LEADERSHIP AND PROPAGANDA IN CHINA UNDER MAO
Under Mao decisions were often made on the basis of whims, biases and ignorance, often without careful study of their impact or considering the human and environmental costs. Features of the revolutionary era's mass politics included flamboyant and typically baseless scapegoating, slogan-based campaigns aimed not just at inciting the fury of the masses but at channeling it against ever-shifting ideologically designated ‘enemies,’ and vicious and often unrelenting sectarian attacks.
"Mao's contradictory insistence on the absolute loyalty of his subordinates," wrote historian Marilyn B. Horne, "as well as their absolute honesty insured that only the subservient prevailed." Mao anointed and then purged several “Number Two” men and apparent successors.
A primary goal of the People's Republic of China since its inception in 1949 has been to catch up and surpass the rest of the world in all aspects: culture, national defense, technology, sports. Frank Hawke, a resident of Beijing since the 1970s, told the New York Times that when Chinese “feel they’ve made a huge leap forward, there’s an incredible national pride. A psychological theme that runs throughout China” is that the “Chinese feel they have this great culture, second to none, and yet here they are, a third world developing country.”
The Mao Marxist revolution set to create New man, who prosper in a society where class distinctions had been eliminated and progress was defined by dialectal reasoning. The economic reformer Zhao Ziyang wrote that in Mao’s China “self-reliance “ was “an absolute virtue” that became an ideological pursuit and was politicized.
Based on Karl Marx's view that the "the proletariat cannot liberate itself without liberating the whole of humankind", Mao's internationalism holds that Chinese people must support anti-oppression movements worldwide. Mao used to organize massive demonstrations at Tiananmen Square and issued statements to show Chinese people's support for "revolutionary" movements across the world.
Websites and Resources
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. Also check out: Mao’s New World: Political Culture in the Early People’s Republic by Chang-tai Hung (Cornell University Press, 2011).
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
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 MEETS NIXON Factsanddetails.com/China ; MAO DIES Factsanddetails.com/China ;
Mao and Chiang K Chek in 1946
Kissinger on His Meeting With Mao
Appointments with Mao were never scheduled, Henry Kissinger wrote in Newsweek, "They simply came about as if events of nature. On each of my five meetings with Mao, the first hint would be a stirring among my Chinese interlocutors and the appearance of Assistant Foreign Minister Wang Hairong, reputed to be Mao's niece. For a few minutes, my clearly agitated Chinese counterparts would act as if nothing unusual was happening. Then, almost immediately, Zhou or Deng would put away his papers and say: "Chairman Mao is expecting you." [Source: "Years of Renewal by Henry Kissinger, 1998, Little, Brown and Co.]
"The all powerful ruler of the world's most populous nation wished to be perceived as a philosopher king who had no need to buttress any traditional symbol of majesty," Kissinger wrote. "Mao would rise from the center of a semicircle of easy chairs, a female attendant standing close to steady him (and, on my last visit, to hold him up)...He would fix upon his visitor a smile both penetrating and slightly mocking, as if to warn that there was no point trying to deceive this specialist in understanding and exploiting human weakness and duplicity."
"Mao conducted conversations in a Socratic style," Kissinger wrote. "He would generally begin with a question, quite often in a needling tone. With deceptive casualness, he would then offer a few pithy comments, ranging from the philosophical to the sarcastic and culminating in yet another question. The cumulative effect of his tangential observations was to convey a mood while avoiding any commitment.”
