How Mao Modernised Chinese Thinking

Maoism As Normal Politics

by Gwydion M. Williams

Neither critics nor admirers ever try seeing Maoism as normal politics. And yet all over the world, the process of nation-building normally includes at least one charismatic leader and a period of ideological fervour. Something of the sort was highly likely to happen, if China’s ancient and static civilisation was to be pulled into the modern world.

If there’s anyone who still says that China’s ancient and static civilisation should have been left just as it was, that’s a legitimate viewpoint, and the guilt falls on Britain and its Opium Wars. If they think that modernisation would have been better done more gradually, maybe – but I explained over the last two months how that possibility had already ended long before Mao had any significant power. By his own account, Mao as a teenager supported the idea of Constitutional Monarchy. He kept this view up to the time the actual Monarchy fell.

Both Yuan Shih-k’ai and Chiang Kai-shek had a go at being charismatic leaders. Yuan was never plausible, he was the leader of China’s best army when the Manchu dynasty was overthrown, but he had never defended China against its enemies, and never did. Chiang was better placed, if he had been willing to carry on with the National Revolution once he got to Shanghai. A stronger wiser cleverer man would not have feared the Communists, but would have used them to balance the reactionary elements. Instead he made a choice similar to that made earlier by Mussolini, make a deal with the existing powers, use radical slogans but crack down on all real radicalism. Mussolini appeared strong for many years, but when his ‘New Order’ was tested in World War Two, it turned out that Italy was almost as badly organised as it had been under the Liberal government that fought World War One. [I] Yet Mussolini inherited a unified and partly modernised state, a state recognised as a mid-ranking European power and sometimes sought as an ally. He had also maybe done enough to ensure that Italy could develop coherently after World War Two. It’s hard to imagine a way in which normal politics could ever have been established in the fragmented China of the 1920s and 1930s without the Communist Party coming to power and being decisively radical.

I say ‘normal politics’, and expect to be disbelieved. Disbelieved because ‘normal’ is commonly confused with ‘peaceful’. A peaceful norm is fine when it’s achievable, but often it is not. A lot of the time, ‘normal politics’ does not mean ‘politics that is moderate, mild, courteous, restrained’ and all the other stuff that most commentators take to be normal. Such things are normal for those who have a secure position of power and don’t want much to change. Such ‘normality’ certainly did not apply when Britain was raising itself from a fairly poor offshore island to the richest and strongest state in the world. It didn’t really apply to the USA either, which consolidated itself only after an amazingly vicious Civil War in the 1860s and then healed the wounds by allowing four generations of racial oppression in the US South. Good-tempered politics are fine once the basics are established and the issues between the electable political parties are nothing that anyone would think of dying for. It’s different when power is insecure or when drastic change is a necessity.

For China, Edgar Snow saw it clearly back in 1937:

“You know in one sense you can think of the whole history of the Communist movement on China as a grand propaganda tour, and the defence, not so much of the absolute right of certain ideas, perhaps, as of their right to exist. I’m not sure that it may not prove to have been the most permanent service of the Reds, even if they are in the end defeated and broken…

“However badly they have erred at times, however tragic have been their excesses, however exaggerated has been the emphasis here or the stress there, it has been their sincere and sharply felt propaganda aim to shake, to arouse, the millions of rural China to their responsibilities in society; to awaken them to a belief in human rights, to combat the timidity, passiveness and static faiths of Taoism and Confucianism, to educate, to persuade and, I have no doubt, at times to beleaguer and coerce them to fight for ‘the reign of the people’ – a new vision in rural China – to fight for a life of justice, equality, freedom and human dignity, as the Communists see it. Far more than all the pious but meaningless resolutions passed at Nanking [the Kuomintang capital], this growing pressure now from a peasantry gradually standing erect in a state of consciousness, after two millenniums of sleep, may force the realisation of a vast mutation over the land.” [A]

Methods were drastic, certainly. Life was often tough for Western-educated intellectuals who got left behind. Life was also improved much more drastically for the bulk of the society, for workers and peasants and also for women who wanted to move beyond traditional female roles.

