Mao, Jiang and the importance of Ideals

Written by Julen Madariaga on October 6th, 2009

jianguodayeNow that I am in a free internet country, I have taken the chance to look at the CDT website, and I have found this interesting question coming from al Jazira: what would have happened if Mao had lost?

I am not in principle against counterfactual history,  it can be useful in many cases to see the events from a different point of view. It also makes for lively pub conversations and blog comments. But the basic condition for this kind of exercise to make sense is, in my opinion, that the chain of events analyzed had any chance to have actually happened.

For example: it might be interesting to imagine how the world would have been if Hitler was killed in the 1944 assassination attempt, or what would have happened if Mao died before the Great Leap Forward.  In a similar way to an experiment in physics, by isolating later factors, we try to  analyze the effects of their policies up to that point. But there is little interest in analyzing the outcome of impossible or even absurd events, other than for humorous purposes. What if Hitler had suddenly become a pacifist in 1941?

Back to the point: “What if Mao had lost?” This question treats the defeat of Jiang Jie Shi as a mere accident of history,  a question of luck in which the outcome, like Hitler and the bomb, could have been decided by fluke.

But the defeat (or rather the retreat) of Jiang was not the outcome of a single battle. People asking this question forget that Jiang had the power for many years, with all the instruments of the State, the largest part of the population and territory under his control, and military and economic aid from other countries. For years, all the odds were on his side. The opportunity implied in the  question “what if Mao had lost?” was already given to Jiang. And the best answer to the question is:

If Mao had lost, Jiang  lost anyway

There were profound reasons that made Jiang’s system impossible. His ideology-or  lack thereof-was not appealing enough at a moment when China needed a catalyzer for all its unleashed energy. Something was needed to rally the people against the oppression of the foreigners and of the local tyrants, and Jiang was not delivering in any of the two fronts. China needed something to believe in.  If Mao hadn’t been there, another leader would have sold the idea, or other worse ideas, and who knows the frightful regime that might have resulted.

This failure of Jiang to inspire, together with the corruption inherent to his regime, condemned him to impose power by raw force.  A scheme that worked well when he moved over to Taiwan with supporters and soldiers in large number relative to the local population, but it simply could not have worked in mainland China. It would have required a level of organized brutality that only a fanatic could accept.

So Mao won, and then what?

So back to reality: Mao won. He played his cards much better and he won by a mile. Then some years later he proved to be less gifted as a politician than as a revolutionary. Worse still-and this is really his worst sin-he fell in love with himself and with power, and he didn’t have the good sense to listen to capable advisers, nor the dignity to retire when he was still in time. The “70% good/30% bad” judgement passed by Deng was probably too generous, but inevitable: to condemn Mao was to condemn the work of his life. Deng could not do more than he did, and of those who came after him, not a single one had what it takes to even dare touch this question.


And here is, in my opinion, the heart of the matter: why is Mao still so present in the Chinese psychology? When are we going to move on? The Chairman is not just stuck on a wall, he is imprinted very deeply in the collective mind of the Chinese, and through compulsory education, propaganda and parades like last week’s, he holds to his place and no amount of economic progress can sweep him away.

Here is an example of what I mean : Recently I lent the book “Mao: The Unknown Story”, by Chang Jung -a book that is very critical of Mao- to a Chinese friend. This friend is young, and liberal to the point that he believes Dalai Lama is a good man. And yet, when two weeks later I asked him about the book, I got a  reaction that shocked me. “This woman is not really Chinese” ,  “You cannot understand”, were among the broken phrases that he grumbled. I know this book is surely not the most balanced biography of Mao,  and I was open to accept many of his arguments. But I saw there was no point in discussing further, because somehow we had landed in the territory of hurt feelings.

But the interesting discussion today  is not whether Mao was 70% right or 17.5%. The past is past, and there is no use in digging up the skeletons again, except for specialists in history. The key is the present, and the reason why Mao still holds his place should be searched in the leaders of today.

