China Under Mao


Most of what Mao tried to do backfired on
him. The central organizing theme of the book,
starting with chapter 7 and going through the very end, is that each time Mao tried
a bold initiative, it had outcomes that must have surprised him—certainly [that] he did
not welcome—and he repeatedly changed his tactics and ran into new problems. In the end—although this isn’t explicitly
argued—I think you could probably draw the conclusion from the story that Mao lost his
way in the end and ended up doing things that did enormous harm to China. He became so fixated on maintaining his vision
that he lost sight of the damage that it was causing the country. What’s remarkable about him as a leader
of a communist country is that he’s the only one who ever fomented rebellion against
the state that he’d set up. If he had only wanted to get rid of officials
who disagreed with him, he didn’t need to do that. I think that’s the thing that is really
most remarkable about Mao as a leader. The other thing that I think people should
walk away [with] after reading the book is that the period from 1949 through 1976 was
really the core of the Chinese revolution. We tend to think of revolutions as being over
when a new government takes power. But in China, that was just the beginning. China had not changed very much in 1949. The party had only controlled limited areas
of the countryside. It ran no cities. It had this extremely rapid military conquest
of China. The revolution in China was not one where
ordinary people rose up under the leadership of guerrilla forces and took power in the
cities. The Communist Party was able in the late 1940s
to create a large modern army in Manchuria, and it basically rolled south and then west
across China. It was a military conquest. So basically, the transformation of China
that took place—the revolution—really began in 1949 and ’50, after this army took
power. That’s another thing that I think people
should walk away from the book thinking about. One of the things that surprised me in doing
research for the book—and this is some of the new histories of the late 1930s and 1940s
movement in Yan’an that I drew upon, things that weren’t available when I first started
doing work on China in the ’70s and ’80s—it’s very clear that for a period of two or three
years, Mao felt like he really had to burnish his credentials as a Marxist and also as a
leader of a major communist party. He studied Soviet textbooks and encyclopedia
articles under the tutelage of people like Chen Boda, who later helped him launch the
Cultural Revolution [and] who had studied in Moscow in the previous years. The Marxism and the Soviet-style communism
that he studied was Stalinism. It was the early Stalin era. Mao adopted those ideas wholeheartedly. He adopted the idea—which was Stalin’s
idea—that class struggle did not end when you’ve created the foundations for a socialist
economy. In other words, exploiting classes are still
out there trying to undermine the revolution. The other idea is that there
has to be one supreme leader that decides which ideas are correct and which ideas are
traitorous, and people who disagree with that leader and who persist have to be removed. This is when you started to get portraits
of Mao. He consciously set out to develop the thoughts
of Mao Zedong, helped greatly by these better educated editors and thinkers like Chen Boda. That was the beginning of it. Over the years, as the Cultural Revolution
unfolded, it reached a level that I suppose you can laugh at in retrospect, but he was
treated as almost a godlike figure. At a certain period—for about a year, in
1968–69—people, when they went to work in the morning, went to little altars that
had a bust of Mao or a photograph of Mao and recited some of his sayings from the “Little
Red Book” of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong. They would ask for instructions and bow to
his portrait. And then at the end of the day they would
have another meeting, a little assembly in [their] workgroup, and do the same thing. They also had something called the “loyalty
dance”—loyalty to Chairman Mao—where people would do a series of movements and
sing a song about a million hearts beating in unison and loving and cherishing Chairman
Mao. There were other aspects of this, and the
Mao cult really went wild in ’67, ’68, ’69. Apparently, at one point, Mao, at a party
meeting—there was kind of a dose a realism—said, “What is all this? This is ridiculous.” And then it just ended. He still was very much an icon, but the dancing
and the religious worship kind of faded away. Actually, through most of the last half of
the Mao era, the end of a lot of the negative things that happened really didn’t come
about until Mao himself said, “We should really stop this” or “Why are we doing
it this way?” And it’s interesting that the party—the
people under him—then immediately took the signal and toned things down. The things that Mao stood against—a leadership
that is concerned with stability, with economic development, with security, with improving
the standards of living of the Chinese people… those are the ultimate values for the leadership
today, and Mao denigrated those ideas throughout his life. He did not want stability. He thought that if China was left to develop
under stable dictatorship of the party, the party members would set themselves apart from
ordinary people, would have a better lifestyle, would grasp privileges for themselves. He saw this happening in the Soviet Union,
and he called this “revisionism.” He had this strange idea that it was capitalism
or reversion to capitalism; it actually was the opposite of capitalism. What he foresaw as a future of China that
he disapproved of was a bureaucratic dictatorship based on total state control and the privileges
that inevitably came from that. If you understand in a clear-eyed fashion
what Mao stood for and what he tried to fight for in his life, you realize that China’s
leaders today—whatever their reverential attitude towards him is—they are doing everything
that he fought against during his life. I think people in China are very fortunate
that that is the case. In many ways, the polite and semi-worshipful
attitude towards Mao by the current leadership really glosses over absolutely fundamental
differences between China in that period and the leaders today. Another way in which it helps us to understand
China today—and this is related to the campaign against corruption and all the similar things
that people write about, things that have gone wrong in China under its market reforms—is
that party officials (and I said this in the first few minutes) were under extraordinary
scrutiny. They were under constant threat of being removed
from power, criticized, even being put in prison for disobeying party policy. After Mao’s death, the party relaxed this
kind of super-aggressive, almost punitive attitude towards party officials, and gave
them a great deal more space to do what they wanted. One of the results, in the context of a market
economy, is that they’ve enriched themselves. What’s interesting is this is more like
capitalism, but it’s very different from what Mao said was capitalism back in the 1960s
and ’70s. Another way in which it helps us to understand
China today is that the relaxation of the control over party officials, the relaxation
of the campaigns that were so damaging and bloody in China in that period, has led to
an exacerbation of the abuse of power and the use of people’s positions to enrich
themselves. As much as Mao was worried about this in his
life, that was almost absent. People today look back on the Mao period,
I think with some justification, as one where party officials were not as corrupt as they
are today. They may have abused their power somewhat,
but they led very simple, even spartan lives. No one amassed fortunes. Party officials today can travel abroad; they
fill up the business and first class cabins of international air flights; they come here
and they buy real estate. They’re part of the international jet set,
the international elite. There was nothing like this when Mao was alive,
and I don’t think he could even have imagined that this was a possibility.

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