No.s 59-60, Oct. 2014
| Remembering Socialist China, 1949-1976
On October 1, 1949, at Tienanmen Square, Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Ten days earlier, on September 21, 1949, Mao had declared to the delegates of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, in words that would reverberate through the world:
That quarter of humanity included those most oppressed, hungry, illiterate and wracked by disease. Their voices had been suppressed for centuries, and most of all for the preceding century, in which foreign powers dominated China. (Those voices could only be heard during great peasant rebellions which over the centuries toppled dynasties, only to recede once more.) Now, however, the ordinary people of China proceeded not only to stand up but to come to the fore of Chinese political life, through successive mass movements. Whether, in the net, one considers that progression to have been “terrible” or “fine” depends on one’s class standpoint.
It is to mark the 65th anniversary of that proclamation in Tienanmen Square, and the 27 years of socialist China that followed it, that we are bringing out this special issue. Innumerable books have been written on that period by scholars from around the world. Many of these writings are outstanding, and worth returning to in order to better understand that experience. Our intention is not to duplicate those efforts. The aim of this special issue is to bring out the voices of China’s ordinary people that, once again, cannot be heard.
Changing views on China
At one time, for those whose only source of information on China was the international press, Chiang Kai-shek appeared to be the chief representative of Chinese nationalism, adorning five covers of Time magazine between 1927 and 1936. Pioneering writers on China such as Anna Louise Strong and Agnes Smedley began telling the English-speaking world about the Chinese Communists in the early 1930s. But it was Edgar Snow’s riveting account in Red Star over China (1937) that introduced Mao Zedong to a wider public abroad. What gave Snow’s account additional relevance and urgency was that it showed that the Communists, who many outsiders believed were finished off as a force, were in fact vibrantly alive and re-building. In the 1940s, books by Jack Belden and Theodore White confirmed the continued ascendancy and vitality of the Communists. In February 1949, Mao first appeared on the cover of Time (with the caption: “Communist Boss learned tyranny as a boy”.)
The social epic that began in China from October 1949 was conveyed to the world outside by many remarkable chroniclers. William Hinton lived in a Chinese village during land reform and provided a living picture of it in Fanshen; Joshua Horn, an English surgeon, served in the new People’s Republic for 15 years and narrated his experiences in Away with All Pests!; Rewi Alley, a New Zealander, stayed on in China and became a member of the Chinese Communist Party; and so on. Among the visitors who wrote valuable accounts were Felix Greene, Jan Myrdal, E.L. Wheelwright and Bruce McFarlane, Victor and Ruth Sidel. The Left Keynesian economist Joan Robinson visited socialist China six times, and became its vocal supporter for a period. China’s development model so influenced a leading monetary economist, John Gurley of Stanford, that he changed his very worldview. Gurley wrote:
While non-socialist and anti-socialist scholars naturally expressed greater reservations about China’s pattern of development, they were compelled to acknowledge these achievements – perhaps not as an essential part of socialist China’s economic model, not as part of the Chinese people standing up, but as some sort of national peculiarity. The first World Bank report on China, prepared in 1980-81 with the help of Dengist Chinese officials as the groundwork for taking China’s economy in a different direction, could not help echoing Gurley’s remarks:
When Mao died on September 9, 1976, the New York Times obituary (by Fox Butterfield) began: “Mao Tse-tung, who began as an obscure peasant, died one of history’s great revolutionary figures.” Such an assessment was even at the time grudging, accompanied by numerous disparaging remarks and censures; but today it would be difficult to imagine an article in the New York Times beginning with those words.
Academic regime change
In theory, regime change in itself ought not to change the views of social scientists, but in fact the changes in China did so. Most foreign scholars who had written approvingly of the earlier socialist policies were now shaken. Some changed their views a bewildering 180 degrees, becoming energetic critics of the earlier policies and unquestioning consumers of ‘revelations’ produced by the new regime and by others inimical to earlier policies. Indeed academia played a major role in authenticating all manner of attacks on the earlier period, or even personal attacks on Mao Zedong. (A particularly sorry example was the supposed memoir of one of Mao’s physicians: Despite having been exposed as a poor hoax5, it continues to be treated as factual by several of the most reputed academic historians.6)
The central point of the attack on the socialist period has been the Great Leap Forward of 1958-61. After the death of Mao, amid an official campaign against the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the Deng regime released sensational figures suggesting that 16.5 million people died during the Great Leap. “Isn’t it indeed strange”, asked Hinton, “that this famine was not discovered at the time but only extrapolated backward from censuses taken 20 years later, then spinning the figures to put the worst interpretation on very dubious records.”7 Joseph Ball pointed out that “there seems to be no way of independently authenticating these figures due to the great mystery about how they were gathered and preserved for twenty years before being released to the general public.”8
New estimates of the death toll rose higher and higher, as if in an auction: American demographer Judith Banister raised the toll to 30 million.9 Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, in their 2005 ‘biography’ of Mao10, put the figure at 37.67 million. Frank Dikötter, in his 2010 book on the subject11 puts the death toll at 45 million (he also informs us that some historians speculate that the true figure is 50 to 60 million).
The entire period of Mao’s leadership is now portrayed as a disaster, one long killing-spree. The first sentence of Chang and Halliday’s book reads: “Mao Tse-tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime” – deaths which, according to Chang-Halliday, he welcomed, even celebrated. Hitler, then, pales by comparison. Dikötter has produced a second volume of his planned trilogy of the Mao period (titled The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-5), and it is possible that by the time he completes his third volume he will better Chang-Halliday’s score.Joseph Ball12 and Utsa Patnaik13 have carefully and at length countered some claims regarding the death toll of the Great Leap Forward. Regarding the the Chang-Halliday ‘biography’, scholars of Chinese history have expressed a wide range of negative opinions, from serious reservations to outright repudiation.14 However, any scrupulous efforts at questioning the death toll industry have been largely ignored by the international mass media.15
What do China’s common people know and think?
