DEATH UNDER MAO
Great Leap Forward poster Scholars believe that Mao in some way was involved in the death of at least 40 million people and possibly as many as 80 million, more deaths during peace time than any other leader. Most of them perished during the Great Famine in the late 1950s, which followed the Great Leap Forward. Millions more may have died in the Cultural Revolution. In comparison, Hitler was responsible for 12 million concentration camps deaths and Stalin killed between 30 and 40 million during the purges and famines of the 1920s and 30s.
Responding to a comparison with him and China's brutal first emperor Qui Shi Huangdi Mao said in 1969, "What was so remarkable about Qin Shi Huangdi? He executed 460 scholars. We executed 46,000 of them!...You think you insult us by saying we are like Qin Shi Huangdi, but you make a mistake, we have passed him a hundred times!" (Simon Leys, Chinese Shadows)
“How many hard-working farmers died of starvation during the last 60 years? How many mistakes were made? How many good and honest people have died?’ wrote Bao Tong, once a senior official and now a dissident. On the Chinese Communist Party destroying traditional values, Yang Jisheng, author an authoritative account of the Great Famine, told the New York Review of Books, “Traditional values involve valuing life, valuing others, not doing unto others what you don’t want done to yourself. All of these values were negated. From 1950 onward, the Communists criticized the passing down of traditional values. There was a moral vacuum.”
Some older Chinese say what they remember most about the Mao era was the pervasive feeling of fear. Harry Wu, a political prisoner for 19 years, estimates that 60 million people have been sentenced to "labor reform" since 1949. In the 1970s, U.S. government officials using satellite photographs and other information, estimated that between 2 million and 6 million Chinese were in prison at one time. Bases on an assumption that between 5 and 10 percent of all prisoners die while in prison, scholars conclude that perhaps 3 million to 6 million people died in Chinese prisons in the Mao era. [Source: Washington Post, July 17, 1994]
How exactly to deal with China was a controversial topic in the 1950s and 60s. Nixon and Kennedy debate the issue during the 1960 presidential campaign.
Websites and Resources
Wang Shouxin Execution Death Under Mao: Uncounted Millions, Washington Post article ncafe.com ; Death Tolls erols.com ; People’s Republic of China : Timeline china-profile.com ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cold War International Project wilsoncenter.org ; China Essay Series mtholyoke.edu ; Chaos Group of the University of Maryland a
Websites on Mao Zedong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Mao.com chinesemao.com ; Mao Internet Library marx2mao.com ; Paul Noll Mao site paulnoll.com/China/Mao ; Spartacus Education spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk ; Mao Quotations art-bin.com ; Mao Video biography.com ; Marxist.org marxists.org ; Propaganda Paintings of Mao artchina.free.fr ; New York Times topics.nytimes.com ; Oxford Reference oxfordreference.com ; Mao Book: Mao: the Unknown Story (Knopf. 2005) by Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and her husband John Halliday, a British historian, portrays Mao as villain on the level of Hitler and Stalin. The book was read by U.S. President George Bush and embraced by the American right as a condemnation of Communism. It characterizes Mao as cruel, materialistic, self-centered and a leader who used terror with the aim of ruling the world. There is also a Mao biography by Jonathon Spence. Out of Mao’s Shadow by Philip Pan (S&S, 2008) features 10 or so riveting intersecting stories.
Links in this Website: MAO, HIS EARLY LIFE, TACTICS AND REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNISTS TAKE OVER CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; EARLY COMMUNIST RULE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; COMMUNES IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; LEADERSHIP AND PROPAGANDA UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO'S PRIVATE LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; JIANG QING, LIN BIAO, ZHOU ENLAI Factsanddetails.com/China ; DEATH, REPRESSION AND LIFE UNDER MAO Factsanddetails.com/China ; GREAT LEAP FORWARD Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION --ENEMIES AND HORRORS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CULTURAL REVOLUTION--THE END Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO DIES Factsanddetails.com/China
Violence in the Early Years of the People's Republic
Wang Shouxin Execution The first people to die after Mao came to power in 1949 were "landlords" killed by their fellow villagers during a land reform campaign in the 1950s. In an attempt to break down the power base of the landowners at least one landlord in every village was arrested by Communist security forces and tried in a "people's tribunal." Sinologists estimate that between 1 million and 4 million people were killed during the campaign.
