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Mao's Legacies

Page history last edited by Bob Andrian 9 years, 7 months ago

Mao Zedong's Legacies and Deng Xiaoping's Transformation of China

 

Last week we ended class with Jung Chang's strong condemnation of Mao's impact on China noting that he had turned the country into a "moral wasteland and a land of hatred." It was her father's premature death in 1975 at age 54 that cemented Chang's thinking about Mao and how truly responsible he was in her mind for China's "lost years." In reminiscing about the death of her father, she writes,

 

For days I wept in silence. I thought of my father's life, his wasted dedication and crushed dreams. He need not have died. Yet his death seemed so inevitable. There was no place for him in Mao's China, because he had tried to be an honest man. He had been betrayed by something to which he has given his whole life, and the betrayal had destroyed him. (WS, 479) 

 

Her own life had been a tumultuous one living in times of perpetual struggle, political upheaval, and vapid, rigid ideology, while remaining loyal to Mao even as she, like so many students had been sent down to the countryside to be "reeducated." Now, eager to study and learn English, she simply wanted to get on with her life, "to live," as the title of the film we watched states. Done with grand causes, she takes a trip down the Yangtze River with her mother's approval. She also reached another conclusion about Mao's "rule:"

 

The other hallmark of Maoism, it seemed to me, was the reign of ignorance. Because of his calculation that the cultured class were an easy target for a population that was largely illiterate, because of his own deep resentment of formal education and the educated, because of his megalomania, which led to his scorn for the great figures of Chinese culture, and because of his contempt of the areas of Chinese civilization that he did not understand, such as architecture, art, and music, Mao destroyed much of the country's cultural heritage. He left behind not only a brutalized nation, but also an ugly land with little of its past glory remaining or appreciated. (WS, 496) 

 

Mao also managed to create a climate, especially during the Cultural Revolution, in which the "banality of evil" flourished. Ordinary Chinese brutalized their comrades, sometimes to save their own skin, often times in ignorance, and the distinction between victim and victimizer was often a blurry one.

 

When Mao's successor, the feckless Hua Guofeng, authorized the construction of a mausoleum for Mao in Tiananmen Square, many were outraged, especially in view of the devastation the Tanshan earthquake had caused the previous year. Even Deng Xiaoping, who maneuvered the Maoist Hua out of power in 1978, was distressed. Historian Roderick MacFarquhar notes that, "the preservation of the Chairman's embalmed body violated the compact signed by Mao and his colleagues in the mid-1950s agreeing that they should all be cremated; there were to be no remains, no tombs, no aping of the Soviet Union." (MacFarquhar, "Demolition Man," NYReview, 3/27/97, 14)

 

In time for the 30th anniversary of Mao's death, Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday, completed an uncompromisingly scathing attack on Mao in their 600 plus page biography, Mao: The Untold Story. The CBS "Sunday Morning" news show in 2006 takes a look at the book and the authors' assessment of Mao's China.

 

Does the video and Jung Chang's new book do justice to the "real" Mao? In many respects, yes, I believe. (Some historians, Jonathan Spence among them, wonder how accurate the memories are of Mao; many of these memories came from Chinese interviewed in the 90s by the authors. And some "secret" conversations among Party leaders during Mao's reign appear to be undocumented.) On the other hand, if we take a look at the goals Mao and the Party put forth after "Liberation" in 1949, perhaps we can see more positive contributions than Jung Chang and her husband do.

 

Here are the PRC's goals we presented in an earlier class:

 

  • Economic growth (including immediate reduction of inflation and development of infrastructure) especially in heavy industry
  • Social equality (including redistribution of land taken from the old landlord elites---many of whom were executed during the land reform program---, socialized agriculture and nationalized industry, and the subsequent elimination of the urban capitalist class)
  • Gender equality
  • Party control (extending to factories, schools, communes, and the family unit and including intellectual conformity)
  • Lack of government corruption (which might lead to privileged elites among Party cadres)
  • Nationalism (a strong, powerful, self-reliant China buttressed by an anti-imperialist alliance with the USSR--at least until the end of the 50s--and including the promotion of youthful idealism and revolutionary ardor)
  • Improvement in social services, literacy (use of a standard North Chinese dialect) and education

 

In certain respects, Mao was trying to fulfill Sun Yatsen's goals for China after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. These included national unity, freedom from foreign imperialism, "land to the tiller," and modern industrial development. Historian Maurice Meisner (Mao's China and After, 3rd. ed., (NY: The Free Press, 1999), 413-25.) argues that the data shows that Mao did a solid job with the first goal, economic modernization, but struggled mightily to achieve the second goal, building socialism or social equality. Moreover he failed to reconcile the inherent tensions between these two goals. 

 

The data indicate that despite the problems with Mao's plans to develop China industrially (including the Great Leap Forward; essentially flat agricultural growth; the waste, bureaucracy, low productivity, lack of material incentives, and corruption associated with the Soviet model of heavy industrial growth (5-Year plans); strong state investment to heavy industry vs. weak investment in agriculture, and even weaker to consumer goods industries; a declining standard of living and rate of consumption, and the Cultural Revolution, which brought about technological backwardness), by 1976 China, without foreign debt and inflation, was one of the six largest industrial producers in the world, showing economic growth of 64% from 1952-72. It had exploded the bomb, built planes, and deployed a satellite.

