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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

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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