Mao and the Dalai Lama in 1954
Traveling, Security and Mao
Mao usually traveled in an 11-car train that was described as a traveling palace. He and his wife Jiang Qing each had separate cars. "Mao's quarters were outfitted with one of his huge wooden beds and a large supply of books," his doctor Dr. Li Zhisui wrote. "All traffic along the entire rail line was stopped for the duration of Mao's journeys, and rail traffic throughout the country often became so snarled that schedules would not return to normal for a week." [Source: "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Dr. Li Zhisui, excerpts reprinted U.S. News and World Report, October 10, 1994]
"Mao's vast insulating security system was copied from the Soviets and his whereabouts's was always kept secret from all but the highest party leaders. His food was tasted for poison; and his private quarters were bugged without his knowledge. Whenever he went for a walk he never took the same route twice and the license plate on his car was constantly changed. The platforms of train stations were cleared when his train passed through and sometimes security guards were hired to act as hawkers so the stations didn't look 'so eerily empty.'"
Mao ordered a 10-meter-long, six-door stretch Red Flag stretch limousine in the early 1970s. “'We must produce our own longest limousine,’ he said. After several years the car was produced at the First Automobile Works in Jilin Province and was delivered just weeks before Mao died. Mao was the only one ever to be driven around in it. Large enough to hold 40 schoolchildren, the limousine was equipped with a refrigerator, color television, telephone, desk and a double sofa, one of which could be converted into a double bed.
Mao's Personality Cult
Henry Kissinger wrote, "Mao overshadowed all his subordinates by the near-religious awe in which he seemed to be held (or which his subordinates at least thought was wise to affect)." Nursery school toddlers used to walk around with the "Little Red Book" in their pockets; kindergarten children learned patriotic songs that praised Mao on their first day of school; huge concrete statues, with one armed raised in patriarchal salute to the masses, were in every town and city.
People walked around with badges with the picture of the "Great Helmsmen," as Mao was known. Mao's portrait hung in practically every shop, every house and every major public area in China. According to one government statistic there were 700 million portraits of Chairman Mao hanging on Chinese walls at the time of his death in 1976.
Orville Schell described Chinese politics from the mid 1950s until the mid 1970s as a "struggle between those who supported Mao's cult and those who feared it." Blemishing a Mao portrait is still a felony today.
Mao Suit and Little Red Book
Mao in Mao suit The Mao suit as the standard form of Communist dress, Dr. Li said, evolved out of the chairman's distaste for protocol. In 1949 his chief of protocol told him that it was good idea to wear a dark-colored suit and black leather shoes while receiving foreign ambassadors. "Mao refused and began wearing what we then called the Sun Yat-sen suit and black leather shoes," Li wrote. "When other leaders imitated him, the name of the outfit changed. The grey ‘Mao suit’ became the uniform of the day. The protocol chief was fired and later committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution." [Source: "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Dr. Li Zhisui, excerpts reprinted U.S. News and World Report, October 10, 1994]
Mao's Selected Thoughts, a collection of sayings better known as The Little Red Book, was put together by Lin Biao in the Cultural Revolution. According to Time magazine, "No other book has had such a profound impact on so many people at the same time...If you read it enough it was supposed to change your brain.”
Some of the passages of the Little Red Book were set to music and slogans like "Reactionaries are Paper Tigers" and "We Should Support Whatever the Enemy Opposes"! were painted everywhere on billboards and walls.
Little Red Book Sayings
The three main "Rules for Discipline" for soldiers and party workers in the Little Read Book were: "Obey orders in all your actions; Do not take a single needle or thread from the masses; and Turn in everything captured." Loyal Communists were also urged to "speak politely; return everything you borrow; don't swear at people; and do not take liberties with women."
On the topic of violence and revolution: 1) "Power grows out of the barrel of a gun." 2) "In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun." 3) "Politics is war without bloodshed, while war is politics with bloodshed." 4) "When human society advances to the point where classes and states are eliminated, there will be no more wars." 5) “Fight no battle you are not sure of winning.”
Other famous sayings from the Little Red Book include, 1) "Modesty helps one go forward, whereas conceit makes one lag behind;" 2) "Investigation may be likened to the long months of pregnancy, and solving a problem to the day of birth. To investigate a problem is, indeed, to solve." And, 3) "People of the world, unite and defeat the U.S. aggressors and all the running dogs...Monsters of all kinds shall be destroyed."
