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Mao’s Great Famine couldn’t happen again (but June 4th could)

I recently finished reading Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe by Frank Dikötter, which outlines the full scope of horror that was the Great Leap Forward which in four years claimed 45 million lives. However, that number fails to capture the suffering and individual abuse that was pervasive throughout the country.  While it is by far the most complete account of that period, it makes for rather dark summer reading.

I felt a need to push myself through the unpleasant details as a kind of penance for my years of absolving Mao of any wrong doing. In the past I would have argued that Mao had been fed inaccurate information and was clueless about the actual situation, it was a terribly naive position, and one made completely indefensible by the fact that Mao simply did not care that millions were starving in the countryside. As the Chairman saw it, China was still in a revolution, and death was a small price to pay for the rapid development that would supposedly benefit the rest of the country. They were unwilling martyrs for a worker’s paradise that never materialized.

You may have noticed a slight change in my stance since then (and you’ll notice I’ve changed since starting this blog too). After finishing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is also a mistake to blame the Great Famine entirely on Mao. While it could have only happened with a person like Chairman Mao at the helm, it also could have only happened with the complicity of Party officials at every level. There is no single individual to blame for the catastrophe, it was an epic failure of the entire system created by the Party.

The troubling realization I took away from this book was that many of the underlying causes of the famine have never been resolved, and continue to be perennial issues:

  1. Central gov’t officials were aware of abuse and deception in the lower ranks, but were unwilling to investigate the situation and ignored reports that were presented.
  2. Problems were swept under the rug to maintain the illusion of progress.
  3. A pervasive attitude of fear was propagated to ensure that projects were not questioned openly, and those who dissented were labeled as traitors and then silenced. 
  4. General directives were given without any guidance and were interpreted with shocking results by local officials, but no system was ever created to monitor the outcomes.
  5. The Central gov’t placed urban residents far above rural residents, and were willing to deny benefits to rural residents for the sake of stability.
  6. Environmental devastation allowed for a burst of economic “growth,” which later led to massive health problems and natural disasters that were far more costly than the gains.
  7. Massive, poorly-constructed vanity projects were built at great expense to the public, while other more pressing issues were ignored.
  8. Aid and goods to foreign countries were emphasized over meeting the needs of the Chinese people. Rural and urban residents suffered for the sake of “face” abroad.

This list is but a fraction of the parallels one could draw between the past and present, but fortunately, this kind of disaster could not repeat itself in present day China. One major reason for this is that the role of Hu Jintao is radically different from that of Chairman Mao,  and it would be difficult for an individual politician to silence rivals within the Party in the same way Mao did (although Bo Xilai seems to have managed this at provincial level). Secondly, China’s news (aided by microbloggers) is far more open than it was at this time, which makes it more difficult to cover up problems and exaggerate gains at the local level (note: this isn’t a very high bar. problems are still regularly covered up, but failures of this scale would likely be noticed). Thirdly, I doubt that Chinese people would be as willing to suffer for “the greater good” as they were during the Great Leap Forward.

One note that Dikötter makes, but doesn’t really explore, is that the provincial leader in Jiangsu province resisted the absurd goals and was not denounced for this moderate stance. Perhaps he survived because while he did not participate in Mao’s delusions, he also did not criticize them. According to the author, this resulted in a drastically lower death toll in the province. It makes me wonder how many lives could have been saved if just a few other key officials had decided to stay above the mindless rush for accolades.

Mao’s Great Famine, is a powerful reminder of what can happen when power is left unchecked and how quickly society can descend into utter chaos. While some have questioned Dikötter’s claim that 45 million people died, the country he describes based on Party documents is one that would make even the most hardened Mao supporter question the great helmsman. While many detractors have zeroed in on this figure, claiming that it is actually grossly inflated, it does not change the amount of suffering endured during this period by millions of peasants (it’s interesting that deniers of the Rape of Nanking and those who deny the Great Famine have adopted similar arguments).

On a side note: In this week of remembering June 4th, one realizes that while China is safe from the devastating campaigns of Mao’s reign, Tian’anmen Square could very well happen again. One needs to look no further than the Party’s overblown response to whispers of the Jasmine Revolution and its willingness to support brutal regimes that slaughter their own civilians for reasons to worry. While the Party is far less likely to launch impossibly ambitious campaigns to boost production or encourage destructive waves of blind nationalism that undermine stability, it is also no more likely to allow vocal calls for change.

Trading family for a washing machine – Are China’s poor really better off?

