An exchange in defence of Chairman Mao

Chairman Mao is still controversial after many years. Highly revered in China, but highly criticised as tyrant by those overseas and Westerners. Perhaps, this exchange will shed more lights to those who want to understand more about this man, who steered  China from a weak and subjugated country, and turned it to become one of the great countries today. There are many accusations being thrown at Mao posthumously, but are they facts or fabrications ?
Introduction: the origin of the debate
The debate centered on the evaluation of Mao Zedong, taking place in recent issues of the Chinese Language weekly journal, the Dowei times, finds its origin in the heated exchanges between Professor Chen Junfu of Temple U and Mr. Gao Wenqian, author of the book,"Zhou Enlai in his late years" on the special talk show radio program of the Voice of America (VOA) to mark Mao’s 110th birthday on Dec. 26, 2004. Initially I was approached for this program by its producer, because of my active involvement in organizing the public event on Dec. 14, 2003 in Chinatown to mark Mao’s 110th birthday, with speeches and the screening of the movie documenting China’s nuclear, missile and satellite programs. I declined the honor of appearing on VOA, but referred the host to talk to my friend professor Chen, who was a speaker at the Dec 24 public event in Chinatown.
Transcripts of Chen and Gao’s radio debate were published by the Dowei Times, (1/18 – 1/24 issue), along with a piece by Zhu Xueyuan, Adulation of Mao is politically counter-productive, expressing support for Mr. Gao’s strident denunciation of Mao and criticizing Chen for unceremoniously dismissing Gao’s negative assessments as "sheer non-sense". Dr. Chen responded by an article in the same journal (2/22 – 2/28), The Wisdom and Vision of Mao; and then Gao Wenqian followed in the next issue (3/7 – 3/13) with a piece, Chen Junfu’s Real Agenda: Praise for Mao or Attack on Deng, which wallows, from beginning to end, in personal attack and character assassination with undisguised malice. Gao’s scurrilous piece has obviously stepped out of bounds of normal public discourse, but, to the extent that I got Dr. Chen into these exchanges, I feel obligated to make a few remarks on issues relevant to this debate.
First a comment addressed to the publisher and editors of Duowei Times.
Gao’s foul-mouthing, scurrilous piece is so replete with insults, venom, innuendo, name-calling, and attempts at character assassination that a self-respecting newspaper should not find it fit to print. What triggered Gao’s outburst of verbal abuses directed at Mr. Chen? According to Gao, it is because "Chen challenged [him] by name", so he "has to return in kind" The only reference to Gao by Mr. Chen in his article in reply to the piece by Zhu Xueyuan is in this attempt to explain why he chided Gao in the VOA radio program for "mouthing sheer nonsense": "Gao said that Mao was a mass murderer who had starved to death more people than Hitler ever killed. This is sheer nonsense. It struck me as either out of extreme malice or utter ignorance to compare Mao to Hitler". Gao may have reason to feel offended by the rebuke represented in this remark, but it implies no personal insults whatsoever. Compare Gao’s piece with those by Chan and Zhu, his intent to engage in personal insults and scurrilous attack is all too obvious.
The discursive power of Cultural Imperialism
I will now return to the main subject under discussion: evaluation of Mao.
Two of the most frequently heard charges from the leading Mao bashers today are the following: (1) Mao was a womanizing, sex-crazed, heartless tyrant, first gaining wide audience by way of a Random House’s book, Memoirs of Dr. Li Zhisui, the Private Physician of Mao Zedong; (2) Mao was a mass murderer whose Great Leap Forward led to the deaths of tens of millions of people in the worst famines in history.
Dr. Cheng Junfu dismissed the second charge as sheer nonsense resulting from either malice or ignorance. I will however dwell on another aspect left unmentioned in his exchanges with Gao Wenqian.. The two allegations above have one thing in common; they were both initially advanced by Chinese Mao bashers, and were not treated very seriously; but after they received a seal of approval from Western China experts, their veracity would suddenly seem to have been bolstered 100 times.
