Mao's legacy lives on
By Henry CK Liu

This is the fourth article in a multi-part series.
Part 1: In the beginning was Tiananmen
Part 2: Revolutionary lessons
Part 3: Lessons of the Soviet experience

In the political chaos of the early years of the bourgeois Republic of China, provincial warlord military governors and regional military groups emerged based on residual Qing Dynasty connections and personal loyalties. To establish central control by the government of the new republic, the regime of warlords who had seized control of much of northern China since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty had to be defeated.

Kuomintang (KMT) leader Sun Yat-sen, assisted by his able comrade Liao Zhong-kai (1877-1925), realized that the Western imperialist powers, in order to continue their plundering of China, would maintain a divided China by supporting the warlords engaged in internecine power struggles. Thus in 1921, Sun turned to the new Soviet Union and communism, the only anti-imperialist force. The Western democracies were proving themselves to be happy heirs to overseas empires whose imperial governments they had overthrown at home.

In 1923, a joint statement by Sun and a Soviet representative in Shanghai pledged Soviet support and assistance for China's national unification. The Comintern sent Soviet advisers such as Mikhail Borodin to China to aid in the reorganization and consolidation of the KMT along the lines of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Communist Party of China (CPC) members were encouraged to join the KMT as individuals, forming the First United Front between the two parties. The CPC was still small at the time, having a membership of only 300 in 1922 and only 1,500 by 1925. The KMT in 1922 already had 150,000 members and was well financed by US-based protestant churches, as both Sun and Chiang Kai-shek converted to Christianity out of geopolitical expediency.

Soviet advisers also helped the KMT set up a political institute to train propagandists in mass mobilization techniques, and in 1923, Chiang, one of Sun's lieutenants from pre-revolution Tongmeng Hui days while in exile in Japan, was sent for several months' military and political study in Moscow. After Chiang's return in late 1923, he participated in the establishment of the Whampoa Military Academy (Huangpu Junxiao) as its commandant, with Liao Zhong-kai as political commissar for the KMT and Zhou En-lai of the CPC as the deputy commissar. The military academy was founded with a Soviet gift of 2.7 million yuan supplemented with a monthly stipend of 100,000 yuan. Soviet weapons were supplied including 23,000 rifles, machine guns and artillery.

In 1923, when Sun Yat-sen started to reorganize the KMT and installed a provisional government in Guangzhou, Soviet advisers A A Yoffe and M M Borodin proposed that the KMT and the CPC form a united front (guo gong hezuo) against the Beiyang warlord regime. Dual membership in both parties was common for communists at this time. Sun had lost faith in the will of the Western imperialist powers to cooperate with China's anti-imperialism aims and leaned more and more toward the Soviet Union for support.

In 1924, Sun held the first national congress (Guomindang diyici quanguo daibiao dahui), during which he stressed the Three People's Principle (sanmin zhuyi - nationalism, democracy, people's livelihood, or minzu zhuyi, minquan zhuyi, minsheng zhuyi) as a doctrine against imperialism. Within the KMT-CPC united front, Sun adopted three major policies (sanda zhengce): alliance with the Soviet Union (lian su), alliance with the communism (lian gong), and supporting peasants and workers (fuzhu nonggong).

Five months after Sun's death from cancer on March 12, 1925, Liao Zhong-kai, leader of the left wing of the KMT, was assassinated on August 20 of the same year at age 48 at the behest of the right-wing leaders of KMT. Chiang, as commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army, with communist help, set out on the long-delayed Northern Expedition against the northern warlords to unite China under KMT control. By 1926, the KMT had divided into left-wing and right-wing factions. Neither wing had any use for Western democracy, which openly presented itself as an agent of Western imperialism. The left turned toward communism, while the right turned toward fascism.

Later, the KMT did put up a facade of democracy after the US got involved in Chinese domestic politics during World War II. If the United States in this century is really serious about spreading democracy around the world, its leadership needs to realize that the world will not accept Western democracy unless and until it rids itself of its pugnacious role as an agent for Western neo-imperialism.

