This article was contributed by my friend, Chuck, who spent three years in China.
Mao Zedong, Chinese nationalism, and China’s real era of humiliation
The Chinese have a peculiar view of their recent history. The First Opium War with the British initiated the “Century of Humiliation” in 1839, in which foreign powers infringed on Chinese sovereignty, defeated China in wars, and, particularly with the Japanese in the 30s and 40s, wreaked havoc on its people. This period of humiliation, according to the Chinese version of history, ended when Mao Zedong came to power. He expelled the foreigners and established the People’s Republic. His portrait still hangs in homes, people line up teary-eyed before the Tiananmen Square mausoleum to bring flowers to his embalmed body, and protesters of the current Diaoyu Island dispute carry posters with his image alongside anti-Japanese slogans. Foreigners are bad, Mao is good – a symbol of national pride.
In my interpretation of China’s history, the humiliation didn’t stop with Mao. He did more damage to China than any Eight-Nation Alliance ever could. China’s official line on Mao Zedong was that he was “seven parts right and three parts wrong.” Not by my scorecard.
Mao’s blunders began immediately after becoming chairman. As part of the communist playbook, he abolished property rights. But instead of only seizing land in name of the state, he encouraged peasants to kill landlords and village leaders. The peasants obliged, killing millions of their own countrymen.
The survivors were organized onto communal farms. The conditions in these communes make Japanese bayonets look cordial. According to one author:
…farmers who were herded into giant people’s communes had very few incentives to work. The land belonged to the state. The grain they produced was procured at a price that was often below the cost of production. Their livestock, tools, and utensils were no longer theirs. Often even their homes were confiscated. But the local cadres faced ever greater pressure to fulfill and over-fulfill the plan, having to drive the workforce in one merciless campaign after another. In some places both villagers and cadres became so brutalized that the scope and degree of coercion had to be constantly expanded, resulting in an orgy of violence. People were tied up, beaten, stripped, drowned in ponds, covered in excrement, branded with sizzling tools, mutilated, and buried alive. The most common tool in this arsenal of horror was food, which was used as a weapon: entire groups of people considered to be too old, too weak, or too sick to work were deliberately banned from the canteen and starved to death.
From 1958 to 1961 came the “Great Leap Forward,” which of course was a Great Leap Nowhere, or even Backward. Absurd quotas were placed on the communes, with grain being exported to obtain foreign currency while the countryside starved. Hundreds of millions were malnourished and cannibalism was widespread.
Exacerbating the problem was Mao’s target of surpassing Great Britain’s steel output in 15 years. The “Great Leader” deduced that steel is best produced in small, mom-and-pop-style venues, like baking cupcakes. He devised numerous backyard furnaces to do the trick. But to meet Mao’s fanciful production targets, scrap metal was needed. Not only were people not growing food during a famine, they were melting down their hoes and plows! What would a ragged peasant populous do with an abundance of homemade steel anyway? As many as 40 million died during these four years, giving China the honor of producing the greatest economic blunder of all time.
After this fiasco, Communist Party leaders started to think that maybe Mao’s policies weren’t such good ideas. Mao disagreed. The real fault was in the ingrained habits of Chinese culture, the seeping influence of Western materialism, and a lack of fervor for Communist tenants within the party. Communist China wasn’t Communist enough.
This led to the naturally misnamed “Cultural Revolution” in 1965. Anyone who showed any indication of not being a dogmatic follower of the chairman was purged. The country went into a state of terror. Religious persecution increased and historical artifacts were defaced. Millions of “privileged” urban youth were sent for re-education in the countryside rather than attending university. The result was a lost generation of intellectuals. As with most of Mao’s ideas, millions died. This gave rise to China’s chief export at the time: corpses. Bound, shot, decapitated bodies were found floating down the Pearl River into Hong Kong, which at that time, was on its way to becoming the backwards, economic wasteland it is today due to a lack of proper leadership</sarcasm>.
In 1976 Mao performed his greatest act as chairman: he died. After three decades of Mao, China suffered millions of unnecessary deaths and a halved GDP per capita, the latter reduced to a level below that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Up to 72 million deaths are attributable to him, theoretically making Mao a bigger mass murderer than Hitler or Stalin.
China would only begin to recover from the effects of Mao’s reign with his successor, Deng Xiaoping. Deng initiated agricultural reforms and allowed foreign – yes, foreign – investment in special economic zones. Only then did China’s humiliation truly end.
Instead of enduring Mao, China would have been better off as a Japanese colony. By this time they’d have toilets with heated seats and other whizbangs like Japan. So the next time you are squatting over a hole in a Chinese public toilet, look at the guy to the left and right of you (there are no walls or doors), and tell them that this is a more appropriate place for Mao’s portrait.