Lushan 1959. The terrible Ifs Accumulate.

The overall moral character of the Chinese Leadership in 1959 reflected poorly on those people in that room, on that day.  Rather, a strong sense of self preservation pervaded the atmosphere.  A great moral failing.  An inability to decide what was best for the Country.  Cowardice.   If one were to dwell on the subject for a moment, would not the character of China’s leaders in 1959 strongly resemble the moral character of those today?  Ironically enough, one would like to call these people the Chinese version of America’s forefathers.   But it doesn’t quite add up.

George Washington was perhaps the wealthiest man in America in 1776.  To date he still ranks as America’s wealthiest president.  Did any of China’s leaders sacrifice as much?  It seems most of China’s financiers and wealthy rather just fled to Taiwan, or Long Island.

What if one person had stood up in that room, on that day, and called out Mao?   You would be tempted to say, “Fontenot, stop thinking like a Westerner,” and you would be right.  The inability of China’s leaders to think independently was paralyzed by the Cult of Personality the CCP itself had created.   Even the senior leadership was paralyzed by fear, selfishness and indecision.  It had created a Monster.  Now it would deal with the consequences.

No.  To overthrow Mao would require more than One Man.   One Man standing up calling out Mao would’ve simply been arrested.  Along with his family.   The violent overthrow of Chairman Mao may very well have led to a Civil War.   Only a unanimous verdict, with control of the Army could’ve successfully deposed of Mao.   And the leadership would have to lie to the People, to avoid unrest.

But What If?  What if Mao had been peacefully deposed?

What path would China had taken in 1959?

Perhaps the first thing after the arrest of Mao would’ve been the immediate end of the Great Leap Forward.   Indirectly, this would have also begun the unwinding of the Great Famine.  Famines, however, cannot be turned on and off.  They are slow to begin and slow to end.   Harvests cannot be rushed.  Still, millions of Chinese lives would’ve potentially been saved. 

That alone would have been worth the arrest of Mao.

Fewer people would’ve had to survive on tree bark. 

The obvious casualty of getting rid of Mao would have been the avoidance altogether of the Cultural Revolution.   Only under Mao could China’s Youth, the “no nothings”, be allowed to intimidate and bully without rhyme or reason. 

Could one imagine a China in the 1960’s without the Cultural Revolution?  A China with no chaos is always a Better China.  China today lives under the stigma of that time.  In time, this generation will die out, but the history books, the oral histories, the documentaries will not. 

With neither the 文化大革命nor the 大前进nor even the三年打饥荒 China would have saved not just millions of lives but it’s dignity as well.   A people without dignity does not a nation make.  It is not a country as much as it is a nation, a people with unified cultural similarities that bond it together, and make it strong.  As such, the above events with Mao as undisputable leader nearly destroyed China as a Nation.   China would have lived without the Stress.

Liu and Deng

In a nutshell, the President of China at the time, Liu Shaoqi, along with Deng Xiaoping, in the aftermath of Mao’s disastrous decisonmaking, had finally concluded that China needed to (gulp!) create some type of reform that would open up China’s economy.   China simply could not sustain another famine. 

I am continuously amazed at how few Westerners there are today that know and appreciate who Deng was.   In my view, it is Deng, and not Mao that is the real Father of Modern China.   While perhaps not the most well known of revolutionaries, it is ironic enough to note that Deng was one of the very few elders not present at Lushan. ( he had a broken leg) 

Deng’s vision of pragmatism, in hind sight, was the only road China could really take to prosperity.  His vision, alas is what put him in jail.  Upon the Death of Mao, his credentials, along with his charisma, simple ability and sheer willpower literally saved China from itself. 

In effect, even as early as ‘64(and probably sooner, actually), certain well connected Chinese leaders realized that something had to change.    Still, with Mao alive, China did nothing similar to what Liu and Deng envisioned.  Liu died in jail, and Deng was imprisoned on and off until the mid seventies.

If Mao had simply no longer been around, retired somewhere in Hangzhou (site of his favorite villa), there is no question the President of China could have had his way.   The President’s people controlled Beijing.  Reforms that took place in the 80’s could have instead taken place in the 60’s.   With a twenty year head start, where would China be today? Answer:  probably a lot more involved on the world stage than it is now.   Corruption certainly would not be the problem under China’s revolutionary leaders that it is today.

Kennedy’s decision

JFK had contemplated recognizing China.   It did not happen.  Too controversial to recognize a country so stridently Anti American.  He decided to push things back until after the American election of 1964.  But with Mao gone in 1959, would America have recognized China before then?  Probably.  Simply put, Mao leaving the scene would have opened up the West to quickly establishing relations with China, and ending its isolation.   Once America had signed on, other countries would have quickly followed.

Maybe the biggest error the United States made was not recognizing China during the 1949 revolution.  This simple gesture would have gone a long way towards avoiding the Korean Conflict.  Instead, crazy ideologues thought it better to turn the world’s most populous country into a pariah while propping up a maddenly incompetent but equally harsh ruler in Taiwan.  

If America and the West had all established diplomatic relations with China in the early 60’s, would the Vietnam War have lasted as long as it did?  I would argue unlikely.  China wanted a strong South Vietnam, as a counter to a unified Vietnam.  In effect, it wanted to keep North Vietnam busy, and preoccupied.   Once the war became a surrogate war however, China had no choice but to supply Vietnam with supplies.  By this time, China and Moscow were in a direct competition to curry Ho Chi Minh’s favor.   I would argue China helped North Vietnam more as a show against Russia than to bog down the American War Machine.  There is no question that Vietnam’s ability to gain unfettered supplies from China is what kept Vietnam alive and in the war.  No Chinese support, no war. 

China needs more introspection.  It is a theme I've written about in the past.  Yet introspection does not come easily to Face Driven Societies.   The good is emphasized, and the lessons ignored.    A nation with China's size and power needs to develop a national sense of introspection.   Don't hold your breathe.   Revisionism in China is one sided.   To put a spin on my favorite phrase from Churchill,  at Lushan, "the terrible ifs accumulate",  and the Chinese People paid the price. 


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