By 1926, communist influence within the KMT was growing fast. In March 1926, Chiang abruptly imposed restrictions on CPC member participation in the top leadership, and emerged as the pre-eminent KMT leader on an anti-communist platform. By early 1927, the KMT-CPC rivalry led to an open split in the revolutionary ranks. The CPC and the left wing of the KMT moved the seat of the Nationalist government from Guangzhou to Wuhan.

After Chiang Kai-shek seized control of the KMT and achieved initial successes in the Northern Expedition with communist help, all communists were expelled from the KMT. On April 12, 1927, a workers' movement in Shanghai was brutally suppressed by Chiang (si-yi-er zhengbian). He and Wang Jingwei later were to form a traitorous puppet government in Nanjing under Japanese tutelage.

Chiang then launched an anti-communist purification program within the KMT (qingdang qugong) and drove out all communists as well as leftist KMT members such as Song Qingling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen, and He Xiangning, the widow of Liao Zhong-kai, ending the first alliance between the KMT and the CPC. After the end of World War II, the two great ladies formed the Revolutionary Committee of the KMT and joined in the founding of the People's Republic as vice chairmen of the PRC.

Chiang Kai-shek, riding on the bipartisan success of the Northern Expedition, turned his elite forces to destroy the Shanghai CPC apparatus. Chiang, with the aid of Western imperialists and the Shanghai underworld criminals, arguing that communist activities were socially and economically disruptive, turned on communists and unionists in Shanghai, arresting and summarily executing hundreds without trial on April 12, 1927 for activities that were legal prior to the date of arrest. The purge obliterated the urban base of the CPC that laid the ground for the rise of Mao Zedong with his strategy of a rural peasant revolution.

Chiang, expelled from the KMT for his reactionary moves, formed a rival reactionary government in Nanjing. Three political capitals now emerged in China: the foreign imperialist-recognized Beiyang warlord regime in Beijing; the communist and left-wing Kuomintang coalition government at Wuhan; and the right-wing reactionary military regime at Nanjing, which would remain the Nationalist capital for the next decade, until Japanese occupation in 1937.

The CPC adopted a strategy of armed insurrections in urban centers in preparation for an anticipated rising tide of revolution. Unsuccessful attempts were made by communists to take cities such as Nancang, Changsha, Shantou and Guangzhou. All failed.

A successful armed rural uprising, known in history as the Autumn Harvest Uprising, was staged by peasants in Hunan province, led by Mao Zedong. But in mid-1927, the CPC was at the low ebb of its history. Their left-wing KMT allies in Wuhan were toppled by a militarist regime led by Wang Jingwei.

The KMT resumed the campaign against the warlords and captured Beijing in June 1928, after which most of eastern China came under Chiang's control, and the Nanjing government received prompt international recognition as the sole legitimate government of China. The Nationalist government announced that in conformity with Sun Yat-sen's formula for the three stages of revolution - military unification, political tutelage, and constitutional democracy - China had reached the end of the first phase and would embark on the second, which would be under KMT political tutelage. After Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the KMT turned to the Nazis as a model both in political organization and in military modernization.

During the Japanese invasion and occupation of the northeast (Manchuria), Chiang still saw the CPC as the greatest threat, and refused to ally with the CPC to fight against the Japanese invasion. On December 12, 1936, two young Kuomintang generals, Yang Hucheng and Zhang Xueliang, son of the warlord Zhang Zuolin, who earlier had been assassinated by the Japanese for opposing Japan's plan to set up a puppet government in Manchuria headed by Pu Yi, kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek while he was visiting Xian and forced him to enter into a truce with the CPC to form a united front against Japan. The event became known as the Xian Incident.

Both political parties agreed to suspend inter-party fighting and form a second united front to focus their efforts against the Japanese. However, the alliance existed in name only. The level of actual cooperation and coordination between the CPC and KMT during World War II was minimal. While CPC forces were fighting the Japanese, Chiang was reserving his best troops for dealing with the CPC after the war.