Other Famous Mao Sayings
A poem from the Little Red book that produced a several slogans went:
A revolution is not a dinner party
Or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing
It cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle,
So temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and
A revolution is an insurrection,
An act of violence by which one class overthrows
Mao Zedong once said, There is no construction without destruction. Destroy first, and construction will follow. He extolled their Chinese peasantry for the blankness, observing that one can write beautiful things on a blank sheet of paper. On the matter of equal rights, Mao said "women hold up half the sky." In regard to population growth, Mao said, "every mouth comes with two hands." The population of China doubled under his leadership.
Mao reportedly once said that a loud fart is better than a long lecture. He shocked Kissinger by jokingly informing him that China was planning to send 10 million Chinese women to the United States.
Mao told Nixon, "People like me sound a lot of big cannons. For example, things like, 'the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries and establish socialism.’” He then broke into a fit of laughter.
Lei Feng, the Model Soldier
Lei Feng poster Perhaps the most famous Communist propaganda device that appeared during the Mao period was the story Lei Feng, the Model Soldier, and the publications, media reports. slogans and posters associated with him. Reported to be a real person, Lei Feng was orphaned as child and felt indebted to the Communist Party for taking care of him. He joined the Communist Youth League at the age of seven and worked at a steel mill before he was allowed to become a soldier in the People's Liberation Army even though he was only five feet tall.
Feng read Mao's writings nearly everyday and viewed himself as “a tiny screw.” In this diary, he wrote: "A man's usefulness to the revolutionary cause is like a screw in a machine. Though a screw is small, its use is beyond measure. I am willing to be a screw." He also reported wrote "A person’s life is limited but to serve the people is unlimited."
Feng died at the of 22 in 1962 when his jeep ran into downed a utility pole. Afterwards his diary was "discovered" and Feng was elevated to the status of a "revolutionary icon." He became so famous that performing a good deed was refereed as "doing a Lei Feng." School children were taught the stories of his good deed; Mao said "Learn from Lei Feng;" and stores sold all kinds of Le Feng products. It is still not clear whether Lei and his diary were real or made up by the party.
Lei Feng's Altruistic Acts
Great Leap Forward Lei Feng’s acts of altruism were held up as examples for all good Communists. If the stories about him are to be believed Lei secretly washed other people’s socks, filled in potholes and scrubbed toilets in his spare time. A typical entry in his diary goes: “Today is Chinese New Year’. Everybody else went to see a play. I want to do something good for people. So after breakfast I went to shovel manure. I collected about 300 pounds of manure and offered them as a gift to the [local] people’s commune.”
One of the more famous Lei Feng stories goes like this: one his friends was ill so Lei donated three liters of blood. against doctors orders to give only one, and used the $7 fee he received to buy medicine for his friend. Once, he received four sweet bean cakes as a New Year's presents and gave all four to injured miners. Another time he went without sleep for one night so he could wash a ton of cabbages and mop some floors.
“Some people call me a fool,” he wrote. “I want to be useful to people, useful to the country. If that makes me a fool, then the revolution needs more fools like me. The country’s development needs fools like me.” A group of Chinese has reportedly applied to the Guinness Book of World Records to have him recognized as the world’s most eulogized soldier.
Lei Feng has been lionized in books, films and television documentaries and is resurrected from time to time as a role model. After almost being forgotten after the Cultural Revolution, Lei Feng was resurrected in 1991 by the Beijing municipal government, who gave out "Living Lei Feng" awards to model citizens. Some old timers still get weepy eyed about the kinder, gentler, simpler times associated with Feng.