After their military victory, the Chinese Communists still had to show that they could change the society. This meant initially getting rid of the landlords, dispossessing and humbling them, as well as authorising their neighbours to deal out such punishments as seemed suitable. Those who were executed were generally guilty of serious crimes, usually murders remembered from the days when landlords could safely murder poor people to enforce their authority.

The campaign eliminated a class of Chinese gentry-warlords whose roots went back into China’s remote past and who had failed to modernise China during their decades of dominance. They had successfully suppressed their own people in the shape of the Taiping Rebellion, and yet remained scared of them. Most of the warlords preferred to be local tyrants pushed around by foreign powers, but with a privileged position over other Chinese. Most of the gentry accepted arbitrary warlord power on the assumption that they would remain privileged, which was indeed the norm. Some of the warlords and gentry might want modernisation in the abstract. But the real price of modernisation was that they should abolish themselves, give up gentry privileges and unite with the common people. Naturally this was too much for most members of this class. Although there was limited modernisation in the coastal cities, this was balance by a general decay of China’s rural economy. Only after 1949 did real modernisation occur throughout the whole country.

In China there was no hope of the landlords doing anything on their own, or of them being anything other than a burden on society. I’ve seen critics of land-reform methods argue that they were not many large landlords, which is true but also misses the point. In parts of Europe, both large and small landlords were a dynamic element and improved agriculture. Britain’s 18th century gentry were very radical about the economy, shaking up a traditional order and introducing scientific methods to agriculture – though they also pretty much abolished Britain’s peasantry, reducing the countryside to a system of tenant-farmers and landless labourers. This was an economic success, whatever you think about it socially. But Britain in the 18th century was a very odd society, pushed into an unusual mode of development by its failure to settle its own identity in its 17th century civil wars. That particular rural gentry were the most radical rural ruling class that have ever existed. Whereas in China, the rural ruling class were pretty solidly against all change, looking back to traditions going back thousand years and which they saw as the main reason for existence.

China also had to move quickly. China faced a very real possibility of invasion, by the USA and also from the Soviet Union from the mid-1960s. The USA after 1949 could have accepted that the Kuomintang regime had been hopeless, instead of punishing all of US experts who told them the true position. The purge and hysteria is remembered now as ‘McCarthyism’ – or perhaps McCarthyism has now been forgotten about, though it was once infamous. But the process was actually much wider and involved the Kennedy brothers, the future President John F. Kennedy and also Robert Kennedy. Robert Kennedy was an anti-communist hysteric at the time and was making a strange evolution into a kind of radical when he was assassinated in 1968. A major role in the anti-Communist campaign was played by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI: in some ways Joe McCarthy was a front for them and conveniently given the entire blame when the nation’s mood change.

To the USA, China was supposed to be pro-Western and subordinate, Tonto to the USA’s Lone Ranger. China asserting its own identity was no part of the script – but the script was always foolish. In the original radio version of the Lone Ranger, the supposed Native American Tonto was actually played by English actor John Todd. [AF] The USA never has been good at understanding foreigners and usually prefers fantasy to reality.

The USA might have made the same sort of deal in the mid-1950s that they actually made in the early 1970s. Had this happened, the Communist regime might have taken a much milder attitude to those with Western education or contacts. Oddly, not one of the many Western-educated Chinese who’ve written books full of complaints from the 1980s onwards seem to notice this possibility. A quick delve in the archives would reveal how much extremism and nonsense there was on the Western side, a degree of hostility that would cause any sensible government to be wary when it came from a nuclear-armed superpower with a vast fleet near China’s Pacific coast. Felix Greene’s A Curtain of Ignorance gives an account of the position up to 1965, with plenty of specific sources that can be checked by anyone who disbelieves him.

Both Felix Greene and Edgar Snow get criticised now for supposedly not noticing famine under Mao. Actually they both say quite a lot about the ‘Three Bitter Years’, 1959 to 1961, but put them in context.   Green says:

“With the establishment of the new government in Peking in 1949, two things happened.

“First, starvation – death by hunger – ceased in China. Food shortages, and severe ones, there have been, but no starvation. This is a fact fully documented by Western observers…

“How many Americans, for instance, would believe a report like this?