The answer is simple:  Mao is there because he is still needed. No matter how terrible his failures and how cruel the consequences-and most Chinese know them well-Mao is still the only one that gives some ideological content to the system. He provides the meaning to the colourful parade of  last week, and to the other parade of black suited mummies that is “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.  And that is the reason why most Chinese are so quick to excuse him: “He was good man used by his wife”, they say, or “it was not his fault, he was senile”.

Ideals are important for a society to believe in itself. In the West we have democracy, human rights, religion, a whole range of them to suit all the sensibilities. As often as not, they are utilized by politicians for their own selfish goals and devoided of any real meaning. But at least they are  ideals, and they give us the illusion that our struggle is worth fighting. I see people discussing Obama or Bush, and whatever the real effect of their policies might be, it is obvious that they give a meaning to politcs in America.

In China, on the contrary, the only ideal since Mao died has been Deng’s “Get Rich”.  Many theories have been published since, filling thick books with party rhetoric, but not a single one of them contained anything  that the people could  believe in, or even understand. Once and again, the actions of the party have shown that above any other consideration, the only important objective is GDP, and the maintenace of the status quo.

There is a serious lack of leadership in the communist party of China, partly due to the internal mechanisms of the party itself . Strictly materialistic objectives are quickly dissapointing,  for those that achieve them as much as for those left behind, and the people naturally turn for inspiration to the only ideals available:  nationalism and Mao. And so it happens that the old  portrait  cannot be taken down, because it is there to cover a hole. The black hole of Chinese politics.

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Oct

    I am reminded of something I read recently about the deposed Liberian president Charles Taylor:

    “His commanders would force boys to kill their parents or other family members, breaking the ultimate taboo, then ply them with methamphetamines, marijuana and other drugs to keep their killing instincts keen. Often their pay came in the form of a license to rape and plunder.

    Yet even as he undermined traditional respect for elders, he subtly substituted himself in those elders’ place, simultaneously enthralling and enslaving a generation of young boys who slaughtered on his behalf.

    This explains his supporters’ chilling election campaign cry in 1997: “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him.”

    Change some of the details, and you’re not far off Mao. Mao encouraged millions to inflict misery on millions, and they did it willingly in his name. It is therefore not hardto understand why people have selective memories on this subject, and have inflicted their own attitudes on the younger generation.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Oct

    Fact n1: Mao did not introduce drugs in China, he eliminated them.

    But OK, I don’t want to open a detailed discussion here, you know that I am not precisely pro-Mao. The problem I have is with the thousands of foreigners that come to China and they have only read one typical China book. Chapter 1: “Mao killed 30 million in the Great Leap Forward”. And they come up with the general view that can be summarised in Mao=Stalin=Hitler. This is basically the main thesis of “Mao: the unknown story”, and I do not agree with it.

    1- There are some good things that came from Mao’s regime, I don’t know if it was 70% or 10%. Of course, others could have done the same without the deaths, sure, but nobody did, because those who could were too busy selling drugs themselves.

    2- Mao didn’t kill 30 million, no more than, say, Neville Chamberlain conquered Poland. They both took decisions that were proven wrong AFTERWARDS, and they bear a responsibility for that. None of them should be remembered as heroes, but this is very different from saying “they killed …”

    3- Although it sounds inhuman, you have to see the number of victims in terms relative to the population, and also compared to what happened before. Even if the Great Leap forward caused 30 million deaths, more people died in the famines of the previous 50 years while the colonial powers watched. Not to speak of the deaths estimated from the Taiping revolution, for example. Mao did some terrible mistakes, but he finished with all that.

    4- In general, we are seeing all this a posteriori, with the sure knowledge that communism doesn’t work when applied on the scale of a country. In this we are cheating, because people in the early 20th century didn’t have this information, capitalism at the time was more unjust than it is now, and there was a (justified) dream that communism would bring a new world for the bullied countries. Nobody condemns the French revolution for its cruelty, because it led to a better society, Mao was doing exactly the same. Unfortunately for the Chinese, he chose the wrong side, and he failed.

    The respect for Mao in the young Chinese is not mainly built on brainwashing, most of them despise the compulsory maoist education. The respect we see is mostly based on the fact that they have no other big leader they can look up to. And that their parents and grandparents fought and died for Mao, and whether right or wrong, they deserve some respect.