In an effort to emulate him, students and soldiers today are encouraged to give out free computer lessons and scrub highway dividers. But Feng is no longer held in the same high esteem he once was. On an Internet chat line one person wrote; “Lei Feng is a pathetic bug. When he was alive he made a fool of himself. Now that the is dead, they still parade him for public ridicule. He is the saddest and silliest figure in recent Chinese history.” [Source: Ching-Ching Ni, Los Angeles Times]
Periodically the Lei Feng ideal is questioned. In 1982, a university student Zhang Hua lost his life after jumping into a cesspool to save a peasant. His death sparked debate on the value of individual life just as Western values were being introduced to China through the open-door policy of the time. In 1988, a 14-year-old student Lai Ning died while fighting a forest fire aimed at protecting ‘national property’ - a satellite TV station. He was lauded later as a top teenager, but his death sparked a revaluation of life among the general public. After the incident, minors were not encouraged to risk their life for heroic deeds.
Other Methods of Propaganda
Great Leap One U.S. diplomat told the Wall Street Journal, "When things look too good to be true here, they usually are." Dahzai model commune, which was shown off to foreign visitors, for example, was a big hoax. It declined after Mao's death and the end of subsidies. See Dahzai Commune, Agriculture, Economics
The Communists viewed literature and culture primarily as a propaganda devices. In a piece entitled Yan'an Talks of Art and Literature, Mao argued that literature was something that should be used for a revolutionary purposes. Most Communist literature is about peasants who overcome great odds to achieve great things.
After Liberation in 1949, popular Chinese pulp novels were replaced by Communist books such as Red Star Heroes, We Fight Best When We March Our Hardest, After Reaping the Bumper Harvest and Grandma Sees Six Different Machines. Party line fables like The Foolish Man Who Removed the Mountains were known to everyone. It was several decades before the Ministries of Truth, Propaganda and Culture allowed romantic novels about Liberation soldiers who missed their girlfriends to be published.
Social Realism art dominated the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution. Social Realism has been defined as "concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development...in accordance with...ideological training of workers in the spirit of Socialism." It appeared in paintings hoisted in public and on posters splashed all over cities. Subjects in the works including spirited workers, heroic soldiers, uplifting leaders. Posters of "shock workers" (people who worked tirelessly for Socialism) show handsome, muscular men with smiles on their faces performing various kinds of menial chores in front of glistening factories.
Time art critic Robert Hughes wrote: “Socialist realism was the most coarsely idealistic kind of art ever foisted on a modern audience." It was "geared to a naive, not to say brutish mass public barely literate in artistic matters.” One man who lived through the tough times in the 1940s and 50s told the New York Times, "Art back then was only a reflection of a beautiful dream—not of the slave labor of collective farmers or those who dug the canals, mines and built factories.”
Historians in the Mao Era
Yang Jisheng, author an authoritative account of the Great Famine, told the New York Review of Books, “Traditional historians face restrictions. First of all, they censor themselves. Their thoughts limit them. They don’t even dare to write the facts, don’t dare to speak up about it, don’t dare to touch it. And even if they wrote it, they can’t publish it. And if they publish, they will face censure. So mainstream scholars face those restrictions...But there are many unofficial historians like me. Many people are writing their own memoirs about being labeled ‘Rightists’ or ‘counter-revolutionaries.’ There is an author in Anhui province who has described how his family starved to death. There are many authors who have written about how their families starved.[Source: Ian Johnson New York Times Review of Books, December 20, 2010]
On how he went about his research Yang said, “When I started I didn’t say I was writing about the Great Famine. I said I wanted to understand the history of China’s rural economic policies and grain policy. If I had said I was researching the Great Famine, for sure they wouldn’t have let me look in the archives. There were some documents that were marked ‘restricted’ (‘kongzhi’ in Chinese)—for example, anything related to public security or the military. But then I asked friends for help and we got signatures of provincial party officials and it was okay.” [Ibid]
On why officials didn’t destroy the files, Yang said, “ Destroying files isn’t up to one person. As long as a file or document has made it into the archives you can’t so easily destroy it. Before it is in the archives, it can be destroyed, but afterwards, only a directive from a high-ranking official can cause it to be destroyed. I found that on the Great Famine the documentation is basically is intact—how many people died of hunger, cannibalism, the grain situation; all of this was recorded and still exists.” [Ibid]
Yang said people were sympathetic to his objective. “There was an elderly staff member in one archive, for example. My guess is that he also lost family members in the Great Famine; when I asked for relevant archives, he just closed one eye and let me look. I reckon he held the same view as I: that there should be an accounting of this matter. Like me, he’s a Chinese person, and people in his family also starved to death.
