Today, China celebrates the 120th birthdate of the founding father of the People’s Republic — Chairman Mao Zedong. No one looms larger in the narrative of modern China. As the nation continues its ascendency to reclaim its position as a great power, Mao’s legacy is central to its perception in the eyes of the world. The ultimate judgment rendered by history, if such a thing is possible for a man of his significance and complexity, remains far into the horizon. But to understand the state of contemporary China and its relations to the world, some fundamental misconceptions need to be addressed.
The standard narrative in the West is that the first 30 years of the People’s Republic under Mao’s leadership was an unmitigated disaster and the party-state was only able to save itself by repudiating his ideological rule and taking the country in an opposite direction.
But this is false. Many segregate the party’s 64-year leadership into two thirty-year periods: the first from 1949 to 1979, mostly under Mao, and the second from 1979 to the present, starting with Deng Xiaoping’s dramatic reforms. No doubt Deng’s reforms corrected many previous policy mistakes and delivered enormous successes. Some 650 million people have been lifted out of poverty in one generation and the country went from a poor agrarian economy to one of the world’s preeminent industrial powerhouses.
But without the foundation built in the first 30 years the accomplishments of the second 30 years would not have been possible. In the former, the Chinese Communist Party under Mao’s helm used its centralized political authority to mobilize limited national resources and built the basic industrial and human infrastructures of a modern nation. A few statistics demonstrate the significance of that period. In 1949, industrial infrastructure was negligible. Electricity availability outside small urban areas was near zero. Literacy rate was below 20 percent. Immunization rate was virtually non-existent and average life expectancy 41 years old.
At the eve of Deng’s reforms in 1979, China had built the framework of basic industrial infrastructures, though still very limited. Extensive national and local grids with about 10,000 newly built hydroelectric dams increased electricity coverage to over 60 percent even in the poorest rural areas (it is now near 100 percent). Literacy rate reached an astonishing 66 percent, meaning well over 80 percent of youth — among the highest among poor developing nations (now 92 percent). Hundreds of millions of people were immunized, nearly 100 percent of children at the age of one, and average life expectancy reached 65 (now 74). In fact, by 1978, China’s human development index was already closing in on much richer developed nations (UNDP Human Development Report 1990).
A still poor but relatively educated and healthy population with basic infrastructure set the stage for the country’s miraculous takeoff. And all this was achieved with very little resource under an international embargo. Certainly, unmitigated disasters did occur, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, but to define the entire period as such would be grossly mistaken.
Mao’s most significant political legacy was Chinese national independence. After a century of endless civil conflicts and dismemberments in the hands of foreign aggressors, the establishment and consolidation of the People’s Republic under Mao’s leadership at last firmly placed the destiny of the nation into the hands of the Chinese themselves. This ability enabled China to then engage the post Cold War globalization on its own terms. Many developing countries were not so fortunate and were swallowed by globalization instead of taking advantage of it. It should not be denied that the Chinese people paid a heavy price for this independence as Mao’s catastrophic blunders caused deep suffering and severe crises. But the People’s Republic survived. The post-Mao dividends have been significant and in all likelihood will continue for generations to come.
Last but not least, the characterization of Mao as an extreme ideologue is misplaced. The widely accepted narrative in the West, and inside China — to some extent, is that the first 30 years under Mao was ideological and the second 30 years launched by Deng is pragmatic. And this transition from an ideologue to a reformer put China on the road to success.
No doubt China came under destructive spells of ideological fervor at several points during Mao’s rule. But the fact is Mao was a pragmatist through and through. The world should not forget it was Mao who led China out of Soviet domination as early as in the late fifties. To decisively walk away from a newborn nation’s ideological mentor who was at the zenith of its superpower era was daring, to say the least. But Mao didn’t stop there. At the height of the Cold War, he reached across the ideological divide and built a de facto alliance with the United States to counter the Soviets. This in turn paved the way for China’s engagement with the West, which was one of the strongest propellers of Deng’s economic reforms.
All men of great historical impact were complex and their legacies mixed. Yet we yearn for judgments that are simple and unequivocal. As Thomas Carlyle once said, “the history of the world is but biography of great men.” Then to misjudge them is to misjudge history and risk misguiding the future. Mao Zedong, whose life left indelible marks on the lives of more than a billion people and changed the trajectory of the world, is to be studied with care and thoughtfulness, not to be judged with moral expediency.
Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai. This article was published in the South China Morning Post on December 26, 2013.