Leading Article: The man who held China back

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The Independent Online
SPEAKING on yesterday's centenary of the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung's birth, China's President, Jiang Zemin, supported the party line that Mao's 'contributions surpass his errors': the official view is apparently that Mao was '70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong' in his policies. That seems a seriously overgenerous estimate to anyone familiar with the terrible famine created by the so-called Great Leap Forward initiated in 1958, and with the Cultural Revolution begun eight years later.

True, Mao consolidated the unification process largely completed in the late Twenties by the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek; and he gave it back some self-respect after a long period of anarchy and civil war. Those achievements apart, however, he was a disaster for his country. Among the great criminals of the 20th century, he was out-performed only by Hitler and Stalin, escaping similar condemnation thanks only to the relative indirectness of the ways in which he caused people to die.

That is not to say he neglected official executions or death by forced labour and under-nourishment in a vast network of gulags. His novel contribution in the Cultural Revolution was to arouse the worst instincts of the Chinese people, encouraging everyone with the smallest grudge to become a torturer or murderer. In terms of the numbers who died as a result of his ruthlessness, he is in the same multimillion league as the German and Soviet dictators.

How different any assessment might have been had he died shortly after successfully leading the revolution that resulted in the proclamation of the People's Republic in 1949. Thanks to the brutality of the Japanese occupation of the Thirties and of the Kuomintang era, the Long March attracted many of the country's best people. Tragically, however, Mao proved to be a classic case of the victorious guerrilla leader, incapable of running his country and unfit to do so. He soon became a no less perfect exemplification of the corrupting effect of power.

Ignorance of economics alone cannot explain the craziness of the Great Leap Forward, in which an officially estimated 100 million peasants were pulled out of agricultural work and put into steel production, with tens of millions of people dying in the resulting famine. Mao combined a total contempt for human life with a psychopathic need to exercise absolute power, in defiance of advice and reason.

By contrast, it was the shrewdly phased economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, starting in 1979 and probably inspired by the success of expatriate Chinese in market systems, that initiated a genuine, if uneven, great leap forward. The possibility of China returning to chaos, marked conceivably by civil war between the haves and the have-nots, cannot be ruled out. A likelier prospect is of a struggle for dominance in East Asia with Japan. As China's political and economic power expands, Mao will come to be seen chiefly as the man who held the Chinese back.