Chairman Mao: monster of misrule

China’s economic miracle is deceptive: the country is still traumatised by the effects of the Cultural Revolution, according to Andrew G. Walder’s thought-provoking China Under Mao

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

China under Mao Andrew G. Walder

Harvard University Press, pp.413, £35, ISBN: 9780674058156

Mao Zedong, once the Helmsman, Great Teacher and Red Red Sun in Our Hearts, and still the Chairman, died in 1976. Even today his giant portrait gazes down over Tiananmen Square, where in 1989 his successors massacred hundreds of students and workers. After so many years and books and articles, can anything new be said about him? Although Andrew Walder, a Stanford sociologist and leading China scholar, writes that his comprehensive and deadly analysis is primarily for non-specialists, he has made me think.

President Xi Jinping, who will make a state visit to London in October, speaks highly of Mao. Such praise, concludes Walder, requires ‘highly selective historical memory and a great deal of forgetting’. What has been erased in many memories is that Mao was a monster (not a word used by Walder), responsible for countless Chinese deaths, not least the 30 million, between 1958 and 1961, who starved during a famine that owed everything to his manias (and the co-operation of cronies like Zhou Enlai). Millions more were executed during various drives starting in the decades before the Communist victory in 1949, in some of which Mao was encouraged to kill even more by Deng Xiaoping.

Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar, one of the most productive scholars of the Mao period, has observed that ‘the mark of Cain’ lay on Mao’s most spectacular disaster, the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. But it is clear from Walder’s book (as from MacFarquhar’s several volumes) that this mark disfigured Mao’s entire career. Indeed, a Harvard conference on Mao received a short message from Li Rui, one of his former secretaries, stating that ‘Mao liked to kill.’

Walder does not explore Mao’s early life, especially his angry relationship with his father, but he is right to emphasise that, of all Mao’s ‘core ideas’, the oldest was that ‘only violent conflict could bring about genuine social change’. He held that ‘criticisms of “red terror” were part of a plot by imperialists to sow dissension among China’s revolutionary forces’.

Walder recognises that despite Mao’s depredations there were some successes in his time. Public heath improved greatly, the infant mortality rate diminished, as did organised crime and the drug trade, and prostitution was brought to an end.

There are those in China and abroad who allege that equality of livelihood was also a significant Maoist success. But the opposite was true — and Walder convincingly shows that the effect of Maoist inequalities still distorts China today. Fascinatingly, in a world where the words ‘China miracle’ are
commonplace, Walder notes that while ‘income inequality skyrocketed in post-Mao China’, in the Maoist years ‘grinding rural poverty was still widespread’. Foreign visitors to China, he recalls — this was my experience in 1972 — were besieged by pleas from Chinese acquaintances to buy them goods from the special ‘friendship’ shops for foreigners. He mentions, too, the comparatively luxurious lives of many officials — including Mao, of course — a scandal much resented today.

In short, ‘The Mao era was a long and tumultuous struggle over many years that succeeded in producing outcomes that were far from revolutionary.’ In what will be a mind-opening book for many (and is a depressing reminder for others) Andrew Walder shows that in the decades after Mao, ‘China began the long process of recovering from the damage of his misrule.’

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  • Toy Pupanbai

    Read: ‘Wild Swans’. Three daughters of China’, for the appalling actions of a country in turmoil, by someone who lived through it.
    (And even why they drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road!)

    • Gilbert White

      The Wild Swans make a bi annual journey, these resident swans found a way of tapping into misplaced western emotionalism.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        I thought it was a very good book indeed, powerful, educational and moving. Such records as this and Solzhenitsyn’s are important documents.

        • Hegelman

          You ought to read books on British famines in India like Mike Davis’ well-known history, “Late Victorian Holocausts” and Madhusree Mukerjee’s highly praised “Churchill’s Secret War” – on the Bengal Famine of 1943 when one tenth of all Bengalis perished after Churchill vetoed famine relief after years of draining India of food.
          You Brits have a tendency to assume only the Communists are criminals. Not so. Your lot have done quite well in that department.

  • Richard Xu

    The author knows nothing
    about china; he could only repeat the lies about Mao without any supporting
    facts. Mao is great leader and he has brought industrialization to china in
    such a short time which no other big country could have done. He is the one who
    give women the equal rights in China and he is the one who put ordinary people in
    more equal level with elite classes. He is the one who make the government more
    responsible to regular citizens rather than just serve the rich.

    • James Malenfant

      Stalin did it. He industrialized the Soviet Union, in a shorter time. There was industrialization in China before Mao. He totally destroyed the former Chinese elite. The reason Women have the same rights as men, and that is questionable, Women were in many places of power in China, way before Mao. He just wanted to make sure they worked. China still caters to the elites in the Communist Party, and just rich people. China has more billionaires than any other country, and the peasants are just as bad off, as under Mao.

      This is a book review. Read the book. Have a great day!

    • Gilbert White

      Notice how these people in our midst support and defend monsters of the first degree.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        In our midst? He’s probably in China, and works for the government.

  • James Malenfant

    I thought the article was correct. He is reviewing a book, published by the Harvard University Press. So the publishing credentials are qualified, as well as the author.

    Much like Stalin, Mao tried to rule by fear, starvation, and death. I agree completely with the author. Unfortunately Stalin’s model only worked when he was alive. While it is true that China developed industry, at a remarkable rate, they were rebuilding after WWII, and had problems with Japan. China already had industry, before Mao came to be.

    The Chinese Miracle, is only on paper. Even today, we are seeing cracks, and problems. China has been around for a long time, and will continue. Mao was not the first murderous ruler.

