Jefferson, Mao and 1966. Part One

(extensive travel over the last 3 weeks has slowed my posting a bit....sorry about that)

Throughout the 50’s, Chairman Mao made a serious of decisions that only the undisputed leader of a nation could make.    His decision, and it was his alone, led China into the disastrous Korean War.  This decision not only decimated the core of China’s Red Army but cost China the opportunity to retake Taiwan.   Remember, Truman had set Chiang Kai Shek loose, calling him out for the cad he was.

Than followed the “100 Hundred Flowers” Movement, which ostensibly allowed freedom of criticism of The Party.  Once such “constructive criticisms” were heard, those mouthing such criticisms were promptly arrested.

And there was the “Anti Rightist” Movement, where many work units  had to fulfil a quota of purging those not loyal to the Party. 

Finally, the 50’s climaxed with the Great Leap Forward, when Yours Truly decided that China was doing it all wrong, ie steel production and well….there was a better way of doing things.   Of course not only did overall steel production go down, but as the communes spent time trying to make worthless steel, they did not spend time plowing the fields, and most of their utensils were actually put into the steel production process.  As such, starvation and famine ensued. 

And still Mao was not called onto the carpet.

Oh but wait, he was.

Remember Peng Dehuai?


The 1959 effort by Peng DeHuai to privately criticize Mao.   Which Mao promptly used to turn the tables on Peng.  Remember, it wasn’t hard for Mao to do.  Peng was the reason for Mao’s son’s death, right?  (For those of us who look back wistfully on how Mao’s son would’ve reined in Mao, I give you North Korea’s leader today……)

But while the estimated 300,000 deaths in Korea really didn’t make much of a dent in a population of over 500 million, the Great Famine that ensued certainly did.   China had at least 30 million people starve to death.

All because of the decision of one man.  

One Man. 

Now we should stop here and reflect.

If people think Chiang Kai Shek would have managed China any better during the 50’s, lets back up a bit.

Which regime would’ve created a more fearful “environment of hostility”?  Surprise answer: not Mao.

The CCP I will argue was a better choice for China.  Imagine CSK’s Secret Police running wild in the 1950’s?  No trials, just disappearances.   Corruption everywhere.  EVERYWHERE.   Beggars in the streets, rampant crime.   Widespread drug use and prostitution.   Ever widening disparity of income.  Complete absence of moral authority.  (I know what you are thinking.  We are talking the 1950’s do not forget!)

To my knowledge there were no mass executions under Mao in the 50’s.  The 1950’s were a period of hope and optimism for 99% of the people under Mao.  In effect, the CCP was given a lot of slack.

Until the Great Famine of 1958-1962.

It was as this time that Mao effectively “retired”.   Finally realizing something was on him, he effectively stepped down from day to day leadership of the Party. 

A moment ago I mentioned Lushan.  A seminal moment in China’s history.  The last chance of the leadership to bond together and force a change in direction.  To “retire” Mao.

When Mao unexpectedly took another step back and “retreated” to his villa in Hangzhou, it created another opportunity within China’s Party Elite to make a change.   Make no mistake, Mao was still 
The Man….except that he really wasn’t anymore.

It was as this time that Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi, and even Zhou Enlai took over informally as managers of the economy.    And of China.

Deng being a practical man by nature, he himself advocated limited personal ownership of land, the better for peasants to grow crops on in their spare time.  Prices were increased.  In no time, production soared.  And the role of the commune diminished.  This is the ultimate example of when having skin in the game meant something.  Politics was taken out of the equation.

However, it was during this timeframe that Mao began to worry. 

By 1966, China was effectively back to “normal”.   The effects of the Great Famine having dissipated. Deng and Liu Shaoqi had successfully taken politics out of the economy.  China began to slowly prosper.

And this bothered Mao.  His fear was China would sooner or later take the “Capitalist Road”, and that Chinese Society would become in effect “less pure, less socialist” and “more capitalist”.

To quote Jefferson, 

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

Well, one can argue Mao felt the same way.  

Deng and Shaoqi both opposed this road.  Not openly of course.  After all, open and frank discussion with Mao?  Where had that gotten the Heavenly Kingdom?   Where had that gotten Peng Dehuai?   

(Ironically, by 1965, Deng and Liu Shaoqi had conspired to bring Peng back into government.)

They wanted stability, not further revolution.  But thanks in part to themselves, Mao had developed a strongly entrenched cult of personality.  

Oh but for the cult of personality!

We are so conditioned to thinking this is a bad thing:  Stalin, Castro, Franco.

But I think there are good examples, too.

As I am an American, I first thought back to any Americans that might have over time developed such a zealous following.

The first example of this that comes to mind is the fantastic memorialization of George Washington.  The Savior of the American Republic, first President of the United States, etc.   For many years after his untimely death in 1799, his birthday was a popular day of celebration in the United States.

His portrait was everywhere and yes, only years after his death, Dolley Madison risked capture to save it from the British in 1814.

Abraham Lincoln it could be argued had a cult of personality.

Upon hearing of Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin during his “secret speech”, Mao was literally flabbergasted.   He opposed the dissemination of the speech within China.  Why?  Well, because he himself had studiously with much support built his own following and did not want to let it be known how the Soviet Union had repudiated such a thing.  (China has now as well)

And it was Mao’s cult of personality that saved the day inLushan.  The same cult of personality that the other first rank leaders of China had collaborated in building, to better market the Party to the People. Mao thanked his colleagues by promptly threatening to use it to build a new army.   
So there would never be another Lushan.  Rather, their only hope was to keep Mao “retired” and in Hangzhou.

In effect, the longer he stayed in Hangzhou, the more secure China’s economy would be. 

Deng later in life would say “Socialism means eliminating poverty”.   One can argue this was not the goal of Mao’s socialism.    And this fundamental disagreement in goals helped to later bring about the Cultural Revolution.


  1. Revolutionary leaders usually make very poor leaders of state. History is littered with examples of this beyond Mao. They know how to destroy systems, but not build anything new. In Chinese history, two times new powers (Qin, and Sui) consolidated power but couldn't stop fighting, and were quickly replaced by builders (Han and Tang) Actually, one of the reasons for Washington's allure was the fact that he retired to Mount Vernon after two terms as president like he said he would do instead of becoming president for life. Off hand, the only recent easy example of a successful revolutionary leader who became a successful leader of state was Nelson Mandela. it just doesn't happen very often. That is why revolutions need to be about a new model and not just a single cult of personality.

  2. More to the point, regime change is usually in name only. It is just one set of leaders substituting for another. North Vietnam's leaders were just as brutal as South Vietnam's when they took over all of Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, Russia etc.

    Dictatorships are usually lead by poorly educated people who may know the Quran but not the first thing about how to build a road, or they may know the quotations of Marx but to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping never seen an airplane.


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