Debunking the myths of Mao Zedong | South China Morning Post
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  • Jan 27, 2015
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CommentInsight & Opinion

Debunking the myths of Mao Zedong

Eric Li says though the Chinese people paid a heavy price for Mao's catastrophic blunders, his leadership set the stage for the country's economic take-off - a fact ignored by many Western critics, while Lijia Zhang believes that the Chinese people's admiration for him should be balanced with a true understanding of his deeds, which isn't possible without open debate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 December, 2013, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 December, 2013, 4:03am

This week, China celebrates the 120th birth date of the founding father of the People's Republic - Mao Zedong. No one looms larger in the narrative of modern China. As the nation continues its ascendency to reclaim its position as a great power, Mao's legacy is central to its perception in the eyes of the world. The ultimate judgment rendered by history remains far into the horizon. But first, some fundamental misconceptions need to be addressed.

The standard narrative in the West is that the first 30 years of the People's Republic under Mao's leadership was an unmitigated disaster and the party-state was only able to save itself by repudiating his ideological rule and taking the country in an opposite direction.

But this is false. Many segregate the party's 64-year leadership into two 30-year periods: the first from 1949 to 1979, mostly under Mao, and the second from 1979 to the present, starting with Deng Xiaoping's dramatic reforms.

No doubt Deng's reforms corrected many previous policy mistakes and delivered enormous successes. But without the foundation built in the first 30 years, the accomplishments of the second 30 years would not have been possible. In the former, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao's helm used its centralised political authority to mobilise limited national resources and built the basic industrial and human infrastructures of a modern nation.

A few statistics demonstrate the significance of that period. In 1949, industrial infrastructure was negligible. Electricity availability outside small urban areas was near zero. Literacy rate was below 20 per cent. Immunisation rate was virtually non-existent and average life expectancy 41 years old.

On the eve of Deng's reforms in 1979, China had built the framework of basic industrial infrastructures, though still very limited. Extensive national and local grids with about 10,000 newly built hydroelectric dams increased electricity coverage to over 60 per cent even in the poorest rural areas. Literacy rate reached an astonishing 66 per cent meaning well over 80 per cent of youth - among the highest among poor developing nations. Hundreds of millions of people were immunised, nearly 100 per cent of children at the age of one, and average life expectancy reached 65. In fact, by 1978, China's human development index was already closing in on much richer developed nations.

A still poor but relatively educated and healthy population with basic infrastructure set the stage for the country's take-off. And all this was achieved with very little resource under an international embargo. Certainly, unmitigated disasters did occur, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but to define the entire period as such would be grossly mistaken.

Mao's most significant political legacy was Chinese national independence. After a century of endless civil conflicts and dismemberments in the hands of foreign aggressors, the establishment and consolidation of the People's Republic under Mao's leadership at last firmly placed the destiny of the nation into the hands of the Chinese themselves. This ability enabled China to then engage the post cold war globalisation on its own terms. Many developing countries were not so fortunate and were swallowed by globalisation instead of taking advantage of it.

It should not be denied that the Chinese people paid a heavy price for this independence as Mao's catastrophic blunders caused deep suffering and crises. But the People's Republic survived. The post-Mao dividends have been significant and in all likelihood will continue for generations to come.

Last but not least, the characterisation of Mao as an extreme ideologue is misplaced. The widely accepted narrative in the West, and inside China, to some extent, is that the first 30 years under Mao was ideological and the second 30 years launched by Deng has been pragmatic. And this transition from an ideologue to a reformer put China on the road to success.

No doubt China came under destructive spells of ideological fervour at several points during Mao's rule. But the fact is Mao was a pragmatist through and through. The world should not forget it was Mao who led China out of Soviet domination as early as in the late 1950s.

But Mao didn't stop there. At the height of the cold war, he reached across the ideological divide and built a de facto alliance with the United States to counter the Soviets. This in turn paved the way for China's engagement with the West, which was one of the strongest propellers of Deng's economic reforms.

All men of great historical impact were complex and their legacies mixed. As Thomas Carlyle said, "The history of the world is but biography of great men". To misjudge them is to misjudge history and risk misguiding the future.