Western Perceptions of Mao and the Communists in the Early Days of Their Struggle
American journalist Edgar Snow toured the communist bases around Yan'an, in northern China. The resulting book Red Star Over China (1937) portrayed Mao in a positive light and was widely credited with introducing the communists and their leadership to the rest of the world. Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “Snow managed to project onto the revolutionary the ideals of American progressivism.” Mao was presented as a “Lincolnesque” leader who aimed to “awaken” China’s millions to “a belief in human rights,” introducing them to “a new conception of the state, society, and the individual.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]
“More perceptively, Theodore White, then a reporter for Time, who visited Yan’an in 1944, concluded that the Communists were “masters of brutality” but had won peasants over to their side,” Mishra wrote. “Other ‘China Hands’—an assortment of journalists, American Foreign Service officials, and soldiers who succeeded in meeting the Communists—preferred Mao to Chiang Kai-shek. But, as the Cold War intensified, the China Hands found themselves ignored in the United States.” [Ibid]
“Following Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat and flight to Taiwan in 1949, the Republican Party angrily accused the Truman Administration of having “lost” China to Communism. Then they berated it for hindering Chiang Kai-shek’s reconquest of the mainland. The China Hands in particular came under sustained fire from early and zealous Cold Warriors for their supposed sympathy with the Chinese agents of Soviet expansionism. Henry Luce, who saw the Christian convert Chiang Kai-shek as a vital facilitator of the ‘American Century,’ fired White from Time.”
“The Korean War, which China entered on the side of North Korea, fixed Mao’s image in the United States as another unappeasable Communist. The Eisenhower Administration now vigorously backed Chiang Kai-shek, signing a mutual-defense treaty with him in 1954, and threatening China with a nuclear strike the following year. The State Department imposed a full trade embargo on China and prohibited travel there.”
Book: Passport to Peking by Patrick Wright (Oxford, 2010)
Sympathetic Western Perceptions of Mao and the Communists
“Many Western intellectuals, recoiling from the excesses of McCarthyism, and hampered by lack of firsthand information, gave the benefit of the doubt to Mao in the decade that followed,” Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “Travelling to China in 1955, Simone de Beauvoir drew a sympathetic picture of a new nation overcoming the aftereffects of foreign invasions, internecine warfare, natural disasters, and economic collapse. Neither Paradise nor Hell, China was another peasant country where people were trying to break out of ‘the agonizingly hopeless circle of an animal existence.’” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]
“When China’s urbane Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai made his first public appearance in Europe, many were persuaded that China was more than a clone of Soviet totalitarianism, and that ‘peaceful coexistence’ was a real possibility. ‘Come and see,’ Zhou said, and a motley bunch of politicians, artists, and scientists took up his invitation in 1954...The Chinese...laid on extravagant banquets for the British. (The headline in the Daily Mail was “SOCIALISTS DINE ON SHARK’S FINS.”) The mammoth Chinese construction of factories, canals, schools, hospitals, and public housing awed these visitors from a straitened country that American loans and the Marshall Plan had saved from financial ruin. They were impressed, too, by the new marriage laws that considerably improved the position of Chinese women, by the ostensible abolition of prostitution, and by the public-health campaigns.” [Ibid]
There were some doubters. “The parade held in Beijing to mark the fifth anniversary of the People’s Republic reminded the philosopher A. J. Ayer of the Nuremberg Rallies,” Mishra wrote in The New Yorker. “Though impressed by the ‘dedicated and dignified’ Mao, the trade unionist Sam Watson was dismayed by Chinese talk of the masses as “another brick, another paving stone.” But “other European visitors to China were relative pushovers. François Mitterrand, who visited China at the height of the devastating famine in 1961, denied the existence of starvation in the country. André Malraux hailed Mao as an “emperor of bronze.” Richard Nixon, who consulted Malraux before “opening up” China to the United States in 1972, and Henry Kissinger were no less awed by Mao’s raw power and historical mystique.” American attitudes to China in the nineteen-seventies were marked by what the Yale historian Jonathan Spence characterized as “reawakened curiosity” and “guileless fascination,” followed soon by “renewed skepticism” as travel and research in China became progressively easier. [Ibid]
