After the little red book was flourished in Parliament, should Mao be rehabilitated?

It has become an increasingly respectable argument to assert that, despite the tens of millions of Chinese who were undoubtedly done to death under Mao, he prepared the ground for the country’s economic modernisation. Did Mao really do more good than harm?

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The Independent Online

The Beatles understood that the Chinese dictator was a major turn-off. “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow,” sang John Lennon in “Revolution”. John McDonnell has learnt that lesson the hard way after his stunt at the Despatch Box last week, in which Labour’s shadow Chancellor thought it would be funny to wave a copy of Mao Zedong’s “little red book”.

As the media, inevitably, rushed to uncover further evidence of Maoist sympathies among the Labour front bench a television clip of Diane Abbott in 2008 resurfaced in which the shadow International Development minister argues: “I suppose some people will judge that on balance Mao did more good than harm. You can’t say that about the Nazis.”

More good than harm. It’s a line that does sound rather similar to the official verdict of the Communist Party in Beijing, which states that Mao was “70 per cent correct” in his decisions. Orville Schell and John Delury in their recent book on China, Wealth and Power, offer a revisionist take on Mao’s society-shredding Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. “Like a forest fire that clears the way for new growth it may have prepared the way to usher in spectacular new economic growth,” they argue. Schell and Delury are not Communist diehards but two senior fellows of America’s respected Asia Society.

In a Channel 4 documentary on China a couple of years ago the right-wing historian and official biographer of Henry Kissinger Niall Ferguson argued along similar revisionist lines about the Chinese dictator. Explaining the reasons for China’s phenomenal economic progress in recent decades, he informed viewers “the key thing to grasp is the indispensable role played … by Mao’s system of mass mobilisation”.

It has become an increasingly respectable argument to assert that, despite the tens of millions of Chinese who were undoubtedly done to death under Mao, he prepared the ground for the country’s economic modernisation with his “Great Leap Forward” and his “Cultural Revolution”. Is this a reasonable conclusion? Did Mao really do more good than harm?

The answer is no, it is not a reasonable conclusion. Mao’s terrorisation of the Chinese population in the Cultural Revolution did not create the conditions for China’s economic take-off in the late 1970s. We can say that with confidence because we know it’s possible for poor countries to experience rapid industrialisation without Mao-style terror. Japan showed that in the 19th century, when it transformed from a largely medieval society to a modern Victorian economy in a matter of decades. 

And, more pertinently, Taiwan and South Korea demonstrated it in the 1950s and 1960s, when their growth far outstripped that of Maoist China, having begun from similar poverty-saturated starting points. While the regimes in Taipei and Seoul were hardly liberal democratic utopias (both were ruled by rather unpleasant military strongmen) they experienced nothing akin to Maoism.

In the Cultural Revolution families were ripped apart as young children were brainwashed by the Mao personality cult and encouraged to persecute their own parents for being insufficiently committed to the twisted ideology. Millions of young town dwellers were uprooted and sent to the countryside to “learn from the peasants”. The old culture of China was ruthlessly attacked, and the population cowed by hordes of violent and bigoted “Red Guards”. The economic success of countries such as Taiwan and South Korea (and China’s parallel failure) sprang not from such grotesque “mass mobilisation” but from sensible economic policies.

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Development economists and historians disagree on how precisely poor nations become rich nations. But one of the most coherent and plausible theories from an East Asian perspective is that land reform is an essential first step. The aristocratic estates that keep the vast majority of the population in debt bondage and on the verge of serfdom must first be broken up in an egalitarian drive. After being given their own decent-sized holdings peasants become enthusiastic market gardeners. They successfully grow enough crops not only to feed their families but also to generate a surplus to sell on. State direction of the farmers’ savings, through a controlled national financial system, into protected, yet export-oriented, new industries turns the wheel of industrialisation in a virtuous economic circle. Growth and living standards take-off.

This is a pattern that links all the major East Asian states that successfully grew into rich countries in the post-war era. And what characterises those that failed to make the leap – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia – was their failure to enact proper private land reform. As for China, Mao did break up the rich rural estates in the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s. But he then insisted on collectivising agriculture, abolishing private property and forcing the peasantry into communes.

In terms of agricultural productivity Mao’s Great Leap Forward was an unparalleled catastrophe, resulting in one of the worst famines the world has ever witnessed. The historian Frank Dikotter estimates that 45 million Chinese were worked, starved or beaten to death between 1958 and 1962. It was only when the agricultural collectives disintegrated into a host of household plots after Mao’s death in 1976 that the Chinese peasantry began to work the land with any effort. Yields exploded. Farmers traded their surpluses and rural entrepreneurs set up new business. Then the familiar East Asian development model kicked in, with the new leader Deng Xiaoping welcoming foreign investment and expertise, while keeping the domestic financial system under tight control.

Post hoc propter hoc explanations are beguiling but they are usually fallacious. China’s development did not take off because Mao’s brutal zealotry had handily wiped the slate clean. As well as destroying millions of lives the ignorant monster held the entire country back for decades.

Mao prevented China’s population from attaining the prosperity that it could have begun to enjoy far earlier. Mao and his little red book were nothing but a big economic disaster.