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December 04, 2008


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I'm not sure that I'd used "greatness" as the focus, but I do agree that there's a consistency to post-49 Mao which includes the Great Leap disaster: His almost Hegelian (Nietzschean? Schopenhauerish?) emphasis on Will as the key to achievement and the importance of purity of thought to strength of will. There are tactical twists, but there's an underlying frustration with what Mao saw as the lack of unity and failure to be pure of thought (though the real problem was the completely unrealistic nature of the goals and methods....)

May I save a copy of the chart? I've seen variations on it in some of my books, but I don't have an electronic copy. It's very stark data, very useful.

A counter argument by Henry Liu might be useful for your students for a balancing education. Well, maybe not.

Part 2: The Great Leap Forward not all bad
By Henry C K Liu

See also Part 1: Demon and deity

Most of the mass movements initiated by Mao Zedong were successful in changing old ideas and reshaping Chinese society. Even the Great Leap Forward, for which Mao is vilified, was successful in important areas, and estimates of 30 million deaths are wildly exaggerated. Bad weather, famines and the US trade embargo caused most of the deaths. Today's neo-liberal globalization has inflicted far more death and suffering than the Great Leap.

Mao understood that the pernicious power of Confucianism was permeating Chinese society and hindering its advancement, so he tried to combat it by launching mass movements, culminating in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966. But even after a decade of enormous social upheaval, tragic personal sufferings, fundamental economic dislocation and unparalleled diplomatic isolation, the Cultural Revolution failed to achieve its goal even with serious damage to the nation's physical and socio-economic infrastructure and to the prestige of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not to mention the decline of popular support and near total bankruptcy of revolutionary zeal among even loyal party cadres.

Imperial monarchy cannot be restored in modern China. Once a political institution is overthrown, all the king's men cannot put it back together again. Nor would that be desirable. Yet the modern political system in China, despite its revolutionary clothing and radical rhetoric, is still fundamentally feudal, both in the manner in which power is distributed and in its administrative structure.

In Chinese politics, loyalty is always preferred over competence. The ideal is to have both in a minister. Failing that, loyalty without competence is preferred as being less dangerous than competence without loyalty - the stuff of which successful revolts are made. For socialist China, loyalty is to the socialist cause. It is imperative that leaders remain loyal to the socialist ideal. Confucianism (Ru Jia), by placing blind faith in a causal connection between virtue and power, has remained the main cultural obstacle to modern China's attempt to evolve from a society governed by men into a society governed by law. The danger of Confucianism lies not in its aim to endow the virtuous with power, but in its tendency to label the powerful as virtuous.

In order to change Chinese feudal society toward communist social order, which is understood by communists as a necessary goal of human development, Mao Zedong developed specific methods out of Leninist concepts that rendered special characteristics to Chinese communism, its strengths and shortcomings. These methods, above all the system of organized mass movements, stress the change of social consciousness, ie, the creation of new men for a new society, as the basis for changing reality, ie, the mode of production. The concept of the mass politics, relevant in Chinese political thought from ancient time, plays a role as important as that of the elite cadre corps within the party.

Mao's mass line
The mass movement as an instrument of political communication from above to below is peculiar to Chinese communist organization. This phenomenon is of utmost importance in understanding the nature and dynamics of the governance structure of the CCP. The theoretical foundation of mass movement as a means of mediation between the will of the leaders and the people pre-supposes that nothing is impossible for the masses, quantitatively understood as a collective subject, if their power is concentrated by a party of correct thought and action. This concept comes out of Mao's romantic yet well-placed faith in the great strength the masses are capable of developing in the interest of their own well-being. So the "will of the masses" has to be articulated by the masses and within the masses, which the CCP calls the "mass line".

Mao's mass-line theory requires that the leadership elite be close to the people, that it is continuously informed about the people's will and that it transforms this will into concrete actions by the masses. From the masses back to the masses. This means: take the scattered and unorganized ideas of the masses and, through study, turn them into focused and systemic programs, then go back to the masses and propagate and explain these ideals until the masses embrace them as their own.