“‘The truth is that that the sufferings of the ordinary Chinese peasant form war, disorder and famine have been immeasurably less in the last decade than in any other decade in the century.’ (The Times, London, April 18, 1962.)…

“In May 1962 an unusually large number of Chinese refugees flocked to Hong Kong… official British government statements attest to the fact that the refugees were not suffering from malnutrition, nor did any of them seek political asylum or claim that they were fleeing Communism as such… Food shortages and the general discomfort of life in this period were undoubtedly some of the causes for this exodus, but not starvation.” [B]

This is followed by quotes from US newspapers, named and dated, in which the US was told of famine year on year, even during the bumper harvest of 1957. Anyone who doubts Felix Greene’s honesty can go check those sources and note the rubbish that mainstream US media were talking at the time. (I’ve not done so myself, but that’s because I’ve been able to check his judgements on other areas and found him always honest and accurate, though sometimes naive.)

Calculations of tens of millions of deaths are based on comparing Mao to Mao in order to condemn Mao. Drastic methods from 1949 to 1958 had been highly successful, with food production increasing greatly. The death rate had fallen and the birth rate had risen. The sudden worsening from 1959 was not outside the previous experience of most Chinese – maybe it hit a few well-off people who had been shielded before, but for most people it was a brief return of the Bad Old Days.

The Chinese Communist government had universal rationing during the crisis, so it’s unlikely that anyone actually died of hunger. What did happen was that there was a lot of stress, everyone got less food than they wanted and the death rate doubled. Over the three years there were 30 million excess deaths in a population of 600 million, if you believe the post-Mao statistics. Vastly more would have died if things had been as bad as US authorities were claiming at the time. And the survivors would hardly have showed the enthusiasm for Mao that was actually shown in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 onwards.

It’s also worth asking how reliable the post-Mao statistics actually are. No one has been able to come up with any solid evidence that Deng Xiaoping or Liu Shaoqi were against the Great Leap Forward at the time. They did however conclude during the Three Bitter Years that it was better in future to rely on material incentives and never again to try to mobilise the mass of the Chinese people in an unplanned way. This remained a major point of contention through the years of the Cultural Revolution. It remained a political battleground after Mao’s death in 1976 and Deng’s emergence as the new leader by 1978. It is in their interests to exaggerate problems and downplay successes for the years when Mao was as his most radical.

Whether the ‘Three Bitter Years’ count as a famine or a food shortage is a matter of semantics. ‘Famine’ normally implies deaths by starvation, but can arguably mean just a shortage. Felix Greene and Edgar Snow are quite clear: they take famine to mean visible starvation. They had seen it or learned about it in pre-Communist China, and also in the Republic of India and many other places at the time. But not in China under Mao.


What’s also overlooked is that the crisis of 1959-1961 established that China did not take orders from Moscow. The Revolution of 1949 was widely seen by outsiders as a Russian take-over. It did bring to power a party that was theoretically subordinate to the global Communist movement centred in Moscow, at much the same time as pro-Moscow elements took control in those parts of Europe that the Red Army had occupied in World War Two. China could be seen as another such case. The reality was always rather different, the Soviet Union had briefly occupied Manchuria but had otherwise had little effect on the Chinese Civil War, which was won using local resources. This was a point that Stalin understood but which Khrushchev evidently failed to grasp. Khrushchev chose to increase China’s difficulties by withdrawing Soviet technicians in 1960, causing great disruption to joint projects that they had been working on. Edgar Snow describes what happened:

“During his opening speech Khrushchev attacked Albania for refusing to abide by the decisions of the Twentieth Congress (de-Stalinization) program. Unexpectedly, he demanded expulsion of its leadership and read it out of the bloc….

“Khrushchev’s action was clearly a warning that if China continued intransigent he would also read Mao out of the party. The gravity of the threat was already manifest in the economic sanctions Khrushchev had applied against China ever since the trade-unions conference in Peking in June, 1960… Shortly afterwards Khrushchev had withdrawn nearly all Soviet technical experts from China, leaving some major projects in an unfinished state. Chinese engineers might eventually complete them but their task was viciously complicated by the withdrawal also of many blueprints and specifications as well as by the withholding of vital parts… Contracts were not cancelled; operations merely paused to give Peking time to think it over. Trade slackened off. Rather gratuitously, the Russians openly announced the suspension of certain shipments because of China’s negative barter balance. These sanctions coincided with the worst harvests China had known this century, when far greater than normal cooperation was needed from the Soviet Union.