China’s rise has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, but has life really improved as much as that claim implies? As a recent study shows, life satisfaction in China has not increased over the past 20 years, which seems to suggest that increasing wealth has not brought about a correlating increase in happiness. Today we’ll be exploring why this might be the case in the countryside.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to visit several remote villages in central China. As the van bumped along rocky roads that wound over steep mountains for nearly 10 hours I started wondering how much life had really changed in many of these places over the past 60 years and whether or not these survivors would say that the countless campaigns of the past were worth it.

In the plus column– life expectancy has increased by 30 years, televisions occupy prominent places in many homes, some have washing machines, mobile phones are everywhere, famine is no longer a constant threat, and the children can read and write. This is no small accomplishment, and the Party is keen to remind us that these are all markers of a better life.

New home with a washing machine

The negative column though is much harder to quantify. The most striking thing you notice in the countryside is the almost complete lack of young people. In the dozen or so villages I visited, the only people between 10 and50 were a couple of pregnant women and a single doctor (she earned 1,000 rmb/month). These people in the middle made up a tiny fraction of those we saw. This has been true in every village I have visited since my first trip to China in 2006.

In China the family has always been the base unit, and despite Mao’s efforts to destroy the notion through collectivization, it seems that it has been China’s turn to capitalism that has most thoroughly dismantled it. One can’t help but wonder if the elderly wouldn’t be willing to trade in many of the new found conveniences in exchange for their children returning to the village.

Secondly, and I can’t emphasize this enough, work in the countryside is still incredibly difficult. Farm work is done almost exclusively by hand, the same way that it was done one hundred years ago (with the important difference that farmers now reap a much larger profit than they did under the feudal system). In the “wealthy” village we visited each farmer was entitled to roughly 1 mu of land (1/6 of an acre), which when planted with cash crops provided a decent income for many of the villagers (they could build a “modern” home within a decade and many had). In poorer villages though, many of the homes were mud and stick construction that had been improved with a concrete foundation. Despite the much touted fact that the Party has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, there are still clearly hundreds of millions living far from the “moderately prosperous” promises. Furthermore, it should be noted that it is the farmers who have lifted themselves out of poverty more than the Party, as few policies privilege this group.

Finally, as one of my Chinese friends from the countryside (who works in rural development) pointed out – even in these “wealthy” villages, no one is more than an accident or illness away from crushing poverty. If a single harvest is missed, or if a drought strikes the region, everything could be lost. She also told me that after visiting hundreds of these villages, and coming from one herself, that in these last few years life has become increasingly difficult for farmers. She blamed this largely on the hukou system that restricts rural residents from sharing in the social benefits that urban residents receive, and a quickly rising cost of living.

While every development metric tells us that the countryside is better off, it’s worth questioning whether or not the farmers were asked about their ideas of prosperity.

Over the next few days we’ll be exploring several other issues facing rural China and try to get a better understanding of rural life in modern China.

The Coup

By Yaxue Cao

Mystery abounds. Suspense builds.

Millions in China, as someone on Twitter puts it, have been immersed lately in writing “movie scripts” of court intrigues in Zhongnanhai (中南海, gov’t headquarters in Beijing). Under normal circumstances, they can’t even get within 30 feet of its shining red gate guarded by soldiers with truncheons but, all of a sudden, it seems that scores, if not armies, of people live right under the beds of China’s supreme leaders, and are eavesdropping on all of their nightly whispers!

CCTV can’t be any happier. Its 7pm newscast sees a wobbling hike in viewership because its script, for once, becomes the most sought-after. Appearances are analyzed and then overanalyzed. Words are turned, over and over again, for hidden clues.

While I have stayed away from crafting my own version and drawing up a grand interpretation, I did enjoy seeing photos of tanks rolling on, purportedly, the streets of Beijing where people are seen to wear short sleeves in temperatures below 10 °C and trees are green and lush in March. Look out your window right now if you live in Beijing.

Never mind the “gunshots.”

The best script to date, now making rounds online, has all the markings of a Hollywood thriller in which nothing that has ever happened is accidental. Certainly not a wrecked Ferrari, a dead man and two naked women. (What idiot screenwriter would leave out stuff like that anyway?)

And to get around the censorship, all of the characters have assumed adorable names such as “Teletubby,” “the third young master,” “Senior Advisor Ling Hu,” and so on and so forth. Even “Tire” (yes, as in wheels and tires). Don’t ask me why, it’s spinning too fast to keep up.