Thus mass movements are initiated at the highest level, announced to party cadres at central and regional work conferences, subject to cadre criticism and modification, after which starts the first phase of mass movement. Mass organizations are held to provoke the "people's will", through readers' letters to newspapers and rallies at which these letters are read and debated. The results are then officially discussed by the staff of leading organs of the state and the party, after which the systematized "people's will" is clarified into acts of law or resolutions, and then the mass movement spreads to the whole nation.

The history of Chinese politics is a history of mass movements. Mass movements successfully implemented Land Reform 1950-53; Marriage Reform 1950-52; Collectivization 1953 - the General Line of Socialist Transformation (from national bourgeois democratic revolution to proletarian socialist revolution); and Nationalization 1955 (from private ownership of industrial means of production into state ownership). The method used against opposition was thought reform through "brainwashing" (without derogatory connotation), which is a principle of preferring the changing of the consciousness of political opponents instead of physically liquidating them.

Mao's mass movements succeeded until 1957
The Hundred Flower Movement of 1957 was launched on February 27 by Mao with his famous four-hour speech, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People", before 1,800 leading cadres. In it, Mao distinguished "contradiction between the enemy and ourselves" from "contradiction among the people", which should not be resolved by a dictatorship, ie physical force, but by open discussion with criticism and counter criticism. Up until 1957, the mass-movement policies of Mao achieved spectacular success.

Land reform was completed, the struggle for women's emancipation was progressing well, and collectivization and nationalization were leading the nation into socialism. Health services were a model of socialist construction in both cities and the countryside. The party's revolutionary leadership was accepted enthusiastically by society. By 1958, agricultural production almost doubled from 1949 (108 million tons to 185 million tons), coal production quadrupled to 123 million tons, and steel production grew from 100,000 tons to 5.3 million tons.

The only problem came from bourgeois intellectual rebellion. On May 25, 1957, Mao expressed his anxiety at a session of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and gave his approval to those who warned against too much bourgeois liberty. That afternoon, Mao told cadres at a Conference of Communist Youth League that "all words and deeds which deviate from socialism are basically wrong". At the opening session of the People's Congress on June 26, Zhou Enlai initiated the "counter criticism" against the critics. Mao's call for open criticism was serious and genuine, but the discussion he had conceived as a safety valve reached a degree of intensity he had not anticipated. Mao overestimated the stability of the political climate and underestimated the residual influence of Confucianism.

Crossroads: Soviet model or independent path
Against this background, the CCP stood at the crossroads of choosing the Soviet model of development or an independent path. Economy development was based on three elements:

Build up heavy industry at the expense of agriculture.
Establish an extensive system of individual incentives by means of which productive forces could be developed from a conviction that the superiority of socialist modes of production would be vindicated by a visible rise in living standards.
The acceleration of the socialist transformation of society in order to create the precondition required by the CCP for establishing a socialist order.

Two paths were opened to the CCP leadership in 1958:
Pushing forward toward permanent revolution.

Mao was forced by geopolitical conditions (the abrupt withdrawal of Soviet aid and the US Cold War embargo) to overcome the lack of capital through mobilization of China's vast labor reservoir. The strategy was to connect political campaigns to production campaigns. Under pressure from orthodox Leninists within the party apparatus, with the failure of the "Hundred Flower Movement", Mao concluded it was impossible to create a socialist consciousness through a gradual improvement of material living conditions; that consciousness and reality had to be changed concurrently and in conjunction through gigantic new efforts at mobilization.

This led to the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-58, followed by "Three Red Banners" in the spring of 1958, initiating simultaneous development of industry and agriculture through the use of both modern and traditional methods of production under the "General Line of Building Socialism". It was to be implemented through a labor-intensive development policy by a "Great Leap Forward" and by establishing a comprehensive collectivization by establishing "People's Communes".

Great Leap Forward succeeded in many areas
The Great Leap Forward (GLF) was not a senseless fantasy as many in the neo-liberal West and some in China have since suggested in hindsight. It called for the new system of "Two Decentralizations, Three Centralizations and One Responsibility". By this was meant the decentralized use of labor and local investment; central control over political decisions, planning and administration of natural investment capital; one responsibility meant every basic unit to account for itself to its supervising unit.