“Zhang Meizhi is a widow of a former local official in southern China who was executed, along with Zhang's brother, in front of her during the 1952 Land Reform. She told Liao Yiwu in the book The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up that the the tongues of the two men were cut out for use in traditional medicine. Zhang was then locked up for forty days, during which time her 2-year-old daughter starved to death. As the persecution of these so-called rich peasants continued, Zhang's eldest son fled the village, taking refuge in an underground vegetable cellar next to a cultivated field, where he stayed in secret for two years. Eventually he was discovered, and a younger brother who fed him surreptitiously was shot dead by the police. The fugitive son was given a life sentence for antirevolutionary crimes, which was commuted only after thirty years in prison. ‘I grew up in a family with generations of educated people,’ Zhang tells Liao. ‘We had a glorious family history. I used to keep a record of my family history. The Poor Peasants Revolutionary Committee dug it out and burned it. My house was so thoroughly searched that there was no place for a mouse to hide.’”[Source: The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu, from book review by Howard W. French in The Nation, August 4, 2008]
In 1953, Mao declared that "95 percent of the people are good," which lead to an attack against "counter-revolutionaries" and "bad elements" that made up the remaining 5 percent. Hundreds of thousands, and perhaps as many as a million, people were killed in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries, Kuomintang sympathizers, Christians and members of other religious groups.
In the early 1950s the Communists helped form mutual aid teams, the precursors to cooperatives. In 1955, Mao decreed that all farmers should "voluntarily" organize into large cooperatives. The cooperatives were overseen by party cadres and large portions of the output was turned over to the state.
Large centrally planned People’s Communes were established in the late 1950s. The Communists had hoped that collectivism would help the huge Chinese population feed itself, but collectivism did not increase agricultural production.
Within a short time it was clear this system wasn’t workable. Distribution was always a problem. Even during the Cultural Revolution when every able-bodied person in the country was put to the task of raising food, food rotted in the fields and people starved.
Scholar William McNeil once wrote: "The problem is the Chinese have never been able to organize collective effort with the sort of enthusiasm and efficiency of the Japanese. There is a kind of ruthless individualism in Chinese life, a competitiveness and acquisitiveness, that may make modern large-scale industrial organization difficult.”
Wang Shouxin Execution
Mao initially followed the Soviet model for collectivism but became impatient with the slow pace of development and turned to radical mass movements like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Repression Under Mao
Jiabiangou was a notorious labor camp that operating in northwest China between 1957 and 1960 where people were sent simply for have a relative that once owned a business or served under Chaing Kai-shek. Some were turned in by their parents and siblings who wanted to save their own necks. Of the 3,000 prisoners that were sent there only 600 survived.
In her book Woman from Shanghai, Yang Xianhuo tracked down 100 Jiabiangou survivors and recounted the stories of 13 of them in slightly fictionalized form to escape censorship by Chinese officials. The prisoners suffered extreme malnourishment and stole food and ate human and animal excrement to survive, “Hunger warped their brains,” Yang wrote, “When they woke up each morning, all they could think about was food.”
Wang Shouxin Execution
In her book Life and Death in Shanghai (1987), Nien Cheng described her six horrid years in prison, after being cast as a capitalist sympathizer because she worked for the oil company Shell, and the death of her daughter during the Cultural Revolution. In the book she describes how her interrogators forced her write a confession and then sign it with the words ‘signature of a criminal’ printed along the bottom and how she infuriated them to the point they threatened to shoot her because she added the words ‘who did not commit any crime’. Nien told the Washington Post, ‘Maoists were essentially bullies. If I had allowed them to insult me at will, they would have been encouraged to go further.’
Prisoner of Mao by Bao Ruo-Wang is the story an innocent man trapped in a Chinese labor camp between 1957 and 1964.
Two days after the Dalai Lama escaped from Lhasa, the Communists closed down the Tibetan government, seized land and bombed Potala palace, Sera Monastery and the medical college of Changp Ri. Chinese snipers picked off protestors, some with Molotov cocktails, in the streets. When more 10,000 protestor sought refuge in the Jokhang Temple, it too was bombed. By some estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Tibetans were killed in three days of violence.