US general Joseph Stillwell, commander of US forces in the Burma Theater, was openly critical of the KMT leader and advocated US assistance to the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which was prosecuting a guerrilla war against Japanese in earnest with inadequate supplies and equipment. The situation came to a head in late 1940 and early 1941 when KMT forces attacked the PLA.

In December 1940, Chiang Kai-shek demanded that the CPC New Fourth Army evacuate Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, promising safe conduct. When the New Fourth Army commanders complied in order to preserve inter-party coalition, their forces were ambushed by Nationalist troops and suffered great losses in January 1941. This treachery, known as the New Fourth Army Incident, weakened the CPC position in central China and in effect ended any substantive cooperation between the KMT and CPC.

The use of two atomic bombs in short order by the US caused Japan to surrender much more quickly than anyone in China had imagined. As insurance in the event that the bomb might not work, US president Harry Truman had pressured the Soviet Union to open an eastern front against Japan. Under the terms of unconditional Japanese surrender dictated by the United States, Japanese troops were ordered to surrender to KMT troops and not to the PLA, which actually had done most of the fighting.

Days before the sudden end of the war in East Asia, the Soviet Union was persuaded by president Truman to enter the war against Japan. After the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Soviet forces flooded into the northeastern provinces to seize Japanese positions and to accept the surrender of the 700,000 Japanese troops stationed in the region.

Later in the year, Chiang came to the awkward realization that he lacked the needed military resources to prevent a CPC takeover of the northeast after the scheduled Soviet departure. He therefore made a deal with the Soviets to delay their withdrawal until he had moved enough of his best-trained men and modern arms into the region. The Soviets spent the extra time systematically dismantling the entire Manchurian industrial plant built by Japan with Chinese slave labor and shipping it back to their war-ravaged motherland.

The civil war in China ultimately ended with CPC victory and the People's Republic of China was established on October 1, 1949, under the leadership of CPC headed by Mao Zedong, after which socialist construction of the war-torn, imperialism-ravaged nation began.

Socialist construction in the People's Republic
Mao understood that Confucianism (ru jia) had permeated Chinese society perniciously and hindered its advancement in modern times, so he tried to combat it by launching mass movements, culminating in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966.

But even after a decade of enormous social upheaval, tragic personal sufferings, fundamental economic dislocation and unparalleled diplomatic isolation, Confucianism stood its ground in Chinese societal mentality. The Cultural Revolution failed to achieve its spiritual goal even with serious damage to the nation's physical and socio-economic infrastructure and to the prestige of the Communist Party of China (CPC), not to mention the decline of popular support and near total bankruptcy of revolutionary zeal among even loyal party cadres.

Confucianism will have to wait for many future cultural revolutions to restrain its negative influence on the Chinese civilization and to revive its positive elements. A culture that took two millennia to develop cannot be changed in just one century.

Realistically, nostalgia aside, the feudal system under imperial monarchy cannot be restored in modern China. Once a political institution is overthrown, all the king's men cannot put it back together again. Nor would that be desirable. Yet the modern political system in China, despite its revolutionary clothing and radical rhetoric, is still fundamentally feudal, both in the manner in which power is distributed and in its administrative structure. This is why cultural revolutions are necessary and will be necessary to move Chinese civilization forward.

However, violent revolutions cannot be regular events without destroying the very purpose that justifies them. China needs a continuous non-violent cultural revolution to ensure that its revolutionary path toward national revival through socialism is not reversed. It does not need destructive factional political violence in the name of ideological vaccination that ends up disrupting the national purpose.

In Chinese politics, loyalty is traditionally preferred over competence. The ideal is to have both in a minister. Failing that, loyalty without competence is preferred as being less dangerous than competence without loyalty - the stuff of which successful insurrection and revolts are made. Therein lays the seed of systemic corruption in Chinese politics.

For socialist China, loyalty is to the socialist cause, not personal relations. It is imperative that leaders remain loyal to socialist ideals. Yet loyalty to socialist ideals alone is not enough. It must be augmented by competence. Confucianism, by placing blind faith in a causal connection between virtue and power, has remained the main cultural obstacle to modern China's attempt to evolve from a society governed by men into a society governed by socialist legalism, which should not be confused with the Western bourgeois concept of rule of law. The danger of Confucianism lies not in its aim to endow the virtuous with power, but in its tendency to label the powerful as virtuous.