I am not complaining.

Imagine you were me, an elementary school kid in a small town in northern China, waking up one morning in September, 1971. Green wooden loudspeakers, mounted on lamp poles, announced that Lin Biao (林彪), who until the day before had been the Deputy Great Helmsman, “closest comrade and designated successor of Chairman Mao,” was an anti-Party, anti-revolution, anti-Mao traitor who had just crashed to his death in–Ondorhaan.



The kid looked up at the sky, the blue, brisk September sky with outlines of mountains on the horizon, wondering whether all that she saw was real.

Next thing we knew, we were called to condemn Lin Biao and Kong Lao’er.


That was how Confucius was referred to at the time in the “Condemn Lin Biao, condemn Kong Lao’er campaign.”

Another girl and I, chosen for our quick memory and standard Mandarin, were assigned to memorize stories of Confucius’ “evil conspiracy to restore the reactionary old order,” well, 2,000 years ago. And forgive me, I have forgotten now how Lin Biao and Kong Lao’er were mashed together in our stories. We told these stories to the school assembly, to old men and women gathered in the courtyard of the Neighborhood Committee. Session after session.

By comparison, Season 2012 is so much better: Everybody gets to try their hand in script writing, all the names are pronounceable, and most thankfully, it is not a time-travel drama.

What a change.

All in all, I really like the word “政变” (zhengbian-coup).  It is quick, cutting, baked-dry. It hardens on your tongue and explodes on your lips the way the Monkey King launches himself into the air. With two successive fourth tones, it then lands resolutely on the ground.

Stylistically though, it’s hard to reconcile this wonderful word with those wax figures sitting motionlessly, expressionlessly, behind the rostrum.

Okay, time to go out and get on the street (via 阎克文th5 on Weibo):

“I was at a gas station a little bit ago to fill up the tank. There were about 60-70 cars in line, and ahead, there seemed to be some disturbance. A guy, who had been in line for almost an hour and still hadn’t reached the pump, finally lost his temper and was threatening to light up the gas station. I rushed up to help calm him down. I said, ‘Look, why burn things down here? I can take you to Beijing, and there you can burn down the buildings of Sinopec or CNPC. Wouldn’t that be more satisfying?’ Surprisingly at these words, the man fell quiet.”

China should be aiming lower, not higher

Recently I had the chance to discuss the fascinating article, “The Sick Man of Asia” with the doctors at my hospital. The author, Huang Yanzhong, argues that despite China’s seemingly impressive gains in health over the past 60 years, they are lagging behind its economic growth. Furthermore, the author seems to argue that the average Chinese person (as far as health is concerned) saw greater benefits from Mao’s time in power than during Deng, Jiang, and Hu.

The author argues that Mao’s regime was able to make large gains because they focused on bringing medicine to rural populations. Huang also shows that the chaos of the Cultural Revolution caused the bureaucratic powers of the Ministry of Health to retreat, while millions of doctors were sent to the countryside.

Opening up and reform in the 80’s though focused resources into a few urban hospitals, which by 2004 were receiving 80% of all gov’t health spending. This problem was compounded by the new choices brought to rural residents with opening up, and people from the countryside bypassed the local clinics in favor of the bigger and better equipped urban hospitals. While I would not want to deny villagers the option of coming to the cities for treatment, it has exacerbated the issue and removes some of the pressure to reform smaller clinics.

Additionally, funding from the central gov’t for health was reduced during this time, making hospitals increasingly dependent on prescriptions, surgeries, and additional testing for income. This caused a rapid increase in the cost of treatment, and as a study from 2004 showed, nearly 41% of farmers living below the poverty line reported falling ill or being injured as a cause of their poverty.

Even more troubling is the fact that 60-80% of farmers died at home because they could not afford hospital costs. The author cites the fact that surgery for stomach cancer costs nearly 12,000 RMB, which is far more than an average farmer makes. A friend told me that farmers use the expression “得了阑尾炎,白种一年田” (appendicitis costs a year in the field) to complain about the high cost of medicine.

While China has continued to increase medical spending, especially after the outbreak of SARS, there is still a strong urban bias. In the two groups I discussed this article with, virtually none of the sixty doctors agreed with the author that healthcare had not improved much (which wouldn’t have surprised Huang; they work in a well funded urban hospital), but when asked if healthcare was unequal, they agreed unanimously. When asked “Who benefits from China’s health care spending?” The first answer was gov’t officials, followed by the rich, and finally people in cities. Nothing shows this more clearly than the fact that Shanghai’s life expectancy is now over 82.5 years, while the average for the rest of China is only 73 years.

