Chairman of the Board

How Mao unintentionally created China’s capitalist revolution.

China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

In his opening remarks at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting between high ranking U.S. and Chinese officials, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke about his first visit to China in 1976, the year that Chairman Mao Zedong died. "It was already clear then," he said on July 10, "that China stood on the cusp of remarkable change." That was 37 years ago, when China was still one of the poorest countries in the world — even after a century of experimentation with one formula after another for making their nation wealthy and powerful again.

It was by no means clear back then whether the incipient changes Biden sensed would really take hold. Few imagined that by the early 21st century, China would be in a position to challenge the United States economically, militarily, and even in the contest for soft power. So, after spending so many generations mired in a cycle of failed reform and revolution, how did China finally manage to chin itself up into its present period of prolonged economic dynamism?  

One of the most interesting and paradoxical explanations originates with Mao, the very person who had such a destructive effect on China in the last decades of his life. By razing the edifice of old China as relentlessly as he did, Mao may have actually cleared the way for Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s subsequent reforms, thereby playing a role in China’s rebirth that the Chairman could never have imagined while alive.

No leader in 20th-century China was more totalistic and unrelenting in attacking traditional culture than Mao. Under his despotic rule, China’s Confucian heritage and old social values system was subject to a series of relentless assaults unequaled in history. Since the early 20th century, reformers such as the public intellectual Liang Qichao and political leader Sun Yat-sen had recognized that China’s modernization would require the destruction of the old to make way for the new. They sought to transform a docile populace into an energetic and patriotic citizenship and turn a xenophobic ruling class into a cosmopolitan and modernist elite. But none of Mao’s predecessors had been able — or willing — to muster the same ideological boldness, much less the organizational fortitude and leadership ruthlessness, to challenge China’s thousands of years of continuous culture aggressively enough to actually neutralize tradition’s drag on modernization.

As a young man, Mao was a disciple of both Liang and Sun, but was made of far sterner stuff. He ultimately embraced a far more extreme form of revolution — one that insisted on constant, violent upheaval. Where others succeeded only in muting the influence of China’s ancient culture, Mao nearly extirpated its very roots, and thus its hold on several subsequent generations of Chinese. His successive political and ideological campaigns, culminating in the riotous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that ended only with his death, all but severed the bonds of tradition that had fixed father over son, husband over wife, master over student, family over individual, past over future, and continuity over change. The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, was a lost decade of violent criticism sessions against parents, teachers, and party cadres, of urban youths being sent down to rural backwaters, and of vicious power struggles among top leaders. Mao’s mass campaigns such as "Criticize Confucius and Lin Biao" and "Destroy the Four Olds" made Chinese tradition itself into the enemy of the revolution.

The bonds of that tradition had tormented earlier reformers, many of whom confessed to being unable to escape it themselves. Lu Xun, a master of modern Chinese literature, admitted to "constantly rediscovering in myself … odious thoughts that the ancients recorded in their works." A profound influence on Mao, Lu hoped at least the next generation could be spared: "Let the conscious man assume the heavy burden of tradition, let him arch his back under the gate of darkness to allow his children to escape into the free space and light where they may spend their days in happiness and lead a truly human life." It was that "gate of darkness" which Mao sought to demolish.

But, so powerful was the hold of the past that later in their lives the first generations of reformers were almost all ineluctably drawn back into the "gate of darkness" of traditional values and culture from which they had so energetically sought to escape. Liang, Lu, and even Communist Party founder Chen Duxiu all returned to Chinese classical scholarship late in life, finding a solace in the ancient texts as they faced their own mortality and a society so stubbornly resistant to change.

Seen through such a historical lens, the wrecking ball of Mao’s revolution can appear in a different light, as an instrument that was savage but necessary to clear the way for whatever might follow. It is true that Mao’s final two decades — from the Anti-Rightist Campaign and Great Leap Forward through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — were to a horrifying degree "lost" years for China. Tens of millions of people endured persecution in the name of Mao’s "permanent revolution;" tens of millions more died from the famine caused by Mao’s reckless economic policies. As Chen Yun, Mao’s comrade in arms since the 1930s, summed up his legacy: "Had Chairman Mao died in 1956, there would have been no doubt that he was a great leader of the Chinese people…. Had he died in 1966, his meritorious achievements would have been somewhat tarnished, but his overall record was still very good. Since he actually died in 1976, there is nothing we can do about it."

Looked at through the cold eye of history, however, it may have been precisely those periods of Mao’s most uncompromising nihilism that demolished China’s old society, freeing Chinese from their traditional moorings. Mao’s brutal interim was perhaps the essential, but paradoxical, precursor to China’s subsequent boom under Deng and his successors, catapulting the Chinese into their present single-minded and unrestrained pursuit of wealth and power.

Even Harvard’s John Fairbank, the founder of modern Chinese studies in the United States (and by no means a Mao enthusiast), could appreciate the purgative virtue of the Chairman’s permanent revolution. "In the old society teachers were venerated by students, women were submissive to their husbands, and age was deferred to by youth," wrote Fairbank in 1980. "Breaking down such a system took a long time because one had to change one’s basic values and assumptions accepted in childhood. The times called for a leader of violent willpower, a man so determined to smash the old bureaucratic establishment that he would stop at nothing."

For better or worse, Mao was such a man — modern China’s "perennial gale of creative destruction," in economist Joseph Schumpeter’s famous phrase; or, as Liang Qichao had yearned at the dawn of the 20th century, a leader willing to "carry out harsh rule, and with iron and fire forge and temper our countrymen for 20, 30, even 50 years."

In 1966, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution to prevent China from "taking the capitalist road," yet ironically his efforts ended up having precisely the opposite effect. "A common verdict is, ‘no Cultural Revolution, no economic reform,’" declare Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, leading historians of the period, in their 2008 book Mao’s Last Revolution. "The Cultural Revolution was so great a disaster that it provoked an even more profound cultural revolution, precisely the one that Mao intended to forestall."

By force-marching Chinese society away from its old ways of doing things, Mao presented Deng with a vast construction site on which the demolition of old structures and strictures had been mostly completed, making it shovel-ready for Deng’s bold new policy of reform and opening up. Mao’s epic destructiveness, which was supposed to prepare China for his version of utopian socialism, instead paved the way for China’s transformation into exactly the kind of capitalist economy that he most reviled during his lifetime, but also a nation that Mao, like every modern Chinese reformer before him, dreamed of fashioning: a strong and prosperous one. The question for Chinese leaders now is what exactly they intend to do with their newfound and hard-fought wealth and power — and the challenge for the United States, is how to best help shape the answer in ways beneficial for both nations’ people. 

John Delury is an Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies and Underwood International College in Seoul, South Korea.

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