Western Perceptions of Mao and the Communists Turn Sour
Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “In the seventies and eighties, American scholars and journalists could finally experience the realities they had only guessed at, and they began compiling a grim record of China under Mao—a task that was speeded up by Deng Xiaoping’s repudiation of the Cultural Revolution after Mao’s death, in 1976. More Chinese also began to travel outside their country. Some, safely settled in the West, published memoirs of the Cultural Revolution. This fast-growing genre, which flourished particularly after the brutal suppression of the protests in Tiananmen Square, in June, 1989, described the violence and chaos suffered by ordinary Chinese during Mao’s quest for ideological and moral renewal. One émigré Chinese writer, who had previously been Mao’s private doctor, published the first intimate account of the Chinese leader, “The Private Life of Chairman Mao” (1994). It depicted a luxury-loving narcissist who was at once autocratic, whimsical, and calculating.”[Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]
“Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s best-selling biography Mao: The Unknown Story (2005) went much further, describing a man who was unstintingly vile from early youth to old age. Far from Edgar Snow’s champion of human rights, this particular Mao was working toward ‘a completely arid society, devoid of civilization, deprived of representation of human feelings, inhabited by a herd with no sensibility.’ In Chang and Halliday’s account, Mao killed more than seventy million people in peacetime, and was in some ways a more diabolical villain than even Hitler or Stalin. The authors claimed—among other comparisons they made to twentieth-century atrocities—that the victims of the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) were worse off than the slave laborers at Auschwitz.”
Official Version of the Communist Party’s History
Bo Yibo In 2011, released in conjunction with 90th anniversary celebratiosn of the founding the Chinese Communist Party, the Central Party History Research Office has produced a compendium of the party’s history from 1949 to 1978 (post-1978 apparently remains too politically sensitive because many of the officials involved are still in power). While the tome provides many new details of sensitive events during the Mao era, it is still highly selective and largely in step with the master narrative laid down in the 1982 publication: “Certain Questions in Our Party’s History.” [Source: David Shambaugh, New York Times June 30, 2011]
Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “China’s Communist Party has finally got its story straight. It took 16 years of editing and four extensive rewrites. Chinese leaders, otherwise preoccupied with running a rising superpower, weighed in throughout. ‘I never thought it would take so long,’ said Shi Zhongquan, who helped craft what the party hopes will be the final word on some of the most politically sensitive and also bloodiest episodes of China’s recent history — a new 1,074-page account of the party’s early decades in power.It gets particularly hard when it includes not only two of the past century’s most lethal man-made catastrophes — the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution — but also a modest yet now ticklish upset back in 1962 — the disgrace of Xi Zhongxun, the father of Xi Jinping, China’s current vice president and leader-in-waiting.” [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, May 26 2011]
“It’s an old communist joke that Marxists can predict the future, but the past is more difficult,” Roderick Macfarquhar, a Harvard University scholar and leading authority on Chinese politics under Mao Zedong, told the Washington Post. The past, added Macfarquhar, “is important because it legitimates the present” and “what went wrong then has to be justified now.”
The party published its first official history 20 years ago but ended the story with Mao’s conquest of China in 1949. It has now ventured into far more treacherous territory with the January publication of “History of the Chinese Communist Party, Volume 2 (1949-1978),” which continues the saga until the year Deng Xiaoping started undoing much of Mao’s legacy.