Early Communist Persecution of Religion in China
Mao’s atrocities Master Deng Kuan, abbot of the Gu Temple in Sichuan Province, was 103 when the writer Liao Yiwu met him in 2003. “Over the centuries, as olddynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple remained relatively intact,” Deng told Lao, “This is because changes of dynasty or government were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn't get involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for me and the temple.”[Source: The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu, from book review by Howard W. French in The Nation, August 4, 2008]
“Soon after Mao's victory, Deng was dragged out of his temple and stood up before a crowd, accused of accumulating wealth without engaging in physical labor, and spreading ‘feudalistic and religious ideas that poisoned people's minds.’ People stepped forward to denounce him, and the crowd that gathered responded on cue, howling slogans like ‘Down with the evil landlord’ and ‘Religion is spiritual poison.’ Some spat on him. Others punched and kicked. ‘No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the next,’ Deng says. ‘Since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of us has ever lived the life of a rich landowner, but we certainly suffered the retribution accorded one.’” [Ibid]
By Master Deng's reckoning, between 1952 and 1961 this meant he endured more than 300 ‘struggle sessions,’ as these organized hazings were known in the revolution's euphemistic terminology. In his area of Sichuan Province, he tells Liao, by 1961 ‘half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements had starved to death.’
Tibetan Revolt in 1959
On Tibetan New Year in 1959 a major Tibetan revolt occurred. To this day no one is sure how or why it began and how widespread it was. By most accounts, it started after the Dalai Lama was forced by the Chinese government to attend a performance of Chinese folk dance troupe during the holiday festivities. Rumors began spreading that the Tibetan leader was going to attend without his usual phalanx of 25 bodyguards and that the Chinese planned to kidnap him.
Large crowds that had assembled anyway for holidays gathered around Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, and vowed to protect the Tibetan leader with their lives. The Dalai Lama had no choice but to cancel his appearance. The Chinese responded by declaring its 17-point agreement with Tibet was invalid. In an effort to head off violence, the Dalai Lama offered to turn himself over to the Chinese. The Chinese responded by firing two mortar shells into Norbulingka,.
The Dalai Lama decided it was time go. On the night of March 17, after mortar shells had exploded in the palace ground, the Dalai Lama disguised himself as a soldier, and flung a gun of his shoulder and fled Lhasa with 52 monks in similar disguises. His golden robe was left on a couch at Potala Palace awaiting his return.
The Dalai Lama fled to India. He traveled most of the distance on a brown horse with richly embroidered saddlebags. After crossing the Kyichi River in skin coracles, the Dalai Lama and his group traveled down the Tsangpo River (Brahmaputra) as far as it would take them and then traveled by horseback and on foot on trails through the Himalayas. The journey almost killed the Dalai Lama. He endured thunderstorms, long stretches without water and a dangerous blizzard at Lagoe Pass. "We had to cross high passes," the Dalai Lama wrote. "By the time we reached the border, we were exhausted and sick with fever and dysentery."
Life in Mao’s China
Inside a commune Mao era China was a remote, mysterious, drab place of ration cards, uniforms, Big Brother watchfulness—sort of what North Korea is like today. China’s per capita income adjusted for inflation was lower in the 1950s than it had been at the end of the Song Dynasty in the 1270s.
Lang Ping, a former Chinese volleyball player, told the Washington Post, “There was nothing to be happy about or not” in Mao’s China. “Life was simple and all persons were made to be the same.” She said she slept on a wooden plank and had just three sets of clothes.
In the years before the Cultural Revolution some families killed their family pig and ate it in the early spring and then did nothing but lie in bed for weeks at a time, subsisting on congee, waiting for the wheat harvest.
A female concert pianist born to U.S.-educated parents and trained at China’s finest conservatory, married an illiterate member of the People’s Liberation Army march band because she thought his peasant upbringing could compensate for her counter-revolutionary background.
Couples were separated for long periods of time and gradually became emotionally detached, many irreconcilably so.
In many houses there was no refrigeration, no air conditioning. Children gathered around industrial refrigerators kept by the local bus company, begging, “Comrade, give us some ice!”
The first televisions didn’t show up in people’s homes until the 1970s and then only the elite got them. Ni Ching Ching wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Television was such as new phenomena that and the state broadcasts lasted only a few hours at night and half of it was propaganda. Still we treated the magic box like a shrine. By day it was covered with an embroidered cloth and by night we opened our small living room to neighbors who brought stools and sat three or four rows deep.”
Through the 1980s there were only a few hotels and taxis in Beijing, The streets were dark and deserted at 8:30pm, The few cars on the road drove with their lights out. They did this people said because the drivers didn’t want to burn out their bulbs.
China Witness, Voices from a Silent Generation by Xinran (Pantheon Books, 2009) is collection of oral histories from Chinese who survived the Mao period.
Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; Photpgraphs, Ohio State University except Tibet picture, Cosmic Unity; Wang Shouxin execution photos Northwestsouthwest.com ; YouTube
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated February 2011