In order to change Chinese feudal society toward a communist social order, which is understood by all communists as a necessary goal of human development, Mao Zedong developed out of abstract Leninist concepts specific operational methods that took on special characteristics necessary for Chinese civilization and historical-cultural conditions, its strengths and shortcomings.

These methods, above all the system of organized mass movements to achieve the advancement of the mass interest, stress the change of social consciousness, that is, the creation of new men for a new cooperative society, as the basis for changing reality - the replacement of private ownership as the mode of production by collective ownership. The concept of mass politics, relevant in Chinese political thought from ancient time, is implemented by an elite cadre corps within the party which is the political instrument of the people.

Mao's mass line
Mass movement as an instrument of political communication from above to below is unique to Chinese communist organization. This phenomenon is of utmost importance in understanding the nature and dynamics of the governance structure of the CPC as the ruling party. The theoretical foundation of mass movement as a means of mediation between the leadership and the will of the people pre-supposes that nothing is impossible for the masses, quantitatively understood as a collective subject, if their power is concentrated by a political party of correct thought and responsive actions.

This concept comes out of Mao's romantic yet well-placed faith in the great strength the masses who are capable of developing in the interest of their own well-being. So the "will of the masses" has to be articulated with the help of the party but by the masses and within the masses, which the CPC calls the "mass line".

Mao's mass-line theory requires that the leadership elite be close to the people, that it is continuously informed about the people's will, and that it transforms this will into concrete actions by the masses. "From the masses back to the masses" is more than just a slogan. This means: take the scattered and unorganized ideas of the masses and, through study, turn them into focused and systemic programs, then go back to the masses and propagate and explain these ideals until the masses embrace them as their own.

Thus mass movements are initiated at the highest level - the politburo; are announced to party cadres at central and regional work conferences; are subject to cadre criticism and modification; after which starts the first phase of mass movement. Mass organizations are held to provoke the "people's will", through readers' letters to newspapers and at rallies at which these letters are read and debated. In modern times, expressions on the Internet have augmented the role of the print media. The results are then officially discussed by the staff of leading organs of the state and the party, after which the systematized "people's will" is clarified into acts of law or resolutions. Then the mass movement spreads to the whole nation.

The history of Chinese socialist politics is a history of mass movements. Mass movements successfully implemented land reform (1950-53); marriage reform (1950-52); collectivization (1953) - the "General Line of Socialist Transformation" (from national bourgeois democratic revolution to proletarian socialist revolution); and nationalization (1955 - from private ownership of industrial means of production into state ownership). The method used against opposition was thought reform through "brainwashing" (without the derogatory connotation since given in the anti-communist West), which is a principle of preferring the changing of the political consciousness of political opponents instead of physically liquidating them.

All this was despite the enormous cost imposed on the national economy by the Korean War. The opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, which television audiences saw around the world, was a manifestation of Chinese socialist mass movement. It had the legacy of Mao Zedong written all over it.

Before 1949, the Chinese peasant had been deprived of basic health services for over a century. One of the party's first steps in medical reform called for mass campaigns against endemic infectious diseases. Tens of thousands of health workers were trained with basic hygienic skills and sent out into the countryside to examine and treat peasants and organize sanitation campaigns with mass movement techniques.

Health teams examined 2.8 million peasants in 1958, the first year of the schistosomiasis program. One team claimed to have examined 1,200 patients in a single day. Some 67 million latrines were reportedly built or repaired, and over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of peasants were set to work day and night, drying out swamps and building drainage ditches to get rid of the habitat of snails that help to spread the disease. Party workers claimed schistosomiasis cure rates of 85 to 95% in some areas, and that the disease had been wiped out in more than half of previously endemic areas along the Yangtze River.

