22 October 2016
Despite causing the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, Mao’s embalmed body still lies in Tiananmen Square and his portrait still adorns the wall there.
Despite causing the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, Mao’s embalmed body still lies in Tiananmen Square and his portrait still adorns the wall there.

40 years after Mao: The judgment of history

Friday, Sept. 9, marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong, who led the communist revolution to victory in 1949 and, after that, created turmoil in the country through one political movement after another, leading to widespread starvation.

Despite causing the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese, he was worshiped as the “Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Supreme Commander and Great Helmsman”.

Mao’s embalmed body still lies in Tiananmen Square and his portrait still adorns the wall there.

He remains the symbol of both the party and the state.

That, no doubt, explains why there are people planning to hold concerts in his honor in Sydney and Melbourne in September.

The anniversary provides an opportunity to evaluate his role in history.

Five years after Mao’s death in 1976, the Communist Party of China adopted a resolution on “certain questions” within the Communist Party since it gained power in 1949.

In its appraisal of its 32 years in power, the party concluded that it had “very successfully led the whole people in carrying out socialist revolution and socialist construction”.

But then, when you read the small print, a somewhat different story emerges.

The resolution dealt with the struggles within the party while not dwelling on the impact on ordinary people.

Thus, while acknowledging that there had been “errors” in the Great Leap Forward campaign and the introduction of communes in the late 1950s, it did not disclose the scale of the disaster.

Only in recent years, largely because of the work of scholars such as Yang Jisheng and Frank Dikotter, do we know that there were “at least” 45 million deaths.

The party knew, of course, but it said nothing. Deaths of people were irrelevant compared to inner-party struggles.

As far as the party was concerned, the issue was one between between Mao and a so-called anti-party group headed by Peng Dehuai and Huang Kecheng.

As a result, “our economy encountered serious difficulties between 1959 and 1961”.

But no deaths were mentioned.

At the time, while Chinese people were starving, Beijing was exporting food to Africa to gain political goodwill.

The party’s post-Mao leadership concluded that Mao had confused right and wrong in the Cultural Revolution, “confusing the people with the enemy”.

But despite the enormity of his mistakes and the toll taken in terms of human lives, the party concluded that the grave error of the Cultural Revolution “was the error of a great proletarian revolutionary”.

That is to say, even Mao’s errors showed that he was a great man. Future Chinese leaders need have no fear.

The bigger their mistakes, the greater their glory as revolutionary leaders.

Given Mao’s record, one wonders how history would have assessed him differently if he departed the scene before 1976.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while I was based in Beijing, there were already people who felt that history would have been kinder to him if he had not lived to the ripe old age of 82.

Indeed, it was said that if Mao had died before 1966, that is, before the Cultural Revolution, he would have been comparable to Stalin.

If he had died before 1957, before the Great Leap Forward, he would have been the equivalent of Lenin, an even greater man.

And if he had died before 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, he would have been seen as the equivalent of Marx.

But he lived to be 82 and during his years in power caused so much death and destruction that he was viewed by many as Mao the monster.

But what if Mao had lost the civil war and the Nationalist party of Chiang Kai-shek had emerged triumphant? What would China be like today?

We can’t be sure exactly how things would have developed, but there certainly would not have been the mass political campaigns, with tens of millions of deaths, that characterized Mao’s rule.

Sun Yat-sen, Chiang’s mentor, believed in democracy, after a period of tutelage.

The Communist Party denounced Chiang for being a dictator and promised democracy.

But, once in power, the communists perpetuated one-party rule. They haven’t loosened their grip since.

For example, in 1944, the party paper Xinhua Ribao published an editorial on genuine universal suffrage, arguing that “not only must the right to vote be ‘universal’ and ‘equal,’ but the right to be elected must also be ‘universal’ and ‘equal’.”

Today, after 72 years in power, it insists on vetting candidates for chief executive in Hong Kong.

History is the great revealer of truth.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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