Let’s look at Dr. Li Zhisui’s book first; his initial manuscript was first peddled, respectively, to China Times Publish Co. in Taipei, and Professor Yu Ying-Shi of Princeton University. It was considered by neither of much value. China Times would offer him no more than a few thousand dollars; Dr. Yu refuse to lend his support because he saw in it "little value" as an account of history. But the situation changed drastically, when Mr. Jason Epstein, then the powerful chief editor at Random House, saw great potential in a book based on Li’s manuscript. Two U.S. China scholars, Andrew Nathan and Ann Thurston, were hired to lead the process of manufacturing a book of "value" out of whatever materials Li could be made to contribute. They spent two years "editing" the English translation of Li’s original Chinese manuscript, putting in numerous footnotes for academic trappings, and finally came up with a product that was significantly different from the original, not only in style but also in substance. Some of the well-known scholars and journalists from mainstream media organizations were then quickly lined up to hype this masterpiece. But the accounts purportedly given by Dr. Li were so full of holes that few knowledgeable of the events referred to therein would find them credible.
A number of us in the U.S. penned a critique of this book, and published it as an open letter in several Chinese-language newspapers overseas. We concluded by analyzing the holes and discrepancies found in the Chinese and the English language versions that the main allegations of the book were concocted either to bolster its commercial value or for ideological purposes. Our open letter-critique prompted the response, also in the form of an open letter, endorsed by dozens of people inside China, including such persons mentioned in Li’s book as among Mao Zedong’s inner circle as Wang Dongxin and well-known persons such as the playwright Cao Yu. Their open letter was followed by the book Let the Historical Truth Be Told, co-authored by Lin Ke, Mao Zedong’s secretary, Wu Xujun, Mao’s head nurse, and Xu Tao, a leading physician in Zhongnanhai, the resident compound of the Party central leadership.
Both of these documents forcefully demolished the purported account by Li Zhisui as a collage of distortions, slanders and outright lies.
Subsequently, Mr. Wang Li and Mr. Qi Benyu, both of Cultural Revolution fame, after they came out of prison, also openly opined that the book by Li Zhisui was a crude work of fraud. Professor Yu Ying-Shi’s change of heart in the meantime was particularly noteworthy. When so many people who knew and worked for Mao Zedong had stepped out to testify to the falsehood of Li’s stories, Professor Yu, instead, chose to passionately embrace this book, which was based on the manuscript he erstwhile had dismissed as worthless, by publishing a long review, touting its historical value, in the Chinese Language newspaper, China Times Daily. Once some US China scholars in the West had ‘certified’ the value of Li’s purported memoirs, many anti-Mao Chinese commentators would follow up by shouting cheers for this book with abandon. This illustrates nicely the working of what I would choose to call the discursive power of cultural imperialism.
The 30-million-deaths charge: an old wine in a new foreign bottle
We now turn to the charge that Mao was guilty of murdering tens of millions of Chinese people. For those who had been through the period when Chiang Kai-Shek and his son Chiang Ching-Kuo ruled Taiwan, this kind of charges, alleging that Mao’s regime meant an unadulterated disaster for the Chinese people, as routinely trumpeted by the so-called democracy activists in exile, is nothing new or original. It has a familiar ring, which brought back the memory of crude anti-Communist propaganda constantly churned out by the KMT Party machine. What a coincidence that the present-day Mao bashing not only conforms to the old anti-Communist propaganda in its main content, but also bears an uncanny resemblance to it, both in style and in tone. It is really a historical irony that the Chiang dynasty, which has long been swept into the dustbin of history, has now found successors to inherit their anti-Communist mantle.
A key element of the KMT propaganda was none other than the charge that Maoist Communists had murdered 30 million Chinese people. The KMT propagandists actually compiled a detailed list of Mao’s crimes, committed in various periods including the Cultural Revolution, with specific figures ascribed to each of them. If you put all the numbers together, it would far exceed 30 million, but no matter how hard the KMT tried, its allegations have never been taken seriously. Of course, the KMT had a credibility problem. Interestingly, in the 1990s, some Western China experts claimed to have uncovered evidence from China’s statistics yearbook to prove that more than 30 million people indeed had starved to death during the Great Leap Forward. Just like what happened to Dr. Li Zhisui’s purported memoirs, this fantastic allegation, upon receiving the seal of approval from some experts in the West, has suddenly become 100 times more believable. Western China experts and mainstream media, without exception, hailed this academic detective work, and certifed it as a firm conclusion corroborated by the historical archives of the Chinese Communist Party.