Mao's mass movement success until 1957
The Hundred Flower Movement of 1957 was launched on February 27 by Mao with his famous four-hour speech, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People", before 1,800 leading cadres. In it, Mao distinguished "contradiction between the enemy and ourselves" from "contradiction among the people", which should not be resolved by dictatorship, that is by force, but by open discussion with criticism and counter criticism. Up until 1957, the mass-movement policies of Mao achieved spectacular success in both social and economic construction.

Land reform was completed, the struggle for women's emancipation was progressing well, and collectivization and nationalization were leading the nation towards socialism. Health services were a model of socialist construction in both cities and the countryside. The party's revolutionary leadership was accepted enthusiastically by society generally and the peasants specifically. By 1958, agricultural production almost doubled from 1949 (108 million tonnes to 185 million tonnes), coal production quadrupled to 123 million tonnes, and steel production grew from 100,000 tonnes to 5.3 million tonnes.

The only problem came from bourgeois intellectual rebellion. On May 25, 1957, Mao expressed his anxiety at a session of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and gave his approval to those who warned against too much reactionary bourgeois liberty. That afternoon, Mao told cadres at a Conference of Communist Youth League that "all words and deeds which deviate from socialism are basically wrong". At the opening session of the People's Congress on June 26, Zhou Enlai initiated the "counter criticism" against the critics. Mao's call for open criticism was serious and genuine, but the discussion he had conceived as a safety valve reached a degree of intensity he had not anticipated. Mao overestimated the stability of the political climate and underestimated the residual influence of Confucianism.

Crossroads: Soviet model or independent path
Against this background, the CPC stood at the crossroads of choosing the Soviet model of development or an independent path. Economy development was based on three elements:

  • Build up heavy industry at the expense of agriculture.
  • Establish an extensive system of individual incentives by means of which productive forces could be developed from a conviction that the superiority of socialist modes of production would be vindicated by a visible rise in living standards.
  • The acceleration of the socialist transformation of society in order to create the precondition required by the CPC for establishing a socialist order.

    Two paths were opened to the CPC leadership in 1958: (i) consolidation or (ii) pushing forward toward permanent revolution

    Mao was forced by geopolitical conditions (the abrupt withdrawal of Soviet aid in 1960 and the US Cold War embargo from 1951 to 1973) to overcome the lack of capital and technology through mobilization of China's vast labor reservoir. The strategy was to connect political campaigns to production campaigns. Under pressure from orthodox Leninists within the party apparatus, with the surprise failure of the "Hundred Flower Movement", Mao concluded it was impossible to create a socialist consciousness through a gradual improvement of material living conditions; that consciousness and reality had to be changed concurrently and in conjunction through gigantic new efforts at mobilization. There was no real alternative open if new socialist China was to survive.

    This led to the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957-58, followed by "Three Red Banners" in the spring of 1958, initiating simultaneous development of industry and agriculture through the use of both modern and traditional methods of production under the "General Line of Building Socialism". It was to be implemented through a labor-intensive development policy by a "Great Leap Forward" and by establishing a comprehensive collectivization by establishing "People's Communes". (See The Great Leap Forward not all bad, Asia Times Online, April 1, 2004).

    While Mao headed the CPC, leadership was based on mass support; and it is still. The chairmanship of the CPC is analogous to the position of Pope in the Roman Catholic Church, powerful in moral authority but highly circumscribed in operational power. The Great Leap Forward was the product of mass movement, not of a single person. Mao's leadership extended to the organization of the party and its policy-formulation procedures, not the dictation of particular programs.

    Western accusations of Mao as being a dictator merely reflects an ignorance of the true workings of the Communist Party of China. The failures of the Great Leap Forward and the People's Communes were caused more by implementation flaws than by conceptual error. Bad luck with weather and a relentless US embargo had also much to do with it. These programs resulted in much suffering, but the claim that 30 million people were murdered by Mao with evil intent was mere hostile Western propaganda.

    Without Mao's leadership, the Communist Party of China would not have survived the extermination campaign by the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek. It was Mao who recognized the invincible potential of the Chinese peasant as the fountainhead of revolution. It is proper that the fourth-generation leaders of the PRC are again focusing on priority promotion of the welfare of the peasants.