    I am going to the library, and check out the book. Have a great day!

    • Hegelman

      “Much like Stalin, Mao tried to rule by fear, starvation, and death.”

      Churchill killed off one tenth of all Bengalis in 1943 when, after years of draining India of food, he refused to send food aid in a famine, and forbade the US and Australia to help either. In proportion to population that makes him a bigger killer than Stalin or Mao.

      • James Malenfant

        The article was a book review. Did you read the book? Have a great day!

      • Frank

        You should read the excellent article in wiki about the Bengal Famines – you might then have a clearer idea of what role Churchill had in this disaster – ie none. It is absurd to equate the deaths through famine in Bengal to the massacres perpetrated by both Stalin and Mao.

        • Hegelman

          This famine in the Indian province of Bengal in 1943 (British rule in India was replete with famines each killing millions, so one has to specify the place and year) killed one tenth of its population – about 3 million people.

          Despite desperate pleas for famine relief from the British Viceroy in India, Lord Wavell, Churchill refused aid until millions were dead. This was after he had been draining food from India for years, and when millions of Indians were fighting on the side of Britain. What is more, Churchill forbade the US and Australia to send famine relief to Bengal either, as they offered to do. So Australian ships filled with grain by-passed a starving Bengal whose fields and roads were lined with the dead and dying.

          In the Whites Only clubs of Calcutta the British ate and drank without stint, as did Churchill at home. (One of his ministers, Lord Reith, seeing the food bill for a Churchill-Roosevelt summit, commented,”I wonder how much Roosevelt got.”)

          Wavell wondered in his published diaries if the Churchill Cabinet was not the most contemptible Britain had ever had. (See “The Viceroy’s Memoirs”, London, 1970).
          Other colleagues of Churchill were disgusted by his Bengal famine policy, too. Lord Alanbrooke, his Chief Military Adviser, remarked, “Winston seems content to starve India while using it as a military base.” See Patrick French’s well known book on India’s transition to
          Independence, “Liberty or Death”.

          Desperate famine victims thronged the streets of Calcutta while the British were feasting in their clubs and hotels; some tried to get into the hospitals but were
          thrown out by British staff who pointed out that they weren’t ill but merely starving. A distinction that would have pleased Iain Duncan Smith.

          Churchill forbade India to use its own ships and money to bring in food; later British rulers stopped India from applying to the UN for famine aid; so Indian contributions to the UN went to feed Europeans while Indians starved.

          A highly praised history of this appalling episode in the life of Britain’s supposed greatest man is Madhusree Mukerjee’s “Churchill’s Secret War”. It has been lauded by the leading Churchill authority, Sir Max Hastings. His review of the book is in the The Sunday Times.

          • Frank

            Dream on dude, repeating stuff doesn’t make it true.

  • Kasperlos

    Mao was one of the world’s foremost gangsters. He might have started out as a ‘freedom fighter’, but once that mission was accomplished he couldn’t resist the fruit of the serpent: evil power. To those who miss or revere the late ‘dear leader’ take heart: many of his family, and family of his cronies are ‘reformed’ Communists and enjoy the status, wealth and power that Mao would have envied. The masses were treated as just that, with a Little Red Book and a bullet if they hadn’t learnt their lesson. For the remaining few who believe in the Western Tradition of enlightenment, reason, freedom and sanity in a rapidly declining West, not many words are needed to show cause for labeling Mr. Mao a tyrant and arch criminal. Sadly, Western political hacks, academic (aka neo liberal Marxists) frauds, and globalist-minded business elites who’d sell their mothers for a Farthing tripped over themselves to embrace Mao in the early 1970s in search, not of freedom, wisdom, or magnanimity, but of wealth. They were the Marco Polos of the 21st century. So, when Mr. Xi comes to town let us all raise a toast to him and his idol with Italian-made Blood Orange soda.

  • Uttam

    There is nothing new that a westerner will not denounce a Communist leader. They always blame them for the deaths but they never bring into highlight that otherwise how many people were dieing due to hunger and poverty because of the Feudal system of the then prevailing in China. Mao led a war against the Feudal system and many comrade sacrificed in the war to bring new era in China. Mao made the foundation of China through agricultural development. I advise people to read a book “Red star over China” written by renown American journalist Mr. Edgar Snow. For your kind info China’s arable land is half of India yet their food production more than three times of India. They always denounce Stalin and Mao as dictator but hail Pinochet and other dictator as a great democratic leader. How many people lost their lives in Iraq and Libya alone? Who is responsible for these deaths? Are they not dictator?

  • Andyross76

    A leader can be judged on the amount of people who die under
    there rain especially the amount who die from hunger. Mao like the rest of them
    (great Leaders) preferred to feed themselves and those that kept them in power.
    If socialism or commission is such a great world why are the people leaving these
    countries in such numbers?

    • sidor

      Lets apply math properly. Why not looking at the population growth resulting from the rule? Compare the present population of China with what it was before Mao. Any problem with that?

  • Hegelman

    “Walder recognises that despite Mao’s depredations there were some successes in his time. Public heath improved greatly, the infant mortality rate diminished, as did organised crime and the drug trade, and prostitution was brought to an end.”

    He also carried out history’s greatest land reform that gave land to hundreds of millions of peasants who had not had it before.

    He unified China for the first time in many decades, and gave it a strong government for first time in centuries. He put an decisive end to foreign interference in Chinese affairs.

    Few rulers in history have done so much for such a vast population in such a short and challenging period – this, despite his horrific crimes.

    In history, great progress involves typically huge human losses – sadly.