“In 1961 it seemed that Peking had to throw in its hand or call Khrushchev’s card. But could he actually play it? … Representatives of Western parties endorsed Khrushchev’s leadership by attacking Albania… But all the Asian parties, with the single exception of tiny Ceylon, totally abstained from any criticism of Albania…

“If Khrushchev, personifying the current Soviet party majority, thought to bluff Mao Tse-tung by these various means, he had misjudged the man, the nation, and the Chinese revolution.” [C]

I’d have thought that Khrushchev was actually aiming at a change of leadership in China. China then was in a tough situation, with the USA still a bitter foe that insisted on viewing the exiled Kuomintang as the lawful government of China. Khrushchev’s action was an attempt to bully China, and it failed. He maybe didn’t understand the enormous strength of Mao’s position within the party. When Mao was raised to the status of leader during the Long March, it was because most of the party leadership were convinced that their Soviet advisors had blundered and that Mao’s unorthodox methods were correct. Neither Deng Xiaoping nor Liu Shaoqi were inclined to back down in the face of such threats: they were solidly for Mao against Khrushchev, even though they wanted different internal Chinese politics. I doubt if either man felt any sympathy for de-Stalinisation, which was a rejection of politics which had worked well in China.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Sino-Soviet split looks like part of the general rise of East Asia, its equalisation with the West. Khrushchev was taking an out-of-date view, supposing that world politics was still controlled by Europe and its colonial offshoots and that Asia would have to obey. Asia as a whole thought otherwise, and proved it in the coming decades. Russia never really recovered coherence after the disruption caused by Khrushchev. China meantime found its own path to modernisation, one utterly different from the parallel rise of Japan and of the Republic of India.

The West did not build itself by mild methods. England was hammered into shape by centuries of brutality under warlike monarchs, with failed bids to conquer Scotland and France, a successful conquest of Wales and a conquest of Ireland that could never quite be completed. Modern Britain emerged from a fifty-year run of ‘British Wars’, beginning with the ‘Bishops War’ waged unsuccessfully against the Scots in 1639-40 and concluding with a Dutch invasion by William of Orange in 1688, not made secure until the Battle of the Boyne crushed Catholic Ireland in 1690. Britain was not a democracy until the 1880s, at the earliest – reforms in that decade extended the vote to 60% of adult males in the British Isles. Britain’s white settlements had their own parliaments and democracy, but non-white colonies generally did not. Before he became Britain’s charismatic leader in World War Two, Churchill’s chief contribution had been to sabotage the sensible proposal by Britain’s Tory government to grant a form of self-government to India, ‘Dominion Status’ that would have put them on a level with Australia, Canada etc.

The major Asian alternatives to Chinese Communism have been states built on foundations laid by either the British Empire, the Dutch Empire, the French Empire or the Japanese Empire. The Kuomintang success in Taiwan was mostly built on Japanese foundations. The Kuomintang in Taiwan were also willing and able to carry through a proper Land Reform, under US urging, and with a lot of US money for ‘sweeteners’. It must have helped that Taiwanese landowners had flourished under Japanese rule and had few connections with the exiled Kuomintang. Land Reform was also made easier by a general awareness that global Communism was the most obvious alternative.


Mainland China was meantime carrying through a much more drastic change. There’s an interesting book called I Stayed in China by a British teacher called William Sewell, a committed Christian who had spent many years in China and decided to stay after 1949. He did this after having been in some measure sympathetic to the young people who’d decided that the Kuomintang were hopeless and moved towards the Communists. He was associated with a group that called itself the Birds of Spring, one of several unofficial groups of young people that had sprung up at what had been a university created to educate and Christianise young Chinese.

“‘Treat us just like your own sons and daughters… We need your advice and we shall be obedient.’ One explanation of the groups was plain. The enduring strength of Chinese society has for generations lain with their countless decentralized patriarchal families. In them the Chinese people have learned not only the art of living, but the subordination of the individual in relation to other people. Every Chinese has felt himself or herself to be not primarily an isolated personality but a link in an endless chain, stretching back into the past and reaching out into the future. The regulation of life followed the decisions of the elders, even on such personal matters as marriage. Those who were strong and successful accepted their responsibilities towards all in the group, while those who were weak or ill were cared for as their right.

