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.
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?).
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.