Indeed anti-Communists find the resilience of his popularity baffling and frustrating. Yawei Liu, the director of the Carter Center China Program (Atlanta), complains that “Mao’s legacy overshadows China to this day, so ‘without such a thorough verdict, it would be hard for China to launch meaningful political reform.”17 Says Zhang Weng, another US-based academic: “Though Mao’s ideology and policies are anathema to most people in the West, many Chinese still miss Mao and his era. They believe that Mao, who died in 1976, was the one person who put an end to China’s century of humiliation, and they still have not realized that his policies for a new China in which everyone would be equal amounted to a utopian pipe dream.”18 Du Daozheng, publisher of the anti-Maoist magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, confesses: “If there is one man, one vote now, the leftists would get most of the votes. ...because we haven’t told the truth to our people; we have never thoroughly exposed and criticised Mao.”19
These liberals can hardly conceal their contempt for the common people, who are simply ruled out as either rational actors or a source of historical truth.
During the Cultural Revolution, it may have been difficult for many to fully comprehend Mao’s charge that his opponents, veteran Party members, wished to take China down the capitalist road. But the years that followed would have given the ordinary masses of China ample basis to form a judgement. Hinton wrote in 1988:
Media accounts do occasionally quote the views of ordinary Chinese, but these, of course, are not cited as evidence of consciousness of their class interests. Rather, they are portrayed as confused moral nostalgia for “simpler days”, a fetishistic mania for Mao memorabilia, a morbid religious reverence for his embalmed body, and so on. However, if one makes a special effort, one can hear the voices of common people even in these reports.
Swimming against the current of the academic industry and the international mass media, some scholars have begun the task of recording the views and experiences of the common Chinese people regarding the period of socialist China, as a vital source of historical truth regarding that period. The present issue contains essays by three such scholars. We wish strength to their continuing efforts.
The present issue is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend, Nirmal Chandra, a keen student of socialist economies. He would have been interested to read it.
– The Editor
October 1, 2014.
1. John G. Gurley, China’s Economy and the Maoist Strategy, p. 13. (back)
2. World Bank, China: Socialist Economic Development, vol. I, 1983, p. 11. (back)
3. These post-Mao claims about Dazhai were countered by William Hinton, who had directly examined Dazhai. See The Great Reversal: The Privatization of China, 1978-89, Monthly Review Press, 1990. (back)
4. Pieter Bottelier, “China and the World Bank: How a Partnership Was Built”, Stanford Center for International Development, Working Paper no. 277, 2006, p. 4. (back)
5. Manufacturing History: Sex, Lies, and Random House’s Memoirs of Mao’s Physician, ed. Q. M. Borja and Xu L. Dong, 1996. http://chinastudygroup.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/manufacturing-history-xulin-dong.pdf (back)
6. For example, Jonathan Spence and Stuart Schram. (back)
7. William Hinton, “On the Role of Mao Zedong”, Monthly Review, September 2004. http://monthlyreview.org/2004/09/01/on-the-role-of-mao-zedong/ Also see Hinton, Through a Glass Darkly: U.S. Views of the Chinese Revolution, Monthly Review Press, 2006, for a careful dissection of the views of certain US scholars who became born-again evangelists against the socialist period. (back)
8. Joseph Ball, “Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?”, http://monthlyreview.org/commentary/did-mao-really-kill-millions-in-the-great-leap-forward/#en4 (back)
9 .J. Banister, China's Changing Population, 1987. (back)
10. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, 2005. (back)
11. Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62, 2010. (back)
12. Op. cit. Also see: Joseph Ball, “Mao did not want half of China to starve to death: A key document in Frank Dikotter’s book ‘Mao’s Great Famine’”, http://www.maoists.org/dikottermisinterpretation.htm. (back)
13. “On Famine and Measuring ‘Famine Deaths’, Thinking Social Science in India: Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner. Ed. Sujata Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi, and Krishna Raj. New Delhi: Sage, 2002. Reproduced at: http://chinastudygroup.net/blogs/eastwindwestwind/files/2009/08/patnaik-famine-measuring.pdf (back)
14 .Gregory Benton, Lin Chun, eds., Was Mao Really a Monster? The Academic Response to Chang and Halliday’s “Mao: The Unknown Story”, 2010; Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, 2008. (back)
15. To take a typical example, the BBC website’s capsule biography of Mao begins: “Mao was a Chinese communist leader and founder of the People’s Republic of China. He was responsible for the disastrous policies of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/mao_zedong.shtml (back)
16. Verna Yu, “China still dealing the legacy of Mao Zedong, 120 years after his birth”, December 21, 2013, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1386953/china-still-dealing-legacy-mao-zedong-120-years-after-his-birth (back)
17. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “Mao’s legacy still divides China”, New York Times, May 5, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/world/asia/06iht-letter06.html?_r=0 (back)
18. Zheng Wang, “It’s all about Mao”, New York Times, August 22, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/23/opinion/its-all-about-mao.html (back)
19. Yu, op. cit. (back)
20. Hinton, The Great Reversal, p. 163. (back)
21. Kate Liang, “Mao’s legacy”, BBC News, November 9, 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/special_report/1999/09/99/china_50_years_of_communism/453424.stm (back)
22. Yu, op. cit. (back)
23. Tatlow, op. cit. (back)
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