As always, the verdict pronounced by mainstream Western media/academia have been parroted piously and vociferously parroted by commentators in Chinese language media. Thus, the Long-discontinued staple of KMT propaganda, i.e.. the Maoist communists had murdered 30 million Chinese people has been revived with a twist.. The new crop of Mao-bashers, mainly the self-styled democrats and liberals and other dissidents in exile , have seized upon every conceivable occasion to accuse Mao of being a mass murderer responsible of 30 million deaths. But their math is just as fuzzy as their predecessors, the KMT party hacks: If one includes the tens of millions of deaths they blamed Mao for in other contexts, such as the Cultural Revolution, the total number far exceeds 30 millions that they now say are scientifically established.
The proposition that 30 million people died of starvation in the Great Leap Forward, just like the "Memoirs of Li Zhisui", has no solid basis whatsoever. Many Chinese are rightly offended by this wild allegation, but it is the captains and generals of the cultural imperialists in the West, and rather than their Chinese foot soldiers, that should be the target of our outrage; it is these experts in the West that deserve our most resounding rebuttals.
I will here only make two quick points. First, this allegation involving a staggering number in the tens of millions is based on inference, and a highly politically motivated inference of this kind calls for solid evidence. Otherwise it can only be deemed as wild speculation and utterly unbelievable. Second, the inferential work was based on highly selective use of unreliable data, and fails to meet the minimal standards of logical rigor.
No one denies that there were people who died of starvation during the three years from 1959 to 1961 when China was struck by some of the most severe natural disasters in its history. Nor would anyone deny that during this period, there were widespread food shortages; and many people suffered malnutrition, but this is no basis for alleging that tens of millions died from hunger. Sometimes it is more reliable to go by common sense than findings pronounced by experts, and in particular when we are dealing with the use of statistics. We are all familiar with how numbers can be manipulated by way of statistical analysis to support allegations that have far less validity than what is arrived at by common sense or intuition. This is not really so strange, because as far as mathematical statistics is concerned, sampling based on common sense is more reflective of the true population being studied than expert sampling, as it would take into account the need for averaging out, while experts without common sense can be very biased. By common sense, if indeed 30 million people, or 1 of 20 Chinese, had died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward, this would have been the most horrific ever famine scene in human history. One would have observed emaciated famine victims everywhere one looked in the vast Chinese land. There would have been massive movements of people fleeing from areas with the most severe food shortages; there would have been beggars everywhere. Such horrible famine scenes would have been witnessed by any number of Chinese people. It is not something that could have been hidden from the general public.
In fact, documents from that period and the experience of people who went through that period in no way corroborate the existence of a famine of such a horrific scale, or even of a much lesser scale. The narratives and figures we are reading about today are almost without exception fairly recent concoctions, produced 30 years after the fact. The only proof for the astounding number of 30 million victims, as repeatedly cited by Western experts, is a crude extrapolation based solely on the population data of the 1982 Statistics Yearbook of the People’s Republic of China: they compare the actual population figures as given by the Yearbook for those 3 years with the extrapolated figures for the same period assuming normal population growth trends. They found that the actual figures were 30 million lower than the extrapolated ones. So they concluded that the discrepancy could only be explained by abnormal fatalities caused by famine, meaning around 30 million people must have died of hunger. Since the famine occurred in the wake of the failed Great Leap Forward policies, so the excessive deaths in the famine must have been caused by the same policies. Since the Great Leap Forward was led by Mao Zedong, so by inference Mao Zedong must be held responsible for the 30 million famine victims.
