make it any less of a crime against humanity.

Thirty percent bad – Deng was awfully kind.


China Idiocy Alert

Rick Ruffin, satirist

Rick Ruffin, satirist

This may well take the cake. I mean, a skyscraper cake with a whole jar of maraschino cherries on top and enough Cool Whip to swim in. What can one say?

History has dealt China a dirty hand. It had famine, it had Mongol invasions, it had British colonization and the Opium War. It had Japanese invasion and the Nanjing Massacre. It is no stranger to atrocity. And it never had enough land. Not good land, anyhow. Fate dealt it the Gobi Desert.

In spite of these limitations, Mao Tse-tung managed to consolidate the country, to kick out the European and Japanese colonizers, to instill a one child policy (which India has yet to do), and to embark on the Great Leap Forward. And what a leap it has been.

Yikes. Could someone in this modern world actually look with a straight face at the Great Leap Backwards and praise it? Could someone actually say, without irony, that Mao’s leadership was so positive it helped balance the “dirty hand” China had been dealt? Could they? (I guess it becomes slightly more believable when the same person claims it was Mao who implemented China’s one-child policy, which began in 1979. I was always of the impression Mao was quite dead by then.)

This is via the Marmot, who caustically remarks,

Classic, Rick. Just classic. As my good friend Hamel asks in the KT comment section, this is satire, right?

Would that it were so.


Send Howard French Back to Africa

I have found Howard W. French consistently disappointing when it comes to reporting China for the New York Times. In Wikipedia terms, he’s not very NPOV. He paints the Mao Zedong Wiki article as a reflection of government censorship, when really there’s alot more going on here he chooses to ignore. He says that on the Chinese version of Wikipedia, “Mao Zedong’s reputation is unsullied by any mention of a death toll in the great purges of the 1950s and 1960s, or for what many historians call the greatest famine in human history.” He goes on to describe how a debate on the Talk page includes Manchurian Tiger saying: “”If anyone can prove that Mao’s political movements didn’t kill so many people, I’m willing to delete the wording that ‘millions of people were killed.'” Rather than contribute to encyclopedias, those who wish to pay tribute to Mao, he added, should “go to his mausoleum.””

I’m sorry, is that or is that not a mention of a death toll?



Nostalgic longing for the good old days of Chairman Mao

Striving to balance out the barrage of anti-Mao posts marking the Great Helmsman’s birthday, ESWN translates an article that explores why so many in China look back to Mao with nostalgic admiration.

Of course, I can easily understand this phenomenon. Mao did a decent job of keeping corruption in check (not too difficult when you have totalitarian powers), gave the peasants free medical care and at least conveyed an appearance of caring for the underprivileged.

Someone said that in the Mao era, people lived in relative poverty. However, the social order and security situations were extraordinarily good. Everything was simple and people lived in a relaxed fashion. Nowadays, things are more complicated. People feel bored and oppressed. A counter-argument was that since everybody was so poor back then, there was nothing to steal or rob. “Sameness” was obviously a characteristic of that era, but the severe inequality of wealth today has affected social stability in China.

Actually, no matter how people argue about the pros and cons of the person Mao Zedong or the era of Mao Zedong, the fact is that Mao has returned to Chinese society, whether it is on the altar of a peasant home or by the city taxi driver’s seat. Mao images proliferate among the people. Yet, there is a difference. In Mao’s era, we treated him as the Absolute God. Later on, we determined that he was a person who could make mistakes. Today people are looking at Mao as a god who could provide peace and security.

Needless to say, I find this nostalgia rather misplaced. For all of his pretentious talk glorifying the peasantry, we need to remember that one of the first things Mao did was move into Zhongnanhai, where he proceeded to enrich himself and his henchmen. (Funny, how these Marxists so enamored of notions of being at one with the lower classes always seem to move into the palaces of the corrupt imperialist oppressors they replaced, quickly taking on all the trappings of the old despised enemies.) And of course, we all know how the farmers and peasants benefitted from the Great Leap Forward.

I won’t go on about Mao’s sins, which we all know too well. Creating a sense of peace and security is great, but this was matched and overwhelmed by the massive and needless suffering Mao thrust on his helpless people. If anyone in China today truly looks to mass-murdering Mao as “a god who could provide peace and security,” they do so either from ignorance, stupidity or blindness.


Chinese university students “swear by Chairman Mao”

A typically upbeat article in Xinhua tells us that Mao, the mass murderer who more than any other force helped initiate the brain death of China during his reign, is still revered by China’s university students, who continue to treasure his teachings:

Chinese university students are caught up in the trappings of modern life – discussing the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, idolizing Taiwan pop band F4 and flaunting their cellphones – but they still “swear by Chairman Mao.”

In fact, the influences of the late Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, who was born on December 26, 1893, on modern youth are not limited to the language of discourse.