“Through the corroding acids of modern living (especially industrial changes and the education of women, so that a girl would put her husband before her mother-in-law) the disintegration of the old Chinese families began. The security of these tightly knit groups and the fellowship of like-minded kinfolk were fast being lost. However, in these new student groups young people were seeking and in some measure finding a substitute for the old large family. There was in the group a sense of intense loyalty and mutual support. To emphasize their close relationship the members called each other brother and sister, and as in the family itself numbered themselves Big, Second, Third or Fourth brother or sister down to the baby who had just joined.” [D]

Mao had to complete the disruption of the extended patriarchal family, in order to modernise China. But as a Communist, he was naturally interested in the possibility of preserving elements of this group existence and mutual aid. Deng from 1978 favoured the simpler option of letting commerce cut all existing bonds and hope that it would all knit together again later on, after China had become an industrialised society. This made Deng the orthodox Marxist and Mao the experimenter.

All of that came later. At first there was agreement that China needed to be put in order. This was done fairly mildly, especially considering how the Kuomintang had ruled, the way in which they had murdered the relatives of leading Communists and anyone else they thought might be an oppositionist. Sewell tells how some of those he knew had suffered. He was in a part of mainland China where Chiang Kaishek considered making a last stand before fleeing to Taiwan:

“Chiang , before leaving, had ordered all the political prisoners in the prisons to be killed; nearly three hundred were shot or buried alive… Would the same sort of thing happen at our Duliang prison, we wondered…

“‘They have dug up the bodies – not so many, perhaps twenty in all. They were gagged and blindfolded, their arms tied behind them. Some were stabbed in the back. Others had no wounds, but there was blood from nose and ears. They were buried alive!” [E]

In some ways the Kuomintang behaved worse than the Nazis, who generally shot their victims before burying them. But because the Kuomintang only murdered their own people and were highly respectful of Europeans and Americans in China, it gets forgotten and forgiven.

Today’s writers of long diatribes about Chinese Communism fail to mention how the Kuomintang behaved. Mao’s first wife was a victim of this sort of judicial murder, and there were plenty of other cases. Considering what they had to come through, the Communists ruled quite mildly.

There is also wilful misunderstanding of the term ‘liquidated’. In English, this was originally a commercial term for the winding up of a bankrupt company. It is still used in just this sense. When the Bolsheviks in Russia used it, it sometimes also meant that some of those targeted had been killed, but quite often not. The same applied in China, as Sewell explains:

“Pockets of bandits, the remnants of the Kuomintang armies, were rounded up and ‘liquidated’. The Chinese term was translated in the western press as ‘killed’, but its real meaning was ‘disposed of, rendered of no account’. I myself, along with other western colleagues, had long since been liquidated, but am still alive. Very few of the liquidated bandits were killed, most of them were given money and sent home, those who so wished were trained for the new army.” [F]

Like most Westerners at the time, Sewell had seen the Chinese Communists as a simple extension of the power of the Soviet Union. He was surprised to find no Russians present:

“We had expected to see Russian guns and tanks, and Russian advisers; but they were not there. Some of the guns were certainly German, won from Japan, but nearly all the equipment, guns, jeeps, rifles and tanks, were from the United States of America, either won fairly in battle, or else bought from Kuomintang leaders who valued cash for personal reasons rather than the weapons they had no will to handle.” [G]

Sewell soon found that this was a very new sort of government:

“It soon became obvious that a puritan revolution was taking place. New moral standards were being adopted. There was a vigorous reaction against romantic love. Hollywood films, which had been flooding the market, were no longer shown. The sexual morals, the drinking habits, the scenes of violence which might be suitable for a western democracy were quite out of place in the People’s Republic…

“From the streets the beggars had gone; and their absence made the place cleaner. These wretched men and women had always haunted the streets… Slowly by simple education those who were not mentally already beyond redemption were fitted for a more productive life.” [H]

Note that the Hollywood films would have been from the 1930s and 1940s, stuff that’s very mild by modern standards. Many other observers noticed that begging had gone, along with prostitution and drug addiction. All of these have unfortunately returned to post-Mao China, though in a much less degraded form.