The 30 million deaths from hunger is groundless
What kind of academic or historical research is this? First of all, the data are not reliable. They are the figures of the 1982 Statistical Yearbook, which was published 20 years after the Great Leap Forward when the Chinese Communist Party was conducting a de-Maoification campaign, repudiating many aspects of the Maoist period including the Great Leap Forward. The figures given in the 1982 Yearbook are likely to have been politically tainted. In any case, Most of the yearly figures given in the 1982 Yearbook were estimates; after so many years, how were these figures arrived at? From what sources? How reliable are they? What is the range of error for these estimates? No valid extrapolation is possible without addressing these issues. According to the same Yearbook, from 1949 to 1982 only the figures for 3 years are actually based on census data, namely the data for 1953, 1964 and 1982. The 1953 census was far from scientifically reliable. It is difficult for a census to be very accurate in any case. Even in a very developed country such as the United States, a census is likely to have an error of plus or minus several percentage points, often resulting in disputes which have to be resolved by litigation. Given the actual conditions of China in those years, the range of error is likely to be much greater. Plus or minus 2.5 percentage points would mean a discrepancy of 5% of the total population, which would be greater than the putative 30 million figure; still less reliable would be the figures of all those non-census years. Given the likelihood of significant error of the base data plus error implied by extrapolation, the resulting figure simply has no numerical significance except to show general trends or provide a meaningful average over a long base period.
It is also very likely that the formula or method used in the calculation already had built-in political bias against the Great Leap Forward. Unless there is full knowledge as to how the calculations were done, and the range of error of the base data used, it is impossible to evaluate the reliability or significance of the numbers produced by way of statistical analysis. Anyone with basic statistical training knows that the 30 million figure arrived at by such crude extrapolation and based on such unreliable data is all but meaningless.
The total population of China in the Great Leap Forward period most likely was smaller than immediately before and after the period, and life expectancy certainly was lower, not because tens of millions people literally died of hunger, but because of lower birth rate combined with higher death rate., resulting from lower per-capita food production and consumption and other trying conditions prevailing during in those hard times.
During these difficult years, many people did not want to have babies; the death rate went up among the elderly, the very young, and people in poor health; but lower life expectancy was no proof of existence of famines of horrific magnitude involving millions of people literally starving to death, as alleged by Mao bashers. So how many deaths could have died of hunger in the Great Leap Forward years? We may never know the exact number for sure, but we can, nevertheless, arrive at a rough but reasonably reliable estimate: by taking as basis the numbers of deaths from starvation reported from local to various level of higher authorities, including those reported to the central leadership in Beijing, and then making informed allowances for possible errors caused by various factors such as official under-reporting or omissions. This, I believe, would be the most reliable way to arrive at an reasonable neighborhood in which to place fatalities from starvation. China was a fully organized society, ruled from the top by a central leadership, which formulated policies and plans by relying on a vast array of information culled from all corners of the country, transmitted from bottom to the top via a huge, very developed, multi-layered reporting machinery; decisions and instructions at the top would go down the chains of command/ report in a reverse flow to various lower levels of cadres for the implementation of policies and plans; feedback, in turn, would flow upward through the same reporting chain. Competent authorities were required to report any important incident, such as acute food shortage involving people dying of hunger, to higher authorities, which would articulate information/data received from various lower sources into a composite report to be submitted to still higher authorities, all the way to the top leaders. Over the years, many party officials, and writers/researchers who had been officially mandated to investigate or exposed what went wrong with the Great Leap Forward, have had access to these internal documents. A good deal of Information contained therein was eventually made public. Accounts of large number of fatalities many of us have read about are all based on these internal reports. It is safe to assume that most, if not all, of the cases involving deaths from starvation that were subjects of internal reports have already been disclosed by now, for if the reports should contain any data to support massive deaths from hunger in cases other than those already disclosed, the anti-Maoist forces within and outside China would certainly make a big fuss about them.
It is even more absurd to call Mao a mass murderer because life expectancy was lower in the three years following Great Leap Forward. How can deaths related to natural disasters be considered victims of murder? That China was hit by major natural disasters in these three years was indisputable. The anti-Maoists would argue that the huge damage in economic and human terms was caused not so much by natural disasters but primarily by bad policy and flawed leadership for which Mao should be held responsible. But they never present an informed analysis as to what extent human errors and policy flaws had contributed to the food shortage and its disastrous consequences, and how the blame should be assigned. For them it is enough to blame Mao and Mao alone because Mao is the supreme leader of the Party, which launched the Great Leap Forward campaign. It is sheer demagoguery to claim that Mao should be found guilty of mass murder because people have died of hunger in this period.