The GLF was successful in many areas. The one area that failed attracted the most attention. It was the area of back-yard steel-furnace production. The technological requirement of steelmaking, unlike hydro-electricity, did not lend itself to labor-intensive mass movements. Yet steel was the symbol of industrialization and a heroic attempt had to be made to overcome the lack of capital for imported modern mechanization. The attempt failed conspicuously, but its damage to the economy was overrated. The program did not operate year-around, and did not disrupt farm harvests.

The real test, however, was in the People's Commune. Favorable weather conditions produced high yields in 1958 in the experimental communes. True to Confucian cultural behavior pattern, this led to a rush nationwide to follow suit, even though almost everywhere the fundamental preconditions for successful operation were absent. Most did not have adequate administrative offices, nurseries, canteens, old people's homes, hospitals, etc, institutions necessary for successful communal life. In other places, the local leadership took the transition to communism at face value and severed all connection with supervising organs in the name of the withering away of the state. Disorder grew into chaos within months.

During the Wuhan Party Plenum of December 1958, Marshal Peng Dehuai criticized the overextended commune program, leading to the plenum initiating a readjustment of the "Three Red Banners" policy. Concurrently, the Central Committee approved "the wish of Comrade Mao Zedong not to stand again as a candidate for the chairmanship of the PRC [People's Republic of China] after the end of his term in office". Liu Shaoqi was elected as head of state by the second People's Congress on April 27, 1959, and became heir apparent after Mao in the party.

Mao, criticized, vowed to lead new peasant revolt
In the fateful Lushan Conference of July 2-August 16, 1959, Marshal Peng shifted his criticism from policy to the person of the leader. On July 23, Mao, in an emphatic speech, rejected the reproach of his critics and declared, with justification, that the Great Leap Forward and the People's Commune had brought about more advantages than disadvantages. Mao threatened an open split: "If we deserve to perish I shall go away, I shall go to the countryside and lead the peasants to overthrow the government. If you of the PLA [People's Liberation Army] will not follow me, then I shall find a new Red Army. But I believe that the PLA will follow me."

On August 16, 1959, Peng and his followers were condemned as an "anti-party clique" by a resolution passed by the Eighth Plenum. On September 17, Peng was dismissed as defense minister. Peng died in 1974 and was rehabilitated posthumously in 1978, after Mao's death.

In late 1959, several natural disasters and bad weather conditions were reported in the press. Floods and drought brought about the "three bitter years" of 1959-62. After 1962, the economy recovered, but the politic was shifting toward a struggle against revisionism, which brought on the Cultural Revolution four years later.

There would have been no deaths in the 1961-62 famines if not for the US embargo.

Reports of severe natural disasters in isolated places and of bad weather conditions in larger areas appeared in the Chinese press in the spring of 1959, after the Wuhan Plenum in December 1958 had already made policy adjustments based on the technical criticism of Peng Dehuai on the People's Communes initiative. In March 1959, the entire Hunan region was under flood, and soon after that the spring harvest in southwestern China was lost through drought. The 1958 grain production yielded 250 million tons instead the projected 375 million tons, and 1.2 million tons of peanuts instead of the projected 4 million tons. In 1959, the harvest came to 175 million tons. In 1960, the situation deteriorated further. Drought and other bad weather affected 55 percent of the cultivated area. Some 60 percent of the agricultural land in the north received no rain at all. The yield for 1960 was 142 million tons. In 1961, the weather situation improved only slightly.

US embargo caused millions to starve
In 1963, the Chinese press called the famine of 1961-62 the most severe since 1879. In 1961, a food-storage program obliged China to import 6.2 million tons of grain from Canada and Australia. In 1962, import decreased to 5.32 million tons. Between 1961 and 1965, China imported a total of 30 million tons of grain at a cost of US$2 billion (Robert Price, International Trade of Communist China Vol II, pp 600-601). More would have been imported except that US pressure on Canada and Australia to limit sales to China and US interference with shipping prevented China from importing more. Canada and Australia were both anxious to provide unlimited credit to China for grain purchase, but alas, US policy prevailed and millions starved in China.

