Chairman Mao Was 70% Right (?)

For the past few days we’ve been exploring a few of the myths the Party sees as central to their rule (here and here). Today and tomorrow we’ll be taking on the the most controversial one, that Chairman Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong.

If you haven’t lived in China, you are probably wondering how anyone ever came up with such a precise statistic. One of my American friends liked to joke with his students (not sure if they realized he was joking) that perhaps the Chairman was only 65% right or that it included his primary school test scores, generally, the students didn’t want to discuss these things. The Chairman is still very much officially revered in China; his face is on every bill, his picture hangs in thousands of schools, and receives much of the credit for China’s current prosperity. His reputation remains unassailable even today (more on that from NPR).

To Westerners, Mao’s mistakes are abundantly clear (we’ll be looking at those tomorrow), but we would find it difficult to enumerate his contributions to Chinese society. So in understanding China, we have to understand Mao’s accomplishments which make this claim of 70% palatable to the people.

Women’s Rights

Prior to the Communist Revolution women’s role in Chinese society was almost completely limited to life within the home. For China’s millions of women in the countryside, where footbinding had only been banned a few decades earlier, their parents controlled their entire lives.

Mao realized that women were one of the oppressed groups in China that could be used to shore up his dominance over the country. In areas under his control he sought to end the practice of arranged marriages, and gave women the right to divorce their husbands. Later he would legally make women equal to men (although this goal has never been fulfilled).

While women’s rights still have a long way to go in China, Mao afforded women rights that would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. Their equal access to jobs and education are evident still today in that there are many senior doctors and scientists in fields that are still dominated by men in Western countries, not to mention all the female construction workers I see everyday.


Mao established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, for nearly 40 years before that (and much of the 19th century) China was ravaged by war. Virtually everything had been destroyed, some by the Japanese, but most of the damage was inflicted by the heated battles between the Nationalists and Communists. In my small town in Guangxi, the bridge had been destroyed to slow the advance of Japanese troops.

Mao looked at China much like Qin Shihuang (first emperor, ~220BC) had, envisioning massive projects that would fundamentally reshape the country. Many of the projects that he dreamed of, like the Three Gorges Dam and train to Lhasa, were only recently completed.

While the value of some of these projects have been widely debated outside of China, within the middle kingdom they are seen as glorious accomplishments of the Party (can you tell I’ve been reading too much People’s Daily again?).

Land Reforms

Of the three major benefits Mao brought to China, this had by far the biggest impact.

Before we get too far into this topic I would like to point out that hundreds of thousands of former landowners were mercilessly persecuted and killed under Mao. For the record, I think that’s bad.

For nearly 3,000 years China had been an agrarian society controlled by a handful of elites. The powerlessness of the peasants is an image that still comes to mind when thinking of China. The landlords had amassed huge land holdings, which were rented at usurious rates to the peasants. For generations people lived in virtual slavery under this system. Mao’s land reforms completely reset China’s hierarchy, which drastically improved the lives of all farmers (that weren’t landowners).

A folk song from Jiangxi province illustrates how just how hard life had been:

“In the Winter I weave baskets to hold rice, but the baskets stay empty. I long for the harvest.

In Spring I have to borrow rice, for every sack I borrow I must return three.

At harvest I pay the rent, there is nothing to spare.

As I put away my sickle, my stomach is empty. When Winter returns I shiver with cold.”

While Mao’s later agricultural collectives were a disaster, his reforms paved the way for Deng Xiaoping to allow small private farms that have fueled China’s economic reforms that have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty.

Tomorrow, Mao’s man-made disasters.

8 responses to “Chairman Mao Was 70% Right (?)”

  1. Umm, that scratches the surface but fails, perhaps deliberately, to demonstrate why Mao is so revered. F’rinstance, go into ordinary Tibetans’ homes and you’ll usually find a shrine or photograph of The Great Helmsman. Why? Because, like Lincoln, Mao freed the 90% of Tibetans who were slaves. They may resent China, but they revere Mao.
    Or consider the fact that he liberated his country from colonial occupation, oppression, and humiliation.
    Or his contribution to military strategy AND tactics.
    Or watch Nixon and Kissinger fawning on him (in “Nixon’s China Game”) to get a sense of how two big-time professionals felt about the Chairman.
    Mao was the giant of the 20th. Century. He made giant-size mistakes but they are overshadowed by his accomplishments on China’s behalf.

    • Tom says:

      I have talked with dozens of people about their admiration for various Chinese leaders, they like Mao because he is the founder, and Deng Xiaoping for making them rich. Most Chinese people I have talked with have mentioned different ways that Mao’s policies disrupted their families, but his failures are a topic for tomorrow.
      Also I’m skeptical about this Tibet claim…I’ll talk with some tomorrow.

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  4. George Ding says:

    I’m loving these exposés. Just want to add one thing:

    When you put the infrastructure argument together with the myth of happy minorities, you get the reason why Han people cannot fathom why some Tibetans want to be independent. The thinking goes, “Tibet was a backwater before the Communists connected it to the east with roads and rail. If they were independent, they would go back to being a backwater. Do they really want that?”

    It’s a legitimate question, but it contains a latent value judgment. As you mentioned, minorities get points added to their gaokao score and can have more than one children, at the cost of political representation and true autonomy. This is a trade that many Han would be willing to make. But for some minorities and individuals who don’t think their interests are represented by the government, maybe this Faustian bargain is becoming less and less worth it.

    In the end, I think this argument says more about the Han mindset than anything else. What does it say about a culture when the people in it value only material gains and look down upon formless ideas like autonomy and independence?

    • Tom says:

      Again excellent points. Also I really enjoyed your blog.
      I will be doing a series of posts on Tibet at some point in the future, but don’t feel quite ready to write it yet.
      The Han mindset right now is more than a bit worrying.

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