The leadership’s close attention has at least helped boost sales: The two-volume text topped the Beijing News bestseller list for more than a month, due in large part to bulk orders from party units, which have been ordered to study the work. Regular historians sniff at the whole venture: “This is politics and propaganda,” said Yang Kuisong, a prominent history professor in Beijing. “I have no interest in the topic.”
Difficulty in Assembling the Official Version of the Communist Party’s History
Shi, a former deputy director of the Party History Research Center, acknowledged wide differences of opinion among scholars, both Chinese and foreign, but said the party was not budging from the line it first fixed in 1981 that Mao made “gross mistakes” but, overall, did far more good than harm. “You can’t attack Mao and not attack the Chinese Communist Party,” Shi said.
Mao and Deng Xiaoping
Xi, the Politburo member who is due to take over as leader of the party next year and whose father was purged by Mao in 1962, has been particularly active in stressing the need to get history right. In a keynote address at a “history work conference” last summer, he called on all party members — numbering nearly 80 million — to “resolutely combat the wrong tendency to distort and smear the party’s history.” (He didn’t comment on his father.) Also weighing history has been Liu Yuan, the son of Liu Shaoqi, a former Chinese president who died in 1969 after being denied medical treatment, having been purged by Mao during the Cultural Revolution.
So touchy is the party about its past that the new history Shi helped edit had to be vetted by 64 party and state bodies, including the People’s Liberation Army. An initial draft took four years to finish, but that didn’t pass muster with the leadership. It took 12 more years before the Politburo finally signed off on a finished text. This, according to an editor’s note, followed “clear demands regarding revisions” from party chief Hu Jintao, his heir apparent, Xi, and vice president Zeng Qinghong. The whole process lasted so long that more than a dozen of the scholars involved at the start died before publication. Of an original trio of three senior editors, Shi, now 73, is the only one still alive.
Mao and Liu Shaoqi
Content of the Official Version of the Communist Party’s History
David Shambaugh of George Washington University wrote in the New York Times, Nowhere mentioned is the violence of political campaigns during the 1950s that cost the lives of tens of millions (some of the campaigns are discussed, but not the persecutions and killings). The 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, in which intellectuals launched broadside critiques of party rule (many which remain apt today), is totally absent. Only the subsequent “Anti-Rightist” purge is covered (in a sanitized fashion) —but not Deng Xiaoping’s role in directing it. [Source: David Shambaugh, New York Times June 30, 2011]
Mao himself does come in for criticism, but overall the blame is shifted to others. Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng does benefit from a posthumous “rehabilitation,” but no such luck for the disgraced Zhao Ziyang. The official treatment of these events is clear: maintain a strong institutional apparatus and remain vigilant against inner-party usurpers and foreign saboteurs. Thus, even in the midst of an anniversary celebration, the party’s continuing inability to honestly and fully confront its past speaks volumes about its present and future. It is symptomatic of existing insecurities.
Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “In a lengthy discussion of the Great Leap Forward, a ruinous crash program of industrialization and rural collectivization launched in 1958, the party history acknowledges great suffering and even notes that because of food shortages and illness, China’s population in 1960 fell by 10 million. But, claiming that Mao’s goal throughout was basically the same as that of China’s current leadership, it says he was driven by “a desire to change a picture of poverty and backwardness and make China grow rich and strong so it could use its own strength to stand tall in the forest of nations.”
Mao, according to the party’s version of events, “realized relatively early through preliminary investigation and research that there were problems in [the Great Leap] movement and worked hard to correct them.”Frank Dikotter, a Dutch scholar who last year published a study of the period, “Mao’s Great Famine,” dismissed this as a “barefaced lie.” Mao, he said, was indeed aware of the starvation caused by his policies but pressed on, with the result that as many as 45 million people died. Not recorded in the official history is a 1959 comment by Mao that Dikotter unearthed from a Chinese provincial archive: “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.”
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 April 2012