The University of Wisconsin's Maurice Meisner, whom many consider to be the dean of post-World War II Chinese scholarship, presents three related ways of looking at the alleged 20 million to 30 million deaths caused by the Great Famine begun in the late 1950s under Mao's tenure in The Deng Xiaoping Era and Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism 1978-1994 (New York, Hill and Wang, 1996). One, it was a horrible miscalculation. Two, it was the end of famines on this scale (famines had been occurring for the previous few centuries off and on in China about every generation or so). In other words, it brought this horrible historical pattern to an end. Or, three, it was a horrible miscalculation, while also afterward bringing this pattern of famine every generation of so to an end, thus saving millions from a similar fate.

It is now the common perception in the West that 30 millions starved to death as a result of Mao's launching of the Great Leap Forward. Is it true or is it again a result of manufactured history? An article from the Australia-China Review contains a noteworthy refutation of the widely accepted figures of tens of millions of deaths caused by the GLF. The following is excerpted from this article, "Wild Swans and Mao's Agrarian Strategy" by Wim F Werthheim, emeritus professor from the University of Amsterdam, one of the best-noted European China scholars:

But the figure amounting to tens of millions ... [lacks] any historical basis. Often it is argued that at the censuses of the 1960s "between 17 and 29 millions of Chinese" appeared to be missing, in comparison with the official census figures from the 1950s. But these calculations are lacking any semblance of reliability. At my first visit to China, in August 1957, I had asked to get the opportunity to meet two outstanding Chinese social scientists: Fei Xiao-tung, the sociologist, and Chen Ta, the demographer. I could not meet either of them, because they were both seriously criticized at that time as rightists; but I was allowed a visit by Pang Zenian, a Marxist philosopher who knew about the problems of both scholars. Chen Ta was criticized because he had attacked the pretended 1953 census. In the past he had organized censuses, and he could not believe that suddenly, within a rather short period, the total population of China had risen from 450 [million] to 600 million, as had been officially claimed by the Chinese authorities after the 1953 census. He would have [liked] to organize a scientifically well-founded census himself, instead of an assessment largely based on regional random samples as had happened in 1953. According to him, the method followed in that year was unscientific.

For that matter, a Chinese expert of demography, Dr Ping-ti Ho, professor of history at the University of Chicago, in a book titled Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953, Harvard East Asian Studies No 4, 1959, also mentioned numerous "flaws" in the 1953 census: "All in all, therefore, the nationwide enumeration of 1953 was not a census in the technical definition of the term"; the separate provincial figures show indeed an unbelievable increase of some 30 percent in the period 1947-1953, a period of heavy revolutionary struggle. (p 93-94) My conclusion is that the claim that in the 1960s a number between 17 [million] and 29 million people was "missing" is worthless if there was never any certainty about the 600 millions of Chinese. Most probably these "missing people" did not starve in the calamity years 1960-61, but in fact have never existed.
Globalization causes more death, suffering than Mao
Neo-liberal globalization has caused poverty for three-quarters of the world's population, which brings it to more than 3 billion. At least 3 percent of these victims die prematurely of starvation, bringing it to 90 million, mostly children who died from malnutrition. That statistical evidence is more scientific than the alleged 30 million deaths in China. Anti-China neo-liberals dismiss the lack of evidence with the arguments that "totalitarian" governments are "guilty" by their very nature.

While Mao headed the CCP, leadership was based on mass support; and it is still. The chairmanship of the CCP is similar to the position of pope in the Roman Catholic Church, powerful in moral authority but highly circumscribed in operational power. The Great Leap Forward was the product of mass movement, not of a single person. Mao's leadership extended to the organization of the party and its policy-formulation procedures, not the dictation of particular programs.

To describe Mao as a dictator merely reflects an ignorance of the true workings of the Chinese Communist Party. The failures of the Great Leap Forward and the People's Communes were caused more by implementation flaws rather than conceptual error. Bad luck and a US embargo had also much to do with it. These programs resulted in much suffering, but the claim that 30 million people were murdered by Mao with evil intent was mere Western propaganda.

Without Mao, the Chinese Communist Party would not have survived the extermination campaign by the Nationalists. It was Mao who recognized the invincible power of the Chinese peasant. It is proper that the fourth-generation leaders of the PRC are again focusing on the welfare of the peasants.

