Modern China Complex legacy of Mao

Will Hutton

He may have been a despot, but the leader of the largest country in the world heralded huge advances.

It is less than 30 years ago that the 20th-century’s bloodiest dictator was approaching death, his country still dirt poor, and his vision in ruins. Today, that same country has enjoyed three decades of the most unparalleled economic growth. Mao’s death has proved the trigger for an extraordinary economic renaissance. Nobody can disagree that he was a cruel and authoritarian despot who murdered millions. Even his successor, Deng Xiaoping, pronounced that he was at least 30 per cent wrong and guilty of ‘excesses’. The open question is how much more wrong he was than the official assessment and whether his long shadow is any guide to what China might do in the future. A new book, Mao: The Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape), places Mao in the 100 per cent wrong category. Jung Chang, author of the compelling Wild Swans, and Jon Halliday have used 10 years of research to indict Mao’s cynical lust for power and careless disregard for humanity. Whether it’s the news that Mao never actually marched in long stretches of the Long March but was, instead, carried in a bamboo litter, this is a catalogue of disclosures that overturns almost all our received wisdom.

But the book’s unyielding view that there is not one even unintended benefit from his legacy leaves me uneasy. Mao is presented as an evil genius visited upon an innocent China courtesy

of communist ideology, which he cynically manipulated, who delivered nothing but murder and economic disaster. It is blood lust and quest for world domination, for example, that drove Mao to consecrate the overwhelming share of China’s scarce resources to the military in the first five-year plan. And any idea that Mao was a great military strategist is dashed with even his victories are revealed as either disguised fiascos or the results of political fixes. Essentially, he led the communists to power by betraying efforts to find a common front against the invading Japanese, which he openly acknowledged, while carefully courting Moscow. But Mao didn’t come from nowhere. If you don’t know about the century of China’s humiliation, the complete bankruptcy of the Qing dynasty as it imploded in 1911 and the subsequent ungovernability of China and the apparent hopelessness of any project that might even half successfully modernise it, then it’s hard to understand how it could be that Mao and Chinese communism would have any appeal. You will learn little of such context in this biography.

There is no country in modern times that has ever suffered so many defeats at so many hands as China did between 1842 and 1911. The British, the French, the Russians and the Japanese all easily disposed of Chinese armies and fleets. For the Chinese, their weakness was a complete bouleversement of their universe, and the contemptuously low status in which self-consciously racist foreigners held them and poured further salt in a gaping and humiliating wound. The system that had provided them with order for millenniums, law, agricultural prosperity and a sophisticated Confucian bureaucracy could neither rejuvenate itself from within nor begin to match the achievements of the West. How was this vast country, now collapsing into a myriad of local wars with peace provided by local warlords routinely deploying torture, to be governed? How was it to be industrialised? Communism, paradoxically building on the Confucianism it deplored, provided an answer, the reason it drew so many adherents. The strategy for modernisation—raising agricultural productivity by trial-and-error attempts at combining collectivisation with respect for village structures while building up industry on an equally decentralised basis—was very different from Stalin’s centralised Sovietisation.

And when Mao died, the second paradox is that the decentralisation and pragmatism he fostered, notwithstanding mad forays such as the campaign to kill sparrows, allowed Deng, the architect of today’s China, quickly to put in place policies that would drive the astonishing economic turnaround. As for Mao’s preoccupation with military spending, I submit that any new government in the 1950s would have placed a priority on defence, given China’s history. While the Great Leap Forward and the disaster of the Cultural Revolution are famed exercises in futility, personal delusion and inhumanity, brilliantly documented by Chang and Halliday, don’t forget that between one and the other Chinese growth averaged 15 per cent per annum, never achieved before in a single year in China’s long history. It would take Deng’s opening up to trade and investment along the coast, and the reintroduction of capitalism, to make most of the opportunity. But a Stalinistic communism would never have created the chance in the first place, as today’s Russia bears grim witness. Mao is now revealed as more of a monster, thanks to Chang and Halliday. But even monsters can create good they may never have self-consciously aimed for or wanted. — The Guardian