China under Mao was run as a single gigantic enterprise or a single gigantic family. People previously ignored were fitted in and looked after. Of course it was rough if you refused to fit in, or got suspected during some period of crisis. But this applied to a small minority, mostly intellectuals who have been in a position to make a lot of noise about it afterwards. Most people had no such problem and saw Mao’s rule as a time when things suddenly got a whole lot better.

Liberation was also tough for landlords, but there were rules. Sewell saw some of it for himself:

“It was true, we knew from our papers, that in some parts of China, where Land Reform had already taken place, there had been angry scenes, and landlords had been beaten to death by the people or had killed themselves in their fear. The Government realized that they had greatly underestimated the passions of the people when they were aroused; but now the cadres were wiser and were present to see that matters did not get out of control. Round Duliang they had seen no trouble like this. After the people had spoken the landlords were either handed over to the police for trial, or allowed to remain free according to circumstances. Only those who were proved to have been responsible for the death of a tenant combined with rape, or for several deaths, were legally liable to the death penalty; from the others, who were sent for trial, compensation was usually demanded… ‘The day of the landlord is over. They are liquidated at last, but at least half will be working on the land, side by side with the people whom they exploited.” [K]

“It is impossible to estimate how many of the landlord class were either executed after trial, killed by angry peasant or committed suicide. The numbers, great though they may have been, were much fewer, I am convinced, than those published by some critics, who quite wrongly translate hsiao-mieh (=liquidate, to render of no account) as meaning killed. [L]

The Chinese government should give some reputable Western documentary-maker the chance to look into land reform while some of the participants are still alive. If it were shown that the party cadres were mainly a restraining force on popular anger, that would change the view you get in the West. Even if this turned out to be an exaggeration, it would still be useful to have a long list of the things that the various landlords had done.

Freed from a parasitic landlord class that wanted nothing much to change, the rural economy stopped decaying and started expanding. Naturally there was a general change of mood. Sewell summed up China’s changes as follows:

“It was only partly true to talk of political studies and political awareness; this was an overwhelming religious revival that was sweeping the land. A religion that demanded his all form every man.

“It was as though Marxism-Leninism had been the key to open the sluice-gate, and the Spirit of China, from down the centuries of her great past, had come flooding in. It was washing away the humiliation and shame of the more recent decades, which had brought the invasion of crude foreign ways; it was destroying that which was not adaptable for Chinese use, and cleansing that which was welcomed so that it ceased to be foreign and became Chinese. China, after this unhappy interlude, was herself once again.” [M]

Sewell was also wise enough to leave during the 1950s, knowing that he could never truly be part of it. Maoism as a quasi-religious movement swept on and culminated in the Cultural Revolution. It then partly self-destructed, but people overlook that the first retreat was made by Mao himself in his last years. After winding down the more extreme aspects of the Cultural Revolution, Mao surprising everyone by suddenly making peace with the USA and accepting a functional alliance with the USA against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union in the early 1970s was still very powerful and menacing and an invasion of China was always a serious possibility. I’d reckon that Mao always had a much more flexible and realistic view than his followers.

Modern industry in Europe emerged at a time of religious intensity, and many of the pioneers were intensely religious, in both Britain and the USA. In the mid-19th century, the first telegraph message sent in the USA was ‘What Hath God Wrought’, a verse from the Old Testament.[N] While Mao was transforming China, the Republic of India was rooted in the revived Hinduism of Mahatma Ghandi. Iran’s ‘sensible’ modernisation under the Shah fell apart from a lack of serious believers, and was won over for hard-line Shia Islam after rival Marxist rebels were defeated. Modernism based on creeds that the West calls extremism is modernism that works, modernism not unlike what the West did to itself when establishing its own new norms. It is the various attempted modernisations of traditional societies based on the current European view of common-sense that have proved to be modernisations built on sand. Africa mostly did what the West advised and Africa is a total mess outside of South Africa.