 

Annual industrial output (taking into account steel, coal, and oil) from 1952-77 was 11.3% (agricultural 2.3%). Per capita income increased 63% (peasants excluded) from 1957-75. Even the number of scientists and technicians grew significantly from 50,000 in 1949 to 5 million in 1979. Literacy rates jumped significantly as did life expectancy supported by a national health care system.(Meisner)

 

Mao's failure to build true socialism can be viewed in both a Marxist and non-Marxist way. While Marx would agree that socialism begins with the abolition of private property and government ownership of the means of production (so the collectivization of agriculture and nationalization of industry, respectively), true socialism (just before communism is reached) necessitates political power for the workers so they can control the conditions and products of their labor. Marx called this the "self-government of the producers." (Meisner) When popular democracy emerged, the state would wither away. For Mao (and the rest of the Party elite), the state had to be the master of socialism, not its servant. Hence he could never reconcile economic modernization with socialism. Each time he invited criticism of the way the Party was running things (Yanan in 1942, the 100 Flowers Movement in 1956), he followed it up by suppressing any dissent. And while he set out to destroy the Party in the Cultural Revolution, in the end he knew he had to keep it. In the end, he (like any other totalitarian ruler) could not reconcile the paradox of power and freedom.

 

While Mao wanted to achieve an egalitarian society in China and break down the gaps between workers and peasants and city and countryside, he simply did not grasp how economic growth brings with it social inequalities. When a society industrializes, division of labor invites the presence of experts, technicians, and elites, thereby making it next to impossible to bridge those gaps (look at China today). In the end, the only "equality" Mao managed to create and sustain was one based on the cult of his own personality. Fear and ignorance made for effectual societal levelers.

 

"Black or white, the cat needs to catch the mice;" "To get rich is glorious;" "It's the economy stupid." Favoring pragmatism over ideology (OK, maybe it was Bill Clinton who authored the last quotation!), Deng Xiaoping would become China's paramount leader from 1978-1997. It would be he who would propel China forward to begin to join the modern powers of the world, "building socialism with Chinese characteristics," as he put it. 

 

To accomplish this task (to modernize China in agriculture, industry, defense, and science and technology), Deng understood several things would have to happen:

 

  • the peasants would need to have family farms and allowed to engage in side, cottage industries
  • a market economy and private entrepreneurship would need to be encouraged though gradually (as opposed to Russia after the fall of Soviet communism)
  • some Chinese would get richer than others: SEZ's (Special Economic Zones) were to be set up to promote industrial development and urbanization on the southeast coast
  • intellectuals were needed to help the nation move forward, and they were willing
  • opening up to the world was crucial in order to gain Western capital, technology, science, economic practices, and to join in international trade (China's neighbors to the east (South Korea, Taiwan, Japan) and south (Hong Kong, Singapore) had done just that)
  • at the same the primacy of the Communist Party-state had to be maintained (so what foreign ideas had to be kept out? could they? a good deal of cultural pluralism began to emerge (e.g. religion)
  • capitalism in a socialist "birdcage" 
  • the state would be far less involved in peoples' lives economically, culturally, socially, even politically at a local level (except with regard to birth control and the one-child policy, which the state oversaw) 
  • State owned enterprises would eventually need to be phased out (not right away)
  • Labor mobility would be necessary (thus, the practice of "danwei" (being forever tied to a work unit) and "hukou" (household registration) would be done away with (the rural work force declined to 50% from 71% from 1980-2000)
  • Foreign investment (especially Western and Japanese) as well as overseas Chinese investment would be key 

 

Of course, it was far simpler for Deng and the Party to say that there would be no more collective farming than to implement the policy. Old ideas died hard and that included 30 years of Maoist methodology. People were scared about making a change.

 

Then another issue emerged, would economic liberalization bring about political liberalization? Some Chinese intellectuals began calling for a Fifth Modernization (democracy, whatever that meant exactly) and posters to that effect were put up on "Democracy Wall". Such "protests" calling for systemic change were banned by the Deng leadership. Western technology and materiel and scientific advances were one thing, but when "books, travel, telephone, films, radio, television, faxes" flooded China in the 80s, and later email, the Internet, cell phones, and more popular culture, the clear effect was to encourage more intellectual and cultural expression. The apparent minimizing of Communist ideology made for a different China. (Fairbank, China: A New History, 409) In the mid-late 80s, however, the Party became concerned about "spiritual pollution" from the outside. Then, of course, what happened in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 would be quite chilling, though not necessarily surprising from the man at the top.

 

Here is a YouTube series on China's Capitalist Revolution, led by Deng Xiaoping:


 

 

The remaining seven parts of the documentary can be found at the Kaixin (Chinese news, culture, history) site.

 

 

 

 

 

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