Cheng Haowen, a student of astronomy at Nanjing University in eastern Jiangsu Province, said Mao’s realistic approach, characterized by testing and improving theories in the course of practice, distinguished him from many Chinese figureheads, who were satisfied with being sage and detached from social reality to show their superiority.

You have to wonder whether the reporter was actually keeping a straight face as he wrote that. Realistic approach? Testing and improving theories? Like, the Cultural Revolution was a tested improvement over the Great Leap Forward? (If Conrad were around he’d reply with something like, “Jesus H. Christ on a rubber pogo stick!”)

A socialist whose inspirational sources can be traced back to Chinese classics such as the works of Sun Zi, an eminent ancient military strategist, Mao left a spiritual legacy of pragmatism, depending on the masses of people and solving problems without resorting to foreign forces, which have an impact on the attitudes of a new generation of university students, said Cheng.

What can one say? I’ve heard Mao accused of many things, but pragmatism isn’t one of them. And “depending on the masses”? Mao screwed the masses monumentally, and more than a quarter of a century after his death they are still reeling from his certifiably insane policies that devastated the environment and robbed a generation of its critical faculties.

Although Mao erroneously initiated the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) in his later years, fostering cult-like admiration for himself, he and his spiritual legacy still deserve to be studied objectively, said Cheng, who was born in 1985.

“Erroneously initiated.” How is that for bland language? It makes it sound like a frigging accounting error. And even though he left China a basket case, we still love his spiritual legacy and want to study it objectively quack quack quack.

I suppose I should resign myself to the fact that Mao worship isn’t going away anytime soon. But I want to believe that most students today don’t really believe there’s anything worth studying in Mao’s “spiritual legacy.” Nearly all my friends in China told me that Mao is someone they simply ignore, and that all the government’s BS about his greatness is recognized as a pointless show. I sure hope they’re right.

mao statue.jpg
A university student works lovingly on his statue of The Great Helmsman

UPDATE If you think this Xinhua article is nauseating in its swooning over Butcher Mao, try this.


Zhou Enlai, Saint or Sinner?

This fascinating book review by the WaPo’s John Pomfret looks at the banned-in-China biography, Zhou Enlai’s Later Years, by Gao Wenqian, a former CCP researcher for more than a decade prior to emigrating to the US.

He depicts Zhou as a tragic backroom schemer, a puppet of his master Mao, and a man who was so imbued with a Confucian sense of duty that he did almost everything Mao asked him — including signing the arrest orders for his own brother and a goddaughter.

The book challenges the view that Zhou tried his best to save hundreds of purged officials during the Cultural Revolution, portraying him instead as an eager participant in the ultra-leftist campaign during which hundreds of thousands of people were dispatched to the Chinese gulag.

“Party documents show that Zhou only protected people after first checking with Mao, his wife Jiang Qing, Mao’s no. 2 Lin Biao and others,” Gao wrote. “If Zhou sensed any opposition to protecting someone, he would drop his protection.”

Even though Zhou died 27 years ago, criticism of him is taboo in China because, officially, he never made a mistake. “In a society troubled with corruption and facing a moral vacuum, Zhou is the last good Communist,” said Gao. “This book takes him off his pedestal. I criticized what should never be criticized.”

I have to admit, for years even I got sucked into the myth of Zhou as the pearl among the swine, and I’m sad to see the destruction of the romanticized image of the kind-hearted friend of the people who subtly tried to influence Mao to be a bit less awful.

But reading about China’s history over the past year, I knew this was sugar coating; Zhou was an enthusiastic supporter of the Great Leap Forward, and while he may have saved the Forbidden City from destruction during the Cultural Revolution (another myth?), he was not divorced from all that was going on around him.

According to Pomfret, who obviously gives the book a good deal of credence, Gao shatters one myth after another:

Gao also challenges a long-held belief that it was Zhou who brought Deng back into the Chinese leadership in 1973. Deng later rose to become China’s paramount leader in the late 1970s, and held onto his position until his death in 1997. Deng’s official biographers have used what they have called his special relationship with Zhou as a way to bolster his prestige.

Gao wrote that Mao actually brought Deng back from official oblivion as part of a plot to ensure that Zhou did not become too powerful. Gao cites as proof Deng’s participation in several sessions organized by Mao to criticize Zhou.

“I wanted to write a book about a personality that had been distorted by the Communist system,” Gao said. “Zhou was such a man.”

I remember watching film clips of all the weeping Chinese people as Zhou Enlai’s funeral cortege passed by. It was as though a part of them had died with Zhou. They believed so deeply in him, that he was saintly, that he loved them and fought for them. Was it just one more of history’s cruel jokes? How sad.

Unfortunately, the book is currently available only in Chinese. I’ll be the first buyer when the English version is out.