Edgar Snow saw the process in more secular terms, but also noted the dramatic change:

“The Communists became in effect a mobile, armed, ubiquitous propaganda crusade spreading their message across hundreds of thousands of square miles of Asia. To millions of peasants they brought the first contacts with the modern world. To youths and women – for the Reds courted them first and last – they opened up unheard-of vistas of new personal freedom and importance… Kung-ch’an-tang [the Chinese name of the Communist Party] may be translated as ‘Share-production-party’.” [P]

The modern world has made everyone part of some sort of ‘share-production’ system. For centuries and millennia, peasants farmed their own land or else were used as living tools by a landowner. In either case, the village was a largely self-sufficient system, an ‘island entire unto itself’. Craftsmen used local materials and had little connection to the outside world. Life became something very different when everyone came to depend on millions of others and could not exist without them. Theorists of capitalism, beginning with Adam Smith, promised that the new economy would run smoothly thanks to impersonal market forces that would be all for the best. In practice this has not worked, with even right-wing governments finding it necessary to step in and stop markets self-destructing. The Chinese Communist Party remains true to its own name in its own language: production remains a social matter and property rights are not put above human needs.

As well as revitalising an economy that had long been stagnant, Mao also established basic welfare, including support for the childless elderly. Edgar Snow met one such group:

“‘Like it? Who doesn’t like a rest after a hard life? Who would feed and shelter old men with no children in former times? Nothing to worry about! Simply unheard of! We’d all be dead.’

“I did not disturb these tranquil elders by telling them that they had been herded into camps and separated from their children, or so I had read abroad. Even the childless old ones were not forced into this home. Two individualists (‘too old to change’) here in Willow Grove lived in their caves alone, and wanted nothing to do with any ‘home’ as long as they got food.” [W]

Present-day Western commentators very seldom mention the absurd stuff that was said about China back in the 1950s and 1960s in the USA, and even to some degree in Britain. In the early 1960s, at school in Britain, I found that some of my fellow pupils seriously believed that the Kuomintang might soon be making a triumphant return to the Mainland. I think that particular Western notion perished during the Cultural Revolution, when it became clear that Mao could throw the whole society into turmoil without a single movement appearing that wished to be viewed as anti-Mao. The nearest was an outbreak in Wuhan, but even this expressed itself in Mao’s language and claimed loyalty even as it opposed Mao’s actual policies.

Mao was central to Chinese identity at that time, because China had changed utterly from what it had been. Snow noted the changed attitudes:

“Facts, facts, facts! In other times you couldn’t get an exactitude from any peasant: his children were ‘several’, the next town was ‘not ten li distant,’ the size of his farm was ‘shang hsia‘ – more or less. Now, whether it’s the party secretary, a nurse, a cook or a student, he talks percentages, number of pigs and piglets, years and increases, high yields and averages… These people known their taxes to a decimal; they know their ‘four fixed’ and their ‘three guarantees,’ and where their labour and money go.” [Y]

Modern analytical thinking originated in Western Europe, initially in Italy, though it later regressed within Italy at the same time as it was carried further elsewhere. ‘Yellow China’ had just the right balance of tradition, superstition and analytical thinking to maintain a high and stable level of pre-industrial culture. This success led to a natural reluctance to change or learn from the West, which wanted to upset that balance. China was not given time enough to transform without breaking the existing culture, but the Western-style Republic of 1912 to 1949 mostly just broke things and regenerated little. A real transformation needed Chinese Communist strength and a willingness to take risks.



[A] Snow, Edgar. Red Star Over China, part 3, chapter 5, page 120

[B] Greene, Felix. A Curtain of Ignorance, chapter 6, pages 93-94.

[C] Snow, Edgar. The Other Side of the River, Victor Gollancz 1963, chapter 83, page 665-6.

[D] Sewell, William G. I Stayed in China, Allen & Unwin 1966. Page 19-20. This work is long out of print: it would be well worth someone reprinting.

[E] Ibid, page 62

[F] Ibid, page 86

[G] Ibid, page 66

[H] Ibid, page 86-87

[I] Bosworth, R J B. Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Dictatorship, 1915-1945. Penguin 2006

[K] Ibid, page 183

[L] Ibid, footnote to page 183

[M] Ibid, page 194

[N] Wikipedia article on Telegraphy. The phrase is from Numbers 23:23.

[P] Snow, Edgar. The Other Side of the River, page 71

[W] Snow, Edgar. The Other Side of the River, page 482

[Y] Ibid, page 483. A li is a traditional measure of distance, now standardised at 500 metres but quite variable in traditional usage.


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2010

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