    I agree that Mao should disappear from Tiananmen and from China, but there is no point in pushing for a new de-maoization campaign. I am of the opinion that the solutions are not to be searched in the past, but in the present. And the real problem is that China lacks some good leader that can stand on its own right instead of relying on old Mao portraits and slogans.

    I guess leaders are born in hard times, and in this aspect as well, we wil not see any big change as long as the PNB continues to go up 8%/year. The Chinese are holding fast to the development train, and closing their eyes to everything else. This is sad and ugly, in my opinion, but probably it is the most sensible thing to do for them.

    [Reply to this comment]

    FOARP Reply:

    What I’m saying here is not “Mao=bad”, what I’m saying is that he made the Chinese people complicit in his acts. The agents of his policies were not carried out by a hated secret police, or by the military, or by the party, but by a large slice of the population at large. It is impossible, therefore, for people to distance themselves from him in the same way that people in other countries have managed to distance themselves from their former dictators.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Oct

    Yes, I suppose I wasn’t really answering to your comment, but to other opinions that I have heard before.

    Your point of victims and executioners being all mixed up is an important one. In many cases, victims of the cultural revolution had played the role of exectuioners themselves, Chang’s books illustrate this very well. This makes the whole thing impossible to elucidate, and to conduct a hunt for culprits now would make little sense.

    The Chinese should look less to the past and more to the future. Many of them are already doing this, of course, but it looks like their leaders are still stuck in the past.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Oct

    Mao Zedong is not, as you claim, “imprinted very deeply in the collective mind of the Chinese”. We do not regard him as a good leader and he is not a source of inspiration. His misguided policies did claim the lives of many and China stood stagnant during the cultural revolution years while the rest of the world raced forward economically, leading to the gap between China and the rest of the world that we are now trying desperately to close. Lots of us resent him for this reason.

    My parents do not subscribe to the diagnosis that Mao Zedong is 70% good and 30% bad. For them, it is 50%/50%.

    China has moved on, away from Chairman Mao and Tiananmen. The rest of the world (Western world), unfortunately is somewhat still stuck in Cold War rhetoric/mentality. It is the West that refuses to let him stay in his grave and constantly has to bring him up to make the point that communism does not work. Likewise for Tiananmen.

    And for the record, I have very low estimation of Dalai Lama.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Oct
    Mao Tse the Tung

    The analyses given in Al Jazeera don’t make any sense. They seem to assume Chinese are inherently smarter and brighter than Indians. The article doesn’t specify on what basis it concludes a democratic China would be more developed and stronger and wealthier than a democratic India?

    Also if the US would have convinced Chiang this and that, why did they not convince India the same about opening their economy and treating their minorities better during that same period?

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Oct

    @Mao - There are a few different views in the article, some make more sense than others. In particular I quite like the one of J. Fenby. I don’t believe in the US convincing China of anythng. The US were already in close contact with Jiang (Chiang) and his beautiful wife and that didnt help much. China is not Taiwan and it is a country to big to manipulate by the US at the time.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Oct

    @yinbin -

    “Mao Zedong is not, as you claim, “imprinted very deeply in the collective mind of the Chinese”.”

    I believe it is imprinted. Whether it is inspiring or not, that is a different question, it depends for whom. I am generalizing here, and obviously all this does not apply to every Chinese person. But it is imprinted in the sense that it is an essential part of the national identity.

    “”China has moved on, away from Chairman Mao and Tiananmen. The rest of the world (Western world), unfortunately is somewhat still stuck in Cold War rhetoric/mentality. It is the West that refuses to let him stay in his grave and constantly has to bring him up to make the point that communism does not work”"

    This is not completely true. On one hand I agree that the West — especially some sectors in the US — are still obsessed by Mao and communism, and they insist on making a point about their evilness. On the other hand, “Mao’s thought” continues to be taught at uni here, and his portrait still hangs on Tiananmen, this is hardly the fault of the West, no?

    “And for the record, I have very low estimation of Dalai Lama.”