In Europe, the failure of the revolutions of 1848 led to World War I, which destroyed all the monarchal regimes that had successfully suppressed the democratic revolution six decades earlier. The full impact of Mao's revolutionary spirit is yet to be released on Chinese society. A century from now, Mao high-minded principles of mass politics will outshine all his neo-liberal critics. Like US president Abraham Lincoln, Mao Zedong will be remembered in history as a great leader; and unlike Lincoln, Mao will be remembered also as a great revolutionary.

Henry C K Liu is chairman of the New York-based Liu Investment Group.

Liu is obviously wrong when it comes to the question of deaths. The chart above is derived from Chinese government sources. The only debate is whether the death toll was closer to 15 or 30 million. Some demographers go much higher, 40 million. The deaths were primarily due to policy, not weather and not the US trade embargo. These are facts, uncomfortable facts for Chinese nationalists, but facts nonetheless. To deny them is to deny the humanity of millions and millions of Chinese people. Of course we can compare the scale of death from the Great Leap to other instances of mass death. I have seen the number 50 million associated with the US slave trade: the number of African who died on the ships as they were transported across the Atlantic - a grossly inhumane and horrible and immoral and evil system that stains forever American claims to normative exceptionalism. We must recognize the fact of those African deaths in order to recognize the humanity of the people killed and the inhumanity of the American government in that case. Yes, we should make these comparisons. What Mao did during the Great Leap was on a level of inhumanity similar to the slave trade of the US, the holocaust of Hitler and the worst crimes against humanity of the twentieth century.

If Liu is so potently wrong, then why his voice is totally silenced in the so-called free and open western academic world, not to say, the mass media? I know, Mao, even a dead Mao, could cause a lot of sleepless nights for the neo-colonialists and neo-imperialists,or, in other names, neo-cons and neo-liberals and their fellow-travelers

If the Henry CK Liu being quoted here is the same one who writes regularly for Asia Times Online, isha has a pretty funny definition of "totally silenced". His blurb ( says:

"Henry C K Liu was born in Hong Kong and educated at Harvard University, US, in architecture and urban design. His interest in economics and international relations started when he participated in interdisciplinary work on urban and regional development as a professor at the University of California Los Angeles, Harvard and Columbia. He is currently chairman of a New York-based private investment group."

Writing a regular column is a noisy kind of silence, and if we're to take this blurb at face-value, he's been quite active in academia, too. Now how's about we get back to the topic at hand?

isha, I may well have to save that column, but not because it's a refutation of anything except the idea that neo-Maoist historiography is yet entirely dead. The census issue, for example, is a classic case of selective argumentation: the total population figures may be flawed, but the birth and death figures are reported separately from the census, and clearly indicate a massive demographic crisis. Conversely, the admission that there was a famine, while seeking to blame the US and poorly prepared collectivization (which is the fault of Confucianism, which is quite precious).... special pleading and blame shifting, but you can't do that and deny the magnitude of the famine.


Both of us know that without Mao, China would be a gigantic Iraq, or Indonesia or Philippines. Mao prevented that possibility from happening and he is loved or hated as a result, with good reasons.

BTW, who is responsible for all the deaths in Iraq, Indonesia and Philippines over the last 50 years?

Now you mentioned it, even Mao’s “cultural revolution” might very well prevented Gorby-like character from emerging in the Chinese leadership. Now it is too late for the West to promote Wei, or Hu Jia, or whoeverever puppet figures, since the consequence of Gorby’s surrenderring/selling-out is too obvious for Chinese collective psyche not to take notice.

Long Live ( Wan Sui ) Gorby !!! Or should I shout “ Wula?!”

Both of us know that...might very well ...

Grand counterfactuals, boldly presented as simple truth! And the "Greater Good" argument is a wonderful attempt at misdirection, too, especially when combined with the irrelelvant tu quoque.

I don't mind a little "what if" now and then -- how about this one: If it weren't for Mao, China would be one big Taiwan (no, I'm not serious, but I get this one a lot in class, and it's about as your scenarios) -- but I'm not playing a game with shifting goalposts and no ground rules.

“one big Taiwan”

First, Taiwan was industrialized precisely because it’s utility to contain China, therefore, the foreign aid;
Second, don't forget, GIs left Taiwan only after being pressured from Mao and Zhou to Nixon. Most of the Chinese don't want China to be a protectorate under any foreign power anymore;
Third, KMT has stolen all of the gold and foreign currency reserves from China to develop Taiwan. Can you imagine running a major financially bankrupted country with zero reserve?