Egregious Double Standards of Cultural Imperialists
Of course Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party should bear their share of the responsibility for what went wrong with the Great Leap Forward. Actually they did precisely that, and officially in 1962, when China not only enacted major policy changes for rural development but also began to responsibly undertake institutional and policy measures to better prepare for natural disasters and accord highest priority to food production. Just as Mao and the Party should be held accountable for consequences of policy failures, they should be given credit where it is due. If you talk to peasants who lived through that period, you are likely to hear a very different assessment directly out of the mouths of these supposed victims of the Great Leap Forward. Most of them would tell you that they love Mao Zedong, instead of blaming him; and many would tell you due to the severity of the natural disasters, the situation would have been much worse and more people would have died had Mao Zedong and the Party not been there to deal with food shortage. On balance, this kind of assessments from uneducated peasants makes a lot more sense than the verdict of Western experts proclaiming Mao’s culpability for 30 million deaths.
Under the Communist rule, the central leadership had always been kept fully informed of the aggregate food supply and demand situation. The state would increase imports to make up for shortfalls, and could count on reserve food stocks for effective relief purposes. The Dazhai brigade acquired national distinction in these very hard times precisely because they had overcome one of the worst droughts in local history and managed to survive without asking for state relief. Among all developing countries struck by comparable natural disasters, China stood out in its ability to effectively implement state-wide relief measures to ensure minimal subsistence needs of the entire population without class distinctions, because China was a socialist country. Otherwise China would have experienced some of the worst famines ever recorded in its history.
As I have pointed out, demographic statistics do not provide a solid basis for passing political judgment. Even if we accept the use of data in China’s Statistical Yearbook as a reliable measure for life expectancy changes, the selective focus on the three years in question betrays an egregious double standard. The Western experts denounce Mao Zedong and the Great Leap Forward for lowering life expectancy in these three years while they never give credit to Mao Zedong for the impressive life expectancy gains China had scored in the Maoist era. If the anti-Maoists honestly attaches such paramount importance to life-expectancy trends that lower life expectancy is adduced as proof of the murderous nature of the Communist regime, they would have to conclude by the same logic that the Maoist system must be considered among the most humane, because in the Maoist period the Chinese people lived much longer than those in most other developing societies.
The manipulation and selective use of data by Western experts often betrays their ulterior motives and cultural imperialist thinking. A most illustrative example is the question of the genocide suffered by native Americans, the so-called "American Indians". The U.S. media and history textbooks habitually tell stories about scalping by American Indians and acts of heroic self-defense of white people, while showing preciously little interest in discussing how many native Americans died at the hands of white settlers. Where they cannot avoid the mention of a number, they would say no more than a million. The fact they do not want to mention is that in the vast fertile land of continental United States, the entire native population had come to the verge of extinction after the arrival of white settlers. At one point, they numbered no more than several hundred thousand. Since 1960s, scholars in this field have produced estimates based on extensive academic research work: at the lower end, 5 or 6 million native Americans are believed to have perished in North America, while at the higher end estimates range from 30 million to 100 million. There is, however, wide agreement that deaths of native Americans attributable to the arrival of white settlers should in the order of tens of millions, which has never been accepted by mainstream scholars and media. The double standard used by mainstream media and scholars in treating critical assessments of their won history and of China’s history is a hallmark of cultural imperialism, whose rule is based on ideological hegemony. Once the ideological supremacy of the imperialist power is accepted by the ruling elite of the subjugated nation, it will be so much harder for the latter to reclaim its independence and ever become the master of its own destiny.
Why Chinese People Love Mao
I will now turn for a look at Mao’s contribution in terms of China’s national revitalization. Mao declared at the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, "Chinese people have stood up". The resounding effect of this statement is still as powerful as when it was first made, because it was, and still is , extremely difficult for oppressed nations to really stand up, and for China to accomplish what Mao pronounced would entail none less than the revitalization of the Chinese nation. But by the Time Mao passed away in 1979, it was universally agreed that Chinese people had indeed stood up. Internationally, china was greeted by big powers with respect and by small countries with most friendly feeling.