    I am not surprised, most Chinese do. That is why I chose this friend for the example, because I always regarded him as liberal and immune to propaganda. He believes DL is just a man with a different opinion on how to rule Tibet, and he should be given the right to speak. This is something anyone can do in a normal democratic country, but most Chinese cannot understand it. But that’s a different discussion altogether.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Oct

    When I said “China has moved on…”, I was referring to the collective Chinese people (as opposed to the Party/Government). We have moved on in the sense that we are no longer the little-red-book waving fanatics who saw him as some kind of God. That many are critical of him should speak volumes of the fact that we are no longer bound/shackled by his ideology (the wrong component of his ideology) - who would still believe in the Great Leap Forward? How many would still *uncritically* accept the diktat that communism is inherently superior to capitalism? - although on the last point, it may be useful to mention a famous saying by the late Premier Zhou. When asked about the impact of the French revolution on the Western civilization, he famously replied: “It’s still too early (soon) to tell”.

    That the “Mao Zedong Thought” (alongside Deng Xiaoping’s Theory) is taught in universities reflects the propaganda efforts of the Politburo. Simply because something is forced down your throat does not mean you believe in it - contrary to “popular” belief, Chinese students are not that susceptible to “brainwashing”.

    Mao Zedong’s Thought is seen as an evolution of Marxism, so is Deng Xiaoping’s Theory. It is not possible for the government to distance itself from Mao Zedong, for doing so would be akin to fundamentally challenging the ideological bedrock of the party. But even the current Party does not subscribe to the insular/closed-door policies pursued by Mao Zedong and his comrades. China is looking forward, rather than dwelling on the past - a point I think you made yourself?

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Oct

    Yes, all that is fine, I agree. And I have to say that most of my Chinese friends didn’t take very seriously the Mao classes when they were in Uni.

    So all is clear in the surface. And yet, what I mean by this post is that there is something BELOW the surface which makes me think that Mao is still more important than he looks. I see it in little anecdotes, for example:

    1- My friend having a bad reaction to a book about Mao.

    2- The lady in the flower shop who says that Mao had a superhuman intelligence, his only little flaw being that he loved women too much.

    3- The portraits of Mao still displayed in many restaurants, hung up voluntarily by their owners (not in Shanghai, in smaller places).


    In general, speaking of Mao is still not quite like speaking of QiangLong or Qinshihuang. You can say the Qin emperor was cruel and dictatorial and it is fine, but if a foreigner says the same of Mao, then it is not fine. Because he is not just a part of history, he is still alive in the heart of many Chinese. Not to say that they will follow his policies blindly, of course, but just that they feel proud of him and regard him as a real leader.

    All very understandable, considering the great things that Maoism did for the country. And especially considering that the leaders of today offer very little to inspire, other than “get rich and shut up”, and a rather unbelievable “social harmony”. All the pride and the dreams of the Chinese today are based on purely economic achievements, and in my opinion -but that is only my opinion- people need to believe in other ideals.

    Mao is, in my view, the last person that gave the Chinese a dream. This can be good or bad, depending on your perspetive, and there is no doubt that dreamers can cause a lot of trouble. And yet, I think ideals are necessary for a society.

    Or is idealism only a Western feature, and Asians just need eat and be happy? “民以食为天”,many Chinese told me. But I still do not believe in that old phrase.

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Oct

    Just to add a couple of things:

    1- The significance of maoism today is a complicated subject and I don’t pretent to elucidate all with this simple post. I just see there is something more than the pure government propaganda that you mention in your comment, but I am not sure I compltely grasp what it is.

    I will write more on the subject when I have been longer here and I have more than a few anecdotes as basis. In any case, I think the point of China lacking idealism today is one of the keys to undertstand many phenomenons here: why is maoism and nationalism so prominent, why there is a lack of ethics, why the “feelings of the people” are so sensitive, etc.

    By the way, I just changed the title of the post because somehow I thougt it sounded stupid.

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Oct
    Robert Woo

    “The significance of maoism today is a complicated subject and I don’t pretent to elucidate all with this simple post. I just see there is something more than the pure government propaganda that you mention in your comment, but I am not sure I compltely grasp what it is.”

    This is the right feeling! The Maoism is on the rise in China, and in a way totally different than which is circumscribed in the government propaganda. Maoism, along with western liberalism and free market ideals, is also a kind of reaction against the troubled social realities. google 乌有之乡,or 只为公平和正义,you will find plenty of such rhetoric.