Of course, it is to the interest of the reigning empire to have a " big Taiwan." Alas, it is a counterfactual.

It is not only Liu who is challenging the myth of the tens of millions perished in the period of 1959-61, the "three bitter years" (san xian nian) of the PRC's history. Who of all of you does realize that crude death rate in this overall period was around 17/1000, while it was 20/1000 in India for all three years at the same time, 24/1000 in Pakistan, and 29/1000 in Nepal? Only because the PRC had brought CDR to less than half of those rates, the increase in CDR caused "abnormal deaths", otherwise they would have been "normal".

Beneath all that, one should point to statistic effects. Chinese population statistics had beed widely irreliable during the whole 20th century (and before). The 1953 census hardly improved that situation, as it was carried out widely by newly hired untrained staff - many scholars and exucated bureaucrats had fled China in 1949, bound to Taiwan, Southeastasia, or the US. Often, the census collectors only reported estimates given by local chiefs, abbots, or other local, tribal or religious authorities in command of reading and writing.

When the people's communes were founded, one of the side effects was that the first time in a milennium or probably more, the whole Chinese people was registered on a per capita basis, either in the urban danwei or in the rural renmingongshe. Everything before was merely speculative, and often, local authorities may have eradicated exaggerated figures by reporting people missing as dead. Such views are hold by demographers and sinologists as Dutch professor Wim K. Wertheim and US professor Ping-ti Ho, the Grand Old Man of Western historical demography of Asia. They are supported by inspecting the figures in detail: Worst "population losses" can be observed e.g. in remote parts of Sichuan where up to a third of the population is reported missing though neigbouring counties of similar social and geographic structure lack losses - something alien to any known famine, e.g. the Russian famines of 1921 and 1933, or the Bengal famines during the 18th century. Everywhere there, famine losses followed socioeconomic and sociogeographic patterns while the distribution of alleged Chinese losses, as far as not connected to known natural disasters, looks chaotic.

So, it looks doubtful how many Chinese perished in the famine at all. And much more doubtful looks responsibility. Clearly, Chinese communists neither started Great Leap nor collectivization in order to starve the Chinese. But when negative effects unfolded, they desperately tried to buy additional grain and other foodstuffs on the World markets. That was denied by US embargo policies influencing Canada and Australia, in addition. Therefore, Chinese grain imports, though Chinese government struggled to increase them, dropped in this critical period by nearly 1/6, mainly by US efforts to prohibit food imports to China.

Who was, then, responsible for people starving in China?

kind regards, a^2

And I guess Yang Jisheng is also a part of the vast American conspiracy that is responsible for Chinese deaths during the GLF. Yang has, after all, written what is now taken as the definitive account of the GLF, in Chinese, drawing on his extensive access to Party documents. It is titled Tombstone. He comes up with an estimate of 36 million dead.
Actually it is pathetic to blame the US for what is clearly the horrible responsibility of the CCP and Mao. The US has done some pretty terrible things in the world, but the the GLF is not one of them.

What I read in this article is unconvincing until having read and assessed the book. It is bit ludicrous to tell something "definitive account" on the obvious basis that it fits ones own views. I shall surely read that book, yet the article does not promise much new. It is well known that nutrition severely deteriorated during those years and mortality rose. And anecdotal evidences as cited do not prove much. Much less they answer the question how humane it was to restrict food imports to a country where people are starving, be it through the stupidity of their own government.

regards, a^2

An addition: I cannot find that book or author on amazon. There is only some out of print book from 1998 by a Jisheng Yang about 20 years anniversary of reform and opening politics of China (Deng Xiaoping shi dai: Zhongguo gai ge kai fang er shi nian ji shi). No idea whether that is the same person. Thanks for the hint anyway.

Somebody mentioned Dr. Ping-ti Ho

I am reading his latest book on this life and his reflections,in Chinese. I don't know whether it is available in English, if so, it could be a very good eye opener.,M1

Here is an article he wrote about cultural revolution and the founding of PRC, for those who care to read:




一九七四年一月二十八日 芝加哥

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