In 1971, Qiao Guanhua, the head of the delegation of PROC made his debut at the United Nations General Assembly; the kind of welcome, support and admiration expressed to him and the Chinese delegation and the thunderous applause to his speech made for a scene that was unprecedented in the history of UN. Among other things, Assessments of Mao Zedong given by cotemporary leaders of developed countries are invariably couched in highly respectful terms; they often expressed awe at Mao’s vision, insight or his very presence. Henry Kissinger called him a giant. In Richard Nixon Memorial Library,Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai’s statues were exibited along with a few other major world leaders whom Nixon had dealt with—with Mao and Zhou seated, and others all standing. Japanese premier Tanaka was utterly respectful in Mao’s presence. All this stands in sharp contrast to the contempt and disrespect with which the Chinese people and their head of state before 1949:President Truman and General Stilwell used to refer to Mr. Chiang Kai-shek by the nickname Peanut. The Japanese Militarists considered Chinese as of an inferior race, calling them Chinese pigs.
Why did these racist leaders of big powers, who had been accustomed to acts of aggression, comported themselves so differently in dealing with the PROC, their former attitude of arrogance and superiority being transformed to that of respect and courtesy? Because the Chinese people have stood up. Led by Mao Zedong, the Chinese people had crafted a most brilliant page in Chinese history. Mao once praised Lu Xun as a person free of any trace of sycophancy or obsequiousness in the face of reactionary ruling class or imperialists. This characterization applies equally well to Mao himself. For the Chinese people to really stand up, the most daunting test is to find a way to regain national dignity and self-confidence. When a nation had been so repeatedly beat up and knocked down by foreign powers that they were afraid to stand up, and an inferiority complex had become an entrenched part of the national psyche, people like Mao and Lu were indeed very rare. But Mao had gone further in that he was able to inspire and mobilize Chinese people at large to embark on a Herculean struggle to rid themselves of inferiority complex and regain national dignity and self-confidence. From this perspective, one cannot but be awed by Mao’s stupendous resolve, enormous perseverance in such an unthinkably hard struggle. Indeed "larger than life""hugeness", "colossalness" and word like these are the first that come to mind, when I think of Mao Zedong, his immense vision, his huge resolve and ambition, his extra-broad perspective and his colossal revolution are what set him apart. But he was not just an idealist who thought up big ideas he practiced what he preached and was able to put grand vision within people’s reach, because the hugeness that marks Mao’s lifework is rooted in the inherent greatness, or vast potential of the Chinese nation. Only China could have produced such an extraordinary leader as Mao; and only Mao with his "huge" revolutionary project could have turned the world upside down and led the Chinese nation to stand up once again. A comparative study of world’ s nation-states today and what they were like at a century ago clearly shows that only China’s international standing has prominently changed; all the other oppressed nations remain subjugated and dominated and have not been able to really stand up.
As mentioned in the beginning of this piece, the event in Chinatown to mark the 110th birthday of Mao Zedong included the screening of documentary movie about the history of China’s development of nuclear bombs and satellites. China’s successful nuclear and satellite programs have in a way encapsulated nicely the hugeness of Mao’s vision and mission, and explained how Chinese people had stood up. Many people have heard this story: the Chinese American Physicist and Nobel Laureate, Professor C.N. Yang, went to China in 1972. When he learned that No foreign scientist took part in China’s nuclear bomb project, and everything was made locally by Chinese themselves, he was moved to tears. He knew how hard it was to accomplish that; and he knew what China was like before 1949. It was truly incredible that despite the Korea war, the US embargo, the hostility of Soviet Union, the devastating Great Leap Forward, China succeeded in the development of its own nuclear weapons to break the nuclear monopoly and blackmail of the two super powers.
In this light, it is perhaps fairly easy to understand why almost three decades after he passed away, today most Chinese people continue to view Mao Zedong with profound respect and a sense of national pride. Indeed, looking back at the Maoist era, how can any self-respecting Chinese not feel proud of what the Chinese people had accomplished under Mao’s leadership?

About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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