    A side-note, I guess both you and some comments above, as well as many Chinese youth really misunderstood the essence of Maoism, largely due to the current propaganda. You tend to dwell too much on the “fault” and “flaw” of Mao Zedong as a leader. But I think that is beside the point, and that can’t get you too far into a deeper understanding, as probably you have realized.

    It is not difficult to see that Maoism (in the sense of endless class struggles and smash-down of any form of bureaucracy) and Deng Xiaoping’s technocratic-authoritarian model are inherently incompatible. The revolutionary zeal of Mao Zedong thought, along with those of Marx, was systematically distorted to cater to the current power dynamic.

    That is also why students of today tend to detest Mao Zedong, or only are able to perceive his symbolic value, while in fact, Mao Zedong has the potential to become a true star among the young people.


    In addition, a really big reason that Mao Zedong is still there, and that you have overlooked, is in terms of nationalism. I understand through your previous writings that you do not tend to be subscribed to nationalistic viewpoints. This also imply that you will not tend to think this way when you are analyzing others’ thinking. You can try to do it. And I have to say, the importance of Mao Zedong as a nationalistic icon is Tremendous.

    [Reply to this comment]

  12. Oct
    Robert Woo

    Apology: After closely reading your comments and your essay, I realize your understanding is more accurate than I previously thought.

    [Reply to this comment]

  13. Oct
    Robert Woo

    Last thought: I think any attempt to categorize Mao as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong” is quite useless. As you have suggested in one of the comments, China back then faced extraordinary circumstances after an extraordinarily long history of agricultural-authoritarian empire. In those times, some choice cannot simply be measured by human standards or the current understanding.

    So is the case with the long-held notion that because of Mao Zedong China lost decades’ chance for development and lagged behind the world and that was why the people should hate him . This only proves a lack of understanding of Mao’s thought as well as its origins, not to mention what a questionable “development” even means. Changes on such a great scale don’t happen on whims. They come for a reason.

    [Reply to this comment]

  14. Oct

    Regarding the connection Mao-nationalism: yes, it is very clear. I am pretty sure that a lot of Chinese, especially younger ones, embrace Mao from a nationalistic point of view, and not from a communist “brotherhood of all peoples” perspective.

    Yet, I don’t think we can just equate Mao = pure nationalism. There are many idealistic elements (equality, justice, etc) that are still identified with Mao, perhaps more in older people. These elements are underground today because for years Deng’s economic machine is sweeping all at full speed. But harsher times will come sooner or later, and these ideas might resurface strongly.

    Again, I don’t think China will restart the dictatorship of proletariat or the Great Leap. But I do think there is a lot to do in the field of social policies, fight against corruption of local tyrants, etc, and the present regime is hard pressed to deliver in these fields that go against the interests of its lobbies. Mao’s image, justly or not, is still strong among the poorer classes and some day it might be important again. Especially -and that was my point- because there is today a lack of charismatic leaders in China.

    [Reply to this comment]

  15. Nov
    Geoff Gibson

    I usually stay away from politics in China as I never know where the line is here and don’t want to cross it. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think about it. And I commend your attempt to explain the resilience of MZD in the minds of the people as it’s something that’s bothered the beejeezus out of me for a very long time and still does.

    For what it’s worth, my take on the whole “Hungry Ghosts” thing is that there’s really nothing in it (nothing in it psychologically) for the folk to really want to get open about what happened all those years ago. What would they gain by it? It’s simply too shocking to confront. No, it’s a comfortable delusion they prefer to live with - in the same way that most men believe that their wife is beautiful, their kids are smart and their friends are true.

    [Reply to this comment]

  16. Nov

    This is one of the things that worry me about the political development in China: Marxism is pretty much dead, yet the CCP has to pretend it’s Marxist. It can’t stop pretending, yet continuing to pretend will erode credibility. I guess one solution would be to invent some indigenous system like North Korea’s Juche, and then gradually phase Marxism out, but so far something like that hasn’t materialized.

    [Reply to this comment]

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