Instead of focusing on improving healthcare across all segments of the population, the Party’s policies (and in some cases inaction) have reduced the possible gains that could have been made.

The priority given to the urban population after reform and opening up is something we’ve discussed before in relation to Hukou issues, and the state of rural education. China’s obsession with creating institutions for the elite, means that the masses are excluded from fully participating in the benefits of China’s growth.  

I think that many would agree that it was the push by the Party in the early days of Mao’s leadership for literacy and expanded access to education (for women and the poor) that have allowed China to become such a powerhouse in low-end manufacturing. The Party has also stated that for the economy to continue to grow, the country needs to move towards more skilled manufacturing, but they didn’t start taking steps to promote vocational education until a few years ago. Instead, for years the focus had been on creating “world class” universities and pushing more students through graduate programs. A Chinese friend told me that he had always opposed this because there were so few jobs requiring such degrees, other masters students I have met have agreed.

The gov’t has also allowed the collapse of social security programs which in the past would have encouraged families to keep their children in school; some of China’s poorest counties have dropout rates of over 50%. These children are pulled out of school to try to support their family, frequently when a working family member falls ill or dies. Meanwhile urban children who fall behind their classmates are pushed out of schools by teachers who fear losing the bonuses that come with good exam scores.

With increasingly out of reach premiums for decent healthcare and schools that focus only on the most talented students in urban areas, it’s easy to see why some argue that China’s growth is unsustainable.These gaps in basic services between rural and urban citizens are a major cause of the gap between rich and poor; which consequently, drives a wedge between the people and the Party. The key then to stability is aiming lower, not higher.

In China, anything can come back to bite you

Yesterday’s review of “Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries,” is important reading not only to better understand the terror and hysteria of the Mao years, but to understand the way in which the past effects the psyche of Chinese people today.

Three bits from the article have been cycling through my mind since yesterday: that in some areas nearly 80% of the people accused were later exonerated, 30% of those whose death sentences were not absolutely necessary were executed anyway, and that even in my former home of Longzhou, which is tiny by Chinese standards, at least 40  people were executed. These three pieces show that the campaign was largely used as a source of revenge against otherwise innocent people, and that this campaign reached every corner of every village in China. Campaigns similar to this one were repeated throughout Mao’s rule.

I think in many ways fear of these times still remains. Even my Chinese-American friends, whose parents hadn’t been in China for decades, were cautioned as children not to speak openly with anyone beyond their closest circle of friends. One’s mother even scolded her for greeting a classmate while shopping who was just an acquaintance. “You don’t know what they will say about you to others,” her mother whispered as they left the store.

Later though, I learned that her mother’s father had been a principal prior to the Cultural Revolution. He was locked in one of the classrooms for days after being accused by one of his students of destroying a picture of Chairman Mao. Because of this, her mother was adopted by one of her uncles who was in the army so she could avoid being labeled a class enemy.

Another friend’s mother told me that her mother was a local gov’t official during the Cultural Revolution. Her position entitled her to better food and more meat, but she often gave the majority of it to neighbors to keep them happy. She always had to try to remember who had been given what so that she could appear fair to everyone, and was keenly aware that any perceived favoritism would be grounds for denunciation. My friend’s mother said that she had been upset with her mother for giving so much away, but later realized that it was because of her generosity that they had fared better than other families.

Memories like these are never forgotten and shape a person in ways that they themselves may not fully understand. This leads to anxiety among today’s “counter-revolutionaries” that an economic slowdown could once again spur nationalist sentiments, and a return of red terror.

The “lessons” learned by those who survived this era still shape their actions. Some of China’s rich are citing the fear of nationalism as the very reason for wanting a foreign passport. In academia, you see the effects in professors and students weighing their opinions vs. their future, knowing that what is said today, could be held against them tomorrow. In movies, art, and literature, it appears in the form of self-censorship. And in social interactions, you can still see the ripples of that period when friends hide their real feelings in front of people they would describe as friends.

Because discussing these campaigns is still taboo, there has been no chance for Chinese society to reconcile their present with their past. The elderly people we see on the side of the road may have been the victims, or they might have been the perpetrators of violence who were never held responsible for their misdeeds. It seems that without addressing China’s troubling history, many won’t be able to stop worrying about whether or not what they’ve said in public will come back to bite them.

Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries

The China Quarterly recently released it’s top ten most downloaded articles for free. Over the next few weeks I’ll summarize and comment on a few of these great articles (and save you 20+ pages of reading).

Reconsidering the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries
By: Yang Kuisong (link to full text)

Tom’s Summary:

Yang begins his article with the assertion that, “Power seized by violence must be maintained by violence.” The first example of this violence came just one year later with the start of the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries. The program was aimed at consolidating the Party’s power over the country that was continuing to struggle with actual counterrevolutionaries (these were actual KMT agents acting to disrupt Party control).

There were wide spread reports of arson and in Sichuan alone there were an estimated 60,000 “bandits.” These groups were seen as a threat to the Party’s control. In an effort to limit the actions of former KMT soldiers, they were required to register with the Ministry of Public Security, in exchange for leniency. By 1950 though Peng Zhen was concerned that this had become “leniency without bounds,” and that the Party should adopt a more draconian policy, like the one being used in Taiwan at the time.

Mao did not immediately take to this idea, out of fear that any act to suppress the malcontents may spark wider opposition to the Party’s rule. However, when China entered the Korean War in October 1950, Mao saw it as a chance to enact the campaign while most would be focused on the battle against the Americans. Initially, Mao agreed with Liu Shaoqi that it should be a targeted campaign, or else the masses may view the Party as “homicidal.”

By January 1951 though Mao was pushing for a much larger campaign then had been initially envisioned. It was at this time that he began directly contacting city governments and setting targets for executions. In one telegram he said that “It’s very good that you have already killed more than 3,700 (in Guangdong),” and that “The target for this year’s executions should be eight or nine thousand.” He believed this campaign was a “necessary step” and was worried that the peaceful transfer of land from landlords to peasants may allow certain “evils” to persist.

Still unsatisfied with the initial response, Mao urged local leaders to contact him directly, which served to encourage executions at all levels of gov’t. He also issued edicts allowing prefecture level gov’ts to order executions, which was a power formerly held by the provincial level governments. Mao explicitly stated in August of 1951 that a total of .1% of the population should be executed in order to rid the state of the worst class enemies. He believed that this was a reasonable target, and would not risking the killing of innocents.

Mao’s secondary motive in this campaign was to “mobilize the masses,” in a way that would  secure the Party’s power. He believed that if they only executed enemies of the state, this goal would not be achieved, and so the definition of “counterrevolutionary” was expanded to include enemies of the masses, e.g. landlords and local tyrants. It was after this change that people began supporting the campaign in mass. There were numerous reports of crowds cheering executions and mutilating the bodies afterward.

This meant that the campaign had became a means of exacting revenge on neighbors. Even by Party estimates 10% of the charges were complete fabrications, and later 79% of those convicted were exonerated.

By mid 1951, the Party was beginning to realize that once the campaign had begun it was increasingly difficult to control. Mao re-consolidated the power of execution under the central gov’t and reduced the punishment of many crimes to re-education through labor. These actions seemed to have little effect, and Mao was complicit in the idea that these executions were necessary to satisfy the rage of the masses. His efforts simply meant that fewer executions were publicized.

By the end of 1953 over 712,000 people had been officially executed, which was .124% of China’s total population (500 million at the time). Most of these happened in rural areas, which should have contained fewer class enemies than the urban areas. It had also exceeded Mao’s target of .1%. In Fujian province, roughly .25% of the population was executed during this time.

Nevertheless the Party considered the campaign a success. It had mobilized the masses and eliminated all signs of dissent. This also laid the foundations for further “class enemy” campaigns, and introduced the idea of quantifying the scale of suppression through quotas.

Tom’s Reaction:

This article left me a bit shaken. I had hoped that there were at least a few years under Mao that not been total tragedies, or that perhaps his ambitions were pure but that they had been lost somewhere in the line of command. However it is abundantly clear that from at least 1950, Mao had completely disregarded the value of human life in his pursuit of consolidated power.

To put this into perspective; China currently executes about 2,000 prisoners per year, which is more than the rest of the world combined. It would take more than 350 years for them to match what was done in the first three years of Mao’s reign.

Secondly, it reminds me of a quote from Fei Xiaotong, that sticks out regularly in my mind, “The party would be willing to sacrifice the nation for their own gain (referring to political parties in China in general).” I worry that these campaigns are still viewed as “successful” in that they were able to consolidate the Party’s power, and we see more recent examples of this in their response to Tian’anmen square, and the crackdown on certain religious groups that undermine the Party.