- Feb 27, 2010
Given that Chairman Xi has now ascended to the level of Chairman Mao, it may be apposite to look at the latter’s last gift to China which convulsed the country for a decade, some fifty years ago.
The catastrophe of the “Great Leap Forward”, which Mao inflicted on the country in 1956 – 62, is described here:
1962 saw Mao at his weakest, with some event expecting him to step down. But Mao was transfixed by what had happened in the Soviet Union. There, Stalin’s legacy has been attacked by Khrushchev, and the Soviets seemed to have stepped back completely from world revolution. Convinced any weakness would see a Chinese Khrushchev emerge Mao went onto the counter-attack.
The Cultural Revolution incubated in the years 1962 to 1966. Vicious purges took place in the party, with tens of thousands accused of “taking the capitalist road”. Mao’s ally in this was Liu Shaoqui who had forced him to mitigate the measures of the “Great Leap Forward”. Mao awaited his revenge
Phase 1: The Red Years (1966 – 68)
In June of that year, students at Peking University began scrutinising the records of their professors and lecturers, accusing many of being capitalist-roaders. Their excesses were curbed by Deng Xiaoping and Liu, but Mao opportunistically took the side of the students. Soon, Red Guards were on the rampage in many cities and universities, dressed in quasi-military uniforms, waving Mao’s Little Red Book, burning books, subjecting teachers to public humiliation, and creating chaos. They were joined by many echelons of the lower party encouraged by the Chairman. Liu was purged, lost all his offices and died two years later. Deng barely survived.
The main targets of what was called the Cultural Revolution were the middle and upper party, but people who had taken the wrong side in the Civil War were also easy targets. Party leaders had first-class survival instincts, and knew how to divert the fury of the Red Guards elsewhere.
But the chaos got worse as the movement factionalised, and the factions began civil wars is many parts of the country. Internal trade was disrupted, and the country saw some of the hardships of the war and the 1950s return.
Historian Frank Dikrotter’s description of Mao at this time is worth quoting: “He may not have been in control, but was always in charge, relishing a game in which he could constantly rewrite the rules. Periodically he stepped in to help a loyal follower or to throw an old colleague to the wolves”
Phase 2: The Black Years (1968 – 71)
The only solution was to call in the army to restore a semblance of order. Many Red Guards suffered the vengeance of the population, but others were useful scapegoats. Young women who had been dutiful Red Guards were purged and exiled to the countryside, to be raped and abused by local thugs. Murder, torture and beatings remained common punishments for capitalist-roading. Crazy local experiments in “self-reliance” continued in many parts of the country.
Mao had to share power with the Army chief and Minister of Defence, Lin Biao, but Lin began to build up his own power base and position himself in the succession stakes. He died in a mysterious plane crash in Inner Mongolia in 1971. One rumour had it that he was fleeing to Russia.
Phase 2: The Grey Years (1971 – 76)
The country was exhausted from nearly twenty years of purges and revolutionary frenzy. The credibility of the Party had been destroyed, and in manner places the Chinese returned to the pre-Mao economy of a free market, family farms and businesses. Many local parties went along to ensure people were fed and remained quiescent. That was the situation when Mao died in September 1976.
The death toll of the Cultural Revolution was probably upward of 1 million people in excess to the "normal" death rate. But it had a strange backlash, one Mao would not have appreciated.
Three years later Deng Xiaoping became General Secretary. There is a myth that Deng was a free spirit, independent of Mao, but that was not true. Like Chou Enlai, he had been as much a Mao lickspittle was anyone. His first instincts were to re-introduce Mao’s policies, but he soon perceived that the Chinese people had had enough of a command economy as practiced by the Great Helmsman.
So the Faustian bargain was struck – the capitalist road was at last triumphant, but the Party retained an iron-fisted control of the political sphere that has continued to this day.