    In Europe, the failure of the democratic revolutions of 1848 led eventually to World War I, which destroyed all the competing monarchal regimes that had collaborated successfully to suppress the democratic revolutions six decades earlier. The full impact of Mao's revolutionary spirit is yet to be released on Chinese society. A century from now, Mao's high-minded principles of mass politics will outshine all his anti-communist and neo-liberal critics.

    The People's Republic of China, established in 1949 under the leadership of the Communist Party of China headed by Mao Zedong, is today a rapidly developing nation of over 1.3 billion people with the world's highest economic growth rate. The Chinese economy is on track to be the largest in the world. Yet until China moves expeditiously toward policies that put equality as a goal, China's road toward achieving the highest per capita income for its economy will be agonizingly long.

    The dissolution of the USSR in 1991 led to a precipitous socio-economic decline for Russia since 1990 as it went through shock treatment to rush headlong into market capitalism as advised by US neo-liberal economists. In contrast, China's economic reform since 1978 has produced spectacular growth, albeit along with a host of unsustainable socio-economic penalties and problems. In comparison with the poor results in Russia, the question inevitably arises on why reform towards a socialist market economy by the world's largest remaining socialist state has produced comparatively positive results. What are the "Chinese characteristics" that Deng Xiaoping had identified that led to the impressive economic growth of the past three decades since 1979?

    The answer leads directly to the revolutionary policies launched by Mao Zedong during the three decades between 1949 and 1979 that had provided a potent spiritual platform, without which Deng's reform policies would not and could not have succeeded.

    Without the strong and broad basis for China's revolutionary socio-economic development laid in the three decades before 1979, as part of Mao's strategy of building essential institutional prerequisites based on a revolutionary collective awareness of the power of an organized masses and carried out through mass movement programs such as comprehensive land reforms followed by the formation of agricultural co-operatives and later peoples communes, the reform policies after 1979 could have not been implemented successfully.

    Despite all the neo-liberal hyperbole about efficient asset allocation through the market mechanism and all the capitalist ideological anathema against egalitarianism, the solid and rational contribution by "Mao Zedong Thought" on China's national collective consciousness of self-confidence and reliance remains the light source of the historic revival of the four-millennia-old Chinese civilization.

    It was Mao who taught a discouraged China, despite having been reduced to abject poverty materially, hopeless bankruptcy spiritually and a total deprivation of confidence, not to be intimidated by temporary foreign imperialist dominance and to struggle for national revival through self-reliance by placing faith in the invincible power of the masses.

    Yet despite Mao's indispensable contribution to the Chinese collective consciousness of the dormant prowess of the masses and to the methodology of achieving economic and social development through mass movements that had enabled the economic miracle of new China, his contributions continues to be insufficiently appreciated by many Chinese revisionist social scientists, particularly free-market economists, who once again are falling into the heinous propaganda spell of Western cultural imperialism in the name of neo-liberal market fundamentalism.

    For example, an important element of innovation in Mao's revolutionary strategy is the capturing of the full economic advantages of abundant labor in the Chinese economy for nation-wide socialist construction on a scale never attempted in modern history. Mao aimed to eliminate surplus labor in the Chinese socialist economy by banishing unemployment. Unfortunately, this strategy has been distorted since 1979 to turn into a policy of bringing into existence a new laboring class of exploited, poorly paid migrant workers from rural regions to overcrowded urban centers that are dependant on foreign capital to finance the overblown export sector, leaving rural regions underdeveloped for lack of domestic capital despite, or because of, a national trade surplus denominated in fiat dollars that cannot be used domestically in China.

    Inequality of income and wealth has deterred China from its effort to increase the rate of domestic capital formation without undue restriction on the rate of rise in mass consumption. China today is faced with a serious unemployment and underemployment problem. The most serious underemployment comes in the form of low wages on all levels.

    Next: Economic surplus and capital formation

    Henry C K Liu is chairman of a New York-based private investment group. His website is at