Mao Zedong, whose life left indelible marks on the lives of more than a billion people and changed the trajectory of the world, is to be studied with care and thoughtfulness, not to be judged with moral expediency.

Eric X Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai


How to deal with Mao Zedong's legacy has posed challenges to his successors. Mao's appointed successor, Hua Guofeng, simply wanted to follow whatever he said. Luckily Deng Xiaoping put that to an end and introduced reforms and opening up.

In 1981, five years after Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Deng pronounced that Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong. Beyond this official verdict, the Communist Party has never issued a careful and detailed assessment of him.

Mao went quiet for a while. Then in 1992, one year before his 100th birthday anniversary, a book entitled Mao Zedong: Man, not God became a best-seller. A recollection of Mao's personal guard Li Yinqiao, it humanises him in some ways as we would have never associated our great leader with a man who liked to eat braised fatty pork or who suffered from constipation. And he even burst into tears when Li had to leave Beijing to take up a new post.

I remember such details vividly. Living at Oxford at the time, I was writing a book, in Chinese, about the Western image of Mao. Though a few odd leftists talked about him fondly, the vast majority of Westerners I interviewed basically saw him as a mass murderer who was responsible for more than 30 million people's death. Not surprisingly, my book failed to pass the Chinese censorship.

Today Mao's legacy divides the nation. Liberal economist Mao Yushi (not related) has repeatedly written articles harshly criticising Mao and made calls to judge him as a man not a god.

Still I would say that people who look at Mao critically are in the minority. According to online reports, a Sina survey had found that some 82 per cent of Chinese viewed Mao mostly favourably. For many, he was the man who drove away the imperial powers and made the Chinese people "stand up" in the world.

Every day, thousands of people queue up to see his embalmed body inside the Mao mausoleum in Tiananmen; a lot of taxi and truck drivers as well as many rural households still hang Mao's pictures, out of respect or the need for a lucky charm.

Many of his admirers, the young in particular, don't know the whole truth about him, something they can't learn at school or from books on the mainland. Others chose not to know the negative stories about him.

Mao has come to represent a national hero who would stand up to foreign aggression. Whenever there's a wave of anti-Western sentiments, Mao searches pop up on the internet. For example, during the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, some were saying: if Mao were still alive, he would have done something to teach the imperialists a big lesson.

There's also a kind of deeply-rooted emperor worship here. In spring 1996, I interviewed Wu Hanjin, the party secretary of Gushui village, perched in Loess plateau of Shaanxi province. He built a temple in honour of Mao because "Chairman Mao was the best emperor China ever produced".

Our new leader Xi Jinping, though not a Maoist, likes to borrow some Maoist-style rhetoric while following the path paved by Deng Xiaoping. On the one hand, the party needs Mao, China's founding father, as a source for its legitimacy; on the other hand, it doesn't want him to become a hurdle to reforms.

Since Mao and the Communist Party are inextricably connected, it's hard to imagine that the current leadership would allow an objective and thorough reassessment of the man. To "discredit Comrade Mao Zedong would mean to discredit our party and the state", as Deng pointed out.

In January, Xi issued the so-called two no-denials - not to deny what was done before the reforms based on what happened after it and vice versa. But this conservative approach will not solve the dilemma of Mao's legacy.

Personally, I think this is counterproductive.

The right thing but the hard thing to do is to allow an open debate to show what kind of man Mao really was. He might have cried for losing a trusted guard but this can't conceal the fact that he had no regard for human life.

When millions were dying in the early 1960s, he exported grain abroad, partly to show that socialist China was thriving.

Most importantly, we must learn from the mistakes of Mao.

With his god-like status, he was able to launch his ridiculous political campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward where he fantasised about "overtaking Britain and catching up with America" or his Cultural Revolution where he wanted to overthrow the so-called revisionists that existed only in his muddled mind. These blunders were as much his as the undemocratic system's.

Only when Mao is out of the way can China really prepare itself to transform, if gradually, to a modern society with democratic values. Sadly, I don't expect this will happen in the foreseeable future.

Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist and social commentator

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